on September 27, 2004
Okay, here's the deal: if you've never read Ulysses before and want a quick and easy way in, Blamires is a great way to go. But be forwarned. While Blamires renders the story down to easily digestible bits, it is not (and I can't emphasize this enough) a substitute for reading Ulysses itself.
Perhaps the best approach (my approach at least) is to read a chapter of Blamires followed by the same chapter in Ulysses (others, I'm sure, will recommend Ulysses first followed by Blamires). Certainly, this constitutes reading two books at once, but it'll be worth it in the end. Another good source to begin with is Heffernan's Joyce's Ulysses, a four DVD set that can't, apparently, be purchased through Amazon. It is, however, available through The Teaching Company (a quick Google search will find the location, and no, this isn't a plug).
Now, both of the above sources focus on plot and character with virtually no emphasis given over to style (yeah, Yeats called Ulysses a book without style, but that's not really what he meant), and the provided analyses are at a very basic level. Interestingly enough, while Blamires shies away from the often raw sexuality of Ulysses, Heffernan positively laps it up. Further, given that Blamires provides us with an updated 1996 edition of his book, it's a little odd that he seems to miss certain elements of Ulysses that modern Joyce scholars have picked up on. For instance, is Stephen masturbating at the end of the Proteus episode? There is evidence to suggest that he is, but Blamires is silent. It is generally acknowledged that a fight ensues between Stephen and Buck Mulligan in the intervening period between the Oxen of the Sun episode and the Circe episode. Again, Blamires is silent.
Ah, but perhaps I'm treating Blamires unfairly because I did write above that his book was a quick and easy way into Ulysses. Besides, when explicating Ulysses, you don't want to give everything away (and even if you did, it would certainly take more pages than what could be found in a single volume). And so Blamires's book is deserving of its four stars because it is very good at what it purports to do (Heffernan is, I think, a little better).
Now that I've thoroughly offended you with my condescending and didactic prose, I shall in all likelihood offend you even more. Once you've read Ulysses, you'll want to read it again. During your first reading (along with Blamires of course), read it quickly, and don't worry too much if you can't understand the foreign languages or various biblical and mythical allusions.
There are three versions (well, editions really) of Ulysses: the original 1922 edition (Oxford), the 1961 revised edition (Penguin or Everyman), and the 1984 Gabler edition. I'd suggest starting the with 1961 revised edition as this is probably the cleanest (the Gabler edition has since become mired in controversy).
For your second reading, choose another edition and read it more slowly with a companion piece such as Thornton's Allusions in Ulysses, Gifford's Ulysses Annotated, or Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses - now you can take a closer look at those obcure allusions (but don't feel that you must look up every single one).
For your third reading, choose the edition you haven't yet read. At this point, you're ready to let Joyce's magnificent prose wash over you without the help of secondary sources. However, you're also prepared to approach the more scholarly literature if you wish. A journal like the James Joyce Quarterly can be a good place to start.
Of course, all of this begs the question: should Ulysses be read in conjunction with secondary sources in the first place? Ideally, no; realistically, yes. Ulysses constitutes a serious challenge for most readers, so secondary sources such as Blamires will certainly be helpful. By the same token, however, secondary sources can never replace the primary text.
N.B.: Since I believe in Karma, I'm sure I'll get my comeuppance for my oozing condescension in this review.
on December 10, 2015
Joyce was 40 yrs old when Ulysses was published, it is a day in the life of a husband and father of Joyce's age (at publication). Joyce loved Dublin and Ireland and though the book was written on the European continent - he wanted to memorialize his birth home (Ireland). The framework of Ulysses is Homer's Odyssey - The Roman (Ulysses) is the translation of the Greek (Odyssey): 1 Telemachus, 2 Nestor, 3 Proteus, 4 Calypso, 5 Lotus Eaters, 6 Hades, 7 Aeolus, 8 Lestrygonians, 9 Scylla And Charybdis, 10 Wandering Rocks, 11 Sirens, 12 Cyclops, 13 Nausicca, 14 Oxen Of The Sun, 15 Circe, 16 Eumaeus, 17 Ithaca, and 18 Penelope.
Literary complements like "The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses ..." can be helpful in understanding Joyce's works.
Ulysses is the tale of a Modern-day Odysseus, Leopold Bloom in his personal existential/sexual quest. The conclusion of this quest is the quintessential affirmation of humanity, the fundamental family unit - the father, mother, son, and daughter. Like Odysseus, absent from Penelope, traveling the world, for many long years, Leopold Bloom is also absent from his Penelope (in Dublin). Like a traveler (Odysseus), Bloom is sexually absent (abstinent) from Molly “10 years, 5 months and 18 days” (736). Unlike Odysseus, the obstacles Bloom faces are psychological (modern) - internal travails instead of Odysseus' external travails. Bloom's only son’s death has become a psychological barrier; as Molly reflects: “we were never the same since” (778). Yet Bloom is optimistic throughout the work - in regard to the possibility of another child, again Molly: ”Ill give him one more chance” (780). Affirmatively (as we grow to know Molly) we find she has given and is willing to continue to give Bloom “one more chance”. Through the course of the (Dublin) day, Bloom experiences “deep frustration, humiliation, fear, punishment and catharsis” (Herring, p.74). Bloom needs to lead himself back, out of self-deception, fantasy, and frustration to Molly’s (and his marriage) bed.
