The other day I read a diverting—if argumentationally (Joyce isn’t the only one who can make up words) lightweight—piece by Annie Dillard called “Contemporary Prose Styles,” in which Dillard plays Linnaeus and classifies “contemporary” prose styles (the article is as old as I am) as either “fancy” (or “fine”) or “plain.” She kind of claims that fancier styles are better suited to modernist projects, and that plainer styles are preferable to contemporary readers for their ostensive presentation of the world as it is rather than as a writer arranges it. Those both strike me as naive, or at least unreflective, positions, but Dillard doesn’t seem wholly attached to them anyway, since she goes on to say that basically all writers work somewhere in between the two poles. Which is fine by me, since I don’t even intend to criticize the piece (more); I bring it up for its relevance to our reading of Ulysses.
Dillard marshals Joyce as one of her exemplars of the fancier styles: “I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Beckett, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.” I think she’s right to mention Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—I assume those are “the novels”—as pyrotechnic displays of writing. In at least some respects, that seems to be the point of some of what we’ve been reading these past few weeks. Can we talk about “Oxen of the Sun”?
But what’s interesting to me is when Dillard turns her attention to the plainer styles. She gives a broad characterization that leaped to mind throughout my reading of “Ithaca”:
This prose is not an end in itself, but a means. It is, then, a useful prose. Each writer of course uses it in a different way. Borges uses it straightforwardly, and as invisibly as he can, to think, to handle bare ideas with control[.] … Robbe-Grillet uses it coldly and dryly, to alienate, to describe, and to lend his descriptions the illusion of scientific accuracy. His prose is a perceptual tool[.] … Hemingway uses it as a ten-foot pole, to distance himself from events; he also uses it as chopsticks, to handle strong emotions without, in theory, becoming sticky: “On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time.” (At its worst, this flatness may be ludicrous. Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence, “Paris is a nice town.”)
Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect.
This is “Ithaca.” For all its earthiness and democratic range of subject matter, Ulysses retains a peculiar fastidiousness about its characters’ emotions. (At least so far; I don’t remember whether “Penelope” blows this out of the water.) Maybe I’m just not catching what I’m reading—a definite possibility—but to my mind the book mostly lets its characters feel what they feel without, I don’t know, intruding too much. It gives us their thoughts verbatim, but most of the emotional weight is left to us to register on our own. As the final homecoming, the episode when Bloom at last returns to the privacy of hearth and bed, “Ithaca” is the pinnacle of this reserve.
The somewhat detached tone also accomplishes the other goals Dillard names at the end there, creating a fully realized portrait not just of Dublin in 1904 but of the entire universe and all its contingent particularities that make possible this day for this man in this city. Daryl covers many of the fields this episode brings into play; what I love is how comprehensively it establishes what is the case in this world. It runs up the scale to intergalactic space and down to the corresponding space within the atom. It discourses on both physical and metaphysical principles. And it sets a willed positivity against “the apathy of the stars” (17.2226). A few months ago, I went on about Moby-Dick being about everything; I think Ulysses is similarly encyclopedic, but with an entirely different effect. What we see in “Ithaca” is how a regular old day—nothing any more remarkable about it than about any other day—necessarily includes in it everything else that exists. Every moment is entirely conditioned by everything before it (and this is heading toward the kind of understanding of reality that science was also heading toward at the time of Ulysses; Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle in 1927), every day is the sum of all previous days.
And then we follow Bloom into sleep, with Darkinbad the Brightdayler, to recharge the everyman for his next everyday.