James Augustine Aloysius Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses’ during the discreet years of his chosen exile across Paris, Zurich and Trieste, far away from his native Ireland. The tug of war between his incredible insight on one hand and his failing eyesight on the other continued for a long time and it was in 1922 in Paris that his magnum opus was eventually published, coinciding with T S Elliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.
An ingenious and purposeful adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses is today regarded as Joyce’s greatest literary accomplishment but way back then; it was condemned by an ominously ‘united’ population both in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The list of detractors included distinguished literary names like Virginia Wolf who specifically objected to Joyce’s ‘outhouse’ humour. While critic Max Eastman labelled him as one of the "Unintelligibles", Professor Irving Babbitt of Harvard remarked in the context of ‘Ulysses’ that it could only have been written "in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration." Admirers like Edmund Wilson were clearly in minority who ranked Joyce as a “great innovator of literature with an incalculable influence upon other writers of his time”. While the book's umpteen veiled insinuations were found enormously taxing, the meticulously explicit personal accounts were alleged to be downright pornographic. So, it was little surprise that the obscure puritan view influenced the ban in US and UK on charges of blatant obscenity. Needless to say, the ban made Ulysses a prized smuggled possession which also made Joyce a discreet cult figure of sorts.
It was in 1934 that publishing major Random House was legally granted permission to print and distribute Joyce's Ulysses in the United States. The United Kingdom followed suit in 1936. Before we move to the man who literally scripted Joyce’s literary victory, here’s a quick look at the novel for the benefit of those who are yet unaware of the subject matter. It goes without saying that the elucidation is only peripheral as any deeper probe is beyond the scope and reach of this thought piece.
Characterised by its inventive narration and rich philosophical allusions, most of the eighteen chapters of Ulysses map a day in the life of the protagonist, an Irish Jew and ad campaigner by the name of Leopold Bloom. A vulnerable (and hence believable) form of the Greek hero Ulysses, he wanders through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904 confronting several conflicts and challenges that typically raid thinking individuals, failed and flawed at that. Armed solely with the emblematic baggage of mythical legacy, he grapples with religious and political hypocrisy, racial discrimination, moral decadence, emotional turbulence, vacuumed loneliness and social alienation.
Alongside Bloom, Ulysses highlights the trials and triumphs of two other players from the clutter of 75-odd support characters. One of them is the academic Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist from Joyce's prior work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ who mirrors Joyce’s own thoughts on the prejudiced machinations of the Church and British governance, poetic melancholy as also the concavity of the Irish political movement. The other is the singer Molly Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom and Joyce’s version of Penelope – a woman of character and substance who has rightfully improvised her faithfulness in line with the circumstantial deviations of her wedlock.
From time to time, we see references to literary and metaphysical greats including Friedrich Nietzsche, Dante, Freud and Shakespeare apart from Greek thought and Irish folklore. Most interestingly, Joyce gainfully employs his arithmetic and scientific proficiency to enhance the narrative texture including the interior monologues. Particularly striking is Bloom’s mention of ‘Musemathematics’ that defines music as a series of vibrations as magical as multiplication. And of course, Ulysses is best remembered for Joyce's perceptive use of the "stream of consciousness" device coined by philosopher William James as also the seemingly trivial details that connect several decisive dots in hindsight.
One may ask, given the superlative style and substance complemented by the cent per cent plausible characters pervading each chapter, what was so objectionable about the novel? Well, for one, Ulysses demanded several careful reads to even arrive at distant approximations, not to mention intended meanings. For the majority of the populace not used to ‘arriving at’ in their reading voyage, this was a supremely tough ask. To top it, Joyce was at his meticulous best in his descriptions of undercover human endeavours – from masturbation and menstruation to voyeurism and coprophilia. For the so-called civilised world, these dark secrets were meant for private indulgence, not for public disclosure. For them, Joyce had clearly crossed the line. Of the objectionable lot, Molly’s honest sexual admission in the "Penelope" chapter and Bloom's sexual gratification in the "Circe" chapter were specifically found ‘intolerable’.
It’s here that we should turn our attention to Judge John Munro Woolsey. A US federal judge in New York City, Wolsey was well known for his “brilliant and poignantly phrased decisions". Though many critics believe he did more than the needful in resolving this sub judice matter; we will ever remain indebted to him for doing just that on two counts – one, for upholding and unfurling individual freedom of purposeful expression and two, for raising the bar for critical appreciation, literary and otherwise. At a time when literary modernists and Harvard intellectuals were found wanting in their assessment of a non-conformist work, here was a maverick in uniform that touched the soul of Ulysses thereby transforming the infamous case into a glorious case study.
Woolsey couldn’t have been more enlightening in his historic verdict. He read Ulysses once in its entirety to openly conclude that Ulysses was not an easy read, something that even teachers and students of literature wouldn’t easily admit. He concluded that in spite of its "unusual frankness", there was no "leer of the sensualist" in the novel. Woolsey finds Ulysses brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. The depth of his observation is evident from the words he uses:
“In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt's sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one's own choice. In order to avoid indirect contact with them one may not wish to read Ulysses; that is quite understandable. But when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?”
Woolsey was clearly aware of his ‘more than proportionate’ study of the subject matter. Hence, he checked his impressions with two impartial friends and literary assessors who were of the opinion that Ulysses did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts.
Woolsey’s conclusion is undoubtedly for posterity
“My considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac” If Woolsey is not a literary genius, who is?
We just hope that James Joyce expressed his gratitude to the lawyer in person over and above his public response following the judgement that clearly took a defensible dig at his native people: “Thus one half of the English speaking world surrenders. The other half will follow. And Ireland 1000 years hence.”
Today, Joyce is universally regarded as one of the premier stylists of the Modernist movement and Dublin celebrates Bloomsday with great vigour but during the latter part of his life, Joyce was knowingly and unknowingly reminded of Doomsday. Towards the fag end, he was a lonely man if not forgotten and the failure of his last offering Finnegan's Wake had only made matters worse.
We have nothing against the Bloomsday celebrations which were fondly initiated by the dynamic duo of artist John Ryan and novelist Brian O’Nolan to mark the 50th year of Ulysses events (June 16, 1904). We only wish the festivities, year after year, make at least a passing mention of Judge Woolsey who occupies an eternal place of pride in world literature alongside Joyce. The stiff-necked puritans in the guise of contemporary modernists will of course disagree but that hardly matters anyway.