“No I said no I won’t No: On not Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses” by Duncan Stuart

No I said no I won’t No: On not Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

by Duncan Stuart

“I cannot believe that anybody, who has the patience

and the literacy to read and understand this book [Ulysses],

would be likely as a result to be corrupted or depraved,

though he might well be depressed.”

– Sir Theobold Mathew, 1950


“Anniversaries are complex and often embarrassing events” Geoffrey Bennington once noted, and centenaries are even worse. Very few human relationships make it to the one hundred year mark, but many objects do, especially cultural objects. This year marks the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first published on 2/2/22. Ulysses towers in our cultural imagination, a central (the central?) work of 20th century literature, a definitive moment when what it meant to write and even read decisively changed. The book takes place on a single day, June 16th, and centers on one Leopold Bloom and his adventures in one single city, Dublin. Intensely focused in its setting, the book executes its narrative over several hundred pages (supposedly the book, set over 24 hours, takes about 24 hours to read aloud). The day Ulysses is set is widely known as Bloomsday, and is celebrated with readings of Ulysses as well as Joyce’s other works. Joyce is, more than any other writer, the continual object of celebration and study. There are entire journals, institutions, enterprises dedicated to his life and work. There is even an event called ‘the Joyce Wars’, an 1980s standoff between two Joyce scholars that had copies of The New York Review of Books flying off the racks. How embarrassing then that I have never read Ulysses. At least not cover to cover. 

No doubt I am not alone here. So for those of you who will also find this centenary embarrassing, I offer the following reflections, not on the text Ulysses but the cultural object Ulysses. Even with our glancing, partial knowledge we may just learn something about this text and indeed texts in general. Before the end we may have even read some Ulysses together, though whose Ulysses, exactly, will remain disputed until and indeed after the end.

The first time I heard about Joyce’s Ulysses was in 2011 at a beach house in Malua Bay on Australia’s South Coast. I was 17, and there with a rather – although we were yet to know of such categories -bourgeois gaggle of high school friends. Many of them went on to join Australia’s civil service, a bastion whose various departments include an exceptionally cruel immigration department and a rather Hayekian foreign affairs department (called the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, make sure when you say it out loud the emphasis goes on the last word). Standing on the balcony of my friend’s beach house, overlooking the Tasman sea, a beer illegally sat in my hand, our pseudo-intellectual topic of conversation had some how shifted to “whats the most difficult book you’ve ever read?” (In many ways I have never changed) My answer? I had recently read all of Einstein’s papers on relativity. Did I understand them? Of course not. My friend K. said that it was Ulysses that was the hardest book he had ever read. He had, on a whim, pulled it out of a box of books our high school library was giving away. “I just had no idea what was going on while attempting to read it. A state of pure confusion.” Fate is a funny thing. K. now studies astrophysics in Switzerland. As for me? Well if you’re reading this you already know what fate has befallen me. 

A second encounter. February 2012. 90 years since Joyce’s Ulysses was published, more or less. I am standing in my paternal grandparents’ living room in Wahroonga, Sydney (this is also in Australia, for those of you who read about Joyce yet are incapable of using a map). My grandparents are recently deceased. I am spending what should be my university orientation week cleaning out their house. A lifetime of materials has to be sorted through. Old papers, old furniture, old storage. Downstairs, in the spider infested basement, was my grandfather’s workshop. I sort through mounds of electronics – he was trying to build a computer from scratch  – and sort out all the valuable metals from the worthless ones. I come across old journals and letters detailing workplace strife. There is an old drill press, with an extensive handle and pulley system he devised to help him keeping working as he developed early onset arthritis. There is more of him here, in the forgotten detritus of the mundane, then there was in the final six months of his life. You are not what you own, but part of you is in those slight but indelible impressions you leave on everything, including the mere objects you surround yourself with. 

Later that day someone will come and pay me for the small mound of cooper I have extracted from my grandfather’s various failed projects. He offers an insulting amount. Amidst the stench of death, business continues unabated.  For me the prized loot comes from my grandparent’s collection of books and mathematics journals. I pull one off the shelf. Hardback, no dust jacket. Its pale green spine makes it hard to read the embossed letters which have faded with the years. It’s a 1944 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. This goes in the large box of items of my grandparents I will keep, a trove of exceedingly perishable heirlooms. 

Ulysses is a notoriously difficult book, the prime example in the genre “more discussed then read”. Other luminaries of this genre include Karl Marx’s Capital. When did I first decided to dip into Ulysses’ foreboding pages? The first mid-semester break of my first term of university, a mere four months after I had requisitioned my own copy. I had two full weeks off. My parents had, at that point, moved to Vienna and left me interred in a “college residence”, a kind of internment camp for young adults and burgeoning alcoholics. I brought to my academic cell a hand full of possessions, including my grandparents’ copy of Ulysses. 

