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New Hibernia Review 7.4 (2003) 26-37
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The Greatness of Ulysses
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In recent years I have several times been invited to give talks on James Joyce or specifically on Ulysses. On most ofthese occasions, my audience has consisted not of academicians, but of members of a community cultural group—people of intellectual curiosity who have read some of Joyce's work and are aware of his very high reputation in the universities, and of the fact that Ulysses has been judged the greatest novel of the twentieth century, but who nonetheless remain somewhat skeptical. They want to hear from someone who has presumably found it worthwhile, even rewarding, to spend many years of his life in studying Joyce and his works. I do of course take these opportunities seriously, but I will admit that in speaking to these audiences I feel some defensiveness, some need to justify to them and to myself my having devoted so much of my life to Joyce and his works, and to convince them that we scholars have not abandoned our common sense in venerating Joyce, and in regarding Ulysses so highly.
My talk for the Southern Regional American Conference for Irish Studies should seem easy by comparison: my topic—the greatness of Ulysses—proclaims something that everyone in the audience presumably takes for granted—or would not admit it if he did not. But that my topic runs the risk of extreme blandness was brought home to me in a phone conversation with Dick Bizot a few weeks ago: when I told him I would be discussing the greatness of Ulysses, he said "Well, that shouldn't take us very long"—a comment that served for me as a kind of wake-up call about the potential fatuousness of this presentation.
But in fact I find this topic for this audience to be challenging and even somewhat daunting, because, in addition to discussing some recognized aspects of Ulysses' greatness, I want to go further and take issue with some of the received ideas about the nature of the book's achievement. And since I am speaking to true believers, I want even to acknowledge some of my own doubts about Joyce's book, doubts that I might be reluctant to reveal under more defensive circumstances. Entre nous, I can admit that for all my admiration for the book, I do have some misgivings and regrets about it, when I think of it in comparison with other great novels in our tradition. [End Page 26]
I cannot of course do justice to all of the fine qualities of Ulysses, all of the sources of its greatness, but I do want to specify and explore some of the most important ones. So let me begin by enumerating certain great qualities of this novel.
First and foremost, for me, the basis of much of the greatness of this novel lies in Joyce's audaciously choosing so ordinary and imperfect and marginalized a figure as Leopold Bloom as his central character. Throughout several hundred pages, Joyce recounts the quotidian acts and thoughts of Bloom, revealing in the process a number of foibles and faults, including the serious and disturbing one of his not having had full sexual relations with his wife for more than a decade and consequently, conniving in her adultery on this day of the novel. In addition, Joyce subjects Leopold Bloom to exposure in the acts of masturbation and defecation, which no other hero, epic or ordinary, has had to endure. But throughout and in spite of all this, Joyce presents his protagonist with respect and even with loving care, and Bloom is shown to have some very admirable human qualities: he is a sensitive and considerate man, a man of wide-ranging interests and inveterate curiosity, of sympathy and charity—a good man. Throughout the day, Bloom's mind plays actively over everything he comes in touch with, examining, probing, reflecting, engaging events and people with a curiosity and a sympathy—sometimes even a compassion—that is admirable and...