What Powerful Writing; I Just Read “Ulysses” by James Joyce

I enjoy my lawyer world in which words are extremely versatile, powerful, and often play out on the tipping scale of success or failure (both in litigation and non-litigation).

Compare, as a simple example, the two sentences: “The respondent’s assertions frustrate the permissive mandate of Code Section 2056″ versus “The respondent’s assertions obstruct the permissive mandate of Code Section 2056.”  I am not suggesting one sentence singled out alone necessarily makes a difference;  but the greater weight of an abundance of words used effectively in persuasive writing can, in my view, greatly help move the reader both intellectually and emotionally in your desired direction. Stop for a moment and ponder your own reaction to the above “frustrate” versus “obstruct” distinction, and how the words shade the nuance and impact of the sentence.

I also enjoy reading for pleasure and often react with virtual awe in response to certain writers’ use of words and language.  My recent reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses has stunned me with its powerful effect.  I don’t think “stunned” is an overstatement. I have had Ulysses on my tentative reading list for years;  but kept putting it off. I was aware from hearing and reading comments from others that Ulysses would not be an easy task to complete.  It was not easy.

For this brief blog post, I attempt below to state why I reacted so favorably to Ulysses. But, and this next point sounds like new-age mumble-jumble, my attempt below to express these reasons falls way short of my overall joy and reaction to Ulysses. Also, I fully admit I am no scholar or expert on Ulysses or James Joyce. I am merely a reader. One other preface point I make here is that the entire Ulysses novel takes place only within one day:  June 16, 1904, in Dublin.

Here are my eight brief points:

One. This also sounds new-age; but as I was reading Ulysses, and now after finishing it, I find myself in a kind of foggy, joyful awe. I tell my friends that Ulysses is a miraculous work. It has powerfully affected me in a way that I believe is a permanent, positive change.

Two.  This positive change is that Joyce, by depicting in Ulysses only one day in the life of his characters — June 16, 1904 — describes that life in a way that makes me now more aware of appreciating, and continuing to ponder, the vast richness that our daily lives make available to us. Each day is a tremendous event in life that, if we are attuned to life, has a depth and richness we tend to forget when we persistently ponder yesterday and tomorrow.

My above comment also is not along the line that we should be grateful for each day.  There is nothing necessarily wrong about the platitude of being grateful, but that is not my point. Rather, each day has its own richness and fullness that can contribute to our joyful experience of life, regardless of whether the day might appear quite mundane on its surface.

Three.  The way in which Joyce displays this one June 16th day is the miracle. To preface my point here, think for a moment about what happens when you attend a dinner party.

Sure, there are various objective visual and auditory activities going on around you. The plates and forks are clinking with a steady drone. The new Lady Gaga / Bradley Cooper music is loud. The speakers don’t have as much bass as you like. You hear the kids’ TV in the other room. Susan is drinking from her new wine glasses; John is ranting about some recent political event; Mary looks older and tired as though she possibly had a long sleepless night with her new baby, etc. The sauce has a too-strong butter odor. The napkins are too thick and too rough. The lighting is very pleasant.

But, in addition to these objective / auditory activities, we persistently have a lot of other stuff going on at the same time, such as our own internal dialogue; our self-talk; mental perceptions, unspoken criticisms, judgments and thoughts about what we are seeing and hearing; our interspersed dream-like visual imagery and sounds about the past and the future; our fantasy-day dreams connected at times to what we are seeing within our surroundings (that can veer off in any number of directions, with sudden starts, stops, changes in direction, etc.).

What Joyce does in Ulysses is capture all of the above in the one-day June 16 context of his characters. I am almost certain I will again be able to read other fiction; but, as of now, Joyce presented this Ulysses novel in what I believe is the fullest, most accurate and realistic depiction of our external and internal, meandering lives.  Other fiction I will later read, I anticipate, might seem too one dimensional.  I feel as though Joyce spoiled me for other novels.

Four.  I admit I almost quit reading Ulysses at about the half-way mark. But, many readers who had already made the journey (that I found on Google book sites) recommended readers stick with the book to its end. It will be worth it, they all said.  I almost quit because briefly I felt (prematurely) like the novel was not headed in a direction that struck me;  no story;  no plot.  I could not keep up with all the details.  But, then, almost by an imperceptible degree, I began having a great feeling in general about life and about the characters in Ulysses.  Simple, daily life.  I told my wife that this feeling hit me about half-way through the book, and has stayed with me ever since.

Five.  Go back to the dinner party example above. There is a lot of stuff going on externally and internally. There is no way you can fully take all of it in. You will listen and observe only some of the external and internal stimuli. At most any dinner party you will not pay close attention to some of the activity. It is impossible to take it all in. You and the other dinner party guests will tune into some subjects and comments; you also effectively will simply let other items go by with a bare hearing or perception of the content.

Because Ulysses includes a similar vast litany of external and internal stimuli during the course of one single day, don’t expect that you will take in or be perceptive to each and every detail you read.  Rather, take it in as you would at the above dinner party.  Some items will stand out during your reading; some will not.  This is how life runs its course; in this case life on June 16, 1904. Straining to retain and digest every facet of Ulysses will ruin the reading experience. You do not need to retain and digest every facet of the day in Ulysses.

Six.  Joyce is a master with words. His writing and crafting of Ulysses strikes me as pure genius. If I had to recommend to someone a portion of Ulysses merely as one small sample of Joyce’s fine writing, it might be the start of the beach scene in Chapter 13. The intro section stopped me in my tracks. The writing is so good that I had to return and reread the opening section of Chapter 13 twice before I could move on to the end of the chapter. Click here for a Google link to Chapter 13.

Seven.  At the halfway point of reading the hard copy of Ulysses, I purchased the audible.com audio version. I continued to read some hard-copy portions, but also used this great audio version. The audio narration is superlative. Click here for this audible.com version of Ulysses. I also googled Cliff Notes for a couple of the chapters that gave me a good background understanding of those particularly difficult chapters. Three or so of the chapters I reread twice before moving on due to the powerful, weighty effect those chapters had on me.

Eight.  Reading Ulysses is worth it. I am more than delighted I completed this laborious reading journey.  My life (again, this sounds new-age-like) has been permanently changed for the better, and I have a much greater appreciation for the miraculous nuance of each single day.

2 thoughts on “What Powerful Writing; I Just Read “Ulysses” by James Joyce

  1. James:

    Having finished Ulysses, considered by many to be the finest novel ever written in English, you must now turn to Joyce’s magnum opus, Finnegans Wake. Reading the first few pages, you will think it incomprehensible and you’ll be tempted as I was to set it aside. But if you stay with it, you’ll be rewarded. In its pages, written over a span of 17 years, he uses his imagination, together with his mastery of English, to create a style of expression which though seemingly obscure is remarkably accessible. He uses words in a way that surpasses the power of language. This is his genius. Just as you marveled at the brilliance of Ulysses, you will ruminate over FW amazed that a mere man could write such a book.

    John Doran

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