Friday, February 13, 2004

yes I said yes I will Yes

Before I visited Dublin for the first time, back in 1997 when I was able to do things like travel, I read Ulysses, James Joyce's massive, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes beautiful, sometimes funny, day in the life of Leopold Bloom. I did a lot of my undergraduate work in postmodern literature, but, even so, it was not an easy read. I wholly confess to skipping ahead a lot and not understanding whole passages. So this debate, on the relevance and greatness of Ulysses is interesting to me.

Much like the music I listen to, I've always been a fan of the alternative, yet accessible, pieces of fiction. Ulysses decidedly does not fall into this category: it is still, some 80 years later, the alternative to end all alternatives. There's very few things to compare it to, and this is probably a good thing. It didn't exactly spawn too many imitators.

And yet there is undeniable power in the book and some astounding passages. Can you think of another book that people would be celebrating the 100th anniversary of its fictitious events? Or that people are still arguing about 80 years later? Me neither.

For my money, the best Joyce book isn't Ulysses or even the overrated A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Or (God forbid) the nearly incomprehensible Finnegan's Wake. It's Dubliners, which Joyce published when he was like 32 or something. The last three pages of the last short story in it, "The Dead," are what I consider to be the best writing in the English language. Period.

"The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not comprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived was dissolving and dwindling."

Since nearly everything about my life is about design these days, let me tie it back to that. What makes Dubliners greater than Ulysses is that Joyce (unconsciously of course) used Raymond Loewy's MAYA principle: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. Anyone who has ever tried to write a short story could tell you that Dubliners does some wickedly difficult things, seemingly effortlessly, breaking rules left and right as it does it. The last paragraph of "The Dead" uses the word "falling" six times, something that writers are told never to do. And yet, it's very readable. Ulysses scores big on the Most Advanced--it's still Most Advanced--but fails, I think, at making it acceptable. I know quite a few well-read folks, but none I know count Ulysses as one of their favorite books.

Joyce in Ulysses is unlike Shakespeare in, say, Hamlet. Both presumably set out to capture a wide swathe of a man's life and about humankind in general. Yet Hamlet can (and is) performed thousands of times a year, all over the world. It must be acceptable. It's a chore to even hear someone read Ulysses.

Perhaps, though, when you write something as brilliant as Dubliners, the only place to go is not up but sideways. It was tough to top, so Joyce simply didn't. He created something new, something people had never seen before, nor likely ever will again. Is it the best novel of the 20th century? Not to be Clintonian about it, but it depends on what your definition of best is. Did it change the way people think of novels? Yes, of course. But this only makes it great, not the best. To me, the best books are those that touch the mind and the soul, and while my mind was certainly engaged while reading Ulysses, I'd be lying if I said my heart always was.

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O Danny Boy is About Me, Dan Saffer, and has my Portfolio, Resumé, Blog, and some Extras. It also has the blog I kept of my graduate studies and ways to Contact Me.