April 7, 2011
Why did you decide to
write this column in question-and-answer form?
Good question! As a tribute to a single chapter in Ulysses, the 70-page chapter
known as the "Ithaca episode," the penultimate section of that otherwise
overrevered modernist classic.
Does it have another
It's also informally known as the "catechism" chapter. It's the one
that precedes the climactic Molly Bloom soliloquy and the one that many skip
over to get to Molly's sexual meditations. More saliently, it's the one that
is written entirely in question and answer formin tribute, parody, and
affectionately snarky celebration of the interrogatory rhetoric of the theological-indoctrination
Why undertake this task
Two reasons. First there was the recent London Sunday Telegraph list of the
50 most overrated novels. Actually the way they put it was "Not the 50
books you have to read before you die," as a sort of swipe at literary
bucket lists. And on top of the list, number one with a bullet, was Ulysses.
How did they characterize
They said: "Only a 'modern classic' could condense one man's day into an
experimental epic that takes years to plough through. If the early description
of the protagonist going to the lavatory doesn't make your eyes swim, the final
40 pages, untroubled by punctuation, will."
Was this fair?
Obviously it was deliberately mean-spirited, but on the whole Ulysses is due
for more than a little irreverence. People still speak of it in hushed tones,
perhaps hoping nobody will ask them about the parts they skipped over.
So you do think Ulysses
In general, yes. Loved Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, but didn't need it blown
up to Death-Star size and overinfused with deadly portentousness. Ulysses is
an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory,
show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts
at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate
the time they've wasted reading it.
Why so hostile?
For one thing, Ulysses gives a bad name and a misleading genealogy to "experimental
literature." For another, it's the source of similar bloated mistakes by
What do you mean, "misleading
genealogy" of experimental literature?
The thing that's so galling is, of course, that all Joyce's tired and antiquated
modernist tricks had long been anticipated by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy,
that amazing 18th-century novel that eclipses Ulysses in every way and shows
how we've lowered the bar for anointing innovative literary "geniuses"
And what later artists'
I'm thinking of Thomas Pynchon after V. and The Crying of Lot 49, his two masterpieces.
I think it's clear that his followup, the bloated and nearly incoherent Gravity's
Rainbow, was his deliberate attemptout of a misguided reverence for Joyceto
create a Ulysses of his own. It's a mode of sloppy giganticism he's suffered
from ever since.
So why are you rushing
to the defense of just this one chapter in Ulysses?
Because I don't believe the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. (Yes,
I know, this is just the sort of cliché Joyce ridicules in the Eumaeus
chapter.) Ulysses is best looked upon as a grab bag of great riffs and long
stretches of tedious pretentiousness. All too many readers give up on Ulysses
before Buck Mulligan finishes shavingthe silver shaving bowl is like an
ecclesiastical salver, see! Isn't that profound?and never reach that beautiful,
tender and meditative semifinal "Ithaca" chapter with its Q&A
format. The one chapter you should read before you die.
Why not the final Molly
Bloom chapter, the one I always hear about from Ulysses defenders?
I find that men should refrain from commenting on the Molly Bloom soliloquy
because they almost always make fools of themselves in doing so.
It's almost always a transparently sneaky attempt to promulgate the notion that
they know what they're talking about when it comes to women and sexuality. Almost
all male commentary presumes the commentators have privileged access to the
secrets of feminine sensibility and thus are qualified to judge whether Joyce's
rendition of Molly's soliloquy captures it fully. It's a surefire test for phonies
in that department. Not to mention a sadly overused seduction ploy by sad-sack
English majors. Pity the poor women who have to put up with multiple renditions
of "I really related to Molly Bloom, you know."
OK, then. Aside from
"Ithaca" are there any other aspects of Ulysses you find worthwhile?
I do love the "Oxen of the Sun" episode, in which Joyce writes chronologically
successive rafts of prose that replicate the stylistic evolution of English
writing from Chaucer to the present. It's skillful and funny and offers a tapestrylike
illustration of the progress of language and rhetoric, style as content.
So what's the problem
I like the Oxen chapter for all the wrong reasons: It's a hermetic riff that
invites you to join the secret society of English majors who take a selfish
delight in its conceit (and in theirs). The chapter may be considered a minor
tour de force, but it calls too much attention to its showy device for its own
good. (Full disclosure: I was an English major, if you haven't already guessed.)
But you've also written
fondly about the 30-page Hamlet discussion in the "Scylla and Charybdis"
All right, it's true, in The
Shakespeare Wars I pay tribute to Joyce's quite tender and loving speculation
about the emotional resonance of one putative episode in Shakespeare's life.
It's based on the apocryphal story that when Shakespeare was an actor at the
Globe, he played Old Hamlet, the ghost of young Hamlet's murdered father. And
thus at that moment when the Ghost cries out to Hamlet on the stage, Shakespeare
wassince he'd lost a son named Hamnet (or Hamlet) when the boy was only
11 in some poignant, resonant way crying out to his lost boy from the
realm of the living to that of the dead. It's just about the only biographical
speculation about Shakespeare I have any patience for, and that includes Stephen
Greenblatt's elaborate but unfounded fantasy about the origin of Shylock, and
James Shapiro's baseless sophistry about how Shakespeare supposedly wanted to
cut Hamlet's last soliloquy.
Aren't you digressing
from the subject here?
Yes! That's the reason I like the Ithaca episode. The second reason. The Q&A
form allows the Questioner both to digress and to interrupt digression piling
upon digression and get the Answerer back on topic.
