Friday, August 8, 2008


Once again from "Stately, plump" to "yes I will yes" in five weeks. This time through, my third summer reading/teaching, a student asked me which my favorite chapter is. I haven't given it much thought in some time. Early on, my early twenties, my favorite was "Proteus" (Chapter 3) which I thought the most beautiful prose I'd ever encountered. It knocked 'em all into a cocked hat, as the saying goes. Later, in those days when I read the book aloud with friends, nothing surpassed, for comedy, "Cyclops" (Chapter 12), which I still find the most entertaining. I've noted that students tend to react against "Aelous" (Chapter 7) because, after they've acclimatized themselves to the Bloomian interior monologue of Chapters 4, 5, 6, it seems a bit jarring. But 7 has, in these latter years, become one of my favorites, the chapter where JJ creates subtleties of dialogue and exchange and situation that put to shame most comparable examples in other fiction. It's a scene Altmanesque in its orchestrated chaos.

Then there's "Oxen of the Sun" (Chapter 14) which I've noted my colleagues tend to want to avoid or skim through quickly, thus missing, in many ways (it seems to me) a fulcrum of the book. It's the chapter, in the Lying-in Hospital, that brings to the surface some of the more pertinent undercurrents of the book -- regarding sex and birth and the two main protagonists' attitudes toward those two mainstays of existence (and by extension "woman" as representative of both). In fact, I suspect the aversion to the chapter is not simply due to its stylistic shifts and burlesques of authors and eras -- which seem to have few fans -- but to its relentless fixture on topics that do nothing for plot but much for theme. In other words, appreciation of "Oxen" may require a kind of reading that not only is unlike what other fiction prepares us for, but also unlike what Ulysses has already prepared us for, chapter by chapter. Consequently I've always had a special affection for it, particularly as it's the chapter with "the impossible paragraph" that stopped me cold on my first attempt of The Book at sixteen.

Then too my appreciation of "Sirens" (Chapter 11) seems only to increase each time through. Sometimes I think it's the chapter that most clearly evinces the magic of JJ's method, and what's more it excels in changes rung upon "the initial method" of the novel, so that -- unlike all the chapters that follow it -- it stays within the fictive realm the narrative has delineated thus far, while playing havoc with it in subtle, musical ways. It "goes too far" in its free play, but without going completely off the charts. "Circe" (Chapter 15), as the chapter completely off the charts, never fails to fascinate me -- the more so because, in teaching the novel, there's a real tension between what it tells us and what it shows, or rather between what it seems to tell and what what it shows means. For me, it's long been the chapter that makes Ulysses like no other novel. I can't say it's my favorite, but I think it's the most essential if the point of Ulysses is to divest us of our traditional methods of reading fiction.

Then there's the final three chapters. Time again, I find that each in its way is anticlimactic. Each takes us through so much while resolving so little. Granted, "Circe" has already exploded the notion of narrative and the fixed principles by which we might assume we are following a story of characters and not a story of treatments of situations. But nearly everyone tries to make the "Nostos" resonate as part of a narrative of continuity and resolution. Oddly enough, the final three chapters do let us read that way, but only at the expense of our illusions about what we have learned, or maybe it's the illusions about what the narrator, or author, or narrative wants us to know.

"Eumaeus" (Chapter 16) could never be my favorite though it is a tour de force of bad writing and captures, I'm convinced, something essential about JJ's humorous affection for the banalities of writing. The license taken with verbal form gets stretched even further with "Ithaca," the catechism chapter, 17, and this time round I found myself arguing for it as perhaps the quintessential chapter of Ulysses for us nowadays, more than "Circe" -- the pseudo-explanatory technicalities of "Ithaca" resonating more than the mock-Freudian theater-piece. Then there's Chapter 18, "Penelope," which remains a tour de force of rhythmic speech and flowing diction, a perfect match, in its way, to the clumsy literary tone of "Eumaeus," and a foil, in its way, to the high-flown poetic meditations of "Proteus." I seem never to tire of it as the "performance piece" of The Book, and, if it's questionable as a conclusive utterance, it's at least determinate as an ending that, like reading Ulysses, could go on forever.

And yet it's easy to become nostalgic, during the reading of those last three prolonged babbles of the "Nostos," for the sharp, precise, vivid, sculpted sentences, and varied situations of the first three chapters. The eclipse of Stephen's consciousness, after Chapter 9, "Scylla and Charybdis," is always for me a considerable loss and in many ways it's still his bravura performance in the library that shines for me as The Book's defining moment -- though, significantly, it's the chapter in which "the Homeric parallel" seems to me the least convincing or most spurious. In other words, it's the chapter in which we might not be in a book called Ulysses at all, but in a different narrative, having to do with Joyce's agon with Shakespeare by means of Stephen. Fascinating as that is, it's not essentially Ulyssean, so I'm more likely to hand the golden apple to "Sirens" this time 'round...

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