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  • Notes on Teaching Ulysses: Pleasures from the Text ItselfVol. 14, No. 2, February 1952
  • Howard Nemerov

1. This book presents in a peculiarly painful form the special difficulties of a classroom relation to literary works; the apparatus that already surrounds it suggests the possibility and danger of our taking the scaffolding for the skeleton and basing our views of Ulysses upon the systematic and more or less demonstrable nature of its correspondences; whereas a more essential consideration might begin with one phrase, "the ineluctable modality of the visible," and try to show the elaboration of the novel's forms rather upon this basis than upon the ingenious set of equivalences worked out, even with the master's approval, by Stuart Gilbert.

2. The development of style represented in Ulysses might be divided into the following topics:

  1. a. Great increase in detail over any previous novel except perhaps Bouvard & Pecuchet; attention to minutiae; illusion of nature.

  2. b. The onomatopoetic method employed to secure this result; an effort to make words "really" resemble the things they denote.

  3. c. The manifold point of view, shifting without the artifice of transition between the internal and external, from one character to another, from one way of seeing (style) to another, from one scene to another.

  4. d. The imposition of a factitious unity by references to myth; correspondences which are certainly not made at random, but certainly not, on the other hand, convincingly demonstrable down to the last detail.

  5. e. The self-conscious mockery of this unity by naturalism carried to the point of parody.

  6. f. The attempt to secure new perspective by breaking content and style apart, or better, by showing the enormous chasm that has always existed, according to some artists, between content and style.

3. The temptation of the subtle reader is, perhaps, the temptation of theology: to show the world of the work as flowing by rationally demonstrable ways from the hand of its creator, as elaborated detail for detail from some sort of unity. Ulysses, for the reasons given above, puts this temptation in a specially poignant way—so many details, their interconnexions so plausible and yet so mysterious, the final value of these symbolic [End Page 162] hierarchies tantalizingly near "correct" and yet ultimately—it is good to say—elusive.

4. Finally, we are dealing with students, who will mostly be reading the book for the first time and should not altogether be encouraged to talk about Homeric parallels before reading Homer; as Henry James has very prettily put it, you can't go mountain-climbing in a flat country. There is this difficulty about teaching, that we can talk only about that which can be talked about, and in this sense we are always liable to love best the book that teacheth best, or, as the new critic says, "really works out." That is, we are always, even when quite careful, subtly or blatantly lobbying for an extension of the area that can be talked about, and likely to substitute knowledge about a book for experience of it. This is 'natural', I suppose at least in the sense that we must go into the classroom and talk for an hour; but I mean to suggest that a proper humility will lead us to curb our theological ambitions for this book, trying to derive our pleasures rather from the text, however simply, than from the neat and not altogether convincing arrangements of the commentators. [End Page 163]



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