"Reading and Teaching Ulysses as a Transformative Life Experience: 'And Yes she said'"
For me the transformative experience of reading is not only the original reading, but the sharing of that reading experience with others, and for me that experience is called teaching. Thus the transformative experience I have with James Joyce’s Ulysses is a wonderful, joyful intellectual and experiential odyssey that never ceases. It is not too much to say that my career as a teacher-scholar derived from my first and subsequent readings of Joyce’s epic novel. So what follows is a love letter to Ulysses and the opportunity to teach Ulysses to generations of Cornell students.
Two years after arriving at Cornell in 1968 as an Assistant Professor, I was asked if I wanted to teach Ulysses. I jumped at the chance, and I now have been teaching this marvelous novel that is at the heart of modernism for 45 years. I am still learning every time I teach Ulysses, something I make clear to my students. In the 1980s I wrote a book, Reading Joyce’s Ulysses, with both scholars and students in mind, and have amended it in future editions as I continued to learn. I still feel excitement whenever I open Joyce’s novel with a new class and begin our odyssey of reading.
Beginnings: The Original Appeal
Reading Ulysses as a college senior at Union College in a department devoid of any faculty who identified himself as Jewish, and returning from a Junior Year abroad, where the same situation obtained, I remember how pleased I was to discover--amidst the anti-Semitism of T. S. Eliot and, more flagrantly, of Ezra Pound—that Joyce’s modern Odysseus (Ulysses), Leopold Bloom, was constantly aware of his Jewish heritage. To be sure, Bloom had not been circumcised or had a Bar-Mitzvah, but he thought of himself as Jewish and so did his fellow Dubliners.
From the first, I felt empathy and sympathy for this character who was regarded as an outsider by his cohorts and was often the butt of anti-Semitism. I took pleasure in how Bloom also knew how to enjoy the smaller and larger pleasures of life (eating, bathing, his adolescent daughter, and zestfully recalling his first sexual encounter with his wife Molly). I sympathized with Bloom’s suffering the painful memories of the past (the death of his baby son, Rudy, and his father’s suicide) and with how he dealt with his present pain in response to Molly’s adultery on June 16, 192004, the very day that the novel takes place.
Unlike his Homeric antecedent, Bloom rejects xenophobia and violence. He understands Molly’s sexual frustration—he and she have not slept together since the death of their son ten years ago—and does not intervene in her adulterous rendezvous. He cares enough for Mrs. Purefoy, who has been in labor for three days, to visit her in the hospital. He helps raise money for the recently deceased Dignam’s widow. Most importantly, Bloom offers help and friendship to Stephen Dedalus whom he follows to Nighttown, the Dublin red-light district, when he sees that the 22 year old Stephen is embarking on an alcoholic jaunt that may lead to trouble. Indeed, Bloom not only takes care of him but also offers him friendship and invites him to his home.
Thus, Joyce redefines heroism in his modern Ulysses to consist of a humane concern for other people, love for his family, and the courage to stand up for himself as an Irish Jew. In the face of angry nationalists, especially a bullying character known as the Citizen, Bloom speaks eloquently and courageously for human love. After declaiming “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everyone knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life,” he adds with succinct dignity, “I mean the opposite of hatred” (12. 423-5).
Joyce understands that the small day to day victories, satisfactions, pleasures, contributions to the lives of others—sometimes recalled in the form of gentle memories—are the essence and the quality of human life. Molly’s “Yes” in her closing stream of consciousness monologue is a yes to the life she has led with Bloom but even more a yes to the possibility a more enriched life in the future: “I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Before opening Ulysses, I had read Dubliners and A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man, and I knew that I loved Joyce’s the magical language. To me Joyce spoke poetry through his narrator and his characters. When I opened Ulysses, a sequel to A Portrait, the first pages took me back to Stephen’s thrilling hubristic finale of A Portrait: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” But the first three chapters of Ulysses are a poignant and bpbathetic undoing of the end of Portrait. For Joyce’s deft, nuanced prose reveals Stephen as troubled, mourning his beloved mother, marginally employed, lonely, unfulfilled as an artist, and living with the patronizing and even verbally abusive housemate Buck Mulligan.
