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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Robert G.
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Post by Robert G. » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Thanks everyone for your input. One of the reasons I was asking is that I set myself some goals each year in regards to reading either very long or difficult texts, and I just couldn't decide if Ulysses was worth the investment of time. Last year I reread The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (beautiful) and read for the first time several thousand more pages of Jung's work. This year has been Kant's Prologomena and Logic, and will continue with The Critique of Pure Reason and, yes, Ulysses.

So I guess the answer for me would be yes, Ulysses is worth reading if only to find out what all the fuss is about. I would agree that The Portrait is great, but that's an easy read and not the same investment of time, and not great enough to convince me about the other two novels. As I said originally, it's my solely my respect for Campbell that even makes me consider them. I've always connected with the objectivist idea that honorable people don't distort communication. I just don't have much respect for those who deliberately make themselves obscure, especially when their ideas are finally those religious ideas that are actually not obscure but lie implicit in everything around and within us. But maybe Joyce had a reason that can't be seen from the outside, so I'm leaving that open. One possibility I see is that the difficulty is something like an initiation, that is preparatory for some revelation. So I'll see for myself.
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.
20 years ago I might have asked the same thing. Now, I judge that Campbell was flat out wrong in several areas, and that his persona covered over what I consider some serious weaknesses in his method and scholarship. Regardless, if I had a chance to spend a day talking with any one deceased person, barring my family he's the one.


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

My paperback Ulysses was purchased years ago in an attempt to discover what Campbell found so illuminating within those many pages. I don't think I ever got past the first chapter, though I did try again and again.

It never occurred to me to try Guinness.

Now, if you or I wrote such an obscure work, it might not have been read by anyone, and if anyone had tried to understand it, I doubt it would lead to any profound consequence. I have to remember the Federal Reserve Board posts in these forums, which I perused with curiousity and dismissed as too pointless or obscure to be of any use to me, even as a way to pass time aimlessly. If there was an ingenious message there, some wonderful insight or joke, even, I might consider that worth another look, but in the end, I was glad there was space for the writer to say what I believe was nothing much at all.

Now, the private club of those who can read Joyce are a privileged and elite group, having much in common with those who read ancient Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. It's esoterica of the most easily appreciated and most dismissed kind. I hold the club members in high regard and otherwise ignore them. I don't laugh at them and I can see no reason to attack them, certainly. I simply look upon Joyce, and those who can read Joyce with a modicum of understanding, as being in a world unto themselves, gifted and privileged for their inside knowledge of the mysteries of the genius mind.

Even if Joyce is everything they say he is, his obscurity is so dense and impenetrable that I allow his words and ideas to remain in the box that sits quietly in the garage.
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Post by Robert G. » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I remember Campbell saying that the worst thing you could do to some people was to point out the joy inherent in life, because "some people like to work hard." The messages that Campbell presents from Joyce are essentially simple, like the Buddhist message, but I certainly have had the experience in my own life where I intellectually complicate something then have to go through a long complicated process to arrive at a very simple answer. Maybe Joyce is somthing similar. If we take Campbell as an example, he had certainly stuffed his head with a whole lot of very complicated ideas, and it may have taken something equally complex to lead him out of that labyrinth, to bring all that stuff into some sort of structure.
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Post by CarmelaBear » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Hi Robert,

One of the things I like best about the "Power of Myth", both before and after I read many of his other works, is the way he crystalized so many volumes of data and insight. He cuts right through to pithy ideas that stay with a person for a long time. In my case, I've internalized much of what he taught.

I'm Campbellized.
Once in a while a door opens, and let's in the future. --- Graham Greene
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Post by ShantiSong » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Robert and Carmelabear,

In composing a post for another thread I came across this comment by Joseph Campbell of Jung’s interpretation of Ulysses.
On Jung’s analysis of Ulysses -
“That’s one of the worst jobs Jung ever did. He got angry and wrote this tantrum because he wasn’t getting it. As a matter of fact, psychiatrists don’t have very good relationships to art of any kind. They always see it as symptomatic. That’s what happened with Jung and Ulysses”. J. C. p271

- Mythic Worlds, Modern Worlds - Joseph Campbell

I honestly love Ulysses. And I don’t like much fiction. In fact, I get angry at all the fuss about novels and how wonderful and important they are. How many stories do we need?

Somewhere I read that the main character in Ulysses is not Bloom, Stephen, or Molly. The main character is the English language. Each chapter has its own unique style. Joyce is showing us all the variety of ways that information through the English language can be delivered.

The second to last chapter, Ithica, is in the style of scientific enquiry.
What Parallel courses did Bloom and Stephen follow returning?

Starting united both at normal walking pace from Beresford place they followed in the order named Lower and Middle Gardiner streets and Mountjoy square, west: then, at reduced pace, each bearing left, Gardiner’s place by and inadvertence as far as the farther corner of Temple street, north: then at reduced pace with interruptions of halt, bearing right, Temple street, north, as far as Hardwicke place. Approaching, disparate, at relaxed walking pace they crossed both the circus before George’s church diametrically, the chord in any circle being less then the arc which it subtends.

