Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Remembering James Joyce's Ulysses

Now if I had been a more forward-thinking, I would have written this piece back on June 16th, which is also known as Bloomsday to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the book's release but seeing that this is Banned Books Week, I thought that this would also be an appropriate time to discuss James Joyce's Ulysses.

The reason that this week is fitting for remembering this book is because it was banned for over a decade in both the United States(until 1933) and Britain(until 1936) and yet, despite this(or rather because of it), the Modern Library voted it the best novel of the 20th Century.

Yes, the book is a little lascivious, as it features masturbation, defecation, child birth, sexual fantasy and various other themes which at the time, organizations like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found detrimental to society. In fact, the Society's founder, Anthony Comstock was the namesake of the law that was used to prosecute those who attempted to publish or import the book into the United States. I am almost afraid to contemplate the day and age when there are Bozell or Jack Thompson laws on the books, however unlikely that may be.

Ulysses largely follows the story of 2 Dubliners over the course on June 16th, 1904 during the 18 waking hours of the main characters over the course of 18 chapters. Both Stephen Dedalus, a young schoolteacher and writer who also happened to be the main character of Joyce's earlier book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Leopold Bloom, a half-Jewish advertising canvasser are the characters which make up the bulk of the narrative, though there are others who take center stage at points throughout the book. Each chapter is analogous to a particular chapter or incident from Homer's The Odyssey and is written in a unique style. Yet despite these stylistic devices, the narrative itself is highly compelling.

Now, the book has a reputation for being difficult, and I am not going to lie to you, there are some chapters which are tough sledding, like the Oxen of the Sun episode, which is written in 9 different historical English styles and Circe which is in essence a full-length hallucinatory play. But there are chapters which I absolutely adore, like Nausicäa(the chapter that caused the original furor), Aeolus (takes place in a newsroom, so random headlines break up the narrative) and Ithaca (the tale is told through a series of questions and very specific answers), and the most famous chapter of the entire book is the long internal soliloquy by Molly Bloom in the final chapter, Penelope, which perhaps received its most notable attention in the movie Back to School. As both a student of history and a pop cultural aficionado, I also respect the level of gritty detail and fleeting references to things which were ephemeral to make the city of Dublin a character itself, and these references are especially stunning given the fact that Joyce hadn't lived in Ireland for 18 years by the time the book was ready for publication.

As both a masterpiece of modernist literature and a trail blazer and a rather decisive blow to early 20th century censorship, James Joyce's Ulysses did much to create the artistically free world we have today. It was a fight I am glad was won for freedom of speech.

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