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.