Is Joyce worth reading?

Discussion of Joseph Campbell's work with an emphasis on the personal creative impulse as well as the sociological role of the artist in today's global community.

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Post by grdnfrk » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

A few days ago when I was discussing James Joyce with a friend. I've had real trouble reading Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake (OK I've found them completely impossible) but am determined to try again. My friend, who was a professor of psychiatry and has degrees in english literature, and whom I respect enormously, said he thought Joyce was an overrated hack and that no self-respecting individual would make himself so difficult to understand if he really had anything important to say. Frankly, if it wasn't for Campbell's deep respect for Joyce I would be prone to agree. Does anyone know if Joe addressed the issue of why Joyce made his work so obscure, and if so where?
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Post by Hoot » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Hey..I can relate on Joyce, but you have to keep in mind, what came from Joyce came right from the source, it was not his intention to hide but to reveal..

also, it is recommended by Joyce that you read his work with an Irish Accent!

I am still on the first page of Finnagain, and plan to be for qiute sometime, and dont mind it at all..
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Post by mihelich » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I don't think I'd refer to Joyce as a "hack," but I must admit that I've entertained the thought that he might have been a tad bit arrogant, given his talent and accompanying insight. I have the feeling that he enjoyed being obscure. But it's only a feeling, and even then it doesn't detract from the significance of his work with regards to a responsible individual's concfict with the "dicta of authority" expressed, in Joyce's case specifically, through the Catholic Church.

At any rate, I think Joyce's obscurity can lead one to read "about his work" rather than to read his work directly. And in that vein I think Joseph Campbell, who shared both Joyce's Catholic background and his accompanying conflict with that authority's "dicta," can help clear up the obscurity that identifies Joyce's individual works of "creative mythology." Take a look at "Mythic Worlds, Modern Words" where Mr. Campbell penetrates the obscurity to make Joyce's ideas more accessible.

Interestingly enough, Joyce, according to Mr. Campbell, didn't live long enough to complete his "Grand Design" built on Dante's "Divine Comedy." He didn't live long enough to write his answer to "Paradisio" where, in contrast to his published answers to the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio," his writing would be "simple and lucid and clear." Maybe such clarity results from the discovery of the resolution to the conflict that produced the chaos, and perhaps the necessary obscurity, that characterizes Joyce's journey through the "mythic worlds" of "Inferno" and "Purgatorio."

The end of that journey, Joyce appears to have realized, would ultimately lead to the discovery of the "mythic world" of "Paradisio" and to the resolution of the conflict between "experience and authority." Chaos would then be replaced by order reflected in "modern words" that would necessarily be "simple and lucid and clear."


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Post by Clemsy » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I to admit to difficulty with Joyce. However, a very learned colleague of mine claimed that with many, sobriety, with it's expectations and biases, can impede an appreciation of Joyce's style.

He recommended Guiness, of course.

I have yet to test this theory.

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Post by bodhibliss » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

On 2004-07-19 13:16, Clemsy wrote:
I to admit to difficulty with Joyce. However, a very learned colleague of mine claimed that with many, sobriety, with it's expectations and biases, can impede an appreciation of Joyce's style.

He recommended Guiness, of course.

I have yet to test this theory.

Entheogens worked best for me when first i broached Finnegans Wake ... though reading proves an impractical concept until many hours after ingestion, best in the "warm afterglow" period

... and there is a theory that early Guinness brew had an entheogenic component absent today - which would explain ever so much about Irish literature ...

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Post by Martin_Weyers » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

It would be interesting to hear, if anybody tried to understand Finnegans Wake with the help of A Key to Finnegans Wake. I suppose that would be possible for anybody of us, but, at least for me, it would be hard work and not too much fun.

Like Emil Mihelich I have been wondering in the past, if he maybe just enjoyed to be obscure. I have read, that Joyce has replied on the question why in Finnegans Wake he uses such a difficult style, that he wants the critiques to have something to do for the next 300 years. At the same time I guess he might have considered that to be a stupid answer on a stupid question.

Maybe he was too arrogant - maybe he was too educated! Rather than beer with a entheogenic component, Bodhi, maybe we are simply lacking Joyce's and Campbell's education. You can't understand the Primavera by Botticelli too, if you do not know anything about neo-platonic philosophy in the Italian renaissance. On the other hand, everyone can enjoin the beautiful formal surface of that painting, but you probably cannot enjoy the formal structure or the beautiful language of Finnegans Wake without a in-depth understanding.

