For our second glance in the rear-view mirror, we take a look back at Chris Cornwell’s consideration of Ulysses in its full, vivid, plurality. The month of February officially marks one hundred years since the novel’s first publication, so what better time to look back at the alchemy of one of literature’s most celebrated (and debated) works.
2022 marks ten years since the launch of Wales Arts Review, and as part of our celebrations, throughout this year we’ll be revisiting some of the best and most loved features, interviews, and reviews from our archive of nearly five thousand published pieces.
‘The name Joyce is derived… from the French joyeux and Latin jocax, and James Joyce, who held that literature should express the “holy spirit of joy,” accepted his name as an omen.’ So writes Richard Ellmann, in his definitive biography. This joyful Joyce is never greater realised than in the powerful, frenetic, ecstatic prose of Ulysses.
Ulysses is an enormous word. It is an enormous work. A work which continues to grow and swallow the ever-increasing edifice of criticism which sprouts around the fringes of Joyce’s genius, ingesting any further mythologising of its self or its author into an almost-everlasting echo chamber of possible readings. The inability of any single reading or single critique to summarise or begin to decipher some primary thrust of Ulysses underlines our need to remember to savour Joyce’s words, not to angst over them endlessly, or attempt to define Ulysses too precisely. Though the debate will continue to rage regarding the overall meaning of the totality of words in Ulysses, no conclusion will be agreed on, and the frustration this causes throws emphasis onto the individual reader’s relationship to the words and short phrases: the actual fibres, tissues and flesh of the corpus. Joyce’s word selection is the most idiosyncratic feature of his art.
Bronze by a weary gold, anear, afar, they listened.
Critics have found any number of themes on which to write, from the juxtaposition of the individualism of his language and the brooding background presence of the communal blueprint of the canonical legend, to the problems of babel and Derrida, censorship, innocence, exile, story, conventional plot, narrative, characterisation, social critique, political considerations etc. With so many other distractions, the words in Ulysses and the raging reality, the furious psychology, the giddying mythology of those words is often underemphasised. Simply the splendour and quality of the prose deserves to be praised in perpetuity.
And Master Lynch bade him have a care to flout and witwanton as the god self was angered for his hellprate and paganry. And he that had erst challenged to be so doughty waxed pale as they might all mark and shrank together and his pitch that was before so haught uplift was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm.
The tortures of ‘reading’ this magnificently realised modernist myth occur when the tension between the various dogmas of individual writers, readers, academics and critics, theorists and artists, strain to emphasise the importance viewing from their own preferred angle, or otherwise to be in danger of missing the nadir of the beauty of the piece. People are still, often, at heart and particularly publicly, Platonist.
Agenbite of inwit.
Truthfully, though, the plurality of Ulysses frees its readers from any aesthetic or moral obligation to read it in a particular manner. The fact that Ulysses can be sung, can be chanted, can be stared at, spoken to, listened to, kissed and tasted, sneered at or burnt, relieves us of moral language when speaking or thinking of the novel. There is no way one should read Ulysses, there are merely ways one can read it. In fact reading the journey to Barry Kiernan’s out loud is to produce such dancing labial musculature, it amounts to a sensual experience as intense as any emotional or intellectual interaction with the work. This experiential dimension creates an ecstatic experience and the depth of our author’s words and the scope of their possible manifestations discloses the inherent depth of language.
The truncated conical crater summit of the diminutive volcano emitted a vertical and serpentine fume redolent of aromatic oriental incense.
The mantric quality of the streaming prose should not be overlooked. Reading Joyce aloud is a pleasure that need not be confined to those who feel they understand the explicit, linguistic or in this context perhaps it is best to say visual meaning or quality of his words and work. The beginning of chapter 14 (‘Oxen of the Sun’), the famous ‘Deshil Holles Eamus’, is constructed in the form of a chant, similar to those of the Arval Brethren, a sect of Roman priests and from this point on the aural and oral beauty of Ulysses comes to the fore. Twisting chains of florid verbal streaming, distinguished by its sophistication and ambivalence. Never able to pin down a singular or exclusive meaning, intention or voice at work aids the meditative state that the obscurantist chanting initiates or at least prepares the ground for. The sensual intensity of physically describing the thronging notes of Joyce’s song with stimulated lips, pumped with blood even in a whisper the intensity is quite astonishing. It’s his frothing up of saliva and manipulation of the lips and flickering of the tongue straining of the throat and the suspiration that follows the completion of a long and taxing formation and the palpable relish of it all. Joyce and few others can attain this intensity, the realisation of the potency of language. It brings to mind Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in which he recalls his own discovery of Shakespeare:
I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.
