Ulysses at 100 - Summer 2022

For the Joy of Joyce

Abandon the notion of high-minded seriousness and simply enter into the novel’s flow

By Amit Chaudhuri | June 1, 2022
Lorenzo (Flickr/lorenzoplease)
Lorenzo (Flickr/lorenzoplease)

When I look at my copy of Ulysses, a Vintage paperback published in 1961, the title makes me smile. This is not something that has happened before. But I realize now that the comedy, the joy of the book—its sense of adventure—begins with the title. I gaze at the cover with the sense of lightness and excitement associated with a graphic novel or even a certain kind of comic book. Just as Mighty Mouse ascending the air delights us, there’s something incredible about Leopold Bloom’s earthbound travails.

The cover is black except for the names. The gray-white U and the faintly beige-colored L are very large and slightly art deco. The rest of the letters, including the ones in the author’s name, are pale orange and beige, resembling an illuminated sign you might have seen at night at some point in the 20th century. The font, too, and the giant S of the opening line—“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan”—give joy. The visual aesthetic of what appears on the page, and how it appears, is not fundamentally different from that of a children’s book: there’s an innocence and freshness to the type and ink that are to be found in the central conceit as well as in Joyce’s experiment in incarnating Homer’s characters in ambulatory episodes and his fascination with human and animal organs. It is a book that, on a conceptual level, as well as a material and visual one, speaks to the child. The typesetter seems to be responding to this.

I missed all this in 1979, when, at the age of 17, I first encountered Ulysses in Bombay. (I must have bought the book, in part, because of the excitement that the jacket promised.) I read the novel all the way through, a burdensome experience, mainly because of my search, as a young man, for meaning in all things. At that time, I was trying to suppress and rectify my incorrigible love of life—a quality I would have seen as too lightweight and unworthy in a writer and intellectual. I wanted to be serious and earn my seriousness, and so, the joyless task of reading Ulysses at 17 was part of the dues I’d paid, a kind of “martyrdom,” as Virginia Woolf had described it to the artist and critic Roger Fry in 1922. After praising Proust, Woolf wrote: “Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished—My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.” I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man around this time with similar disapproval. I had no idea what these books were trying to achieve, and my puzzlement was not to do with verbal and formal complexity (in which case, the Portrait should have been more appealing) but with the vision itself.

I returned to Ulysses in 1985, reading the “Nausicaa” episode in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Something happened, and I realized I had been wrong on my reading six years before. It was as if I hadn’t previously noticed the book’s words, punctuations, sentences, paragraphs, cadences, and sounds:

And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidths, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw …

This, though it may be difficult to believe, is part of a longer sentence. Gerty MacDowell and two other maids are sitting at Sandymount Strand with the three children they’re in charge of that evening. When the “bazaar fireworks” go off, all of them turn to look, while Bloom studies Gerty and masturbates, and climaxes. A few minutes later, when she gets up to go, the ebbing rhythm of the anticlimax (flows are made of strong and weak movements) is captured beautifully when Bloom, remorseful already for being a “cad,” realizes that Gerty has a limp:

Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O!
Mr Bloom watched her as she limped away. Poor girl!

In 1985, I was probably unaware that this chapter had—as a result of Bloom’s sorry behavior—caused controversy and may have been what Woolf had in mind when she recalled rejecting Ulysses for the Hogarth Press: “the pages reeled with indecency.” Just as I had missed everything on the first reading, I noticed on the second that the writing demanded that you savor everything: the flash of the light and trajectory of the fireworks (“up, up”), the caesuras (“tense hush”), the romantic clichés that Joyce plays with at the beginning of the chapter and that persist to its end (“breathless with excitement”), the religious illumination caused by the explosions (“a divine, an entrancing blush”), the word straining, which implies bodily pain, sexual ecstasy, and spiritual yearning, and knickers, with its comedy, its associations of secrecy and the commonplace, occurring just 15 words after divine—everything (the shameful, the comic, the ascendant, the luminous, the clichéd, the imagistic) must participate in a celebration of which the fireworks constitute only one aspect. And into this festive assemblage, as I see on my present reading, Joyce slips in “nainsook,” a fine cotton muslin imported from India. Nainsukh is a Hindi portmanteau of nain (“eye”) and sukh (“happiness or delight”). Joyce, hoarder of meanings, would have known this, as he might have known that Nainsukh was also the name of one of the great 18th-century Indian painters. The eye must not master or memorize detail; it must surrender to and delight in it. “Nainsook” reminds us, too, that not only place and body, but also the world, or everything we know of the world, partakes of the celebration.