However, everyone should deal with the mythology that's proper for him, and it's maybe just a question of our pride, that we WANT Joyce to be an arrogant wacko and we WANT modern art to be charlatanism, because we don't want anybody to be more clever than we are. I have not really a problem with Jocye/Campbell being more clever, because I don't even try to compete with them. If you know about your merits, it should not be a problem to shrug acknowledgement of your flaws.

Saying this, I remember I bought a beautiful copy of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man. This one has the reputation to be comprehensible even for illitarates like me.
Works of art are indeed always products of having been in danger, of having gone to the very end in an experience, to where man can go no further. -- Rainer Maria Rilke
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Post by Robert G. » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Can this thread be moved to the Mythos forum? Since there's no response on ehat Campbell may have thought, I'd like open it up and see if there is anyone who has actually read Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake who has any ideas about why Joyce chose to make the work so difficult.

I keep thinking of what I heard Campbell say so many times, that art was not to be explained to you but to be experienced with an "Aha!" Joyce has made that all but impossible - why??

Thanks - Robert
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Post by nights watch » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Joyce certainly is worth reading; here is a review of finnegan's wake by John McConnell that i particularly like and answers the question better than i here could:

FIRST: Having read the previous reviews of this work to date (here at, and finding myself in sympathy with the sympathizers, - (I too think the Wake to be one of the best books ever written), - I shall side, as it were, with the unpopular Shem against Shaun's worldly wisdom that if Joyce had had something really worthwhile to write he would have spelled it out in garden variety prose. SECOND: Why? It is simply not realistic to me to seriously suggest that Joyce, who twice won an all-Ireland English composition prize as a young lad in school, and went on to produce the Portrait and Ulysses, would spend 17 of his most creative years on a "prank"... Joyce had a flair for foreign languages. Joyce regarded Catholicism as "a beautiful lie". Joyce had at his disposal the collected wisdom of the Orient and Occident due to the scholarship of the late 19th century, and was extremely well read. Joyce clearly delighted in wordplay and puzzles. Joyce was exceptionally gifted in music. And, Joyce was notoriously autobiographical in his literary efforts. All these elements find expression in Finnegans Wake. My personal suspicion is that those who have little patience for Joyce's presentation are unwilling to reassess what a book should convey, (see my review of Ulysses), lack the necessarily broad intellectual interests to make the book appealing, or just don't have a strong enough desire to play detective with the book on its own terms. Permit me to illustrate... The late Maestro Leonard Bernstein gave a series of lectures at Harvard in the early 70's entitled "The Unanswered Question" in which he touched upon the similarities and differences between music and speech, and even pondered the existence of a universal musical grammar. For example, it is not gramatically possible in English to start a sentence with the last word of the prior sentence (he points out). Yet this is exactly what music does do, and this is exactly what the modulated "English" of Finnegans Wake enables Joyce to do, too. And more, much more. In fact, the Wake's fluctuating prose seems to foreshadow this idea of Bernstein's. THIRD: What is the book about? This is the demand of those who think it rubbish. Here it is: the book is about humanity, - our archetypal experiences, written on the level of dream consciousness. That's it. For example, brother against brother conflict; the inevitable haunting guilt which seems to attach itself to all of us - "this municipal sin business"; the love of a woman which enables life to go on, and on, riverlike, and the recurrence of life's themes throughout the day, week, and age; the problems of incestuous love which always brew within "the fury and the mire of human veins"; the letter which would explain all, dug up from a manure pile by a hen named Belinda, but which has holes or tea stains in all those places where we could learn for certain "who did it"; the problem of inevitable death; the chrysalis-like psychological state of dependence on temporal and ecclesiastical authority...These are the problems and events of day-to-day living, and this is what the Wake deals with. (To those of you who understand the Wake better than myself, my apologies for having been so bold as to try and elaborate it so crudely!) It is written in as impossibly eclectic a style as may be possible, and intentionally riddled with puzzles, the detractors claim. Fine, granted. But here as perhaps elsewhere, Joyce seems to realize the limitations of a work of art, and strives to transcend them; there is a subtle and inescapable logic to life, and as far as possible, the business of the artist is to seize this quality. Joyce's effort gives the book a zest and freshness not to be found elsewhere. My very humble opinion is that the Wake is without peer in the English language. (Besides, who needed another cowboy or detective novel, for Heaven's sake?) Each of us is the poor harried protagonist, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Each of us carries around a burden of guilt, Richard the Third-like. Each of us is subjected to the ridicule of the Four Customers and the Twelve Jurymen, whether in going into the neighborhood grocer to buy a loaf of bread, in chatting with our neighbor, in the nearby laughter of aloof strangers, or in having to live with the endless moralistic preachings of our "superego", built on the bygone days of our childhood's sometimes-confused faith, and the collective experiences of humanity's infancy in ages long gone, and yet to be re-repeated. This wild yet sustained totality of expression, and characteristically Joycean juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous and inharmonious elements, make the book the funniest, and most truly delightful, I have ever read. FOURTH: In defence of those who dislike it, knowledge of at least one foreign language probably helps, as does a general knowledge of comparative religion and mythology. Vico's idea of historical cycles, Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence, alchemy, Biblical tales, childrens' games: these are all part of the Wake. There are several exegetical works which aid in digestion of the Wake, but beware of trying to decipher individual lines, or even pages, of the Wake, in isolation! People who attempt this exercise are frequently disappointed. (Try isolating a four note theme from a piece of music and explaining logically what these four notes, by themselves in isolation from the rest of the piece, mean - the Wake is just as organic as a piece of music.) The Wake often reminds me of Wagner's Ring Cycle: the Demiurge tried his best to create a perfect world, but was unable to do so. It is the business of the hero, through his rise, struggle, and inevitable fall to bring about the perfection of creation. The Wake retells this story on the level of dream consciousness, "where everyone is someone else". Perhaps the greatest obstacle to approaching the Wake is that many readers come in bad faith, unwilling to believe that an order is there, hidden in the labyrinth of metamorphosing words. Try peeking at the James Joyce Quarterly if you need encouragement that the order IS there. And, since we are all celebrating Adam's, and Finnegan's, (and each other's), Fall in writing and reading this column, ("O foenix culprit!"), I wish you all a good time at Finnegan's Wake!
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Post by DJG » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

