The Magazine

Ulysses and Us

From the June 14, 2004 issue: James Joyce's Bloomsday reaches its centennial.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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NELSON ROCKEFELLER is alleged to have described the artwork of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, famously difficult classics painted shortly after the Second World War, as "free-enterprise painting." And there, in microcosm, we find the conundrum that has bedeviled certain conservative intellectuals for several generations: What should one think about modernism--particularly high modernism, the works of people like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce, from the first half of the twentieth century? There remains about them an air of the bizarre they seemed to have when they first appeared, and besides, American conservatives tend to be philistine in their judgment of literature and art.

The curious thing is that a great many modernist artists and writers were never political leftists at all. D.H. Lawrence, for example, believed in many peculiar things, but none of them look like radical egalitarianism. And several other modernists who started out as political radicals broke with the Left, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the phenomenon of anti-Communist modernism became markedly visible. In fact, the Communist regimes hated high modernism, precisely because they agreed with Rockefeller in seeing it as an expression of free enterprise in the arts (or "decadence," as they preferred to call it). Karl B. Radek--a Polish Bolshevik who, if he weren't real, only James Joyce could have invented--once having surrendered to Stalinist aesthetics, derided Joyce's Ulysses as "a camera focused through a microscope on a worm-infested dunghill."

It didn't do Radek much good, as Stalin had him murdered anyway. But the natural alliance of business entrepreneurship and cultural experiment becomes obvious when we consider the centennial of Bloomsday--the hundredth anniversary of June 16, 1904, the single day in which the action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place.

Ulysses recounts twenty-four hours in the life of Dublin, with each chapter paralleling an episode in the Odyssey. It begins just outside the city, in a Martello tower, where Stephen Dedalus, the autobiographical hero of Joyce's earlier Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, begins the day with his co-tenants: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" and an English Celtophile named Haines. Dedalus proceeds to the village of Dalkey, near Dublin, where he serves as an English instructor in a boys' school. There he is subjected to a tirade against the Jews, which anticipates a major thread in the book: his companionship with Leopold Bloom.

Stephen then wanders along a beach, contemplating the psychic difficulties of his life. Meanwhile, Bloom cooks breakfast for his wife Molly, before proceeding to a butcher shop where he buys a pork kidney and reads, in a newspaper, a plea for support for Zionist colonies in Palestine. Bloom continues across Dublin, meditating on the spectacle before him. After attending the funeral of an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam, Bloom at last meets Dedalus, in the office of the Freeman's Journal.

Further internal monologues are followed by Stephen Dedalus's visit to the National Library in Dublin. Bloom and Dedalus continue to wander across the city. Bloom saunters along the same beach where Dedalus had previously walked, and the sight of a woman's bare legs set him off in sexual fantasy. Visiting a woman friend in labor at a hospital, Bloom again meets Dedalus--and Dedalus, followed by Bloom, enters the surrealistic landscape of a brothel street, "Nighttown," where the pair begin a long exchange of observations about themselves and the world. They end at Bloom's house, where they continue their dialogue. At last, Stephen leaves, and Bloom goes to bed. At the close of the novel, Molly Bloom lies in bed, thinking--in the great example of Joyce's technique of interior monologue--of her life and her husband. The novel reaches, in its famous concluding line, into Molly's mind for her sleepy affirmation of life, "Yes I said yes I will Yes."