Would’ve, Should’ve, Couldn’t


It’s me again: Judd. Maybe you remember me from a month or two ago, when we started talking about Ulysses. I had a lot to say, for minute there, and was really looking forward to all the stuff I would say about the second half of the book: you know, when it really gets good. But then, out of nowhere (or rather not unexpectedly) life caught up with me, and the whole blogging thing got pushed to the back-burner in favor of things I was either getting paid for or graded on. You know how that goes. But I’ve been enjoying reading the other posts on here. Daryl, I’m sorry the book wasn’t your cup of tea, but I’m glad you made it through. I hope you’ll give it another look sometime: it only gets better. And it has the richest body of criticism of any work of literature: there’s lots of smart stuff to read out there. Start with Hugh Kenner.

Anyway, I wanted to put in a final post, now that we’re done and September is here and I’m really getting busy in earnest, about the things I would have written about, had I world enough and time. So here they are:

BLOOM: Obviously Ulysses is a difficult book, and a masterpiece of style and allusion.  But I think what people forget sometimes is that at bottom it is an incredibly humane portrait of a very relatable human being. I love Bloom. He walks around, thinks about stuff, gets hungry, eats, checks girls out as they walk down the street or sit on the beach, gets frustrated and disgusted by the people around him, worries, and tries to do the right thing. But more than that, I’m incredibly moved by Bloom, because he’s just so sad. I think that’s why “Lestrygonians” is among my favorite episodes, and one I would have liked to have written about in more length. It is to Bloom what “Proteus” is to Stephen: the chapter where we are most immersed in a character’s head, with minimal intrusion (ok, there’s more intrusion here than in “Proteus,” but we’re still getting a pretty good look at Bloom’s thoughts). He’s hungry, looking for a nice place to eat lunch, and trying to avoid thinking about that which he doesn’t want to acknowledge. So he thinks about a lot of other stuff, but the bad thoughts keep coming back. Here are a few of my favorite bits:

Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock, like that pineapple rock. The moon. Must be a new moon out, she said. I believe there is. (8.581-5)

I don’t know what to call this, maybe an astronomical version of the pathetic fallacy, but certainly Bloom allows his sadness to color his view of the grand scheme of things (truly grand, like, universal) in a really moving way. (We have a bit of a reversal of this in “Ithaca,” 17. 2012-23.)

And then a bit later the most beautiful, simultaneously sexy and sad, thing I think I’ve ever read, which I’m going to go ahead and quote in spite of its length:

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgandy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Me. And me now.

Stuck, the flies buzzed.

Were three words ever more devastating than that “And me now”? If so, I’d like to know. (We get this same scene again at the very end of the book, of course, in a far more famous passage. But I like this one.) At any rate, we’ll return to Bloom’s head later, in “Sirens” and “Nausicaa,” but by then the narrative has gone in more experimental directions. This is the chapter when we’re most with Bloom, at least for my money.

OXEN: I’m working on a longer piece, for a different audience, on the narrative voice(s) in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode. It’s a hard one, for sure, the one that pissed me off the most the first time I read this book (and the second), but it’s a chapter that rewards close attention. There are so many voices blending: the authors being parodied, the characters, the “narrator”; I think Joyce is having a lot of fun pulling the carpet out from under us. When I have something a little more developed (someday soon I hope) maybe I will put a bit of it up here, if people are still interested. In the meantime, if you want to read about narrative voice in Joyce, I strongly recommend John-Paul Riquelme, Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction (Johns Hopkins, 1983).

ADAPTATION: Can you believe this novel has been filmed? Twice? Plus turned into a Broadway show? I just watched the 1967 version: it was pretty good, for trying to do the impossible.

Anyway, those are just a few things I wanted to mention. I’m sure there were others, but this post is starting to get pretty long. It was fun hanging out with you guys: let’s do it again sometime. I hope to be less busy next summer. But then, hope springs eternal, right?

3 thoughts on “Would’ve, Should’ve, Couldn’t

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston September 2, 2010 / 2:48 pm

    Thanks for checking back in, Judd. I’d certainly welcome your posting some followup material here at some point, and I meant to say on my “so long” post that any who’ve posted here as bloggers previously should feel welcome to continue using the site to post about their reading.

    I too like the fly/seedcake scene you quote at length, and I like Bloom’s version of it better than Molly’s. (Though: blech.)

    Part of what I think turns me off about a lot of the book is that, though it does give a very full portrait of Bloom, so much of it is couched in these weird experimental, frustrating types of narrative that I lose a lot of the portrait in frustration and disorientation. Of course, people have said similar things about authors I love whose work I don’t find at all off-putting, so I’m willing to take a big share of the blame for my frustration.

    Thanks again for getting us started. I surely wouldn’t have made it through the book without this project to make me somehow accountable, and the group read wouldn’t have happened without your kickoff.

  2. Stevie September 2, 2010 / 3:44 pm

    I have to say, I always felt Bloom’s sadness more keenly in “Sirens” than in “Lestrygonians” – the chapter keeps reminding you that it’s the time for Molly’s tryst, & Boylan even makes an appearance to remind Bloom of his presence. There’s definitely a wistful/melancholy feel to what I will from now on call the “fly/seedcake scene” (love that!), but I interpret “and me now” differently. At worst only one or two of the many layers of it are sad; on one level I think he’s reminding himself that he’s still the man that Molly chose.
    I wrote a short paper on that scene in grad school; it’s definitely one of the highlights of the book, IMHO. It sums up the rarely spoken truth about intimate relationships: from the outside, they are totally disgusting, but from within: joy. and pain. and wistful longing for those moments of joy.
    As much as I look forward to your thoughts on “Oxen,” I feel I’ve got to gear up to READ about it; I’m sure you’ve got to REALLY gear up to write about it!
    Oh, & I like the Strick movie too; as you said, a good attempt at the impossible. Don’t get me started on why I hated “Bloom.”

  3. Leroy September 2, 2010 / 5:05 pm

    For me the extreme stylistic changes in Ulysses (and in Portrait) serve to deepen the characters rather than create distance. All of us inhabit many roles in our lives that bring different aspects of us to the fore. These various tunnel realities, or filters, include: son, parent, friend, employee, employer, customer, sports fan, writer, lover, ranter, joker, etc. By applying his stylistic filters to his characters, I think Joyce reminds us of how many different voices we all have and makes his creations more three-dimensional than they would otherwise be.

    This is not to say I don’t understand how hard it can be to appreciate all this the first time you read Ulysses. As I’ve said in other comments, it was a long struggle across thirty-five years from my first abortive attempt to read it to where I am now, a passionate advocate of its place at the pinnacle of literary achievement. I once thought of it as the first post-modern novel, surprisingly written just before modernism itself came to be. I’ve since decided that Tristram Shandy probably holds that honor, though my knowledge of historical literature is too flimsy for me to be sure even that idea holds.

    I want to thank all the authors and commenters for what had been a great experience revisiting and rethinking one of my favorite books.

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