Bloom’s travails come in the Circe chapter and it is imperative (for Joyce) that as readers, we recognize Joyce’s change from Homer's Odyssey - this is Joyce's major rework, deviating from his Greek predecessor. For Odysseus: insight, understanding, enlightenment, and all importantly direction come to Odysseus in his journey to the (ancient Greek) Underworld. For Bloom, the Hades chapter or “the other world” represents an “emptiness of mind”; Joyce was a man grounded (and devoted) to the present world of man's consciousness and unconsciousness. In Ulysses enlightenment comes in the Circe chapter: described though the Joycean technique of hallucination or the discoveries of the "unconscious mind”. Joyce's Circe chapter (a surrealistic one-act Ibsen-like play) is where Bloom finds self-possession - (Joyce makes) Bloom encounter his own psycho-sexual existential questions, rather than finding life's answers in the dead ghosts of his life (the ancient Greek Hades chapter of the dead past).
In the Circe chapter, Bloom confronts and overcomes every major obstacle in his existential/sexual quest: the Molly he serves in Calypso reappears as Bello the whoremistress, Molly’s letter from Boylan and his from Martha are reworked into a series of seductive letters ending in a trial, his sexual infidelities beginning with Lotty Clarke and ending with Gerty McDowell are relived (importantly balanced by Molly’s infidelities) and reconciled, and lastly, Bloom triumphs over whore, Virgin-Goddess, and most importantly himself. Joyce equanimously gives both Molly and Bloom extramarital sexual infidelities - infidelities known by each of the other (as early as the Calypso chapter) Bloom was conscious of what was to come. Of course there will be resolution in marriage, for Molly only needs to feel that Bloom is willing. As we read, Bloom has undergone the travails of his own mind and has emerged Victorious. He has succeeded in his psycho-sexual existential quest. He has arrived at Molly’s bed. Self-possessed. Victorious. Eager.
Molly "I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him...then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down in to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (END)".
After publishing Ulysses, Joyce began FINNEGANS WAKE (FW) - Joyce largely stepped out of one work into his next (and last work). The change Joyce made in FW was instead of using Homer's Ulysses as a framework - FW's framework is Giambattista Vico's "La Scienza Nuova's" 4 cyclic stages of history.
Joyce realized that he ended Ulysses wrongly (not in accordance with the Universe) in Molly's bed - Joyce corrects his mistake in FINNEGANS WAKE by incorporating Vico's revelation of restart / recirculation. FW starts in "book I ch 3" with HCE arrested in front of his tavern/home, like Bloom unable to enter his front door (but HCE does not enter his home through the back door) - instead HCE is arrested for disturbances in hours before dawn. Then "book I ch 4" HCE's conscious/awake or unconscious/dream psychological travails of past guilts (underworld coffin, Ulysses ch Hades) while incarcerated in early hours of morning. Followed by "book I ch 2" HCE walks home through Phoenix Park accosted for the time of day (12 noon) which threatens (real/unreal memories, Ulysses ch Nausicaa) his innocent well-being. These 3 chapters in FW are Joyce's major rework to incorporate Vico's revelation of restart / recirculation into FW - Joyce rewrites 3 chapters of Ulysses: When He is denied Her front door, He is in Hell (on earth), when released (from Hell) His odyssey to Her begins again (with His ever-present accompanying internal travails) for She always knows when He is worthy of Her acceptance (their Paradise).
Then "book I ch 1" Finnegan's afternoon wake at HCE's tavern. Inside HCE's tavern (his ship) his patrons talk about his family, truthful (letters, Norwegian Captain and the Tailor's Daughter) and fabricated stories (book I:5-8 and book II:3); while the children (Shaun, Shem and Iseult) are in and out of the family tavern/home all day taking their lessons (book II:2) and playing about with their friends (book II:1); HCE, as proprietor, defends himself with a self-deprecating apologia before his drunken collapse late night (book II:3). HCE dreams on his tavern floor (book II:4); then dreams in his bed (book III:1-3); before intercourse with his wife ALP (book III:4). HCE & ALP's lovemaking dissolution dream (book IV) to awaken to a new day, a supposition may be made that Joycean Nirvana is attained by HCE unification with the Unmanifest (creation, incarnate conception) and Reincarnation (the baton has been passed on again), awaiting Joyce's God "thunderclap" at the beginning of FW's "book I".
