What Makes James Joyce’s Ulysses a Masterpiece: Great Books Explained

Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve often fea­tured the work of gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne, cre­ator of the chan­nel Great Art Explained. Not long ago we wrote up his exam­i­na­tion of the work of René Magritte, the Bel­gian sur­re­al­ist painter respon­si­ble for such endur­ing images as Le fils de l’homme, or The Son of Man. Payne uses that famous image of a bowler-hat­ted every­man whose face is cov­ered by a green apple again in the video above, but this time to rep­re­sent a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter: Leopold Bloom, the pro­tag­o­nist of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is that much-scru­ti­nized lit­er­ary mas­ter­work Payne has tak­en as his sub­ject for his new chan­nel, Great Books Explained.

Indeed, few great books are regard­ed as need­ing as much expla­na­tion as Ulysses. It was once described, Payne reminds us, as “spir­i­tu­al­ly offen­sive, anar­chic, and obscene,” yet “in the hun­dred years since, the book has tri­umphed over crit­i­cism and cen­sor­ship to become one of the most high­ly regard­ed works of art in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.”

The strength of both this acclaim and this con­dem­na­tion still today inspires a mix­ture of curios­i­ty and trep­i­da­tion. But as Payne sees it, Ulysses is ulti­mate­ly “a nov­el about wan­der­ing, and we as read­ers should feel free to wan­der around the book, dip in and out of episodes, read it out aloud, and let the words wash over us like music.” It’s also “an exper­i­men­tal work, often strange and some­times shock­ing, but it is con­sis­tent­ly wit­ty, and packed with a tremen­dous sense of fun.”

That lat­ter qual­i­ty belies the sev­en years of lit­er­ary labor Joyce put into the book, all of it dis­tilled into the events of a sin­gle day in Dublin, June 16, 1904, as expe­ri­enced by Bloom, an “ordi­nary adver­tis­ing agent” and a Jew among Catholics; the “rebel­lious and mis­an­throp­ic intel­lec­tu­al” Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter-ego and the hero of his pre­vi­ous nov­el A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man; and Leopold’s “pas­sion­ate, amorous, frank-speak­ing” wife Mol­ly. (Payne rep­re­sents Dedalus with Raoul Hauss­man­’s The Art Crit­ic and Mol­ly with Han­nah Höch’s Indi­an Dancer.) In this frame­work, Joyce deliv­ers kalei­do­scop­ic detail, from the quo­tid­i­an to the mytho­log­i­cal and the sex­u­al to the scat­o­log­i­cal, all with a for­mal and lin­guis­tic brava­do that has kept the read­ing expe­ri­ence of Ulysses fresh for 101 years and count­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

James Joyce’s Ulysses: Down­load as a Free Audio Book & Free eBook

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

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)

Read the Orig­i­nal Seri­al­ized Edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918)

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • S says:

    For any­one inter­est­ed in read­ing Ulysses, I high­ly rec­om­mend the ebook from the Joyce project, which has nei­ther too few anno­ta­tions, nor too many (and yes you absolute­ly need anno­ta­tions!): https://www.joyceproject.com/pages/ebook.htm

    As I’ve writ­ten else­where:

    Ulti­mate­ly, the book seems to be an attempt at explor­ing the whole of a sin­gle human being — the pub­lic, the pri­vate, and the unwit­nessed. Though we get the com­plete pic­ture only with Bloom, we also see a num­ber of char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent van­tage points, includ­ing right inside their still-per­co­lat­ing thoughts. This is where Joyce demon­strates his mas­tery not just of lan­guage, but of writ­ing — he is capa­ble of mak­ing an ego­tis­ti­cal 22-year-old artiste, a hum­ble 38-year-old ad-man, and an earthy 33-year-old adul­ter­ess all entire­ly sep­a­rate, entire­ly authen­tic, and entire­ly real. It’s true that Ulysses is most famous for its count­less learned allu­sions and lan­guage games — and indeed they are seem­ing­ly innu­mer­able — but I think the real heart of the book, and where Joyce’s genius tru­ly lies, is in how pre­cise­ly he under­stands the ways of thought and how per­fect­ly he can mod­el them. His prose is per­haps the most suc­cess­ful attempt at cap­tur­ing the inef­fa­bil­i­ty of thought that has ever been attempt­ed. His char­ac­ters, who expe­ri­ence real and sear­ing emo­tions — lone­li­ness, uncer­tain­ty, love, long­ing — ele­vate the book above the pro­ces­sion of boast and pre­ten­sion that char­ac­ter­izes so many self-con­scious­ly avant-garde works.

    And did I men­tion the book is fun­ny? I love that an adver­tise­ment for “Plumtree’s pot­ted meat” is, to Bloom’s great con­ster­na­tion, placed right under the obit­u­ary sec­tion. I love how Bloom’s name is mis­print­ed in the paper as “L. Boom.” I love Bloom’s mus­ings on ani­mals: “Dogs at each oth­er behind. Good evening. Evening. How do you sniff? Hm. Hm. Very well, thank you.” The entire book is sur­pris­ing­ly light-heart­ed and even opti­mistic, with the over­all effect that it seems to embody a unique kind of play­ful eru­di­tion. Puz­zling out the allu­sions and lit­er­ary tricks becomes a kind of game that you play with Joyce — one that is both charm­ing­ly amus­ing and reward­ing.

    And yes, the book is also unflinch­ing­ly explic­it, even crude depend­ing on your ten­den­cy to clutch at your pearls, but in mak­ing room for near­ly every human bod­i­ly func­tion — from men­stru­a­tion to defe­ca­tion to eruc­ta­tion to sem­i­nal emis­sion — right along­side all its deep­est emo­tion — the aching moments of despair and the breath­less flash­es of delight — Joyce is also faith­ful to the actu­al expe­ri­ence of liv­ing. He is nev­er mali­cious, but always human and humane — even human­ist. He is the rare author who is will­ing to meet us where we actu­al­ly are. And it is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Joycean that, after a long hard look at our unvar­nished selves, he finds in our mea­ger frames that which is most beau­ti­ful.

  • S says:

    I’m putting this in a sep­a­rate com­ment in case links like this aren’t allowed here, but if anyone’s inter­est­ed in my com­plete introduction/guide to read­ing Ulysses, you can find it here: https://sayohsay.substack.com/p/ulysses-a-users-guide

  • G says:

    They say his books are full of pos­si­bly count­less ref­er­ences and allu­sions. I’ve read *Por­trait* and a few chap­ters of *Ulysses*. Even on the very first page of Ulysses it is absolute­ly full of Dublinisms. Both my par­ents were from Dublin—and not even from town. I recog­nised many of their say­ings and phras­ings¹ in his writ­ing. Loads of them. He used them straight and some­times play­ful and some­times per­verse. I don’t know how peo­ple would get this if they were not steeped in Dublin cul­ture. I know that I missed half of the Dublin stuff, nev­er mind all his oth­er ref­er­ences from his poly­glot­tal prose and clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion. I do get the idea that you can dip your toe, or sip your Beau­jo­lais, with­out the need to drown your­self in either the water or the wine. But div­ing into Joyce is just so intim­i­dat­ing. There’s just too much on the sur­face, nev­er mind the unfath­omable depths beneath.
    ¹it’s also prob­a­bly that Joyce added some of these say­ings and phras­ings to the lan­guage him­self

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.