‘Ulysses’ Goes to War

A century on, James Joyce’s masterwork still provokes controversy

From one point of view, the history of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses is also the history of the repression and censorship of literature in our society. Originally banned in the U.S. on the grounds of its blunt sexuality and vulgarity, the novel, on the 100th anniversary of its publication, has come under the gaze of present-day upholders of orthodoxy who are not shy about canceling works that displease them.

Ulysses has been through many editions, but for roughly 11 years after it appeared, you would have been lucky indeed to get your hands on a copy on these shores. Nor was the banning of the novel on grounds of obscenity the first repressive action targeting Joyce. In a letter of April 2, 1932, to Random House founder Bennett Cerf that appears at the beginning of the Modern Library edition, Joyce acknowledges the vision of Cerf, who wants to publish Ulysses but cannot legally do so, and reflects on the hurdles he faced in trying to have his earlier works published, such as the short story collection Dubliners.

Those of us who read a tale or two from Dubliners in high school may not suspect just how controversial the little book was. Joyce tells Cerf how, after its release in Dublin in 1914, censors promptly bought up the entire print run and threw the copies on a bonfire. They must have really disliked the scene in “An Encounter” where two wandering schoolboys run into a strange man who turns out to be a pederast, among other passages.

In the letter to Cerf, Joyce goes on to relate how, by the grace of his friend Ezra Pound, the manuscript of Ulysses at last ended up in the hands of Sylvia Beach, owner of the famous Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co., who believed firmly enough in the challenging and provocative work to have it published.

For all the interest that fast arose around this unique novel, with its multilingual puns, classical allegories, bizarre reveries, political allusions, frank depictions of the ways and manners of Dubliners, and smashing of conventions, censorship in both the U.K. and the U.S. muted the impact of Ulysses for many years.  The book might have stayed out of most readers’ hands for many more years if not for the decision of a New York judge, John M. Woolsey, to issue an opinion on December 6, 1933, proclaiming Ulysses not obscene.

With another judge, the course of literary history might have been unrecognizably different. This one had no small amount of intellectual curiosity. Woolsey describes having spent hour after hour of his own time plumbing the depths of the novel and applying legal precedent to try to figure out whether its profanity, vulgarity, and lewdness served a literary purpose or aimed at arousing and titillating the reader. If the latter, then under the laws of the time, the book was obscene.

The Turning Point

Ulysses
The 1934 Random House cover of ‘Ulysses’, by James Joyce.

In his cogent and well-written opinion, Judge Woolsey says that evoking how people of a time and place talk and act means, simply, writing the kind of dialogue they would speak and describing the behavior they would engage in. If that is obscene, then so is realism itself.

“It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented,” Judge Woolsey writes. “For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.”

The debt owed to Judge Woolsey is huge indeed. But it is sad how many people today don’t or can’t follow such logic. In an age when we see daily the banning of terms from word games, the cancellation of books, and the firing of professors simply for reading aloud a title or passage from a book written in a different age, it is more than clear that some people just aren’t interested in the kinds of distinctions that Judge Woolsey made and will jump at any pretext to hurt and embarrass. Motives, context, and moral distinctions are irrelevant. To say certain words for any purpose or in any context is to be guilty of the most malicious possible use of those words.

The Fate of Ulysses

In all the coverage of Joyce’s novel around its centennial, I have seen only one writer, Colin Murphy in the Independent, use the term “cancel culture” in reference to the ban a hundred years ago and thus draw a link between the censoriousness of that age and of this one. More people should make the connection.

Many in the academic community accuse of Joyce of misogyny, and their critiques, or more precisely, attacks, are full of phrases like “the patriarchal underpinnings of discourse.” Some commentators, like Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, have used the occasion of the centennial to score cheap partisan points, comparing the novel’s wordplay to “Trump’s upside-down utterances” and “Republicans showing how fringy and far-out they’ve gotten.”

For real Joyce scholars, the wielding of the novel as an axe against the other side in today’s political wars shows a lack of interest in coming to understand any aspect of Joyce, to put it mildly. On the centennial, Book and Film Globe interviewed Vicki Mahaffey, the author of many books and papers on Joyce and modernism, about the appropriation of Joyce in today’s debased op-ed discourse.

“The opinion piece by Maureen Dowd in the Times compared the incomprehensibility of Ulysses with the incomprehensibility of Trump and his followers,” says Mahaffey. “I thought this was like comparing the denseness of a side of beef with the exquisite rarity of a fine caviar. What the piece misses is the beauty of Joyce’s language, and his deliberate cultivation of words that have not dominated the marketplace, including snippets of foreign languages (she quotes a phrase of Romani without identifying the wonderful unfamiliarity of the language).”

