Why Should You Read James Joyce’s Ulysses?: A New TED-ED Animation Makes the Case

There may be innu­mer­able moral and philo­soph­i­cal rea­sons why we should read cer­tain books, hear cer­tain sym­phonies, see cer­tain paint­ings…. Those rea­sons are most­ly intan­gi­ble, which makes them nobler, I sup­pose, than the rea­sons we should buy a lux­u­ry car or vaca­tion home. Nev­er­the­less, the sales­man­ship of high cul­ture can some­times feel of a piece, mak­ing sub­tle, or not so sub­tle, appeals to safe­ty, sta­tus, and invest­ment val­ue. What of pure enjoy­ment? The immer­sion in a work of art because it sim­ply feels good? To allow for plea­sure alone to guide our aes­thet­ic tastes, some might feel, would be amoral; would cheap­en cul­ture and ele­vate some sup­pos­ed­ly vul­gar prod­ucts to the sta­tus of high art. Can’t have that.

Of course, how much high art was once con­sid­ered a haz­ard to good taste and pub­lic moral­i­ty? Mod­ernism puffs out its chest with pride for hav­ing fos­tered many cre­ative works that shocked and tit­il­lat­ed their first mass audi­ences. James Joyce’s Ulysses ranks quite high­ly upon that list. The novel’s ini­tial rep­u­ta­tion as high­brow smut seems at odds with Sam Slote’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of it in the TED-Ed video above as “both a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece and one of the hard­est works of lit­er­a­ture to read.” But it can be all those things and more. Inside the dense exper­i­men­tal epic is a charm­ing­ly detailed trav­el­ogue of Dublin, a the­o­log­i­cal trea­tise on heresy, a series of Freudi­an jokes with the kinds of sopho­moric punch­lines “state­ly, plump Buck Mul­li­gan” would appre­ci­ate….

Not for noth­ing has Joyce inspired a cult fol­low­ing, if not some­thing of a down­right cult, whose mem­bers gath­er all over the world on June 16th for “Blooms­day”—the sin­gle day on which the nov­el takes place, and on which Joyce met his life­long part­ner Nora Bar­na­cle in 1904. Dressed in peri­od cos­tume, Joyce fans read the nov­el aloud, and hun­dreds make the pil­grim­age to Dublin to fol­low the per­am­bu­la­tions of pro­tag­o­nists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. “What is it,” asks Slote, an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin’s School of Eng­lish, “about this famous­ly dif­fi­cult nov­el that inspires so many peo­ple?” Pro­fes­sor Slote is no dilet­tante but an expert who has pub­lished six books on Joyce and an anno­tat­ed edi­tion of Ulysses. He admits “there’s no one sim­ple answer to that ques­tion.”

Nev­er­the­less, the answers Slote does pro­vide in the six-minute ani­mat­ed intro to Ulysses relate not to the novel’s moral, social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, or polit­i­cal virtues, but to those qual­i­ties that give read­ers enjoy­ment. Each chap­ter is writ­ten in a dif­fer­ent style,” a play, a “cheesy romance nov­el,” an imi­ta­tion of music. Ulysses is a mod­ern par­o­dy of Homer’s Odyssey and a vir­tu­oso med­ley of tech­ni­cal per­for­mances, includ­ing a chap­ter which “repro­duces the evo­lu­tion of Eng­lish lit­er­ary prose style, from its begin­nings in Anglo Sax­on right up to the 20th cen­tu­ry.” The final chap­ter, Mol­ly Bloom’s stream-of-con­scious­ness solil­o­quy, is a tour-de-force, cap­ping off the “nar­ra­tive gym­nas­tic rou­tines.” The shift­ing styles are aug­ment­ed by “some of the most imag­i­na­tive uses of lan­guage you’ll find any­where.”

As for the novel’s fre­quent pas­sages of “impen­e­tra­ble” den­si­ty? Well, Slote admits that “it’s up to the read­er to let their eyes skim over them or grab a shov­el and dig in.” In the remain­ing few min­utes, he may have you con­vinced that the plea­sure is worth the effort.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

The First Blooms­day: See Dublin’s Literati Cel­e­brate James Joyce’s Ulysses in Drunk­en Fash­ion (1954)

James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Record­ings (1924/1929)

Read Joyce’s Ulysses Line by Line, for the Next 22 Years, with Frank Delaney’s Pod­cast

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

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  • Anne Ward says:

    I stud­ied Ulysses for an MA in Lit­er­a­ture I com­plet­ed a few years ago What I loved was Joyce’s sense of humour espe­cial­ly how he takes the piss out of the ultra old Irish man in the pub.I also liked his depic­tion of Bloom as a Jewish/protestant, proud Irish cit­i­zen.
    Joyce’s chal­lenge as a young writer to the Lit­er­ary hier­ar­chy a(Yeats and co) in the Library scene.
    His tour around the streets of Dublin and the pubs (which are still there to-day!) reminds me of the Dublin I grew up in.

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