Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd

Joyce’s masterpiece has become a signature element in the life of the city in which it is set. But it is also perceived as a ‘difficult’ book, accessible only to a learned elite – the reverse of what its author intended

When Arthur Power visited James Joyce in Paris in 1922 the artist pointed out of the window of his apartment at the son of the concierge, who was playing on the steps. "One day," he said, "that boy will be a reader of Ulysses." It was at about this time that Joyce gave a present of the book to François Quinton, his favourite waiter at Fouquet's restaurant. Sylvia Beach noted that the writer treated everyone as an equal, whether they were waiters, children, writers, princesses or charladies. He told her that everybody interested him and that he had never met a bore.

In some ways the fate of Ulysses reflects this openness, at least in the Dublin of today. It seems a work of high modernism, in the manner of a Proust or a Musil, yet it has become a signature element in the life of the city in which it is set. Each year hundreds, maybe thousands, dress as characters from the book – Stephen Dedalus with his cane, Leopold Bloom with bowler hat, Molly Bloom in her petticoats, Blazes Boylan in straw boater – as if to assert their willingness to become one with the text. They re-enact scenes on Eccles Street, on Ormond Quay and in the martello tower in Sandycove. It is impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city.

Yet one has to ask how many of the celebrants have actually read the book. Ernest Hemingway's copy lies in the John F Kennedy Presidential Library with all but the early and final pages uncut. Many of the early editions that go on sale seem not to have known the first reader's knife. It is as if Joyce's work has been co-opted by the very art market he despised. In his Parisian years he had complained about the commodification of modernist painting: "Picasso gets 20,000 to 30,000 francs for a few hours' work, while I who laboured 10,000 hours writing each section of Ulysses am not worth a penny a line."

The man who once told Eugene Sheehy, on the steps of the National Library of Ireland, that his stomach muscles were tight from hunger might have been amazed to discover that the same library had purchased some of the manuscripts of Ulysses for €12 million in 2002. Although he would doubtless enjoy the drinks and japes of Bloomsday, he might sadly note in them the attempt by Dubliners to reassert a sense of lost community and of ownership of the streets through which on other days of the year they must hurry from one private experience to another.


It was the peculiar curse and blessing of Ulysses to have appeared just before the curricular study of English literature at third level began to develop. The book that set out to restore the dignity of the middle range of everyday human experience against the false heroics of the first World War was soon lost to the common reader while triumphing in both bohemia and the academy. Today, however, it is lost also to most students, lecturers and intellectuals. Secret amateurs still read Ulysses but as a furtive perversion to which they would never own up for fear of seeming pretentious. Most who read it closely tend, like reforming alcoholics, to join groups in which to share the challenges, as if Ulysses anticipated not only the growth of the university seminar but also the rise of the suburban book club, as a sort of antidote to the loneliness of the long-distance reader.

Mass literacy

It should never be forgotten that Ulysses took shape against a background of mass literacy and the rise of working men's reading libraries. These were the years in which HG Wells's An Outline of History sold more than two million copies and books by John Ruskin, William Morris and Thomas Babington Macaulay sold in tens of thousands. The later years of the first World War witnessed a decline in deference to church and state authority and an assertion that the working man and voteless woman were persons of dignity in their own right. These were years when democracy meant that anyone could enjoy Shakespeare and nobody spoke of Hamlet as an example of elitist art being imposed on the hapless children of workers, for in this period a radical populism meant training readers in the art of self-reliance.

After the 1920s, however, the common culture was displaced by the notion of a specialist elite. Democracy was no longer seen as the sharing in a common fund of knowledge. The belief that anyone bright enough could read and understand Hamlet or Ulysses gave way to the view that anyone bright enough could aspire in due time to become one of the paid experts who did such things. The new social movements now aimed at the inclusion of gifted souls in the dominant structure rather than the revolutionary transformation of social relations. Hence the pseudo-radical interpretations of Joyce produced over the past decades have challenged neither the growing corporate stranglehold over universities nor the specialist stranglehold over Joyce. They have in fact strengthened both forces.

The need now is to return to the innocence and naivety of a 1922 reading of the book, before subsequent readings congealed and took on the look of inevitability. Why did Joyce choose to climax it with a meeting between a younger and an older man? The need is not just for a people's Ulysses in a cheap format but for a people's reading of Ulysses, to reconnect it to the everyday lives of people, as intended by its author. The more snobbish modernists, such as TS Eliot, sought difficult techniques in order to protect their ideas against appropriation by the newly literate masses, but Joyce foresaw that the real struggle would be to defend his book and those masses against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites.

