The Word Known to All Men; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love James Joyce.Kiberd, Declan. 2009. Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce's Masterpiece. New York: Norton. $28.95 hc. $17.95 sc. xi + 400 pp.
Utell, Janine. 2010. James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire. New York: Palgrave. $75.00 hc. x +177 pp.
John Lennon--a closet James Joyce scholar who even subscribed to the James Joyce Quarterly in the 1970s--claimed in the 1967 hit song by The Beatles that "all you need is love." Since its original publication in 1922, some critics have suggested that love is all you need to break through the thorny thicket of complexity presented by Joyce's experimental style in Ulysses (not to mention the subsequent, and even more daunting, Finnegans Wake in 1939), a style that shifts and evolves from episode to episode. Joyce himself hinted that the novel was his epic affirmation of that "[w]ord known to all men," as his literary alter-ego Stephen Dedalus puts it in the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Ulysses (Joyce 1986,429-430). That "word" is widely interpreted as love, and love is the subject of Joyce's great, human epics.
Reading Ulysses simultaneously as Joyce's treatise on the nature of love and as a kind of love letter to love is nothing new. The most widely accepted theory on why Joyce selected June 16, 1904 as the date his epic of a single day takes place is because that was possibly the date that he first went out with his lifelong partner and future wife, Nora Barnacle. Such a reading makes the book, on one level, a kind of anniversary present, a token of love for the love of Joyce's life. One of the originators of the theory that the date of Ulysses had this biographical origin, Richard Ellmann, is also one of the first proponents of the idea that, in spite of all the stylistic bells and whistles, the "theme in Ulysses was simple" (Joyce 1986, ix). Ellmann and others have established an interpretive tradition that Ulysses is essentially about love, the entire spectrum of Jove from the ems to agape. According to this interpretation, Joyce's epic fits into a tradition of narratives of love and reconciliation in an attempt to apply epic conventions to subject matter that is all-too-human. Or, as Ellmann himself puts it, " Ulysses revolts against history as hatred and violence, and speaks in its most intense moments of their opposite" (xiv), namely Stephens "word known to all men." Despite ostensible differences in tone, style, and method, Declan Kiberd and Janine Utell both recognize that Ulysses is concerned with love as the most complex and the most human of emotions. Each text offers a critical reappraisal of Joyce's work emphasizing what one can still learn from reading Joyce in the early twenty-first century and how one might learn again to love reading Joyce. As a result, their books represent an important step in restoring a sense of humanity to an author whose texts have been relegated to the status of relics for specialists.
"Ulysses" and Us: The Art of livery day Life in Joyce's Masterpiece, Declan Kiberd's ode to the ordinary in Ulysses, attempts to find some middle ground between the extremes of unabashed praise and unqualified contempt by arguing that what makes the book great is exactly that which it celebrates: its humanness. Kiberd's task, taken up by others before him, is to save Joyce's book from its abstraction into inscrutable theory by "specialist elites" (2009, 10) and to return it into the hands of the ever-elusive "common reader" (17). He argues that Ulyssesu "should be accessible to ordinary readers as once were the Odyssey, the New Testament, the Divine Comedy and Hamlef" (21). Making an argument that Joyce was as much Romantic as Modern in his celebration of the minutiae of everyday life, Kiberd claims that"(it is time to reconnect Ulysses to the everyday lives of real people," for it--according to Kiberd--still has much to teach "real people" (11). With this goal in mind, Kiberd attempts to forge a middle path between conventional academic writing and the kind of informal, but intuitive, observations that might surface in a good graduate seminar on Joyce. In short, Kiberd's book reads like a series of lectures on Ulysses aimed at a relatively broad audience, which would, I suppose, include "the common reader."
Altogether different in tone and style from Kiberd's relaxed, readerly approach, Janine Utell's work in James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire follows the conventions of a more traditional academic study, which might seem to place her text in the ratified air of'specialist elites" that Kiberd warns us about. Utell's book does in fact read a bit too much like a dissertation to be readable in the way that Kiberd's is, and she occasionally defers a bit too much to her critical and theoretical sources, unlike Kiberd, who is the primary authoritative voice in his text. Ultimately though, her prose is generally readable, and she provides valuable and informed critical insight into an essential question that must be faced in any interpretation of Joyce's body of work: "Why does Joyce write about adultery over and over again?" (2010, 16). That is an excellent question, and Utell provides some compelling answers that genuinely advance the scholarship in this area. Unlike Kiberd's single-text study, Utell reads the whole of Joyce s work as a kind of continuity, "a movement toward a more complex understanding of love and desire" (13). She begins her reading of Joyce's literary output with the relatively minor--yet transitional--works like Exiles (1915), Joyce's generally unsuccessful attempt at drama, and Giacomo Joyce, a posthumously published notebook written in 1914 but not published until 1968, and she concludes with a chapter on Finnegans Wake. But the centerpiece of her study is Ulysses: Joyce's narrative of a man, Leopold Bloom, who facilitates his wife's adultery. "Beginning with the critical tradition of the novel of adultery," writes Utell, "I look at Ulysses as the culmination of Joyce's play with the questions and complexities that riddle married love; Ulysses forms his ultimate argument for an ethical love--even as he acknowledges that such love might be impossible" (14). As divergent as Kiberds and Utell's texts might seem at first glance, not only in tone and style, but in critical and theoretical focus, there is an underlying commonality of purpose that perhaps signals a shift in the winds of Joyce criticism, or at least a continuation of a trend over the past decade or so to reclaim Joyce from the netherworld of literary theory. Kiberd and Utell are each interested in what Ulysses means to us as human beings at the beginning of the twenty-first century, not especially as academics or specialists.