In 1985, I began to discover celebration and play in modernism, and to find a site, a playground, for it in Irish writing in particular—not happiness or optimism, not even comedy alone, but joy, which Indian philosophers have called ananda, and which the writer and philosopher Abhinavagupta had identified in the 10th century as an aesthetic experience that manifested itself as, but couldn’t be reduced to, various aesthetic emotions. The word joy is contained in Joyce’s name, and in 19th-century Europe, joyousness had had a historic resurgence as an alternative to Enlightenment rationality and Victorian moralism, making possible the sort of passage I have quoted above. It proved that innocence and radical critical thought could nourish each other: to embrace the world, you have to reject the option of mastering it, a rejection that itself involves an antithetical form of mastery that, in writing such as Joyce’s or Flaubert’s, or in poetry, we call “craft.”

Debendranath, the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s father, spotted in 1844 the importance of ananda in the Upanishads to future creative and intellectual projects. He kept this phrase in mind: ānandarupamritam jadvibhāti—“that which is expressed in the elixir [amritam] of joy [ānandam].” Rabindranath Tagore picked up on it early; he also formulated, well before any other writer did, stream of consciousness as a characteristic of the literary, referring to it, in his 1894 essay on Bengali children’s rhymes, as “the constant flow of consciousness” (nityaprabhahita chetana). He points out that nityaprabhahita chetana, unlike linear consciousness, refuses to filter out irrelevancies, fragments, and the superfluous, or anavashyak. That year, he conflated these two nodes of interest—ananda (“joy”) and dhara (“stream” or “flow”)—in a portmanteau term, anandadhara, “stream of joy.” Anandadhara bohichhe bhubone, he wrote—“the stream of joy flows through the earth.” In 1897, Tagore introduced the word again in the first line of a song, this time without any mention of the earth, making it conjure up freestanding existence: bahe nirantara ananta anandadhara: “Endless and unbroken flows the stream of joy.” The consequences of existence being a flow, and of the flow being joyous, mean that you can locate existence and joy anywhere, at any point, as I did in my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, when I had Sandeep’s uncle sing this song in the shower in his house in Calcutta.

It was through joy, then, that I developed a kinship with Joyce, as well as with Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence. I gave up pursuing forms of “martyrdom”: I never, subsequently, read Ulysses from cover to cover, as I had in 1979. The Nausicaa episode was proof that the anandadhara can be entered at multiple points once you’ve made the necessary acquaintanceship with the main story and conceit.

Through Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers I also discovered that the modernist imagination was not agonistic—I had been misled earlier by commentators and my own misreadings. Sons and Lovers had prepared me for Joyce and Mansfield, and Joyce and Mansfield for Calcutta, a city I used to visit frequently as a child and the memory of which provided an intimation of joy. Joyce’s overhauling of constricting convention and his Joyous-ean embrace of the world had partly expressed itself through a translation in which Odysseus becomes the Jewish Irishman Bloom—translation not as fidelity to the Homeric original but as “a movement across,” which is what is meant by the prefix trans. My act of translation—my movement across—happened vis-à-vis 20th-century Bengali life, which I began to think of as Dublinesque. The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty once said to me, “Amit, we work so much in the archive that we sometimes lose sight of the material because it’s so close to us; how are you able to see your material, given it’s so close to you?” I replied, “It’s not close to me; it’s foreign. I discovered the Calcutta I knew in Joyce, Mansfield, and Lawrence. Writing about it was an act of translation.” Visiting Dublin for the first time in the late 1990s, I was disappointed in how much less Dublinesque it was than the Calcutta I’d encountered as a child. It was as if Dublin could exist vitally only in translation. Ulysses, too, has stood for me at the confluence of alienness and intimacy.

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