Today marks the 100 year anniversary of James Joyce’s Ulysses being published as one continuous novel. Previously, it had been published as individual stories in an American Journal. To commemorate the anniversary of Ulysses being published as one continuous novel, Lecturer in English, Dr James Heaney reflects on the significance of celebrating the anniversary.
Ulysses is 100 years old
Ulysses is 100 years old. “So what?” you might well ask? Aren’t great works of literature supposed to transcend their own histories? Isn’t Joyce’s book “for all time”, as Ben Jonson famously remarked of Shakespeare’s works? Do the ‘Immortals’ celebrate birthdays? Are we going to sing to this “monument of un-ageing intellect” of its own mortality? Perhaps we should throw it a Surprise Party. Invite round a few fellow centenarians – Eliot’s The Waste Land, Pirandello’s Six Characters. We could book Picasso’s snazzy 3-piece outfit Nous autres musiciens to sing the Birthday Song.
We live in a country that is fixated with the past, with birthdays and commemorations. Hardly a week goes by without my Facebook feed reminding me that ‘On this day 100, or 1000, or 10,000 years ago, something or other happened that we should celebrate, or commemorate: the 100-year anniversary of a failed political entity; the 50th anniversary of its most public implosion; the birth date of a book that most everyone has heard of, but few enough have read.
What is this obsession about? The most common explanation amounts to some variation on George Santayana’s claim that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I’m not so sure. Wasn’t Hitler familiar with Armenian history before he embarked on his own genocidal campaigns, aren’t the xenophobes emerging from their dingy closets in our own day, from Myanmar to Capitol Hill, familiar with Hitler’s legacy? Historical awareness is vitally important, obviously. Without it, perhaps it is inevitable that we’ll repeat the mistakes of the past, but with it, perhaps we’ll do that anyway, if we think it suits us. Molly Bloom knows she did wrong by her husband on the afternoon of 16 June 1904, in their jingle-jangling marital bed. Does that mean she won’t do wrong by him again? It is, in fact, her memories of her pleasurable encounter with Blazes Boylan, as she recounts them in the final chapter of Ulysses, that lead us to think that she might well do just that. Maybe some prisoners of history enjoy feeling ‘condemned’? Maybe they believe that their historical awareness absolves them of responsibility for their actions; ‘What else could [Molly] have done, being what she is’?
I was once at a ‘Arts, Tourism, and Business’ conference where a guy in a suit from Bord Failte complained bitterly that the ‘Joyce brand’ wasn’t ‘pulling its weight’ economically. That, I suspect, is what the hullabaloo about Ulysses being 100 years old is about: improving brand recognition. Guinness, Aran jumpers, Wild Atlantic ways, Ulysses… It’s primarily about product promotion, I fear. Will there be any statistical analysis as to how many more people have read Joyce’s novel on account of this (no doubt) ‘highly successful’ centenary marketing campaign? I doubt it. That’s not what the birthday celebration is about. Its about… the economy, stupid.
And then there’s the problem (if problem it is) that both of the main characters in Ulysses seem to voice their author’s frustration with history and commemoration. One of the reasons why Stephen Dedalus – Joyce’s alter-ego in both Ulysses and his autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – wants to escape Ireland is on account of the country’s obsession with the past, with history. ‘Let the dead bury the dead’, Stephen writes in his journal shortly before he makes his break for the border. This character plans, instead, to live his life ‘forwards’: ‘to forge’ in the smithy of his soul the as yet ‘uncreated conscience’ of his race.
Chapter 11 of the book (‘Sirens’), ends to the mellifluous sound of Leopold Bloom farting his way through the final, sacred lines of Robert Emmet’s famous Speech from the Dock in 1803 (another commemoration we have to look forward – or rather backwards – to there). In the following chapter (Cyclops), Joyce pits Bloom against a history-obsessed sectarian-nationalist known as ‘the citizen’. ‘Force, hatred, history, all that’, Bloom tells this bigot. ‘That’s not life for men and women’.
And yet, birthdays and anniversaries were important to Joyce in other ways. Ulysses is set on the 16 June 1904, the day the author first ‘walked out’ (as we used to say in the days before online dating) with Nora Barnacle, the great love of his life. In a sense, therefore, the whole of Ulysses, ‘commemorates’ their life-changing first date together. Furthermore, the novel was published – at Joyce’s insistence – on the 02 February, 1922, the date of his fortieth birthday. Joyce was a superstitious man, in his way. Some ‘birth-days’ did matter. But it was, I think, the notion of birth itself, of creation, contained within the larger term, that most intrigued Joyce. ‘Beginning’ writes Hannah Arendt, following Augustine, ‘is the supreme capacity of man’. Ulysses – a novel that ends with the memory of a beginning, encapsulated in Molly Bloom’s life-affirming ‘Yes’ – starts again each time a new reader picks it up and begins to read – which is the only meaningful way to celebrate Joyce’s work.