My original transformative experience included marveling at how Joyce in Ulysses perceived the contemporary world and his characters with reference to the context of prior cultures and myths. Stephen’s and Bloom’s odysseys on June 16, 1904 resonate with that of Homer’s Telemachus and Odysseus, and Molly Bloom resonates with Homer’s Penelope.
For me the aesthetic pleasure of reading accompanies the thematic pleasure. From the very first reading of Ulysses, I responded to the chronological amplitude and spatial specificity of Joyce’s imagined world. The more I studied and taught Ulysses, the more I admired the deft and nuanced evolving narrative—shaped by the major formal experiments and varied themes of Ulysses—--as the novel proposes, modifies, undermines and reconfigures its patterns of characterization through its 18 sequential episodes.
I still thrill to the brilliant presentation of Joyce’s ventriloquist-narrator as he moves in and out of characters’ psyches; from winking skepticism and more often empathy towards the cuckolded, caring Bloom; to distanced irony towards Stephen’s pretentiousness and narcissism and sympathy for his loneliness, his paralytic self-consciousness, and guilt for not praying for his mother; to a radically innovative dramatization of the intuitive, sexually alive, ingenuous Molly. In a sense each of these characters is a facet of the narrative presence.
Reading Ulysses as an undergraduate, I also realized that I loved the challenge of a complex texts where each rereading is a reading and where puzzling passages offer an exceptional challenge. But unlike the authors of the secondary texts about Ulysses that I encountered in 1963, I resisted turning Ulysses into a puzzle, insisting, as I do in my classes, on reading it as novel where we ask questions like “Who is speaking to whom and why?” and “What are the causes and effects of behavior and speech acts?”
Probably my ruling passion is curiosity. The more I taught Ulysses the more I learned about Irish history and culture, including the burden and effects of British Imperialism, as well as about Roman Catholicism (especially as practiced in Ireland) and the evolution and sociology of the modern city, including the role of advertising and newspapers.
Over the years, as I became more interested in the visual arts, I have been fascinated with how Ulysses fits into the story of modernism. I address this in my Reconfiguring Modernism: Explorations in the Relationship Between Modern Art and Modern Literature, especially in my discussions of Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Ulysses became the avenue to my understanding other aspects of modernism. Studying Cubism in depth, I now understand it has had a far greater influence on literary modernism, and in particular on Ulysses, with its multiple ways of telling, than has been noticed. Moreover, I understand that the modernist search for something beyond representation applies to all the arts. The simultaneous efforts by multiple artists working in diverse fields to emphasize the act of creating—painting, sculpture, music, dance—is, with Ulysses, part of a response to disappointment and frustration with the early twentieth century social and political world in which they found themselves
I am associated in my teaching and writing with two credos: “Always the text; always historicize” and “Reading texts; reading lives.” The first summarizes my pluralistic approach to literary works, the second my humanistic core belief that books are about humans by humans and for humans and that we read in part to better understand human behavior as well as other cultures and other time periods. These credos derive from and coalesce in my lifetime of reading and teaching Ulysses.
About the Transformative Humanities Project
Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences share a belief in, and speak often with our students, their parents, and the broader public about, the importance of the humanities for shaping deep and meaningful human lives. These short reflections by our faculty illustrate — in concrete and personal ways — how encounters with the stuff of the humanities have in fact been transformative in their own lives. In composing these reflections faculty were responding to the following assignment: Pick a single work in the humanities that has profoundly affected you — that inspires you, haunts you, changed the way you think about things, convinced you to pursue your life’s work, redirected your life’s work . . . in short, a work that has made your life in some way deeper or more meaningful.
This reflection is one of the many thought-provoking and inspiring faculty contributions to the “Transformative Humanities” project, part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ New Century for the Humanities celebrations. Read more of them on our New Century for the Humanities page.