James Joyce’s “Ulysses“: the end of masculine heroism

Colin MacCabe
30 June 2004

16 June 2004 was the centenary of Bloomsday, the temporal setting of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. All over the world there were celebrations: a secular feast where people of almost all languages and certainly all literatures are linked together to commemorate a single day.

But what, exactly, does the day commemorate? Not the death of a god, nor the delivery of a people from an avenging angel, nor even the establishment of the rule of the just. I think it is generally agreed by Joyce scholars that this marks James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle. It was not the date on which they met, not the moment when Dante saw Beatrice. Nor is it the date on which they consummated their love after fleeing to Europe, a date which Joyce ungentlemanly marked with a postcard to his brother. But it is the date of their first kiss, or so there is reason to think. In settling on a kiss rather than a more conventional moment of masculine triumph Joyce undermines – as he does throughout his text – notions of masculine heroism.

Many cultures have produced heroic epics and extended accounts – often written down in the passage from orality to literacy – of worlds in which the basic economic unit is the clan or household gathered round an individual warrior. In European history much the most important of these epics are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It is inevitable that Joyce, who grew up in the Dublin of the Gaelic revival, would also encounter the Gaelic epics which W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory had done so much to promote – and in particular the story of Cúchulainn, greatest of the Red Branch Knights.

It is fashionable to see the cultural heritage of Europe as part of political processes of domination which render it suspect and that its “hit parade” is at best the product of the chance of battle, at worst a deadly weapon in a longer war. But anyone who has tasted the various epic traditions can easily recognise that the Greek stories have a power, of both description and narration, which easily explains their greater prestige. The opening chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis finely evokes the Homeric world of intense plastic description. But if Joyce is just as intent on conveying the sensuous reality of Dublin on that June day of 1904, his methods are not Homeric but are drawn from the full resources of the 19th century European novel.

The warrior in the bedroom

T.S. Eliot in a famous review published in The Dial in 1923 hailed Ulysses as the greatest of modern texts and likened Joyce to Albert Einstein as the discoverer of a revolutionary method. For Eliot, Joyce’s use of the Homeric text was a way of organising contemporary experience according to a pattern which guaranteed order and meaning.

It is just such a pattern that the Grail myth gives to The Waste Land – the inchoate material of which Eliot had been turning over in his mind for six years yet which only found form as he read Ulysses. But it is interesting that Eliot’s poem really does use the structure of the Grail myth and that it ends with a conventional moment of masculine domination:

“The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands”

Thus The Waste Land draws to its conclusion – but it is doubtful if Molly Bloom can be counted as one who waited for an invitation still less beat “obedient to controlling hands”. When Joyce met Nora he had already chosen his great model in Ibsen’s great theme of the changing relations between the sexes. Dramatic theory became domestic practice as Nora accepted Joyce’s belief that relations between the sexes should not be ruled by institutions, and then proved her own belief that she should not be ruled by Joyce.

Their relationship came to its most productive crisis when Joyce was staying at 7 Eccles Street in August 1909 and was convinced that he had been cuckolded five summers earlier. He reacted in the forms of an orthodox European male but in the process gave up the last of his attachments to conventional ideals of masculinity.

There is no doubt that Joyce was all the more ready to refuse these dominant forms because of his position as a colonial subject. Eliot might still wish to identify with the heroes, both martial and artistic, of his culture; but, for Joyce, it was not his culture. And if Patrick Pearse and Yeats could offer him only Cúchulainn, the disadvantage was that Cúchulainn, like almost all epic heroes, is more or less exhausted by his martial abilities.

The Odyssey becomes the tutor text for Joyce not because of the vividness of the descriptions, still less because of the order or significance of the episodes but because – as Joyce recognised very early – his exploits were both more and less than those of a warrior. Indeed even his most famous military coup, the wooden horse at Troy, was not an epic feat of arms but an example of low cunning.

Writing through violence

It is too often forgotten that Joyce’s text was written in the period 1915-22. It is not a text of 1904, of that last moment of European and English supremacy – but of the 1914-18 “great war” that destroyed Europe and the 1916 Easter Rising and its aftermath which drove the English from most of Ireland and paralysed Ireland for over half a century. If the text is devoted to one thing it is to the deconstruction of the hero in all his forms, from the narrative to the sexual. This is nowhere more evident than in its refusal of all forms of violence, which for the text are equivalent. The Citizen’s nationalism and Privates Carr and Compton’s patriotism are two sides of the same unappealing coin.

Of course the Odyssey itself does not eschew violence; Odysseus is king of Ithaca because of his martial prowess, the text is punctuated by his feats of strength and ends with his bending of the bow and his slaughter of the suitors. But Joyce found these the most difficult pieces of the Odyssey to translate into Ulysses. He told Frank Budgen of the moment when he finally realised where the slaughter of the suitors went: in Penelope, where Molly dismisses all those with phallic pretensions in favour of a kiss with her husband, the kiss which we have every reason to think both Bloom and his wife remember in the course of their day.

When I first started studying Joyce in 1971, it was at the service of a revolutionary creed which saw in his texts the key to unlock bourgeois ideology and all its repressions. When I came to Brazil for the first time in January 1982 on the occasion of the centenary of Joyce’s birth, I had abandoned most of that creed. But it was in Brazil and with Brazilians – I remember particularly Nora Thielen – that I saw the value of Joyce as literature, as a text capable of promoting understanding of the most complex kind. I also began to understand that any notion of a key was linked to those fatal forms of European thought that have linked knowledge to absolute mastery.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is nothing less than the effort by a European to unwrite that equation, an equation traced in the symbols of masculine dominance and economic inequality. And that unwriting is never finished, its keys are given but every reader has to remake them for his or her own locks. From Kosovo to Iraq, the “great war” returns to haunt us in the “war on terror”. If my understanding of Ulysses has changed in thirty years of teaching, it is because Joyce’s “blue book of Eccles” (as he called it in Finnegan’s Wake) now seems ever more relevant in a world where the renunciation of violence seems both more difficult and more necessary even than in 1922.

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