The entire chapter is an interrogative. It’s as if Joyce, after torturing us with vagueness through most of the book, is saying, Is this what you want? Some solid facts? And then gives us a whole chapter of specific and trivial facts. Sometimes I feel as though Joyce is laughing at us.

Chapter 7, Aeolus, is in the style of the newspaper. Joyce is delivering information to us the way we get information when we browse the newspaper.

I like the style of Chapter 5, the Lotus Eaters. Lines of narrative are mixed up with lines of stream of consciousness so that as you read each sentence, you’re constantly asking yourself whether it is a line of narration, or a line of stream of consciousness.

And the last Chapter, Penelope, is 45 pages of non stop stream of consciousness of Molly in bed. Joseph Campbell says that this is the voice of the goddess. This chapter is one sentence that begins and ends with the word ‘yes’. It is probably the chapter that caused the book to be banned in America for many years.

Anyway, if you can’t appreciate the book you’re in good company because I don’t think Jung could appreciate it. :wink:


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

Hello all -- To the poster above who tried to read Ulysses but couldn't -- Ever think you were trying to make it make the kind of sense that Ulysses could never make? I mean, I think with these more 'esoteric' novels we try to understand them the way we might understand so-called 'Realism' or something that we consider completely straight forward which, I think, is the wrong way to approach them. I mean, if a person came up to you and started saying absolutely everything he was thinking along with telling you a story and showing newspaper headlines, flashbacks, strange spontaneous images, well you would think that person was pretty odd, wouldn't you? I mean, would you try to have a conversation with that person? You couldn't, not in the normal way. So, you would maybe have to look at him in another way, kind of the way Shanti-song just pointed out to us --but instead of looking at it, Ulysses, as the paradigm and that we are somehow lacking for not understanding it, I think we must look at the work of Joyce as being a unique thing that came to be in the world and something not everyone will like. But if you are going to try to read it then you really can't apply a 'normal' yardstick to it and then dismiss because of its strangeness. The strangeness, the difficulty of Ulysses is the whole reason for reading it, just like finally cracking that Zen Koan or finally having that conversation with the strange person who is always talking to himself and his dog and the tree in your front yard. Another thing -- who cares if you ever finish it? Just read what you want and don't stress about it and don't feel bad if you don't 'understand' something. Want to hear something funny? I have an easier time reading Pynchon than Hemingway. That's because I am a crazy bastard -- we are each endowed with our own way of seeing, our own way of understanding. Some things that don't make sense to others make perfect sense to us and vice versa...this is true of everyone. Last -- you don't need to be able to read a foreign language to read Ulysses.
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Post by msgier » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Well, I can say with honesty that I've read the entirety of Ulysses, and have attempted the Wake. Yes, I think Joyce is worth reading, especially Ulysses in particular since Joyce is an example of one of Campbell's prime theses, which is that the modern world is in need of a new mythology, and that is what Ulysses is, in my view.

My best advice is to just read it, don't go to book of notes and annotations to find out what something means or to find out something you don't understand. There's plenty that will go over your head, but if you try to find it all from one reading, you'll never get through. Joyce himself said that he left enough secrets and bits of junk in the book to have scholars pour over it for centuries to come. In fact, there are just as many critical studies of Joyce as there are of Shakespeare (maybe more!).

Now, to contradict myself, there are two books I will recommend that may aid you in your reading, as far as plot and chapter synopsis will go. Stuart Gilbert's study is highly regarded, but even more I would recommend Anthony Burgess' "ReJoyce." It's an excellent book, and covers the Wake as well. Hope this helps.
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Post by Monoimus » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

On 2004-07-14 00:33, grdnfrk wrote:
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?
I have not had the pleasure- or should I say pain?-of reading Joyce. However, I do feel that Joyce is an exemplary model of what modern art and literature was doing at that time. Both authors and artists became increasingly more diffcult to understand. Hence ,along with Joyce, we have D.H. Lawrence,T.S. Eliot,and William Butler Yeats as well as Ezra Pound and Kafka.

Ezra Pound felt that words were like "machines". The poet Carlos Williams said that the poem is a machine made up of words.Modern architects thought of houses as machines."High Modernism" peaked in the 1920's with Joyce's "Ulysses" and Eliot's "Wasteland".

"Joyce experimented with stream of counsciousness style,plunging the reader within the fluid,shifting free-flow of his character's psyches.Joyce and Eliot rejected the straighforward and rational flow of the story or theme.They also rejected conventional character development instead favoring a fragmented style".

This type of writing lead many of modernism'authors and artists viewing themselves as an "exiled,alienated, cultural elite". Thier style excluded the middle class, who could not understand it and gave rise to a kind of "priesthood" of scholars and critics. Thier "calling" of course being to guide and explain modernism's mysteries.


Hope that helps.