FW is aural (oral) history like Homer's Odessey and Celtic folktales - when one pronounces (phonology) FW's words (aloud) there are more languages than just English; also, when one reads (morphology) FW's words almost all the words are "portmanteaus / neologisms" which gives each of FW's "polysynthetic words" many meanings (impermanence, Heisenberg uncertainty), each FW sentence dozens of possible messages, each FW paragraph hundreds of possible readings, Joyce's rendering of a more expansive English language and multiplicating universal book with coalescing syncretic themes/stories (that responds to each reader's inquiries). Joyce schooled in Christian Jesuit metaphysics (pushed down into the mindfulness of human consciousness) breathes in the spirit of expansive Celtic (Irish) community tavern life where man's stories of life are told. Tavern life teaches the evolution of Joyce's ten God "thunderclaps" (one hundred lettered words) pushing man's evolution forward from cave man's tales to modern tv media tales. Inside the tavern man learns of the purely human (animal) fall, taken down by another human(s) - like animal taken down on the African savanna. A granular reading of FW can render FW as an updated John Milton's Paradise Lost (regurgitated knowledge from the tree, to affirm man's damnation); however, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and Joyce in FW book II clearly walks Shaun, Shem and Iseult through their earthly evolutionary lifetime travails, our mortality is a consequence of Life's evolution. Every page of FW speaks to man's evolution (unconscious biological, conscious social, aspirational personal) and to Life recirculating (West meets Dzogchen East a "meeting of metaphysical minds") that binds humanity together into the future. Dzogchen (beyond all dualistic polarities) the heart of human consciousness - Joyce's underlying (subcutaneous) arguments refute the "Western curse of metaphysical/mythological damnation", the curse does not exist in the Eastern mind. Like "counting the number of angels on the head of a pin" (Aquinas 1270) Joyce provides a granular reading of FW as a "defense against all Western adversity" for our conscious and unconscious Western travails. HCE's angst is caused by his community that imposes a Western curse (damnation) upon him that man is not guilty of. To experience Joycean Nirvana, a defense against this man-made guilt is required - for as Zoroaster revealed cosmogonic dualism, evil is mixed with good in man's everyday (universal) travails (even the Dalai Lama must defend Nirvana rigorously from the most populous authoritarian state in human history).
Joyce's FW celebrates the Joys of Christian/Buddhist diversity of humanity (expansiveness of human consciousness: Gnostic Norwegian Captain, Shem, Archdruid), Brahma (Finnegan, HCE, Shaun), Divine Women (ALP, Iseult, Nuvoletta), his family - and the Sufferings of the inescapable "evil" of Shiva (Buckley), the debilitating harmful sterile intrusive authoritarian institutionalizing damnation (MaMaLuJo, St. Patrick) by Augustine, the manufactured clerical corruption identified by Luther (since 367 AD) and the burdens of "survival of the fittest" anxiety (modern commerce) met with a Dzogchen Buddhist stance. The (innocent infant) Norwegian Captain (Krishna, HCE), occasionally defensive (Shiva, HCE), though concretized (Brahma, HCE) by community family life (MaMaLuJo) - through spirits (drink) HCE can access his spirituality (dreams) and through spiritual (cutting through) love-making with ALP (direct approach) can access (their Krishnas) unification with the Unmanifest. Joyce was a Prophet who consumed Man's conscious and unconscious "thoughts and dreams, history and gossip", efforts and failings - to reveal the joys and sufferings of Mankind.
Joyce's FW message: Christian/Buddhist omniscient compassion (Christ/Krishna) is eternally joyful and recirculating. Affirmative family (HCE/Brahma, ALP/Divine woman & children) existentiality: life's biological evolution (sex), modern survival (money), constraining community (Dharma, social evolution) are constantly assaulted by inescapable "aggressive insidious vile" corrupt soul(less/sucking) ossified demonic antipathetic attacks. Joycean Nirvana is attained via the Christian/Buddhist affirmative middle way, "beyond polar opposites" the path of Christ/Buddha.
on April 28, 1998
Many books aspire to shed light on Ulysses. Many are narrowly philological or encyclopaedic. If you want to know the meaning of a word or the provenience of a song, joke, or proverb, you can use these books much as you would a dictionary. They are keyed to both the old (Random House) or new (Gabler) editions of Ulysses. Blamires, by contrast, is useful if you are--and you will be--all at sea about such rudimentary details as where you are, what is happening, and who a character is. For example, in the chapter which is set in a Dublin maternity hospital, identified by Joyce only as a place of parturition associated with a certain doctor (whose name you will never have heard), Blamires sets the scene, identifies the characters, themes, patterns of imagery and allusion in such a way that what had seemed hopelessly obscure is bathed in light. After reading Blamires I found the text approachable and moving and amusing--i.e., difficult still, but difficult in the way that any major English text is difficult, rather than hopelessly, riddlingly obscure. I ought probably to add that Blamires is a brilliant reader, a wonderful combination of the gifts that characterize a "common reader" (in Virginia Woolf's sense of the word) and a modest and helpful scholar. In other words, he does not make Joyce accessible by having failed to notice that he (Joyce) forgot more than you, reader, will ever know. I warmly recommend this book.