More on Why?

The Backyard Offerings – May 17, 2019

Earlier I discussed the initial reasons for choosing Ulysses to be the main focus of my sabbatical studies. My decision focused on time and place, the two inescapable forces that envelopes our existence. We live in a precise moment registered by a specific time zone . Everyone can be plotted to a series of exact GPS coordinates.

Our movements change these numbers. Seconds tick off whatever is left on our biological countdown timer. Transportation expands the limits of our horizon. The experience of our lives is an ordered unfolding of the what and the who through the when and the where.

Journalists have reminded us of a fifth “w.” As imaginative creatures endowed with the gift of language, we squeeze reasons into our encounters. We learn about times and places not of our own making. We come to understand and interpret our stories in comparison to other stories. We engage in the requisite task of stitching together a coherent meaning for our lives.

Three distinct types of hero stories are of concern to the book Ulysses. The Archetypal Hero is elucidated by Odysseus’ epic adventures as recounted by Homer. They are foundational to the mythology of a hero’s status and may be some of the oldest stories known to humanity. Joyce organized his novel around the different chapters of the Odyssey, where the battle-weary hero spends 10 years trying to get back home to Ithaca, after the previous 10 years fighting the battle over Troy. The classical hero, usually against incredible odds and seemingly insurmountable challenges is finally proven victorious in the end.

The Tragic Hero cannot get out of his, her or their own way. Whether through circumstances or personal dispositions, or a combination of both, this hero who can be extraordinarily gifted, charming or powerful, is also fundamentally flawed. These defects override otherwise perfect opportunities and potentials. We feel sympathy for tragic heroes and see in them our own imperfections.

Like Telemachus (the son of Odysseus) in the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet features a son who is forlorn over his father’s absence and questions his mother’s fidelity to him. But Hamlet’s situation is far more tragic. Telemachus is separated from his father because of geography and will reunite with him in the future. Hamlet’s father has died and by visits heard only by Hamlet from his father’s ghost, he is persuaded how his uncle Claudius has been scandalously involved with his mother, Gertrude and together they were responsible for his father’s death.

The father of James Joyce was a well-known and liked Dubliner from County Cork with a mixture of strengths and shortcomings. Talented and charismatic, he had squandered his large family inheritance through the excesses common for a spendthrift and an alcoholic. Joyce both loved his father and was sorely embarrassed by him, paralleling his similar great faith and severe disappointment in his mother country of Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is an amalgam of Telemachus, Hamlet and Joyce’s projection of his 22 year old past. Dedalus is learned, insightful and engaged in the normal search common for all young adults– seeking to discover an agreeable path to guide and direct their quest for maturity and meaning in life. As with Joyce, his father’s esteemed talents are tainted by selfish behaviors and excesses with the drink (its always the drink!) and offers scant help for providing such instruction.

Almost by happenstance, Stephen finds a mentor in the unlikely personage of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged advertisement salesman of Hungarian-Jewish heritage who was born and raised in Dublin, but is sympathetically presented as a stranger, a searcher, an outsider, and a wanderer.

In Bloom, Joyce is crafting a new sort of hero for the 20th Century. Like Odysseus, he is estranged from his home and his wife, but it’s due to emotional not geographical distance. Compressed within a single day (June 16, 1904), he meanders around his native city of Dublin and through what appear to be ordinary occurrences: making breakfast, attending a funeral, shopping, doing a little business, running errands, walking the streets, feeding the seagulls, trying to find a spot for lunch, meeting friends for drinks, getting in an argument, checking on a friend in the hospital, dodging thunderstorms, getting lost, stumbling through the red-light district, falling into his bed upside down and exhausted at day’s end after trying to convince himself that he has done a little bit of good along the way, it is revealed, turn by turn, was actually a truly epic adventure.

Why am I here? This is always the grand question. Why here? Not there? Why this? Not that? Why now? Not later? Why Ulysses?

  1. All lives, however ordinary, challenging, difficult, messed-up or seemingly perfect reveal, if you take the time, a myriad of depth, significance and meaning. Spirituality is too often exclusively focused on the most visible, the best and brightest and most astonishing. Under the surface, we discover the flaws, frustrations and deeper longings that makes us truly human, and mysteriously one with one another.
  2. Ulysses is a means toward understanding a particular culture and city. While a work of fiction written during Joyce’s self-imposed exile, it is painstakingly accurate with respect to its geographical location and accuracy. In the chapter “Wandering Rocks,” more than 30 “characters” are described throughout the city of Dublin going about their daily routines between the hours of three to four in the afternoon. Clive Hart, through careful on-site research, traced each of these steps and synchronized their various encounters with tram schedules and expected times the distances would be covered on foot, finding Joyce’s exactitude to be amazing accurate, almost to the second (Davis, 2014). Joyce famously boasted, “If Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from my book.”
  3. This is a massive, dense and often confusing book, especially for a novice to it like me. It cannot be fully understood without some trusted guides to help (and even they can fail to answer all the many questions you’ll have). I’ve leaned on many resources in trying to break apart and appreciate what it right there in front of me. It has lead me to wonder about all those new persons who show up at the store-front of my profession. The person who, at-best, has a cursory, superficial and culturally-dominated understanding of any faith, including the Christian one of a particular Baptist persuasion I deeply treasure. How do they begin to comprehend the dense forest of the archaic language, metaphors and complex meanings within the Scriptures? How can I help free them from the terrible reputation and prejudices, often fairly deserved, associated by the title, “Baptist?” Though Ulysses is written by a single author over the course of nine years, it is jammed-packed with unfamiliar languages, ancient sayings and obscure references. It takes effort and outside help to move toward any true semblance of comprehension.
  4. Also, like scripture, I’ve found Ulysses easier to understand when read out loud than when read silently. I’ve used two audible companions to help me. It’s incredible to hear the book through proper Irish dialects, correct pronunciations and pacing than through the voice trapped within my own mind. When read aloud, the book flows better and is remarkably clearer. I’ve discovered I have picked up things from the audio versions of the same passage I missed when read silently.
  5. Ulysses convinces me of just how much I still don’t know. It’s humbling to find yourself a stranger in the English language of your heritage. Through patience, attention and focused study, we can all learn, grow and change. All who read well and often know the joy and liberation of fresh discoveries as the mind is richly fed, especially with the hard stuff.
  6. So, while daunting and difficult, this work is also a tremendous amount of fun. When we infuse our whats and wheres with a determined struggle toward the why, then life is truly a heroic adventure.

Should you read Ulysses? It probably would make for too challenging a beach-read, but I’ve found this audio version from the BBC entertaining. You do need to be prepared for some frustration (okay, a great deal of frustration) and the possibility of being a little bit shocked. I can also attest to some sections excellent for preparing to take a nap. But once, the mind is clear, and the dust is blown away, and a complex and compelling sentence is all broken down, and it slowly becomes appreciated as it appears, it ca be like listening to a great piece of music and you wonder why you’ve never been here before.

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