- Editor’s Introduction
Reading Ulysses well, reading it after we have found our way past the seeming roadblocks—or, for that matter, reading many of the Modernist masterworks (Proust’s Recherche, Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Woolf’s The Waves, Faulkner’s The Bear or Absalom, Absalom! or Kazantzakis’ Odysseia)—offers joys much like those of listening to a Mahler symphony. Since Mahler’s Ninth, his last completed symphony, was composed in 1909 and first performed in 1912, a year after his death, it may be difficult to think of it as Modernist. Edward VII still reigned, after all, until 1910; the Great War was as yet foreseen by no one; only in retrospect can we recognize the signs that a new sensibility was being formed and that the Edwardian Age would not be the new era seemingly promised by the new century. It would take the terrible losses of the war itself and the betrayal of the Treaty of Versailles, which supposedly ended the war, to fill out the new sensibility. And for all this, Mahler still provides as ideal a metaphor as we might find for the era that we have since learned to call Modernist. Listening to the Ninth, then—whether or not it can itself be labeled a Modernist act—surely recalls for us so much that is integral to the Modernist novel (or, for that matter, to Yeats’ “Among School Children” or Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West,” or to Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “Afternoon of a Faun,” or the Seagrams or Lever Brothers Buildings).
Listening to Mahler’s Ninth, we are intensely aware from the start of a controlling intelligence, one so profound, so secure in its mastery of the form that it can expand it almost at will and still be at home in it. The symphony begins and ends with a long adagio movement, evocative almost from the opening chords of matters that seem to us at once familiar and transcendent: that the conclusion is marked ersterbend, “dying away,” confirms our sense that these are matters of life and of death. And in the two rapid, briefer central movements, replete with sounds that might almost be dissonant except that they blend so perfectly together—the horns clashing against and becoming subsumed, it seems, within the gathered strings, the tuba blaring forth and evoking an answering, almost oxymoronic blare from the strings, all turning somehow harmonious—we recognize a structure and effects that remind us of the ways that Joyce, for one, stretched the boundaries of the novel as a form, yet left us always aware that these are novels with which we are engaged, novels with effects that might at first appear dissonant yet somehow work together, and, for the attentive reader, work so harmoniously that it all seems somehow symphonic. I think, for example, of the movement of souls across Dublin in the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses (in which each is marked by a particular musical motif) and in “Wandering Rocks.”
In Ulysses, as elsewhere in Joyce’s canon, even in Finnegans Wake, we are frequently moved both by the rhythms of the prose (listen to the final lines of “The Dead,” for example, or to the washerwomen’s paean to Anna Livia) and by our discovery of the lives both masked and revealed (more forcefully revealed because they have been masked) by that prose and those rhythms. “And me. Me now,” Bloom thinks of his diminished present condition as he remembers lovemaking with Molly on the Hill of Howth, when both of them were young and filled with expectation and hope, and from such minor chords we begin to comprehend the depths of emotion which may be evoked from even the most pedestrian-seeming of human lives.
Beyond all this, beneath the intelligence and the emotion, the demanding technique and seductive rhythms and the encyclopedic knowledge of our complex and demanding time—signs of what some have called (often with irony) the heroic stance of the Modernist artist—there remains a sense of a simple human presence and humane values. At the poles of these Modernist masterworks are those of human experience near the beginning of what has...