Preparing Students to Think about Modern Literature

I sing of dirty dishes and the man…Today, June 16, marks the 24 hours that Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joycean geeks commonly refer to it as “Bloomsday.”

If you have heard of Ulysses before, the context was most likely negative. Perhaps you categorize it with other “modernist nonsense” or “perverse drivel.” It is true that the novel was originally banned in many countries for its obscenity and sexual content. And as a side note, “imperthnthn thnthnthn” is a real sentence within its pages. If you’ve ever opened up Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s next novel after Ulysses, you’ll notice that it looks suspiciously like he just sat down a couple times on his typewriter before sending it to his publisher. When I first started reading Ulysses for an honors seminar in college, I figured it was all just a pointless game Joyce was playing to taunt me, his reader.

So was Joyce just a godless modernist sticking his tongue out at the world?

Joyce’s novel offers a great opportunity to talk about the purpose and nature of literature, as well as the project of the early 20th century modernists. At CenterForLit we believe that all great literature is worth reading, even when we disagree with the worldview of the author. It is through reading opposing viewpoints that we come to have compassion for other worldviews, while being strengthened in our own. And there is always the slightest chance that the author we don’t agree with has noticed something true about the world, which can then be magnified and deepened with real Truth.

But surely there’s a line to be drawn. And surely that line cuts out the modernist movement.

Through most of my education, the modernists were only spoken of with an eyebrow raise and a guffaw. My teachers intended the term to be an insult. Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald were acknowledged with much headshaking, and teachers lamented the perversion of their beautiful voices with frowns and finger-pointing in the vague direction of the evil Freud and Nietzsche. But after Dr. Kearney forced me to wrestle with all of Ulysses’ 700 pages, I became acquainted with a real modernist, not a straw man. The result was humbling, and perhaps even inspiring.

With the allusion of the title Ulysses, Joyce intended to give his work an epic scope. It’s possible he meant it to be a mockery – the plot covers one middleclass Irishman’s trip to the butcher to pick up pork kidney. But as Joyce writes late in the novel, “there’s many a true word spoken in jest.”

One of Joyce’s main concerns is the plight of the common man. In his philosophy, there is no epic solution to humanity’s troubles. God and an eternal consequence to life are out of the picture, and men are left with an indiscernible, unfeeling world. What meaning can there then be for the poor and unimportant? Hence the medium Joyce and other modernists chose for their language. Phrases like “imperthnthn thnthnthn” leave the reader just as lost and confused in Joyce’s world as the characters.

But this is where I start getting excited. “Imperthnthn thnthnthn” is not meaningless. It’s Joyce’s representation of the sound a tuning orchestra makes before a concert. We start picking this up a little later when he writes, “A husky fifenote blew.” Joyce doesn’t leave us without the ability to discern meaning. His writing is just really hard to understand – like real life.

Joyce finds the struggle of everyday living worthy of epic recognition. His protagonist Leopold will never fight the gods or win eternal laurels, and the acts of Odysseus or Aeneas are not possible in Joyce’s 20th century. But Leopold does struggle to make sense of his marriage during the 24 hours we spend with him. Over the course of the novel, readers find out that Mrs. Bloom has been cheating on her husband. Leopold has been living too much in his head to take care of his wife. She lies in bed reading trashy romance novels while he wanders aimlessly about town. But somehow after 700 pages of what is at times a painfully boring and normal day, Mrs. Bloom remembers the mundane, but happy moments of her marriage and ends the novel with a resounding Yes to her husband:

“And yes I said yes I will Yes.”

It seems as though a relationship will be repaired. Hope is found in the small decisions and slow moving-forward of the day as Molly Bloom chooses to stick it out with her husband instead of chasing after younger men.

Ulysses is a cyclical journey that ends at the same hour of the clock that it began. Yet instead of being exactly where they left off, the characters are one, tiny step closer to something brighter and better in spite of the repetitive nature of day to day life. The novel doesn’t make it clear what that “something brighter” is, and Joyce himself may not have known, but the story ends with a brief and temporary glimpse at redemption.

I’m not saying you should go and add this book to your high-schooler’s reading list. There is adult content that even adults may not be comfortable with. But in spite of all the darkness, Joyce bumps into a ray of light. Great minds cannot usually help but uncover something true. As a participant in the world of Christian education, I have learned to speak with a bit more respect for the artistry of the modernists. I want to prepare my students to listen with humility to what these authors have to say down the road, when they must study with their professors those expatriates and survivors of the Great War.

Joyce has something to offer us. As Christians we can see his revelations in the context of Truth and beauty. Most of us will not become martyrs or have our names recorded in the history books, but that does not disqualify our lives from epic greatness in the eyes of a loving God. The most powerful grace is found in the smallest, everyday moments.

Happy Bloomsday!