Why Ulysses?

Shillito Park, Lexington, Kentucky – May 14, 2019

Isn’t reading and studying James Joyce’s Ulysses, a strange choice for a spiritual sabbatical? I have faced this question a few times over when explaining my project for the next couple of months. Usually the inquirer is sincere and speaks from an above-average familiarity with this acclaimed and monumental work of dense fiction.

Isn’t the book full of atheists, agnostics and skeptics? Doesn’t it dispute the benefits and values of a faithful religious endeavor? Wouldn’t you agree that it makes a mockery of theology and ridicules any affection toward a life of prayer and reverence?

And how will you handle the vulgarity and quite literally, seedy and sordid observations and conduct of its main champions? Hasn’t it influenced and perhaps furthered the excesses of masculine bantering and bullying found in the 20th Century and still persisting throughout our own day!?

Why Ulysses, indeed? It wasn’t sitting on my shelf, half-started and never finished. I had not studied it in college or in other academic settings.

It might be helpful to recount how my decision was first made according to a particular place and time, rather than to a specific framework for study. I knew I wanted to travel abroad, but not too far. I am not extraordinarily gifted in other languages, restricting my search to English-speaking cultures. I had already been to England and Scotland (a long time ago in 1987), making Ireland a logical and suitable option.

The next decision revolved around my schedule and the month of June. I took my search to Mr. Google, Master of the Info-Verse, asking, “What of any significance is happening in Ireland during the month of June?” The answer? “Bloomsday!” On and surrounding, June 16, the day set in 1904 when all the action within Ulysses takes place and is commemorated each year by many special events in Dublin.

The grand peak of Ulysses appeared, patiently waiting out there upon the distant horizon, now just 3 years away from the 100th Anniversary of its first printing in 1922. I knew I would not be disappointed by the wealth of information that has been collected, assembled, processed, debated, written, cut, sliced, spliced and split into a million pieces over the course of the nearly past 100 years.

Additionally, there is the bonanza of the whole of Western civilization seen, heard, remembered and retold by Joyce’s amazing, prolific and comprehensive accounting and imagination. He famously said of his magnum opus, seven intensively managed years in the making, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality” (Gifford, 1988).

The difficulty ahead would not be trying to find enough information, but narrowing and focusing my study for the path ahead while attempting to make some meaningful contribution to it worthy of this sabbatical.

Come along. And join me as I explore an answer that is like all great adventures, opening up moments of clarity and insight and, also creating new mysteries and questions that may keep us busy over the next 100 years too.

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