What did Q interrupt
An incipient digression on my part about a long-running scholarly discussion
over the relationship between the names "Hamlet" and "Hamnet"
(always interchangeable back in the 16th century?), which would have obscured
my main point.
Joyce was onto something if not historically then heartbreakingly, metaphorically
true when he conjured up a ghostly Shakespeare calling out to a lost Hamlet.
Was there anything else
you liked about Ulysses you're holding back on?
Well, the spelling of the sound the cat makes in the opening of the Leopold
Can you elaborate?
OK, everybody likes the opening of the Leopold Bloom section: "Mr. Leopold
Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fouls. He liked thick giblet
soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs,
fried hencod's roes."
I'm not hearing anything
here about the cat sound.
OK, OK. The "cat-echism," you might say, comes just a couple paragraphs
later. Joyce renders a hungry morning cat's imploration as "Mrkgnao!"
an achievement of undeniably felicitous genius and accuracy that transcends
by far the conventional "Meow."
You're digressing again.
Let's get back to the Ithaca episode. Why do you like it so much?
Well, consider the four questions it opens with. (I've omitted the answers.)
"What parallel courses
did Bloom and Stephen follow returning [from Dublin's 'Nighttown']?"
"Of what did the duumvirate deliberate during their itinerary?"
"Did Bloom discover common factors of similarity between their respective
like and unlike reactions to experience?"
"Were their views on some points divergent?"
What is it you like
so much about a narrative proceeding this way?
Well, I think the signature of bad writing or writing that hasn't been polished
is the false or the forced transition. Q&A narrative pretty much dispenses
with any pretense at smooth transition, thus avoiding the problem. It's abrupt,
playful, and it recognizes the two primal curiosities that enable narrative
drive: the desire to know "what happened next?" and the desire to
know "just who is this person or persons to whom whatever it is that happened
And what makes that
different from ordinary narrative?
Well for one thing it introduces two new characters, Mr. Q and Mr. A, who hover
namelessly over the two previously established protagonists' wanderings and
converse about their personalities and past and present situations. After a
while Mr. Q and Mr. A turn out to have divergent personalities of their ownand
divergent situations, in the metaphysical scheme of things.
Whatever do you mean
How does Mr. A know so much, is he the Creator of everything in the book? Does
A stand for author? Has A authored Q, too? And Q's questions as well? But Mr.
Q seems to be in some different space or place than Mr. A. It's dizzying in
a pleasurable way, the thinking about fiction this chapter gives rise to.
Well, ordinary narrative often takes these things for granted or makes you feel
unsophisticated for wondering about who the narrator is and how much he or she
knows. There's something touching about the way this narrative seems to care
that you know certain things. Ordinary narrative acts as if it doesn't care
what you care about, only what it cares about and acts all superior by making
you guess why. The Q&A form makes you wonder why you wonder why. It's not
about piling on literary tricks, so much as dismantling them to see how they're
What's the most revealing
of the first four questions?
The answer to the fourth question on what points their view diverged: "Bloom
assented covertly to Stephen's rectification of the anachronism involved in
assigning the date of the conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from
druidism by Patrick son of Calpornus, son of Potitus son of Odyssus sent by
pope Celestine I in the year 432 in the reign of Leary to the year 260 or thereabouts
in the reign of Cormac MacArt ..."
What has that got to
do with the price of eggs?
Well, it suggests the comfortable interchange of two people who differ in many
ways but are both erudite in a geeky way and the spiritual communion their geekdom
affords them. (I also love that he slips that "Odyssus" reference
Is there more to it,
your interest in the catechism narrative method?
Well, to be honest I've only recently become fascinated by the catechism chapter
and the way it uses Q&A as a narrative and meditative technique. But I love
the way the form can both move things forward and also allow them to pause.
To be endowed with unexpected and often surprising depth, detail, and dimensionality
through the use of the interrogative (sometimes the interrogation) mode.
But that's not all,
Jeez, you're getting personal. If you must know, I've actually been experimenting
with the catechismic method as a way of doing fiction, wondering whether an
entire novel could be told that way.
What kind of novel?
A New York love story.
So what was the problem?
Well, the technical problem that besets me is my affinity for digression. I
had resorted to using this catechismic technique to overcome my tendency to
pile digression upon digression upon digression rather than moving the narrative
Explain your epiphany
in this regard.
In seeking to describe the Tribeca party where my protagonist met his new love,
it took me so long to get past my many observations concerning the hors d'ouerves
that I had finally out of frustration cap-locked: COME ON DAMMIT, AT LEAST DESCRIBE
THE DRESS SHE WAS WEARING!! And I realized I heard an echo of the impatient
catechismic Mr. Q, and suddenly realized why Joyce liked it. The way it cut
through the endless possibility of digression and gets to the heart of the matter.
Are there any other
reasons you want people to read the Ithaca episode?
Well, to name just one, I think it offers some of the most beautiful passages
Joyce wrote in his entire oeuvre.
The one that begins with Q asking, "What spectacle confronted them when
they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity
by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?"
And A answers: "The
heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit."
And then the next three pages of transcendently beautiful prose consisting mainly
of Bloom's meditations upon the constellations and the moon. Some of the most
lyrical and spiritual writing in all Ulysses.
What is your advice
to the reader of this column?
Don't die before you read these passages.
Describe her dress.
It was a short black sleeveless shift.
A Betsey Johnson.
Was there a special
significance to that dress?
yes he said yes