Joyce though, asks more of his readers; engagement is required of you, Ulysses is more like pulling strings of pearls through pursed lips.
Ulysses in this sense is an alchemical work, turning base experience into a perpetual epiphanic disclosure, coming to base experience through words and thereby disclosing the perpetual and accumulating epiphanies of language, language all bound up in paper, bound up in a book, old rags soaked with history, memory, myth and preconstructed thoughts.
Deshil Holles Eamus , Deshil Holles Eamus, Deshil Holles Eamus.
Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us, bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.
Hoopsa, boyaboy Hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy Hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy Hoopsa!
Of course it isn’t only the musicality of physicality of spoken word which empowers the words of Ulysses. Joyce’s enormous vocabulary lends a pleasingly magnified level of precision to his writing. Though many feel his verbosity and improvisational style amounts to nothing more than a word-salad or a private language, it is precisely the private introspective nature of his writing which enables it to escape the contrivances, the protocol, the cliché and non-expressive nature of collective language. This is communication but it is not really communication through language. The words of Joyce transcend the context in which they have a discrete meaning and achieve the dual status of absolute universality and complete obscure individuality at once. The spools of technical, medical, sacred and nautical lexicons he unfurls are most often expressly communal, not that everyone will use the words but rather they are highly formalised and are designed to be objective tools of clear and clean communication of specific predefined ideas in common, contemporary currency from one human to another. In this sense they are thought of, structurally as public property, resistant to creative usage or decontextualisation. Joyce manages to command these public, rubber-stamped words into a dialectical relationship with obscurity and individuation. The antipodal collision corrodes one’s awareness of the barriers between the mouth of the doctor and the mouth of the docker. Joyce’s pen strong-arms them both, as are the fences between the psychological and sociological.
The abundance of adjectives and diversity of register and etymological genealogy combining ‘low’ slang with academic or technical jargon and poetic diction creates a frantic stimulation of social, historical connotations giving words and ways of speaking which would otherwise never meet a chance to fertilise the dormant aspects of their meanings. Reading through his long lists of recondite saints and names of mythic Celtic heroes and botanical nomenclature etc. I can’t help feeling as though I am gargling with knowledge and erudition and more than anything a meditating of the names of things. In Ulysses words are the names of things.
…the best historians relate, among the Celts, who nothing that was not in its nature admirable admired, the art of medicine shall have been highly honoured. Not to speak of hostels, leperyards, sweating chambers, plaguegraves, their greatest doctors, the O’Shiels, the O’Hickeys, the O’Lees, have sedulously set down the divers methods by which the sick and the relapsed found again health whether the malady had been the trembling withering or the loose boyconnell flux.
This taxonomical twitch, another sign of an author’s passionate obsession with language, so redolent of Rabelais, Wilde and Huysmans – to whose work he was introduced by Arthur Symons – brings to mind the words of 14th century Dutch mystic Jan Van Ruysbroeck used as the epigraph of Huysmans’ most (in)famous work, A Rebours, which perfectly describes the ecstasy of the artistic mentality and disposition that Joyce enjoyed such an abundance of:
I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time, though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.
These words which could so comfortably be Joyce’s own mantra and indeed describe Joyce’s purpose in writing Ulysses; through his intense and passionate linguistic experiments he created the most astonishingly powerful work. Work which transcends the bounds of time, the bounds of class, the bounds of convention, the bounds of language and by doing this he has disclosed the potency of words, thereby empowering them. As Edna O’Brien points out ‘those words and the transubstantiation of words obsessed him’. It is on this quote I will close – leaving better words than my own to linger longer in the air – other than to say, once more, that it comes all the way down to the word Ulysses. Such a potent word because of all it encompasses. His joyfulness ignites the lustre and enlightens the profundity, the playfulness and artistry of the most prominent and distinctive creation in modern English prose, and summons wonderful words and worlds. So rejoice! In Ulysses.
Chris Cornwell’s ‘Ulysses – The Deep and Vivid Words of Joyce’ was originally published by Wales Arts Review in 2013.