You want cynicism? You want clever, obscene, hilarious cynicism? James Joyce's Ulysses is a real gusher.


June 10, 2012

You want cynicism?  You want clever, obscene, hilarious cynicism? James Joyce's Ulysses is a real gusher.

It's got give-a-shit med students, gimlet-eyed fiction writers, seen-it-all political hacks, jaded journos.  It plunks this posse down in the land of the drink-sodden sentimentalist and lets it blast away at church, nation, family, love, and death.

Yet Ulysses is actually a sentimental novel.  It recognizes that cynicism can be an ex-idealist's bitter self-defense, and it wants to rescue one of its characters - Stephen Dedalus - from the destructive effects of this tactic. 

Of course Dedalus can't be rescued via conventional treacly sentiment; once he's understood the dead end of Buck Mulliganesque cynicism, he needs to see that not all heartfeltness is a species of idiocy.


I think Dedalus begins to understand the complexity of sentiment when, during his late-night conversation with Leopold Bloom, Bloom stalwartly fails to get Stephen's cynicism.  Bloom is an earnest, sensitive man, and he assumes Dedalus is the same; whenever Stephen unloads his killing wit, Bloom attempts - in order to keep the conversation alive, the human connection going - to interpret what he has said as non-nihilistic seriousness. 

Stephen - grieving, disappointed in his writing, lonely, has given up; Bloom -  with more cause for despair - has not, and he seems to be modeling for Stephen a way to retain love of humanity as well as hopefulness.  Bloom's idealism, with its elements of grandiosity and delusion, has been massacred in the Nighttown section of the novel; but that doesn't mean we're supposed to dismiss his hopefulness and his various schemes for social improvement as absurd. 


I'm thinking about all of this because I've been sitting on the beach rehearsing the sections of Molly Bloom's soliloquy that I'll be reading at the Irish embassy's Bloomsday reception this Saturday in Washington.  The parts I've chosen have a lot of singing in them (Molly is a professional singer), and the songs tend to be very sentimental.  One in particular - Love's Old Sweet Song - has been streaming through the consciousness of various characters throughout the novel; but now, in the very late hours at the very end of this very long day, it takes on special resonance as it comes to us via Molly. 

Despite Molly's absurd preening as she imagines herself performing the song, and despite its unabashed old-timey sentiment, the song gradually become an emotionally exact summation, a beautiful valedictory, for the novel about to end.  

Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long, Still to us at twilight comes love's old song... Past twilight now, James Joyce's Ulysses becalms itself after the sad agitations of its long day; but for all the complexity of consciousness and setting the novel has explored, its essential theme has been the simple one of the persistence of human love, the persistent need of almost everyone (except for loveless cynics like Buck) for love, and the persistent ghostly power of those we've loved and lost.  Stream of consciousness sounds very grand, but in Ulysses a lot of it consists of nattering on and on with the departed or the estranged loved one, or with your sense of your own loved and lost youthful past.  As final conveyance of these themes, the corny, wistful, tuneful Old Sweet Song does very nicely.





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