Many of my fellow inmates would return home for the duration of the two week break. Abandoned, sans the community I was promised in the residence brochure, I found myself facing down a whole 336 hours with nothing to do. I fashioned a plan. In two weeks I would read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital as well as my grandparents’ copy of Ulysses. The first few days were a veritable orgy of literary consumption. Yet soon the flame burned out. Assignments became due, I made friends with the misfits who don’t go home for the holidays. I think I might have gotten distracted by a much less challenging Haruki Murakami book. Ah, the follies of youth. At the end of my two weeks I had forced myself through 70 pages of Ulysses and 250 pages of the first volume of Capital. I’ve picked up Capital since then, but never Ulysses.

Just as Capital has produced countless guides – one of the more famous being David Harvey’s “Companion to Marx’s Capital” – so too has Ulysses. The definitive guide to Ulysses is Harry Blamires’ “The New Bloomsday Book” (first published in 1966). It is, by its own admission, a 263-page paraphrase of Ulysses. What other book has demanded such a guide? Harvey’s book is explication, Marx does not need to be paraphrased but interpreted. Blamires, on the other hand, knows that explication will come if we shift the entire text into more straightforward register. Thus:


It is morning. The day begins with a parody of the Mass. Buck Mulligan, mimicking a priest approaching the altar, sings the introit and carries his shaving-bowl like a chalice. Stephen watches Mulligan from the staircase as he mockingly blesses his surroundings and offers to an imaginary congregation the ‘body and soul and blood and ouns (wounds)’ of a female Christ, ‘christine’, (His ‘equine’ face and hair like ‘pale oak’ hint at the treachery of a wooden horse.) The lathered water in the bowl represents the white corpuscles; the three whistles burlesque the sacring bell. Mulligan brings ‘Chrysostomos’ to Stephen’s mind because Mulligan’s gold- stopped teeth and his gift of the gab earn him the title which St.John Chrysostom’s preaching earned him, ‘golden-mouthed.’ Mulligan’s ecclesiastical mummery before Stephen is a mockery of Stephen’s seriousness, his intellectualism and his former religious fervour.


You might, perhaps, prefer this: 


Stately, plumb Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:

– Come Up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!

Solemnly he come forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak. 

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and the covered the bowl smartly.

– Back to barracks! He said sternly.

He added in a preacher’s tone:

– For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.

He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, he even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.

– Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current will you?

He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watched, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of the arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips. 

– The mockery of it! He said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek!

I cite here from the first page of Hans Gabler’s 1986 edition of Ulysses. Joyce enjoys a somewhat unique position among modern canonical authors. Widely know and less widely read is not actually the defining feature of Joyce. What is so enjoyable about discussing the fact of having not read him is a schadenfreude that maybe, in some quite limited way, no one else has as well. Both of his major texts, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, are marred in academic controversy over corrections and editions. The Gabler edition is the “standard academic edition”, yet many think that it is overzealous in its additions, distorting Joyce’s intentions. This controversy is commonly known as the “Joyce Wars”, a cultural event adjacent to the cultural object of Ulysses

The problems of edition and completeness begin at the beginning. Joyce rushed Ulysses to the printer. The book had already been partially published in The Little Review between 1918 and 1920 and generated significant enough controversy that it could not be published in either America or the United Kingdom. The solution was to have it published in France by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company. One result of this was that the typesetters and printers did not speak English. Joyce also rushed the publication to coincide with his fortieth birthday. As such the 1922 edition is considered riddled with errors. Joyce made some attempt to correct these, but mostly focused his attention on writing Finnegans Wake after 1922. 

Gabler’s edition sets out to be the definitive edition of Ulysses. The emergence of a definitive edition was not, however, a decisive event. The entire gestation of Gabler’s edition was marred from the start by Gabler’s unorthodox method. Gabler did not work off the 1922 text or any other standard edition as his copytext. Rather he used a manuscript Joyce had copied out for a collector – know as the Rosenbach manuscript – and other archival materials to fill in blanks. Gabler is said to have made some 5,000 corrections to the previous edition of Ulysses. Pick up an old secondhand copy of Ulysses and you may well be reading a slightly different book.

I first learned about the Joyce Wars in 2018. It was via an article, circled among my friends, about the “Missing Joyce Scholar.” Gabler’s edition produced an immense amount of controversy. At the center of this conflict was one John Kidd, a Joyce scholar convinced that 80% of Gabler’s corrections were unnecessary. Indeed Gabler’s team of academic advisors had begun to have serious doubts about his methodology while he was working on his edition, and it was only on the insistence of the Joyce Estate and the publishers that his edition was pushed through. Kidd was unforgiving in his criticisms of Gabler. Kidd made a big and convincing enough stir to get not just a job but an entire institute at Boston University. Now it was truly time for the definitive edition of Ulysses

After a few years, however, Kidd disappeared. Some of his colleagues thought he was dead. Rising pressure at Boston University – he mistreated his students, was notoriously difficult to get along with – meant that Kidd’s definitive text never materialized. In 2018 Jack Hitt tracked Kidd down to Rio de Janerio, Brazil. I am not making this up, the American literati are all somehow named after characters from a Broadway production.

