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Modernism/modernity 13.1 (2006) 869-887

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Mired in the Universal

Ulysses is a book about two things, Dublin life on June 16, 1904, and life. It is the story of a day (arbitrary enough to be everyday) in which a man (perverse enough to be everyman) wanders through a city (indistinct enough to be every place.) On the one hand, there are streets, pubs, postcards, newspapers, and Bloom's wayward thoughts. And on the other hand, there is myth, death, nationalism, and the cosmos. If Ulysses deals with colonialism, it does so because Bloom has stepped into Barney Kiernan's pub; if capitalism, because he is trying to sell an ad or buy some soap. At every turn, there is a welter of particulars set beside an intimation of the universal.

The early reviewers were quick to recognize this duality in Ulysses:

. . . Mr. Leopold Bloom, ranges like Moby Dick throughout the watery globe, and communes with incommunicable things under the stars. Yet during that interval the body and the chained spirit of Mr. Bloom have merely partaken of, or assisted in, a bath at a public bathing establishment, a funeral, a luncheon . . . [etc.]
—Daily Herald
"Ulysses" is the Odyssey retold, episode by episode, as the story of a day's life in the streets, pubs, and brothels of Dublin, and is an attempt to give a complete account of the nature of man. It is apparently almost miraculously successful.
—New Witness [End Page 869]
In the polished teapot the universe is contained, and all the thoughts and pictures that ever were can be poured out of it . . . There are exact notations of trivial but tremendous motions, and these are truly the inconsequential but significant things that one says to oneself.

Ulysses is the meeting-place of the mundane and the transcendent. From the teapot to the universe, from the public baths to the incommunicable, from the brothel to the nature of man is but the smallest of steps. Every vulgar detail becomes a window on the monumental.

Notice, though, how strained the language is. All the reviewers are trying to say is that the book is at once universal and particular. But somehow they keep stumbling. Phrases like "trivial but tremendous," "inconsequential but significant," and "communes with incommunicable things" have no intellectual force; they are just oxymorons, yoking together things that do not seem to fit together.2 They tell us that the book is particular and universal without telling us how that might be. Or, more accurately, they tell us that the particular/universal relation in Ulysses is simply a paradox, a palpable truth with no sure intellectual ground, and one that can only seem, as the New Witness says, "apparently almost miraculous."

The thing about Ulysses, though, is that even its paradoxes are universal; in this case, the same paradox that underlies Joyce's novel grounds high modernism as a whole. Ulysses may lack a particular/universal logic, but it does have a particular/universal alchemy; and its alchemy is a vestige of that rich alchemy that lies at the heart of high modernism and which we might translate: dissolution explodes into transcendence. In the case of Ulysses, it works like this: if the particulars are properly bare, they will explode into the universal; if the details are sufficiently vulgar, then they will leap into the realm of myth. So long as the alchemy of high modernism holds, then Dublin can be everywhere, Joyce's realism can be mythical, his styles can constitute a style, and this daily Dublin day can be all of life.

Once the alchemy ceases to hold, however—once high modernism fades and a new aesthetic emerges—then Ulysses comes to look like a mere paradox again. Ulysses, we might say, has the kind of particular/universal logic that only a modernist can understand.

Why Dublin?

One way to begin would be to ask, why Dublin? Why this particular place as the locus of every place? Did Ulysses have to be set in Dublin or could it have been...