I’m calling bullshit on James Joyce.
That’s right, you heard me, the emperor is wearing no clothes. I may be banking my intellectual reputation against certain failure yet the arrogant little voice in the back of my head assures me that I can hold my own in debate against any rational mind.
Lets review the ‘facts’
James Joyce is popularly regarded as the ‘best’ author of the century (1900-1999). Who decided this? I’m assuming it was a bunch of academics (this could very well be the problem right here) as no one else would have the audacity to make such a claim.
I’ve read ‘Dubliners’, ‘A portrait of the Artist’ and the first fifty pages or so of ‘Ulysses.’
‘Dubliners’ is good in an introspective, subtle, melancholy sort of way.
‘A portrait of the Artist’ is unbearably boring, irrelevant and anticlimactic.
‘Ulysses’ is painfully disjointed and confusing. The scenes that actually depict linear action are rife with colloquialisms and rely heavily on referencing so many characters whom the reader has no hope of knowing; while the other scenes are even worse, tying together heaps of colorful words to hint at possible thoughts, actions, memories and emotions. This is great if you’re paining a fucking picture but if you’re telling a story it’s an aggravating mess.
Some people enjoy deciphering tortuous puzzles – there was that nut who proved Fermat’s little theorem, the cryptographers who translated the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and countless historians pouring over medieval church documents pursuing a myriad of esoteric questions such as the sexual orientation of the bishop of Canturbury in 1130. These people have one thing in common – obsessive compulsive antisocial tendencies. They are also quite smart – but then anyone in the top 2% of the population is considered ‘smart’ these days.
What I’m getting at is that I could attempt to decipher Ulysses, but then I wouldn’t be reading the book, would I, rather I would be solving it. Perhaps Joyce wrote the century’s greatest literary puzzle but what a fucking boring book it was. I honestly tried to keep an interest but my mind has a tendency to wander and, with no compelling grasp of a narrative to keep me attentive, my eyes will continue to read but my brain will zone out large passages to think about black and white houndstooth or pussy or whatever else presents itself as more interesting. If a book is not immersive, it fails as a story.
For the sake of argument we will address the possibility that the book is simply beyond me intellectually – I’m too stupid to understand it. That would be an ego-shattering revelation considering the fact that my reading comprehension is probably my strongest mental measure. If I don’t understand what’s going on when Mr. Bloom is suddenly recalling, in a series of incomplete partially English sentences, some strange opera-spouting plebian uncle residing in a den of filth and vulgar diction, I can guarantee that no one I’ve personally ever had the pleasure to speak with on the topic of literature (or cinema for that matter) would be able to do any better.
Some months ago the Chronicle interviewed random people and asked them their thoughts on Ulysses (I have no idea where they even found people who had read it). These charlatans all claimed blissful experiences, epiphanies and the sort. Some fat man on the train, noticing my book informed me that I was in for “a treat.” This same fat man, with beady little eyes, I later had the pleasure of reading along with (over his unsuspecting shoulder) while he indulged in some typical drugstore “Donald set his chin and gave Jennifer a steely gaze, What do you think Sanchez plans to do with all of the C4 he stole? Her blue eyes were wide with concern. I don’t know, she said, I only hope our litigators can wrangle through this mess of red tape before we have to find out.” type of bullshit. If that kind of reading is below me, it is certainly below the powerful mind that makes mincemeat out of Joyce. Unless, of course, the pandemic professed pleasures of Ulysses are part and parcel bullshit (piss).
Then there is Shakespeare. Joyce recognizes Shakespeare as a superior; he pays repeated homage to the bard just within the first 50 pages of Ulysses. Our modern scholars have also made a point of singling out Joyce out as the best writer of the 20th century – not all time. No one dares refute William’s claim to the ‘all-time’ title. So why is it that I am able to enjoy Shakespeare, why is it that old stage plays written in a language twisted by time are more accessible, reach greater depths, produce more entertainment and even appeal to a wider audience? It’s because I’m not calling bullshit on William Shakespeare.
I kept a journal while I was reading Ulysses on my daily train commute; it only had three entries and had a habit of digressing but it did make a few eloquent points regarding the text.
“we are reminded again of Stephen’s impecuniousness and the fact that he is Irish in an Ireland dominated by English fretting over Jews. My experience thus far (combined with what I know of Joyce and what I picked up in Dubliners) leads me to believe that people will exalt something equivocal and periodically incomprehensible if it also cycles into passages of familiar politics and spates of humble self-loathing. It is easy to compliment someone who poses no threat to your personal (misplaced) sense of superiority, such as a depressed Irishman whose major concerns are, contradictorily, receiving recognition for his art and avoiding confrontation, and who finds solace in the righteously self-loathing legacy of his people.”
“Is it a mark of greatness to hide the profound in the banal? Is it? I say both ‘yay’ and ‘nay.’ Is it harder? Harder to integrate – yes. Harder to craft as a whole – I think not. The banal is available everywhere, everyday, for the plagiarizing – take it – it’s free. A compelling story, devoid of the irrelevant, that, I think, is skillful.”
Sure Joyce was a smart guy, sure he did something few could do, but for Christ’s sake, who wants to read the self-loathing, depressive poetry of an Irishman that never amounted to his own standards of accomplishment?
I once witnessed the solo performance of a university-schooled guitarist who played a piece of extreme difficulty, requisite of much training. It certainly appeared difficult – lots of near random plucking, almost a complete absence of pattern or rhythm, but the sound was terrible. I realized then that there is a difference between technical accomplishment and artistic accomplishment. Technical accomplishment is me learning how to throw cards in a hat from across the room – anyone can see that it is skillful yet honestly, who cares? Artistic accomplishment is producing something poignant, spanning the range of emotion and the human condition, something that draws the observer in without his noticing the departure from reality.