Daniel Mulhall

‘Force, hatred, history’: James Joyce’s Ulysses at 100


James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris on 2 February 1922, its author’s fortieth birthday. An American prosecution for obscenity against the editors of the avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, meant no British or American publisher was willing to bring out an edition of Joyce’s now-notorious novel. It was left to the American-born Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris to take on the task. She was one of a number of fearless women who helped get Ulysses into print, another being Joyce’s English patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, editor of The Egotist.
…….Ulysses is a big book and there are many ways in which it can be approached. At one level, it’s an unremarkable story of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, who wander around Dublin on 16 June 1904, eventually meet that evening and end up spending a few hours in each other’s company, establishing a limited paternalistic rapport. The novel has parallels with Homer’s Odyssey, notably the fact that Bloom is Odysseus and Stephen, Telemachus, the Homeric hero’s son. The uniqueness of the novel, and the difficulties it poses for readers, derive mainly from the dazzling array of literary styles Joyce employs. Joyce’s extensive use of the ‘interior monologue’ daunted early readers of his novel and continues to do so. Its use means that we get to know the inner lives of his characters far more intimately than in conventional fiction.
…….We might expect a 100-year-old novel to be something of an antiquarian curiosity, reflecting the moods and mores of the era in which it was written, but Ulysses has edges to it that connect with our times too. The historical context from which the novel emerged is important because, while it is set in the summer of 1904, it was written between 1914 and 1921 at a time of enormous upheaval in the life of the world. Joyce was at work all through the carnage of the First World War and the revolutionary ferment that erupted in its wake. The war impinged on Joyce’s life when he was forcedto flee with his family from Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and take refuge in neutral Zurich.
…….This was a time of turmoil too in the author’s Irish homeland, where an intense struggle for independence unfolded in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916. Ulysses depicts a society on the cusp of change, a process that had come to a head as Joyce put the final touches to his novel. Ulysses was published just weeks after the symbolic handover of Dublin Castle to the leadership of the nascent Irish Free State in January 1922.
…….I began to cotton on to the contemporary relevance of Ulysses when I came across a passage that had not previously attracted my attention. It occurs in the novel’s ‘Eumaeus’ episode when two of its three main characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom find themselves at a cabman’s shelter (today’s equivalent would be a late-night café) beside the River Liffey early in the morning of 17 June 1904 at the end of their day-long Odyssean wanderings around Dublin. Joyce deliberately chose to explore the early twentieth century through the lives of three outsiders: Dedalus with his ‘absurd name, an ancient Greek’; Bloom, with his Jewish background, a target of anti-Semitic prejudice; and his half-Spanish wife, Gibraltar-born Molly.
…….After the two had ordered a cup of ‘a choice concoction labelled coffee’ and ‘a rather antediluvian specimen of a bun’, and listened to an argument about Ireland’s plight, Bloom sets out his own political credo. He wants to see ‘all creeds and classes pro rata having a comfortable tidysized income’. Bloom insists that such a scheme is feasible and ‘would be provocative of friendlier relations between man and man’. His assertion that ‘I call that patriotism’ means that definition was a far cry from the blood-filled definitions that spurred many of Joyce’s contemporaries on the battlefields of the Western Front. Bloom’s ‘tidysized’ sum would be ‘something in the neighborhood of £300 per annum’. Thus, Joyce makes his twentieth century Everyman an advocate of a Universal Basic Income, a concept that has won adherents in recent times.
…….Reading Bloom’s proposal, after four years spent observing a topsy-turvy world from a politically divided Washington D.C., I began to see Ulysses as truly a novel for our times too. In so many ways, Bloom’s restrained, middle-of-the-road attitudes, his low octane indefatigability, respond to the challenges of today’s enflamed world.
…….The exchanges in the cabman’s shelter bring us into contact with the separatist nationalism that eventually prevailed in Ireland in the second decade of the twentieth century, and throughout Africa and Asia in the decades that followed as demands for decolonisation took hold. The proprietor of this downbeat establishment is reputed to be ‘Skin-the-Goat’ Fitzharris, a member of ‘the Invincibles’, who in 1882, the year of Joyce’s birth, killed the British Government’s most senior figure in Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his assistant, near his residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The Phoenix Park murders delivered perhaps the biggest blow to the British administration in Ireland in all of the nineteenth century.
…….This brush with separatism might seem like a very Irish preoccupation until it is recalled that the Empires that clashed on the battlefields of the First World War exhibited their own version of nationalism. Joyce’s exploration of the society he left behind, conducted from his wartime exile in the heart of Europe was intended, I believe, to have a broader remit.
…….Skin-the-Goat, reflecting the exaggerated notions that often accompany expressions of national pride, insists that Ireland is ‘the richest country in the world bar none on the face of God’s earth, far and away superior to England’. He taps into a sentiment common at the time, in Ireland and elsewhere, that subject peoples like the Irish were overtaxed by their Imperial rulers with ‘all the riches drained out of it by England levying taxes on the poor that paid through the nose always’.
…….There was, Skin-the-Goat predicted, ‘a day of reckoning’ in store ‘for mighty England’. He predicted that ‘the Germans and the Japs were going to have their little lookin’. The Boer War (1899-1902), which had stirred up anti-Imperialist sentiment, was, Skin-the-Goat insisted, ‘the beginning of the end’ for the British Empire and Ireland would be England’s Achilles heel. Ever the moderate, Bloom is inclined ‘to poohpooh’ Skin-the-Goat’s arguments as ‘egregious balderdash’. He sees it as highly advisable ‘to try to make the most of both countries, even though poles apart’. Bloom resents ‘violence or intolerance in any shape or form’ and argues that: ‘A revolution must come on the due instalments plan.’ Not many seekers after political change, then or now, would share such an ultra-patient view of the dynamics of history and politics.
…….If narcissism is one of the scourges of our age, Bloom is about as far removed from that condition as it is possible to be. Throughout this mock epic day, the reader acquires a deep acquaintance with this cautious, understated personality. We discover his quirkiness and are exposed to how he obsesses about his wife’s infidelity with her lover Blazes Boylan who, as Bloom sourly puts it, ‘gets the plums and I the plumstones’.
…….Yet, towards the end of the book, as he mulls over his wife’s behaviour, the extraordinary thought crosses his mind that her transgression was a ‘natural act’ that has happened umpteen times throughout human history. It was ‘less reprehensible than theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals…’ and so his list of offences more serious than adultery continues at some length. Whereas in Homer, Odysseus and Telemachus, on their return to Ithaca, slay Penelope’s suitors, Bloom, who eschews violence, dismisses the option of assassination and duel by combat because ‘two wrongs did not make one right’. Instead, he routs Molly’s suitor by pointing to the cosmic irrelevance of his actions as illustrated by ‘the apathy of the stars’. This highlights Bloom’s spectacular modesty and self-effacement.
…….Throughout the novel, Bloom comes across as the ultimate centrist, endowed with middlebrow attitudes and an understated personality. He is serious-minded and widely-read, but no intellectual. The novel’s ‘Cyclops’ episode, awash with lavish verbal effusions of over-the-top nationalist sentiment, is the only place where Bloom asserts himself. He does so, having been baited by a colourful, one-eyed nationalist, ‘the citizen’, a caricature of a real-life figure from turn-of-the-century Ireland, Michael Cusack, founding father of Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association, which remains Ireland’s premier sporting body. This part of the novel seems to me to be crucial in identifying Bloom as an apostle of tolerance and moderation in a world trending towards extremes.
…….Challenged by his companions in Barney Kiernan’s pub on Little Britain Street (an aptly-chosen address for an exploration of Irish nationalism) to say what a nation is, Bloom defines it pragmatically as ‘the same people living in the same place’. When asked ‘What is your nation?’, Bloom’s response is emphatic. ‘Ireland’, he replies, ‘I was born here. Ireland’. Many of Joyce’s contemporaries, in Ireland and around the world, tended to view national identity as a compound of cultural, ethnic and religious homogeneities. Such views are in vogue in places today too! In ‘Cyclops’, Joyce, writing at a time of violent conflict, has Bloom stand up against narrowly contoured nationalism, preferring a straightforward, practical and relatively expansive definition of national identity.
…….For me, the heart of the novel comes when Bloom cuts loose against his detractors:

…….‘But it’s no use,’ says he. ‘Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult
…….and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.’
…….‘What?’ says Alf.
.‘Love,’ says Bloom. ‘I mean the opposite of hatred.’

.I see this appeal to transcend force, history and hatred as a key statement of Bloom’s and Joyce’s humane politics.
…….While Joyce would not have shared the noisy attitudes of ‘the citizen’, he was at heart an Irishman of his generation. Commentaries he wrote for an Italian newspaper in Trieste contain a fairly conventional set of Irish nationalist opinions from that time. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that Joyce’s political outlook lay somewhere between the assertive parliamentarianism of Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), whose fall from grace due to being named in a divorce case haunted the Ireland of Joyce’s youth, and the more advanced but non-violent nationalism of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin. Bloom viewed Griffith as a ‘coming man’ (although a dismissive Molly thought he didn’t look it). In the ‘Cyclops’ episode, Joyce has two of the novel’s minor characters suggest that the fictional Bloom, with his Hungarian background, had given Griffith the ideas behind The Resurrection of Hungary, a 1904 tract in which he prefigured some of the ideas that fueled Ireland’s independence struggle after 1916. By the time Ulysses appeared, Griffith had become President of the fledgling Irish Free State.
…….In the ‘Circe’ episode, which is written in the form of a surrealistic play where Bloom’s sexual fantasies are explored, he is presented as a great reformer who promises to usher in ‘the new Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future’. His political manifesto is hilarious and characteristic: ‘the reform of municipal morals and the plain ten commandments. New worlds for old. Union of all, jew, moslem and gentile. Three acres and a cow for all children of nature.’ It goes on, ending with ‘Free money, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state.’
…….In the novel’s penultimate episode, Bloom is described as someone who ‘desired to amend many social conditions, the product of inequality and avarice and international animosity’. Leopold Bloom exhibits a temperate combination of idealism and pragmatism, qualities sometimes in deficit in our impatient era. He is an unexceptional advertising salesman lumbered with an unfaithful wife and is part of a society in which he is seen, on account of his Hungarian-Jewish background, as an outsider. In a world being shaped by virulent nationalism, he is a quiet sceptic who derives a gentle satisfaction from his workaday existence. After his day’s wanderings, Bloom makes it back to his ‘Ithaca’ on Dublin’s Eccles Street, to the bed he shares with the redoubtable Molly, whose last thoughts before sleep revolve around her first sexual encounter with him when she said: ‘yes I will Yes.’


Daniel Mulhall, who has been a member of Ireland’s diplomatic service for more than four decades, is the author of Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (Dublin: New Island Books 2022).

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