Kevin Myers, in the Irish Times , shares his six-day method for reading Ulysses
that "vast planet in which all theories are possible until absolutely proven otherwise..."
Pick up Ulysses. Put it down again. Take a nap.
Go into training. "Ulysses" is the great journey, it is the voyage to another planet where nothing is as it seems. It is a detective trail through a forest which is packed with strangely familiar fruit, in which oranges are oysters and lobster tastes like chocolate.
That's enough for today children.
Stay in bed.
Open introduction. Read these lines by Joyce describing his novel - "Penelope is the clou. There are eight sentences in the episode. It begins and ends with the female word yes. It turns like the huge ball surely and evenly round and round spinning, its four cardinal points being the female breasts, a**e, womb and c*** expressed by the words because, bottom (in all senses bottom button, bottom of the class, bottom of the sea, bottom of his heart), woman, yes."
Put book down. Yes, yes, yes. Put it down.
I beg your pardon, what did you just say? There are ladies present?
Because there are women here, yes, I apologise from the bottom of my heart.
How dare you! How dare you sir! Put that vile book down this instant. It has you corrupted, so it has.
Yes. Yes it has. Yes.
Yesterday was a hard day. Understand this. "Ulysses" is a conundrum, made more conundrumical by the metastasis of the name itself. (In this literary journey, you should get used to words like metastasis, even if you don't know what they mean. Up until yesterday you thought you knew the meaning of the word "yes". Words are both part of this jungle and the way through it). When the novel was written, the name "Ulysses" was universally understood to be the Latin name for the Greek King Odysseus of Ithaca. In its journey, and that of our fictional Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, through that single day in Dublin - June 16, 1904 - the novel shadows the peregrinations of the Greek King whose wanderings and his encounters are central to Greek myth and Greek civilisation and therefore are vital to our own.
So for example the item referred to on day four as "Penelope" refers to the wife of Odysseus, or Ulysses, a woman of legendary morality. But in the Joyce not-quite schemata which infuses and disorders everything in the novel "Ulysses", Penelope stands for the sexually vigorous Molly Bloom and her famous soliloquy, which is in truth a vast sexual fantasy which we know is her preferred sexual habit (she has already told us: "no satisfaction in it pretending to like it till he comes then finish it off myself anyway") and concludes with her climaxing.
This brings us to a central problem for the modern reader which did not exist in Joyce's day. Nowadays the name Ulysses doesn't mean some Greek cove. It means the novel. Young people have probably never heard of Odyssey, do not know that he was known to the Romans as Ulysses, are ignorant of his journey around the Mediterranean, and are unaware of how myth and narrative and lore are the context which gave meaning to the written word, which without the collaborative understanding of tradition would be just letters on a page. They think that a novel should stand or fall on its own merits.
Not this one. Reading "Ulysses" without knowledge of the Odyssey is like a journey to the Moon without Mission Control, Houston. But you need more than Homer (the blind author of The Odyssey) beside you; you also need to know that Joyce (who was himself half blind) was playing games the entire time - even in his explanations to Ulysses.
For example, why does he use the word "clou", which means nail in its original French, and which in English means "main point of interest" in his explanation (above) of Molly/Penelope? He could just as easily have said "key".
But clou sounds identical to the couplet-words, clue and clew, which were originally the same word which now has two meanings: one is an item which helps you solve a problem, the other is a ball of rope which can itself be a problem. On the other hand, it was by threading a ball of rope - or clew through its maze that enabled Theseus to escape from the Labyrinth which had been created by Daedelus.
And Daedulus - though not Theseus and his struggle through the Labyrinth - appears in the text of "Ulysses". The role of Daedulus is assumed by one of the few obviously helpful names in the book, Stephen Daedulus. Stephen is not merely representative of Daedulus, the son of Ulysses, but he is also the author himself.
Attend here. Joyce is the author of the vast bound Labyrinth that is "Ulysses"; and the four words "because", "bottom", "woman" and "yes" are the ball of string, the clew and the clou, which he provides and which will, he assures you, take you through the maze. For you are Theseus. That is why Theseus does not appear in "Ulysses": he is the reader.
No, I don't know what that means. Anyhow, go to bed because I'm exhausted.
What you remember about "Ulysses" is that there is nothing you can't say about it, or about the exegeses (literary explanations) either you or anybody else had chosen to make about the text. That the clew-clue-clou bit - it sounds Joyceanly impressive doesn't it? Good. I just made it up. That is, it might well be true, insofar as it goes, but the exegesis is purely mine, I haven't read it anywhere, and I have no idea whether the multi-levelled pun was intended. Which is irrelevant. The great thing about Joyce is that you can bluster, ham and concoct about any part of it to your heart's content, and every Joycean will nod approvingly and agree: You Have A Point. No theory is too fanciful: "Ulysses" is a vast planet in which all theories are possible until absolutely proven otherwise. That is the one truth, the clou and the clew, you must cling onto during the tour of Dublin through June 16th, 1904. It is yes yes it is yes yes.
Copyright: The Irish Times
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