Kiberd opens his case for Ulysses as a text for everybody by describing what it did not do. In a chapter titled, "How Ulysses Didn't Change Our Lives" he notes how" [t]he book which set out to restore the dignity of the middle range of human experience against the false heroics of World War I was soon lost to the common reader" (2009, 6). After explaining why and how Joyce lost his connection with ordinary readers, and implying that this culture is part of what led to the horrors of World War II, Kiberd contends, "The need now is for readers who will challenge the bloodless, technocratic explication of texts: amateur readers who will come up with what may appear to be naive, even innocent, interpretations" (15). This plea for flesh and blood readers to rediscover the humanity of Joyce: $ book through a fresh approach, in order to save it from its institutional purgatory, leads directly into his next two chapters. I lere Kiberd rounds out the preliminary arguments for his episode-by-episode close reading of the novel, which constitutes the bulk of his book. In these subsequent two chapters, titled "How It Might Still Do So" and "Paralysis, Self-Help and Revival," Kiberd makes a case for how Ulysses might yet change our lives by offering much still "to teach us about the world," including:
Advice on how to cope with grief; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how women have their own sexual desires and so also do men; how to walk and think at the same time; how the language of the body is often more eloquent than any words; how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to purge sexual relations of all notions of ownership; or how the way a person approaches food can explain who they really are. (Kiberd 2009, 21)
In arguing for a reading of Ulysses (and by association other great books in the Western canon) as a kind of self-help volume, Kiberd elides the notorious difficulty that shadows the novel's reputation by claiming that "[t] he difficulty of Ulysses is not based on snobbery but on a desire of a radical artist to escape the nets of the market1" (20), a claim that seems a bit too quaint and oversimplified to stand, as it does here, as uncontested fact. Indeed, perhaps as part of Kiberd's strategy of reaching out to the common reader, this book lacks much of the scholarly apparatus of most literary criticism, a fact that is alternately refreshing and frustrating.
All of this, though, leads up to the questions that Kiberd is primarily concerned with addressing: "How can a book like Ulysses have been so misread and misunderstood? How was it taken as a product of a specialist bohemia against which it was in fact in open revolt? Why has it been called unreadable by the ordinary people for whom it was intended?" (30).The formidable strength of Kiberd's book lies in his answer to these questions:"The legend of [Ulysses's] forbidding difficulty has scared readers off, but so has the silly notion of its monumental perfection" (30). This mindset is what Kiberd rightly criticizes as the biggest problem with the reputation of Joyce *s novel: its reputation of near infallibility, a reputation that has been built up around the novel since its publication. What makes Ulysses great, what makes it a truly human and living text, argues Kiberd, are its imperfections, its mistakes, and we (he seems just as interested in admonishing professional scholars as in winning over new converts) must redirect our approach to Joyce's novel--we must learn to come at it anew--if we are to get out of it what Kiberd believes we still can.
After establishing the contextual foundation for his reading of Ulysses in the tradition of 'wisdom literature,' a tradition that includes the big guns of the Western canon like Dante and Shakespeare, Kiberd guides us through a close re-reading of the book, through the lenses of our newly cleansed perspective, by devoting a chapter to each of the novel's eighteen episodes. Each of his corresponding chapters are labeled with a gerund verb--such as "Waking," "Learning," "Thinking," "Dying," "Eating," and "Wandering"--all the way to the ultimate lessons we are to take away from Joyce's book: lessons on "Teaching" and "Loving," which correspond to the last two episodes of Joyce's novel, "Ithaca" and "Penelope," respectively, and which together represent the biggest idea of this biggest of books: the idea that Ulysses can effectively teach us how to love one another better. Each of these verbs signifies Kiberd's focus for his reading of each episode, like an organizing principle for a lecture. As is often the case with episode-by-episode guides to Ulysses, there is much to learn from Kiberd's readings, and from gaining a perspective on such an important work by someone with his credentials, but there are also times when one is left scratching one's head or wishing that a point might have been developed a bit further or substantiated more fully. Perhaps, though, this just works to make Kiberd's central point stronger insofar as the imperfections of his readings mirror the imperfections in Joyce's text, skewing stale, conventional readings in ways that humanize both and provide new avenues for critical exploration of Joyce's text. Or, as Stephen Dedalus states the case in Ulysses," A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery" (Joyce 1986, 228-29).