Joyce the Obscure

The novel’s resistance to tidy classifications is part of the point. Joyce’s characters engage in lively street and barroom banter, often touching on themes of invasion and domination, whether the aggressor is Pharoah in the era of Moses, Rome in the age of Celtic Britain and Ireland, or Napoleon in more recent times. These discussions lay a thematic groundwork for scenes in the novel where a pair of nasty British soldiers, Privates Carr and Compton, threaten and at one point get physical with Stephen Dedalus. The showdown is the most modern iteration of all the dynamic of bullying and conquest we have been hearing through the novel. But to read Joyce as an Irish nationalist, or as putting himself in any ideological box, really misses the complexity and grandeur of his vision.

Having written a great deal on the question of Joyce’s relationship to nationalism, Mahaffey has come around to the view that Joyce questioned whether Ireland’s political and economic decoupling from England would result in freedom of the mind.

“Not only did Joyce view the Catholic church as discouraging freedom of thought, he also saw conformism of any kind (including nationalist!) as suspect,” Mahaffey says.

Mahaffey notes that Joyce named a character in his only play, Exiles, after Archibald Hamilton Rowan, a real person whom both sides in the Irish conflict alternately praised as a hero and reviled as a traitor because he refused to identify strictly with one or the other, instead working out his positions case by case.

“I think Irish nationalism is important in the novel, but it is also exposed as potentially hypocritical, as we see when the Citizen in the ‘Cyclops’ episode aims to ‘crucify’ Bloom for not being Irish,” says Mahaffey.

Cultural Misappropriation

Dowd’s misuse of the novel is overt. A kinder handling of Joyce comes from Merve Emre in the New Yorker, though Emre does take issue with what she views as the encyclopedic aspirations of the novel, and at one point makes a comparison to a work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton from the Victorian period that satirizes the efforts of two protagonists to make a list or catalog of all things that people can know.

Emre makes a more genuine effort than Dowd to get Ulysses, but in Mahaffey’s view still commits certain oversimplifications, particularly with regard to Joyce’s supposed pedantry. Some people these days are all too willing to use the text as a pretext for advancing their personal views, Mahaffey observes.

“It’s almost as if they decline the opportunity (and the joy) of learning. Joyce is not trying to cram his book with all his knowledge; he is actually doing the opposite, in a sense: he is dramatizing the fact that a lot of what we prize as knowledge is not what matters most. So the ‘encyclopedic aspirations’ are, in a sense, superficial; they support the book’s realism, but they aren’t central to its meaning or significance. They are also, when they aren’t realistic, comic!” Mahaffey says.

Pressures similar to those that buffeted Archibald Hamilton Rowan for refusing to stick with one side or the other in the Irish conflict are at work today in the welcome, if that is the word, given to a novel that fiercely resists pat categorization and misuse for partisan ends.

No one knows this better than Mahaffey, who, after the pandemic shut down in-person conferences for the better part of two years, was recently able to attend “Mapping Fiction,” a conference at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, put on in conjunction with an exhibition marking the centennial. Mahaffey led a master class for graduate students with an interest in Joyce. One of the questions that people asked was how it is even possible to teach Ulysses in today’s politically divided context, she recalls.

“This question saddens me, because Ulysses was designed to help readers learn to imaginatively inhabit opposed positions. It’s about the effort and danger of embracing mutually exclusive possibilities: Irish and English, male and female, Jewish and gentile. It’s about learning to reseat the mind in the body, and using the (shared) fragility of embodiment to bridge differences of background, biology, language,” says Mahaffey.

The guardians of correct opinion have a hair-trigger reaction to any suspect material, and the last thing they want to do is inhabit any opposed positions, imaginatively or otherwise. But what those who might be tempted to write Joyce off as a misogynist don’t get is, precisely, his interest in and concern for the interplay of the infinite expressions of human diversity.

“Ulysses offers readers the opportunity to celebrate many kinds of otherness, and thereby to move from individuality to community,” Mahaffey says. “Another way to put this is that it shows us how to go from being an individual to an entire city; it helps each openminded reader to realize the multitudes that are within every person. Developing such multitudinousness is joyful, it is a way of learning to ‘bloom.’”

Ulysses
The first edition cover of Ulysses, from 1922.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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