If ya get a chance, checkout Joe's "Wings of Art" lectures. I believe they were given over two days during his "Greatest Hits Tour," and in total it's about six hours in length. It covers Joyce's three major works: The Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Through these lectures Campbell eloquently discusses why Joyce is significant and worth reading; further, for those familiar with Joe's work, he indirectly shows the relationship between these works and elements of his scholarship. Also, these lectures, like almost everything from Joe, are great fun to listen to.
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Post by Martin_Weyers » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

On 2004-09-30 00:09, Robert G. wrote:
Can this thread be moved to the Mythos forum?
Since there's no response on ehat Campbell may have thought, I'd like open it up and see if there is anyone who has actually read Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake who has any ideas about why Joyce chose to make the work so difficult.
Good luck!

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: Martin_Weyers on 2004-10-01 12:21 ]</font>
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Post by Mark ONeil » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I personally enjoy reading Mann more than Joyce, but I have read some Joyce, Portrait and Ulysses anyway, and I think the thing to remember, always, is that Joyce was nearly blind and that the sound of words mattered more to him than the concrete visual image. Therefore, he could build such an edifice as Punigan's Wake, as Nabokov called it, where word sounds take lives as actual characters.

I think we are now so inclined toward the image that Joyce, who's importance rose parallel to the rise of radio and the telephone and recorded music, seems unimportant because we can't SEE what he was about but if Joyce isn't worth reading than what is? I mean, Portrait is such a great novel and Ulysses, too -- they are so great that they more than excuse Joyce's later obscure dream narrative. Just remember, if you can't understand WHAT one of Joyce's characters is talking about then the important thing will be HOW it SOUNDS in your ears. The WHAT will come after. Often in life you can tell what's going on in a room without seeing it just by hearing the tone of voice -- Joyce was THE MASTER of capturing that tone of voice in print, Pynchon, who I've always considered a Joycean, a distant second.

What I can't understand is why Joseph Campbell never wrote about Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow seems like it'd make him gleeful with its puzzles and puns and people turned inside out. Also, I can't understand why Campbell never spoke about the hero journey of Tom Joad in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and how Steinbeck seems to successfully balance the social and mythical in that book. I mean, Campbell knew Steinbeck quite well, as I understand it.