Kiberd's last five chapters complete the contextual framework he began with his first three chapters by illustrating how his reading of Ulysses places it within the tradition of "wisdom literature," which seems to be comprised of a handful of the great books of the Western canon that transcend time, place, and genre by attaining a level of universality in their appeal. These are texts that ultimately go beyond merely describing or reflecting the human condition in a specific time and place by eventually coming to play a role in defining the human condition itself. By devoting a chapter each to how Joyce's text compares and corresponds to these great books, The Odyssey, The Bible, The Divine Comedy, and Hamlet, followed by a brief conclusion, Kiberd makes his final case that Ulysses belongs with these other texts, not because of their institutionalization in the academy, but because these are texts that have been able to fly by the nets of institutionalization and still remain living and breathing books in Western culture. Though a beautiful thought, this is where, perhaps, Kiberd's reach exceeds his grasp. In arguing for the celebration of the everyday in Ulysses, he has trouble avoiding reductive generalizations about what Ulysses, and other great works, can still mean to the distracted masses. For example, Kiberd writes, "The story of Odysseus was a parable of how you can use your ordinariness and anonymity to win a final victory the technique of the 'everyday1" (281). This may have the ring of truth in it. but can the complexity of Homer's epic really be so easily reduced? A few lines later Kiberd argues that "Joyce seized on this anti-mythological element in the Odyssey to free his own generation from their cult of war" (281). This may indeed have been part of Joyce's ambition, but isn't that a pretty heavy burden to place on a book? Or what about the narrow and reductively heterocentric point of view expressed in this generalization: "The wisdom to be gleaned from The Odyssey is clear enough: that there is nothing better in life that when a man and woman live in harmony and such happiness, though felt intensely by the couple themselves, can never be fully described" (288). Despite this tendency to generalize, Kiberds book is still highly valuable for the refreshing approach it takes to its subject. In fact, reading Kiberd's book has renewed my own interest in Ulysses, and, even if it does nothing more than that for others, then it has succeeded in its purpose. Kiberd had to take risks since he set himself to the lofty goal of saving Ulysses from its mummification in the academy As he himself concludes, "The aim of art is not to depict a set of incidents, for that would be no more than information. It is rather to relate each event to the life of the storyteller, so that it can be conveyed as lived experience" (357). Ulysses, implies Kiberd, is a labor of love--in every sense of that expression.
Despite the fact that it is a more conventional academic study than Kiberds text, Utell's book is no less useful in its reading of Joyce's later work as indicative of his efforts to work out an ethics of love. Leaning heavily upon the philosophy of Emmanuel I. evinas and extending the excellent work begun by Marian Eide in her definitive analysis on the subject, Ethical Joyce (2002), Utell provides a fascinating and well-argued analysis of Joyce s evolving attitudes toward love in the contexts of marriage and adultery--his literary obsession from Exiles through Finnegans Wake. Notingjoyce's resistance to marriage as an institution that he found oppressive (Joyce did not legally marry his longtime partner, Nora Barnacle, until 1931, long after their original elopement in 1904, and only then became of concerns regarding inheritance), Utell claims that "marriage" and all its complexity is the crucible in which Joyce formulates a conception of ethical love" (2). As a critic of marriage as an institution, Utell argues that Joyce was interested in adultery as a challenge to the hegemony of marriage. She writes:
Illicit desire becomes a space in which to explore questions of autonomy, selfhood, and value; it is a revolutionary move against conventional utilitarian understandings (or lack thereof) of the erotic. It is precisely this revolt that Joyce is staging in his work: a revolt against conventional frameworks of marriage that stifle desire, restrict individuals, and keep men and women from seeing the person they love and recognizing that person as autonomous and separate. (Utell 2010, 3)
This passage describes the "revolt of love" that she alludes to in her title. If Kiberd finds a revolution of the everyday as the essential humanity animating Ulysses, then Utell also reads Joyce's later work as revolutionary, pitting the most human of qualities--love--against the artificiality and mechanical rigidity of social institutions like marriage.
