James Joyce: An Animated Introduction to His Life and Literary Works

So maybe you didn’t take a class on James Joyce’s Ulysses in col­lege with a wiz­ened pro­fes­sor from Dublin who explained in excru­ci­at­ing detail, week after week, why the famed mod­ernist writer is the great­est nov­el­ist that ever lived and also some kind of sec­u­lar sage and con­duit of the col­lec­tive genius of human­i­ty. Maybe your encounter with Joyce began and end­ed with a few sto­ries from Dublin­ers or with the thin­ly veiled mem­oir, A Por­trait of an Artist as a Young Man. In that case, you may won­der why he inspires such cult-like devo­tion, even to the point of hav­ing his own hol­i­day, Blooms­day, in which, Jonathan Gold­man writes, “aca­d­e­mics and pro­fes­sion­als min­gle with obses­sives and cranks”—many of either camp-dressed in peri­od garb, quot­ing Ulysses from mem­o­ry, and re-enact­ing major scenes from the nov­el.

If you don’t know Joyce at all, or haven’t read Ulysses, there’s no time like the present to dis­cov­er why you should. In his short School of Life ani­mat­ed video above, Alain de Bot­ton lays out just a few of the rea­sons for the Joyce-wor­ship, includ­ing the writer’s “devo­tion to some cru­cial themes” like “the idea of the grandeur of ordi­nary life” and “his deter­mi­na­tion to por­tray what actu­al­ly goes on through our heads moment by moment, what we now know, part­ly thanks to him, as the ‘stream-of-con­scious­ness.’” That phrase did not orig­i­nate with Joyce, how­ev­er, but with William James in the 1890s and his descrip­tion of the col­lec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of “per­son­al con­scious­ness.”

But since Joyce’s lit­er­ary use of inte­ri­or mono­logues that mim­ic the ran­dom asso­ci­a­tions of thought, we use “stream-of-con­scious­ness” to mean “the pre­sen­ta­tion of thoughts and sense impres­sions in a life­like fash­ion.” The “life­like­ness” of Joyce’s approach explains its appeal to so broad a range of read­ers, and its influ­ence upon so many writ­ers. Ulysses may prin­ci­pal­ly be a nov­el about Dublin, as are all of Joyce’s books, but it also retells the epic sto­ry of the Odyssey, a “pin­na­cle of high cul­ture,” Bot­ton pro­nounces, through the worka­day mean­der­ings, rou­tines, and dis­trac­tions of ordi­nary, undis­tin­guished peo­ple.

Ancient lit­er­a­ture like Homer gives us great men of action—archetypes ruled by fate—and the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el Joyce replaced offers extremes of aris­toc­ra­cy and des­ti­tu­tion. In Ulysses, shop­keep­ers, bar­tenders, seam­stress­es, stu­dents, and adver­tis­ing men become three-dimen­sion­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly real actors in a his­tor­i­cal dra­ma, sim­ply by being who they are. Ulysses’ pro­tag­o­nist, Leopold Bloom, is “very unlike a tra­di­tion­al hero, but he is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our aver­age, unim­pres­sive, frag­ile, but still rather like­able every­day selves.”

The novel’s cat­a­logue of Bloom’s thoughts and actions over the course of an unex­cep­tion­al day com­mu­ni­cate to us that “the appar­ent­ly lit­tle things that hap­pen in dai­ly life… aren’t real­ly lit­tle things at all. If we look at them through the right lens, they are revealed as beau­ti­ful, seri­ous, deep and fas­ci­nat­ing. Our own lives are just as fas­ci­nat­ing as those of the tra­di­tion­al heroes.” We must also note, how­ev­er, that Ulysses makes huge demands on its read­er. As one ear­ly review­er of the nov­el wrote, “few intu­itive, sen­si­tive vision­ar­ies may under­stand and com­pre­hend ‘Ulysses’… with­out going through a course of train­ing or instruc­tion.” Like Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy, which great­ly influ­enced Joyce, Ulysses is laden with local and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences, poet­ic allu­sions, and arcane philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal debates… one may need a Vir­gil to fin­ish the tour.

If we’re spec­u­lat­ing about Joyce’s inten­tions in giv­ing us ordi­nary char­ac­ters through extra­or­di­nary lit­er­ary means, they may have been less didac­tic than ped­a­gog­i­cal. Yes, we can see our ordi­nary selves—the shape and form of our “per­son­al consciousness”—looking back at us from Ulysses’ pages. To use a cur­rent buzz­word, Joyce was a “mas­ter of lit­er­ary mind­ful­ness.” We must become bet­ter, more patient and dili­gent read­ers to appre­ci­ate the epic scope of human inte­ri­or­i­ty in his best known nov­el. In that regard, Joyce teach­es us not only to think of our­selves as heroes, but also to move through our seem­ing­ly banal mod­ern envi­ron­ment with the same lev­el of curios­i­ty, excite­ment, and awe that moves us through the world of Odysseus. They are ulti­mate­ly, he sug­gests, the same world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

James Joyce’s Dublin Cap­tured in Vin­tage Pho­tos from 1897 to 1904

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

Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es

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

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  • Paul Archer says:

    “If we’re spec­u­lat­ing about Joyce’s inten­tions in giv­ing us ordi­nary char­ac­ters through extra­or­di­nary lit­er­ary means, they may have been less didac­tic than ped­a­gog­i­cal.” ????? didac­tic = intend­ed for instruc­tion; instruc­tive:

    ped­a­gogy = the func­tion or work of a teacher; teach­ing.

    What are you try­ing to say? This sen­tence is hor­ri­ble even if it means any­thing.

  • anshu . m. pawar says:

    Noth­ing here that I did not know before!
    I mean regard­ing his inten­tions and his hel­lu­va style. Still I could not go beyond 300 odd pages if ‘Ulysses’😃. The Prob­lem is we can­not no mat­ter how hard we try, to gauge the Para­me­ters of his wave­length. At times one thinks that he is on the same wave­length, only to get a Rude shock soon­after😂)

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