Carl Jung Writes a Review of Joyce’s Ulysses and Mails It To The Author (1932)

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Feel­ings about James Joyce’s Ulysses tend to fall rough­ly into one of two camps: the reli­gious­ly rev­er­ent or the exasperated/bored/overwhelmed. As pop­u­lar exam­ples of the for­mer, we have the many thou­sand cel­e­brants of Blooms­day—June 16th, the date on which the nov­el is set in 1904. These rev­el­ries approach the lev­el of saints’ days, with re-enact­ments and pil­grim­ages to impor­tant Dublin sites. On the oth­er side, we have the reac­tions of Vir­ginia Woolf, say, or cer­tain friends of mine who left wry com­ments on Blooms­day posts about pick­ing up some­thing more “read­able” to cel­e­brate. (A third cat­e­go­ry, the scan­dal­ized, has more or less died off, as scat­ol­ogy, blas­phe­my, and cuck­oldry have become the stuff of sit­coms.) Anoth­er famous read­er, Carl Jung, seems at first to damn the nov­el with some faint praise and much scathing crit­i­cism in a 1932 essay for Europäis­che Revue, but ends up, despite him­self, writ­ing about the book in the lan­guage of a true believ­er.

A great many read­ers of Jung’s essay may per­haps nod their heads at sen­tences like “Yes, I admit I feel I have been made a fool of” and “one should nev­er rub the reader’s nose into his own stu­pid­i­ty, but that is just what Ulysses does.” To illus­trate his bore­dom with the nov­el, he quotes “an old uncle,” who says “’Do you know how the dev­il tor­tures souls in hell? […] He keeps them wait­ing.’” This remark, Jung writes, “occurred to me when I was plow­ing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sen­tence rais­es an expec­ta­tion which is not ful­filled; final­ly, out of sheer res­ig­na­tion, you come to expect noth­ing any longer.” But while Jung’s cri­tique may val­i­date cer­tain hasty read­ers’ hatred of Joyce’s near­ly unavoid­able 20th cen­tu­ry mas­ter­work, it also probes deeply into why the nov­el res­onates.

For all of his frus­tra­tion with the book—his sense that it “always gives the read­er an irri­tat­ing sense of inferiority”—Jung nonethe­less bestows upon it the high­est praise, com­par­ing Joyce to oth­er prophet­ic Euro­pean writ­ers of ear­li­er ages like Goethe and Niet­zsche. “It seems to me now,” he writes, “that all that is neg­a­tive in Joyce’s work, all that is cold-blood­ed, bizarre and banal, grotesque and dev­il­ish, is a pos­i­tive virtue for which it deserves praise.” Ulysses is “a devo­tion­al book for the object-besot­ted white man,” a “spir­i­tu­al exer­cise, an aes­thet­ic dis­ci­pline, an ago­niz­ing rit­u­al, an arcane pro­ce­dure, eigh­teen alchem­i­cal alem­bics piled on top of one anoth­er […] a world has passed away, and is made new.” He ends the essay by quot­ing the novel’s entire final para­graph. (Find longer excerpts of Jung’s essay here and here.)

Jung not only wrote what may be the most crit­i­cal­ly hon­est yet also glow­ing response to the nov­el, but he also took it upon him­self in Sep­tem­ber of 1932 to send a copy of the essay to the author along with the let­ter below. Let­ters of Note tells us that Joyce “was both annoyed and proud,” a fit­ting­ly divid­ed response to such an ambiva­lent review.

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has pre­sent­ed the world such an upset­ting psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lem that repeat­ed­ly I have been called in as a sup­posed author­i­ty on psy­cho­log­i­cal mat­ters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceed­ing­ly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusu­al efforts, but also to rather extrav­a­gant pere­gri­na­tions (speak­ing from the stand­point of a sci­en­tist). Your book as a whole has giv­en me no end of trou­ble and I was brood­ing over it for about three years until I suc­ceed­ed to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m pro­found­ly grate­ful to your­self as well as to your gigan­tic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall prob­a­bly nev­er be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grind­ing of nerves and of grey mat­ter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have writ­ten about Ulysses because I could­n’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grum­bled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of ver­i­ta­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal peach­es. I sup­pose the dev­il’s grand­moth­er knows so much about the real psy­chol­o­gy of a woman, I did­n’t.

Well, I just try to rec­om­mend my lit­tle essay to you, as an amus­ing attempt of a per­fect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and hap­pened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gath­er from my arti­cle what Ulysses has done to a sup­pos­ed­ly bal­anced psy­chol­o­gist.

With the expres­sion of my deep­est appre­ci­a­tion, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faith­ful­ly,

C. G. Jung

With this let­ter of intro­duc­tion, Jung was “a per­fect stranger” to Joyce no longer. In fact, two years lat­er, Joyce would call on the psy­chol­o­gist to treat his daugh­ter Lucia, who suf­fered from schiz­o­phre­nia, a trag­ic sto­ry told in Car­ol Loeb Schloss’s biog­ra­phy of the novelist’s famous­ly trou­bled child. For his care of Lucia and his care­ful atten­tion to Ulysses, Joyce would inscribe Jung’s copy of the book: “To Dr. C.G. Jung, with grate­ful appre­ci­a­tion of his aid and coun­sel. James Joyce. Xmas 1934, Zurich.”

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing You Need to Enjoy Read­ing James Joyce’s Ulysses on Blooms­day

The Very First Reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A Work of High Genius” (1922)

Vir­ginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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