After an introduction outlining "Joyce's Sexual/Textual Ethics," which clearly establishes the theoretical and scholarly foundation of her argument, Utell provides some very informative contextualization in her first two chapters: "Nora and Marthe" and "Katharine and Parnell." The latter chapter explores the influence that Charles Stewart Parnell's relationship with Katherine O'Shea imposed upon Joyce's views on the oppressive nature of marriage in the Victorian era and on adultery, not as a taboo, but as an understandable revolutionary gambit against the hegemony of the institution. Although the influence of the Parnell incident on Joyce has been well-documented, Utell should be commended for identifying an aspect of this story that has not been given the proper attention until now, the example that Katherine and Parnell's illicit love provided for Joyce as a way for thinking through the ethics of marriage and adultery The former chapter, "Nora and Martha," establishes an important biographical foundation for Joyce's later literary obsession with marriage and adultery in his correspondence with his life-long companion (and subsequent wife), Nora, as well as a kind of voyeuristic fantasy he indulged in with one of his English students in Trieste, Marthe Fleischmann, which Utell describes as a "liason" (17), emphasizing the unconsummated nature of the "affair" Joyce's "liason" with Fleischmann would become the basis for his posthumously published Giacomo Joyce, which Utell discusses in the next chapter along with his only surviving play, Exiles, as crucial, experimental, and transitional works, signaling a shift in Joyce s subject matter from the satirical vignettes of Dubliners (1914) and the isolation of Stephen Dedalus's coming of age in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917) to the thematic centrality of love and marriage in all of his subsequent works. It is in Giacomo Joyce and Exiles that "[a]dultery becomes," according to Utell, "a key trope, a vital site for exploring such a rich moment" (60). Both texts, however, are failures in the sense that Joyce has not yet conceptualized a truly ethical love, one that "fully imagine [s] the desire of the beloved, even her separateness" (65).
Although her approach cuts across all of Joyce's later work, the heart of Utell's study is Ulysses, which the next two chapters cover. In these chapters, she explores the biggest question confronting any reader of Ulysses: "what would compel a man to facilitate his wife's affair?" (69). Utell's answer is that "[i]n facilitating his wife Molly's affair. Bloom acknowledges the centrality of desire to her being and the impossibility of fulfilling a complete connection to her and thus opens the space of his marriage to the potential of ethical love--a love that is a recognition of the separateness of the other" (75). Although not the episode-by-episode guide through Ulysses that Kiberd leads us through, Utell does a thorough and admirable job of substantiating her argument with specifics from Joyce's text and ultimately provides a very convincing argument that Blooms quest is a quest for a genuinely ethical love through her careful analysis of selected episodes. Finally, she argues that Ulysses teaches us about love, paradoxically, by emphasizing the essential unknowablity of love."Ulysses," Utell implores, "teaches us a new way to read and experience the life of the other" (125). Turning from Leopold and Molly Bloom in bed at the end of Ulysses, reunited yet apart, separate but equal, as a vision of the potential for an ethical love between a man and a woman, Utell concludes her book with a discussion of Finnegans Wake in her final chapter. This is the weakest section of the book, and much of the chapter simply covers familiar readings of the Wake, although she does do a good job of showing how Joyce's last book fits into her larger argument that Joyce's later work is all about defining what a truly ethical love might look like. "This." Utell concludes, "is the revolt of love, a radical affirming of a new kind of transformative erotic experience, a deep acceptance of alterity in erotic life" (149). Joycean ethics, she argues, celebrates the "otherness" of the other; true love is accepting the essential unknowability of the other and allowing the space for her desires. Textually, this can also mean accepting the essential unknowability of Joyce's text and accepting and celebrating its otherness as manifest in its radical style. To love Joyce is to accept him for what he is--on his terms.
Although representative of two distinct approaches to scholarship and literary criticism, Kiberd's and Utell's books are both encouraging for the future of Joyce studies. Utell's book will primarily be of interest to teachers and scholars of Joyce, and it is a very useful book for anyone interested in a compelling examination of the important subjects of marriage and adultery across Joyce's work. Kiberd's book aims for a more general audience, and while I am skeptical that he will find the 'common reader' for Ulysses that he seeks, I applaud the effort and would still recommend his book for anyone interested in a fresh perspective on an aging classic. Each of these books is of value to those who teach Joyce, Irish literature, or modernism. Maybe it is time we turned away from theorizing and contextualizing every nuance of Joyce's work and instead try to remember why we might have loved reading him in the first place. What, after all, can Joyce, and especially Ulysses, still teach us? Kiberd and Utell both provide a clear answer: much, much.
Ellmann, Richard. 1982. James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Joyce, James. 1986. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage.
Jeffrey Longacre is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is currently working on a project exploring the slacker in twentieth-century literature and film.