Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Ulysses by Declan Kiberd
For James Joyce the nation as an ideal created a sense of responsibility for the fate of others in the community. The decline of nations in an era of global economic forces is linked intimately to the collapse of the civic bourgeoisie and its replacement by a merely consumerist middle class in the later part of the 20th century. The civic bourgeoisie saw 'freedom' as the right to produce rather than consume, and, rejecting the idea that everything should be privatized, it invested its profits in public libraries, museums and parks. The vernacular modernisms of Barcelona, Bombay, New York and Dublin are among the ultimate achievements of that bourgeoisie, as is Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses which was intended as a counter- argument to the British pedagogy in the lead-up to World War I which reduced the Greek and Roman classics to a cult of mere power, as in empire-building, boy-scouting and mountain climbing. That is the immediate context for Joyce's revision of Homer and for his redefinition of heroics as social-democratic celebration of the common man; a pedagogy of non-possessiveness and peace.
The tragedy of the twentieth century, according to Kiberd, was the replacement of a public-spirited bourgeoisie, not with a fully enfranchise people, but with a workforce now split between overpaid experts and underpaid service providers. The world so lost now turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it. The world of the pub, cafe, civic museum and national library produced social democracy, modernist painting and Ulysses. The world which supplanted it can generate only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography. The middle class has no real public culture or artworks which critique its triumph, because it has assimilated all the oppositional forces of modernism, by reducing them to mass entertainment. Now the streets are places not of amenity but of danger, through which nervous people drive in locked cars from one private moment to another.
In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus's passage from adolescence to maturity is intimately connected to the nature of Dublin. In a truly civic city such as Dublin was in 1904, all sorts of people pass through very different parts every day. Growth is possible, even for settled citizens like Bloom, through openness to the Other and a willingness to talk with those who might seem different. This free circulation in the inner city contrasts with life in suburbia, which is designated to answer the middle class's fear of a world they cannot control. 'The essence of human development is that growth occurs when old routines break down,' writes Richard Sennett,' but suburbs make it possible for us to hide from being adults.' Stephen cannot do that, for he is pulled back into Dublin's center. It is the sheer randomness of their meeting that Joyce wants most of all to celebrate, their shared openness to all that is accidental. For him the wonder of a city is that it is a place in which behavior can never be fully predicted, controlled or even explained.
Before Joyce, nobody had so fully represented the process of thought, that stream of consciousness which everyone experiences every day. In previous artworks, such detail was offered only about a noble character like Hamlet as he considered suicide; but in Ulysses Joyce shows the inner soliloquy as a normal prelude to nothing more portentous than drinking a cup of tea. Admirers of Joyce's masterful interior monologues have often overlooked the elements of self-repression they sometimes contain. They can often be read like a compulsive blather, blocking out and controlling more painful thoughts, much as a person might switch on a radio to distract from sadness, or a parody of newspaper headlines in private thoughts. At other times they reflect richness and mastery of character. Just as each figure in Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon represents a different style in his artistic evolution, each episode in the single text called Ulysses is quite different from all the others. Thus, and by various other techniques and flexible styles, Ulysses becomes a narrative which uses the streets, and the mundane events in the lives of 'inconsequential characters' on a single day as a guide to an order hidden from those caught up in the accidents of its unfolding.