If you know of any writing or lecturing Campbell did on either Pynchon or Steinbeck please let clue me in on it. I'm writing a long essay on Steinbeck, Pynchon and Solzhenitsyn and am looking for a Campbell linkage.


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Post by Yodarick » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I agree with Mark ONeil’s view that it is the sound of Joyce’s words that matters. It has been some years since I read Portrait, which I thought was the greatest piece of writing I had ever read. What I did at the time during the more difficult parts was to read aloud and to hear my voice conveying the sounds of his words, it flows and has beauty like a great symphony.
Portrait sits on my coffee table awaiting a second read along with Finnegans Wake which I have not found my way into yet, but I know when I do I shall be reading aloud listening to the melody of his words.
For me there is something about trusting in the process, I might not understand what I am reading at the moment but if I do not go forward into it I shall never no what it has to offer. This of course is the journey.
Yes Joyce is worth reading!
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Post by geoffrey2 » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is certainly worth the read. Portrait is one of those books that a young writer should read because s/he will relate to those moments of "epiphany". And when s/he has them, s/he won't think that s/he's crazy. It's one of those works of art,like "Intimations of Immortality" or Derek Walcott's "Another Life" where an older artist leaves an Ariadne clue out of the labyrinth that each artist must find his/her way out--that Joyce shows us how he escaped from Ireland and its nets that sought to entrap him.
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Post by Bliss 5150 » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

We are so often to make sense of what we read.
We are taught to understand words.
These are incubated reactions; created by a system called education.
Remember thinking gets in the way of a symbol. This is exactly what happens with Finnegans Wake.
What is the meaning of a flower?
So often a scholar will try to understand something, grasp at it. “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” by Blake is something that is brought to mind.
Oasis’s Liam Galligar, whom most would not call a scholar, says, “It’s my favorite song-I have no idea what it means.”

That in my mind is the most eloquent statement on accepting art and love.

Just basking in the radiance.

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Post by ShantiSong » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Ezra Pound said, “all men should unite to give praise to Ulysses. Those who will not should content themselves a place in the lower intellectual order”

Ernest Hemingway said of it, “Joyce has a most god damn wonderful book”

T.S. Eliot called Ulysses “the most important expression which the present age has found. It is a book to which we are all indebted and from which none of us can escape”

Joyce only wrote three novels and a collection of short stories. When the Modern Library listed the greatest English novels of the 20th century, Joyce's three novels ranked, number 1, number 3, and number 77. ... ovels.html

Thomas Mann thanked a friend for sending him a copy of Campbell/Robinson’s Skeleton key to Finnigans Wake because “I could not have read Joyce’s Wake without it and it has confirmed a suspicion that I have had for some time, namely, that James Joyce is the greatest novelist of the 20th century”

Not all criticism is positive, but Joyce has certainly stood the test of time. Joseph Campbell tells the story how as a young scholar he started to read Ulysses and got stuck at the beginning of the third chapter. He walked into the publisher’s office and said, “How do you read something like this?” The woman gave him a couple of books to help him along and he was hooked for the rest of his life.

Obviously, reading Ulysses is no easy task. There’s a saying among the Ulysses’ guide books that says, “Read Ulysses boldly”. Personally, I used all the help I could get when I started reading it.

But Campbell is right when he says that your third time through the book, something begins to come through. It isn’t like any other novel.

By Joyce’s time, people began to realize that the popular stories and myths were a wondrous way for the desires and aspirations of the psyche to interpret and mollify the harsh reality of its environment. T.S. Eliot claimed that Ulysses was the first novel written from a ‘mythic’ perspective.

Typically, novels and other stories offer a magic window that lets the reader view the events of the story as if they were an invisible eye-witness. But, then novelists began to offer that magic window into characters minds so we could witness thoughts and feelings as well. But Joyce has us on the other side of that magic window of the mind,; that place where myth and language are formed, where memory and imagination dance with one another, and we are looking out at the harsh reality of Dublin on Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904.

What we get is the literary equivalent of Mr. Toad’s wild ride. It’s not for everyone. It is a challenge. I’ve tried to convince some avid readers of fiction that it is worthwhile – that it beats playing MYST.

Is Joyce worth reading? One could just as well ask if Picasso’s paintings are worth viewing. Many people don’t like Picasso’s paintings. Many people don’t like Shakespeare. But I would have a hard time understanding how anyone can be a Joseph Campbell fanatic, like me, and not enjoy the book that Campbell claims was the most enjoyable book he has ever read.



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