The Quiet Radicalism of James Joyce’s Ulysses

On Bloomsday, we’re celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s one of the greatest novels ever, and it calls forth a world where every named and unnamed minor character gets to be the hero. What could be more socialist?

James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland. (Fran Caffrey / AFP via Getty Images)

Today is Bloomsday, an annual celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Ulysses describes a single day in the life of modern Dublin, on June 16, 1904. Famously modeled on The Odyssey, its narrative is focused on two characters, Leopold Bloom, a middle-class everyman and Stephen Daedalus, a downwardly mobile intellectual. Its world, however, is populated by many other men, women, and children from all walks of life.

Ulysses is also a microcosm of the material forces that govern life: it explores everything from the colonial nation-state and the capitalist economy to matters of class, race, gender, sexuality, and belief, ultimately wondering what it might mean to be alive in the modern world. Ulysses is, for its most affectionate readers, a living picture of the infinitely complex calculus of human action and desire.

Containing this much, and that’s not to mention the meditations on Dante and Shakespeare and any number of other titanic figures, perhaps it goes without saying that Ulysses has a reputation for difficulty.

According to Joyce, Ulysses was to be a unique challenge for the reader. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” he said, “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” But thinking of Ulysses solely on these terms, as a riddle to be solved by professors, threatens to obscure what many readers find so enchanting about this book: the abundant joys to be had between its many hundreds of pages and with its places and personalities.

Though I now teach classes on Joyce to university students, my initial encounter was unique because I first read Ulysses before knowing anything about Ulysses. As a working-class lad that didn’t grow up with books, I bought a copy only because it had an interesting cover and a cool-sounding title.

Unlike anything else, the figures I encountered in this book were familiar and vital as human. My sense of them was warm and beautiful and stupid and ugly and sad and funny, and the prose from which they emerged was like an atmosphere unto itself. The time spent with a language that was both deeply familiar and profoundly alien, a world that was both mine but so concretely elsewhere and for others, made me want to spend my thinking life doing something with books — helping others feel and experience something similar, perhaps.

Despite what some might say, then, Ulysses does not belong to the cultural or social elite, and it is certainly not the property of middle-class literary sorts. Instead, Ulysses is a book that tries harder than any other work of fiction, in the substance of its language and the telling of its tale, to project a world of inalienable freedom and solidarity between all people, and especially those who must work in order to survive.

Ulysses is, without ever announcing as much, a masterpiece of socialist literature. Today we should celebrate it on these terms.

Of course, Ulysses enjoys a contentious record within historical socialism. Addressing the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934, Karl Radek denounced Joyce, claiming that “Ulysses is a spider’s web of allegories and mythological reminiscences … it is a dung-heap swarming with worms, photographed by a moviecamera through a microscope.”

Closer to our own day and age, Jeremy Corbyn triggered a centrist meltdown by announcing Ulysses as his favorite book. He described it accurately as consonant with his political vision:

Joyce references and richly describes what’s happening in the street. So somebody is holding forth about a big political issue and then the refuse cart goes by. Whenever there is a big political issue on, I walk around the streets in my area. We might be totally obsessed with Brexit or some other issue but many people are not. Their daily lives are more important. Politicians should never forget that people have lives to lead and they often have dreams they don’t talk about.

More than just chalking up political capital, this is also good literary criticism. In a subsequent Bloomsday interview when Corbyn was quizzed about this apparently eccentric choice in reading material, he offered some of the best advice newcomers to Ulysses should ever hope to receive: “stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes. Read a little bit at a time and think about it and then move on, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t understand it.”

What often goes unremarked is the extent to which Ulysses, a thoroughly anti-colonial and anti-capitalist text, repeatedly signals allegiance to the forefather of scientific socialism: namely, Karl Marx — a figure who is, in Bloom’s philosemitic genealogy, “a jew like me.” But what makes Ulysses radical is not its referential content. Far more significant is the way Ulysses reinvents literary narrative as a socialist act.

Like Joyce’s readers during the 1910s and ’20s, the kinds of narrative to which we are all still accustomed are about individuals triumphing, through will and determination, over their concrete social reality. While it is no coincidence that the bourgeois epoch begins with Robinson Crusoe in 1719, in which the individual’s mastery of the world enjoys almost scientific treatment, since then narrative art has continued acclimatizing readers to the egotistical calculation and selfish individualism on which capital thrives.

Ulysses, by contrast, categorically refuses that tendency. At the level of form, it reads less like a focused bourgeois novel than as a modern epic comprising numerous genres, modes, languages, and micro-narratives. These are all held together disjunctively as something like a cacophonous symphony, with each part engaging in different kinds of succession, imbrication, supersession, and supplement. The fragments of narrative content are only redeemed or elevated in their combination with everything else. This is the real meaning of two recurring terms, “parallax” and “metempsychosis,”  which Bloom is often at pains to explain, for the benefit of the reader no less than other characters.

In Ulysses, narrative means to render life itself, or individual lives, together as one within what Marxists might describe as “the unity of a single great collective story.” Each character is in every moment numerous, one of many but also containing many within itself, so that the only way of being in this world is to be affirmatively social. Ulysses thus uses its form to destabilize the exclusionary relationship that has defined all literary characterology, a relationship between the one and the many, in which the heroic individual inevitably triumphs over all else.

But this movement away from the individual and toward the collective is rarely sensed from within the story or by the characters, because it does not and cannot belong to any one character or person; instead, it takes place within the domain of narrative presentation. The form of Ulysses — its numerous styles and modes, its genres and languages, its movement between “levels” of consciousness — ultimately belongs to a “general intellect,” a shared social knowledge, here rendered as common property.

And yet, for its many glimpses of a good life built collectively, Ulysses lives and breathes, despite its innermost desires, in a colonial city riven by dispossession, alienation, and prejudice. As we now know, in the two decades after Ulysses is set and during which it written, the majority of the world veered toward barbarism, not socialism.

What Ulysses might be, then, is something like a revolutionary time capsule: a cipher of social and historical potential — of a world that it so much better than the one on offer to its characters or to us, its readers, but which has not yet come to exist. This is not the world portrayed in the narrative, the Dublin of 1904, but the world toward and into which the narrative form guides us: of empathy and warmth and communal belonging — a never ending “perfect day.” This is what Ulysses wants to create, to build for us and for everyone, one reader at a time.

Sensing this out requires time, patience, and care on behalf of the reader, resources that are in short supply now as they were in 1904 and the 1910s and ’20s, and which must be stolen back and defended with vigilance. What Ulysses wants, by virtue of its objective existence and its social persistence, is a world in which all the Leopolds and the Stephens, as well as all the Mollys and Gertys and Purefoys and Mulligans, right down to every named and unnamed minor character — who is always going to be the hero of one story or another — will have freedom from necessity so as to share in the joy of this most joyous of all books, and the freedom for all of us to do so together.