When I read Hitt’s article one part stuck out to me. Kidd hands Hitt a copy of “A Little Larger than the Entire Universe”,a collection of poems by Fernando Pessoa. At the time I read Hitt’s piece, Pessoa was becoming more and more popular, and in 2018 I remember my friends coming across his work, they themselves having heard his name in the august literary publications of Australia (decisive in the antipodean context was the 2016 publication of Michelle Cahill’s Letters to Pessoa). Pessoa I have read. Not the Book of Disquiet nor A Little Larger than the Entire Universe but a small and strange collection of his poems entitled The Mad Fiddler. One can always start out of order and out of joint, if one can handle the ensuing embarrassment. 

In 2021 Richard Zenith published a biography of Pessoa in which he address briefly Pessoa’s reaction to Joyce. Zenith cites a small piece of paper where Pessoa records his reflections on Joyce. They are less than positive:

The art of James Joyce, like that of Mallarmé, is art preoccupied with method, with how it is made. Even the sensuality of Ulysses is a symptom of intermediation. It is oneiric delirium the kind treated by psychiatrists—presented as an end in itself.

A literature on the brink of dawn.

Zenith identifies Pessoa as one who uses language for precision as oppose to innovation. Joyce represents the latter tendency. Kidd’s mentioning of Pessoa is passed over in silence by Hitt, a mere example of Kidd’s total commitment to literature (he has filled his edition with marginalia comparing different editions). Yet just a few paragraphs later we will learn the fate of Kidd’s definitive edition of Ulysses

When I pressed him on real-world specifics, the manuscripts, the work that must have been on disks somewhere, he recalled that, yes, he had assembled a draft of an edition with a complete introduction. One of Kidd’s editors at Norton, Julia Reidhead, confirmed that both existed but said that one delay after another — “an infinite loop of revision” — ran into the legal wall of new copyright extensions, and so Norton “stopped the project.” One Joyce scholar remembers reading the introduction but no longer has a copy, and Kidd doesn’t have one either. Instead, we are left with bizarre relics of what could have been. Early on in the Joyce wars, in fact, Arion Press issued a new edition of “Ulysses” that included some of the preliminary Kidd edits. The book was luxurious, with prints by Robert Motherwell, and only 175 of them were printed. I found one for sale on Amazon. The seller wanted $25,678.75.

In the absence of Kidd’s edition, the Gabler is now the standard edition. Kidd’s swapping of Joyce for Pessoa marks, it just so happens, the abandonment of Kidd’s edition. 

When I tried to read Ulysses all those years ago, in my no doubt old error filled edition, there was always one scene etched into my mind. Bloom at the butcher shop. Ordering meat, eyeing a girl, and suddenly the butcher shop and the girl merge, her buttocks described as hams. I can’t check my old edition, it is locked away in storage in Sydney. Yet I recall an effortless transition, a sort of rolling description of various meats, until suddenly you realize the moving hams must be the behind of a lady Bloom is following. Here my faulty memory is itself a wholly unique edition of Joyce. I’ve tracked down this passage, which I’ve recalled from memory for a decade, only to find I am not the authority on my own experiences. Here is the scene as it unfolds in Ulysses:

The porkbutcher snapped two sheers from the pile, wrapped up her prime sausages and made a red grimace. 

– Now, my miss, he said.

She tendered a coin, smiling boldly, holding her thick wrist out.

– Thank you my miss. And one shilling threepence change. For you, please?

Mr.Bloom pointed quickly. To catch up and walk behind her if she went slowly, behind her moving hams. Pleasant to see first thing in the morning.

Here, just for good measure, is Blamires’ paraphrase: “The girl is served and goes out. Bloom gives his order quickly; he would like to catch her up and follow her home, taking pleasure in the movement of her hips.” 

Across three recountings of essentially the same passage there is a world of difference. My faulty memory too is some kind of record – albeit subjective and personal – and each one is a different literary experience. The question here is not one of what constitutes the text proper. Neither my recall nor Blamires’ paraphrasing are Ulysses. But Ulysses is also not quite Ulysses. It is a problem of authority and of traces. And if we’re will to accept that the question of literary authority is vexed, that canonical works enter our zeitgeist in myriad and indelible ways, than there is perhaps some room for my circuitous reflections, as embarrassing as they are.   

Joyce famously said of Ulysses that “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Joyce may have achieved his immortality – his books have outlived him, certainly – but one wonders what role his errors play in this immortality. The French poet Paul Valery famously remarked to Edgar Degas that the work of art is never finished, “only abandoned.” The continually abandonment of Ulysses, from readers and from academics searching for the definitive text, keeps the work eternal. Joyce thus also lives on through errors, both his and ours. I don’t know when I will finally get around to reading Ulysses. After everything I’ve read about Gabler’s edition I think I’ll wait till I am reunited with my 1944 edition. I suspect neither Joyce’s legacy nor his tome are going anywhere anytime soon. Until then let a thousand Blooms bloom, as it were. ♦

Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer living in New York City. His writings have appeared in Jacobin, Cleveland Review of Books, Demos Journal and 3AM Magazine. He can be found on Twitter @DuncanAStuart.

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