Asked at one time if he believed in God, the controversial but influential depth psychologist Carl Gustav Jung gave a famous reply: "I do not believe. I know ."
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Post by mythelanie » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

I wonder if... once our words have evolved to the point of being no longer recognizable to us... say a thousand years from now... as olde Englifh is now no longer recognizable from our current English... will Joyce still be accessible?
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Post by fnngnswk » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Certainly there is a progression to Joyce's works, from Dubliners to Portrait to Ulysses to the Wake. Each more challenging (and in my opinion more rewarding). To me, the Wake is an endless book, one that in re-reading I may lose the thread of and suddenly click into the vibe of it and come alive. The older I get, the more books about this book I collect, each with wonderful new insights and directions, that show that the Wake is a well conceived and executed masterpiece.

That its truths are difficult to unravel in the manner of most popular fiction perhaps harkens to physics: the Wake requires so much energy to crack, that when it does release its moments of humor, or of truth, the fire is intense.

And the Wake is many things: the Unified Field Theory of All Myths; it is a great series puns and jokes; it is a dream; it is a palimpsest of lives. The Campbell book is one fine resource, as is William York Tindall's Reader's Guide to FW (and some similar explications). One I have found incredibly interesting is Bishop's book Joyce's Book of the Dark.

Unless you are a well-versed philologist, the Wake is no easy going. Without some good groundwork of mythology, ditto. And frankly, the Wake is maddening at times. But it's definitely one book I'd take if stranded on a desert island.
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Post by cadfael » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Hello All,

I am half way through A Picture Of the Artist As A Young Man. It is an easy book to read and I enjoy it quite well. It is important that one should read that novel before going on to Ulysses. Well I read that in the inroduction. No I have never read Ulysses, but I have seen the film adaptation and liked it. Really to me it just carries on the the ideas in Portrait. The only difference is that you have an additional character(Leopold Bloom) and an older Stephen Dedalus. Yes, the book is harder to read than Portrait ,but then a critic once put forth the idea that in a lot of cases regarding that book we will never have a full understanding of everything that he wrote, so some aspects come down to interpretation. I suggest getting the movie from Fire Side Video and some books at the library that would offer some insight. I of course am smiling like the Cheshire Cat because I see Ulysess as Portrait extended. The End is rather interesting. Before I part, I shall say that I think the book follows the idea of one having his or her own personal Mythology-just pray(those agnostics out there)that you are not a cuckold like Mr.Bloom!!!!!!!

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

Some suggestions for the Joyce-drawn reader:

Treat yourself to Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce. Easily the finest available, and a wonderful read (as is anything I've read by Ellmann).

Ellmann's ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY. I read this only after reading ULYSSES for the first time, which I would recommend. This sequence may not be essential to your reading style, but if I'd read Ellmann's brilliant and poetic analysis prior to my first reading, some of the uniqueness of my own encounter with ULYSSES would have been lost. I need an initial "I-Thou" relationship to a story and prior analysis would have been an obstacle to that.

Finally, a talented family member writes about James Joyce! Stanislaus Joyce, the brother of James, in a book smaller than DUBLINERS, gives us a warmly written and profound account of the man: MY BROTHER'S KEEPER. He, too, was baffled by his brother's absolute indifference to aspects of life that did not help him with his current creative project (the rise of the Nazis, for instance; or Joyce's barely subdued resentment of his own children). I hope this little jewel is still in print.

Like a number of writers on this forum, I give myself labors of love in the form of reading lists to be completed over a given period of time. I did that with Joyce, including his various essays and letters, and have never regretted it. I must admit, however, that the more self-consciously erudite his style became, the less human appeal it held for me.

But the beauty of his language is frequently breathtaking (especially if you're reading some of those long sentences aloud!). And the SKELETON is helpful, although in this instance you might want to read it before taking on the original, or after a few pages. Someitmes the "Thou" of an I-Thou story-friendship makes demands that are, well, more than a wee bit narcissistic.

So is Joyce worth it? There's only one way to find out!
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Post by Martin_Weyers » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Thanks for your estimation, DAE! I remember Joe Campbell recommends Richard Ellman's book as well, in the Companion book. There he talks about the discrepancy of one's life and one's work - Joyce as a model for Joe's idea about the arts, not as a model for life...

"The only one who knows this ounce of words as just a token,
is he who has a tongue to tell but must remain unspoken." - Moondog

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

This is my first post, and on an issue that has shown little activity for quite some time.
I find Joyce fascinating, and enjoy the "word world" he creates, especially in Finnegans Wake. For me, it is the sheer play of language in his most ambitious works (Portrait, Ulysses, and FW) that makes him worth wading through (and it is wading--through the unconscious, the undifferentiated, the labyrinth of Dedalus).
Apart from the more challenging fictions, though, the sheer beauty of the story "The Dead," the last in Dubliners, is unmatched.
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Post by Martin_Weyers » Fri Feb 23, 2007 3:22 am

Welcome, nocprof,

at this place of joy and bliss - and aesthetic arrest, of course! I hope you'll stay for a while, to share your personal oberservations!
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