Monday, February 9, 2015

Currently Reading: Just Plain Poppycock

(For those of you that aren't sure what that title is making a joke of):

I decided that my goal for winter break was to read Ulysses. That was really dumb and I’m about 150 pages from the end (which means I’ve read around 550 pages or so), but I want to talk about it anyway so here we go.

For those of you that don’t know (like I didn’t until I started the book and was like “what the hell is happening I don’t understand” which I think is a natural reaction to reading Ulysses), Ulysses is a sort-of-but-not-really adaptation of The Odyssey that takes place over one day, June 16th 1904; the book is structured into 18 episodes (or chapters, if you will, spanning about an hour of time each) and 3 “books.” Book One, The Telemachiad, contains the first three episodes, all narrated by longtime author avatar, Stephen Dedalus—our Telemachus stand-in, protagonist from Joyce’s first book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and arguably some of the short stories in Dubliners. Book two, The Odyssey, containing 12 episodes, focuses largely on Leopold Bloom—really the protagonist of Ulysses, stand-in for, well, Ulysses, or Odysseus, whatever—beginning when he wakes up and leaves his house and ending when he decides to go back home around 1 AM. The third book (which I haven’t read yet), The Nostos, focuses on Bloom finally going home, with a final chapter narrated by his wife. Who is cheating on him. Did I not mention that? More or less, that is the book: Bloom knows his wife is planning to cheat on him that day, and spends all of the day trying not to think about it.

Good. 700 pages, spans roughly 17 hours. Also: completely ridiculous. Our fair protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is of average-to-slightly-below intelligence, and his thoughts are presented in stream of consciousness that I would call “uninterrupted” were it not for the fact that he interrupts himself. Over the course of the book we get to see Bloom’s countless bodily functions (excreting, masturbating, farting, etc.), every philosophy (from what happens when we die to the ethics of horse-drawn hearses) and numerous quirks—on page 183 we find out that he’s been carrying around a potato in his pocket all day!

But beyond that I want to rant about two episodes in this book: Sirens (11) and Circe (15). Sirens is supposed to model itself after a musical fugue, which if you have no idea what that means (like me) is "a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.” In going with the “musical” quality of the chapter, most of the chapter revolves around the portrayal of noises on the pages, such as a trumpet (Imperthnthn thnthnthn), a horse going by (Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.), a train (Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl.), and Bloom farting (eppripfftaph. pfrwritt.). The first page and half of this chapter, by the way, is entirely unintelligible because it functions as an orchestra tuning—each part (or “instrument”) of it displayed in microcosm by its respective sounds. Here’s a recording, because it’s stupid and hilarious:

And Circe. Well. Circe is where Joyce decided to say “controversy! I’ll show you controversy!” and proceeded on a 150 page (most episodes hit around the 30 to 40 mark) hallucination provided by Bloom and Stephen. The controversy, by the way, is in regards to the Nausicaa chapter (13), in which a minor character, Gerty Macdowell, publicly masturbates in front of Bloom for want of a husband. Don’t question it let’s move on. Ridiculous imagery abound: from Bloom imagining himself “undoubted emperor president and kind chairman, the most serene and potent and very puissant ruler of this realm” (he works in advertising, by the way), to having his dead grandfather telling him not to sleep with prostitutes, to a french-speaking hobgoblin doing somersaults. Then there’s Stephen, arguing philosophy with a hat (which responds by rudely imitating him) and imagining his dead mother damning him to hell. By the way, did I mention that Joyce decided to write this chapter in screenplay format? And that Bloom has no real reason to be hallucinating at all? (Stephen’s reasoning is extreme drunkenness off of absinthe, Bloom, however, doesn’t drink a drop of alcohol in the entire book, going so far as to slyly give drinks handed to him to a man sitting next to him.) All of which leads me to this kind of reaction:


Where am I going with this? Much like Bloom, absolutely nowhere, I just wanted to say something.

So. Ulysses. Worth my time? Absolutely. Just don’t try to understand everything. Or anything. Anything at all.

Next week we’ll be reading Proust; stay tuned.


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