- The Culture of Joyce's "Ulysses"
"Human character," as Virginia Woolf implied when she breezily announced it had changed "on or about December, 1910," is not natural at all.1 A better analogy for "human nature" might be the all-too-human stock market. This entity, through a blizzard of incomprehensible relativism, establishes points of value that appear stable if you take a snapshot—"[b]rief exposure" as Buck Mulligan would say (U 1.686)—but appears as interminable peaks and valleys if you watch it in that curious modality we now fetishize as "real time." But has not modernism been attempting to see the world in "real time" from the start of its aesthetic experimentation? From Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's fateful car accident to Salvador Dali's melting clocks to Henri Bergson's interest in "duration" to Sigmund Freud's exposure of the psychopathology of everyday life—the focus is "real time" and not the retrospective falsification known as "chronology" or "history."
From a scholarly point of view, what is most impressive about R. Brandon Kershner's book is his ability to stir up the sediment of long-settled dead cultural matter until it achieves the even mix with contemporary experience it once must have had. To read through Kershner's carefully plotted grid-work of references and cross-references, culled from letters, headlines, posters, remembered anecdotes, and mumbled putdowns by Joyce's undergraduate friends, is to feel again, albeit from a distance, the interpenetrative semiotic psychosis of an emerging mass-mediated modernity where advances in technology completely overwhelmed nascent modernist sensibilities. The aesthetic result of this mélange was popularly designated as "stream of consciousness"—a deceptively pacifistic phrase for what sometimes reads more like an open fire hose of vague fixations and uninvited, even unwelcome, associations.
The rigor of Kershner's scholarship is such that we can say he offers an "influence study" of a sort, navigating through Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan, Stephen Phillips's "serious" version of Ulysses, Eugen Sandow's surprisingly contemporary self-promotion, the Irish orientalism of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, and Victorian "spirit" photography (50-56, 42-49, 153-173, 189-197, 209-219).2 The madcap incongruity of this list should also make it clear this is not a typical influence study. Such material as I have named could hardly be said, taken one piece at a time, to form any part of Joyce's infrastructure [End Page 545] when designing and executing the deus ex machina of Ulysses. Rather than a point-for-point analogue of how Joyce used this material as the raw works from which he spun his own inimitable gold, the influence in question is more a matter of Kershner re-immersing Ulysses into the cultural Zeitgeist flowing through these otherwise quite disparate works. Kershner's methodology reproduces a scatter-gun approach to representational practice in the early twentieth century—a Wild West of aesthetic eccentricities that have long since been tidied up under the heading of "modernism." Works like Phillips's Ulysses, once slated to last as a "literary" text, have disappeared, and "best sellers" like Corelli's Sorrows of Satan, well known in Joyce's time to anyone with any literary pretensions at all, are similarly forgotten.
That is not to say the material Kershner uncovers is unanchored in Ulysses or randomly selected from resources contemporaneous with Joyce's time. Wherever it is a known fact, Kershner will note Joyce's familiarity with the various information he brings to the fore; but it is never the case that we have to understand such material as a sine qua non resource for Ulysses. In a traditional influence study, this would, of course, be a problem: the connection between the purported source and its actual appearance in the novel would be too slight to warrant much comment. But overarching influence of this magnitude seems absent from Ulysses even when contemplating classical works. Even the source named in the title of the novel appears to be more a matter of...