Could it be that Joyce chose to juxtapose the rude health of the heroes of The Odyssey with the neurotic, oversensitive figure of the intellectual Hamlet in order to foreground the question of the relation between practice and theory, activity and learning? In the scene in the National Library, after Stephen Dedalus has disowned his own theory of Shakespeare, the figure of Bloom appears before him, as if offering the beginnings of an answer: "cease to strive". He turns his back consequently on literary Dublin and follows Bloom out, finding the idea of everyday life more interesting.

Simple-minded notions

Bloom has himself already appeared before the reader as one who rejects all simple-minded notions of intellectual mastery. In the “Aeolus” episode he mocked the notion of a master narrative, even in something as banal as a newspaper: “It’s the ads and side features sell a weekly, not the stale news in the official gazette.” Accordingly, the wisdom he has to impart to Stephen later that night has nothing about it of dogma; rather it is about practical matters, such as why cafe chairs are piled on tables overnight, or how the intellectual and manual labourer can be as one.

Joyce rejected the idea of a separate bohemia. He did not hold art to be a sublimated sphere in which ideas denied in everyday life can alone be enjoyed. He saw the Abbey Theatre as a version of such evasiveness and in "Circe" staged his dream play as a sort of countertruth to WB Yeats's idealisations and as a mockery of downmarket bohemians. Although Joyce supported bourgeois culture he did not believe that art should be at the mercy of market forces. The irony that his self-proclaimed "usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles" has become a commercial fetish, vied for at auctions, should not blind us to its meaning. The difficulty in reading Ulysses is based not on snobbery but on the desire of a radical artist to escape the nets of the market. The "usylessly unreadable" book becomes an attack on a society that prizes narrow ideas of utility; it respects the masses by showing them what they might become rather than adapting itself to their current state.

The underlying intention was that anyone reading Ulysses might claim to be an expert, at least in the sense that everyone present at a football game feels that a valid opinion can be offered on what transpires. The model of education offered by Joyce is one that seeks to master not the young but the relation between the generations. Bloom's goal is not to convey a dogmatic content but to draw Stephen into the process of transmission, so that the teacher turned learner can become a teacher in turn. Bloom fancies himself as a guru and even considers becoming an agony uncle in a newspaper: "Country bumpkin's queries. Dear Mr Editor, what is a good cure for flatulence? I'd like that part. Learn a lot teaching others."

If the wisdom of Bloom in the final chapters is not wholly narratable, neither is the meaning of Ulysses fully paraphrasable. For its subject is also its style, something to be absorbed into the new sensorium of a liberated person.

It is by this virtue the holy book of a new dispensation and, as such, should be available to ordinary readers as once were The Odyssey, the Bible, Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. This does not preclude a learned exegesis, or belittle the work of some specialists who perform it, but it does suggest that a truly great text can always appeal at several levels, both popular and expert.

Wisdom literature

Most academic analysts of the book would probably admit that it contains much wisdom not only about teaching but also about how to live more happily in the world – how to cope with grief, how to be frank about death in the age of its denial, how women have their own sexual desires that are not always compatible with those of men, how the language of the body is more elegant than most words, how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke, how to purge sex of possessiveness, how the way a person eats food indicates who such a person might really be.

How can Ulysses have been so misread and misunderstood? Why has it been taken as a product of the specialist bohemia against which it is in open revolt? Why is it felt to be unreadable by those ordinary people for whom it was intended? The notion of its difficulty has scared readers off, but so has the silly propaganda for its monumental perfection. Roddy Doyle was nearer the mark when he said that Ulysses in many passages still badly needed an editor.

When, after the second World War, bohemia broke out and became the new middle-class leisure lifestyle, Joyce's assumption that there was never any deep-seated conflict between bohemian and bourgeois helped to secure his speedy assimilation to the canon. But it was mainly the corporate university that took over the readings, not the liberated individual reader. It proclaimed Joyce the supreme modernist technician and neglected Ulysses as wisdom literature. Yet Bloom's commonplaces are everywhere in the text, especially whenever he overlaps his role of adman with that of anthropologist, as when he studies the female communicants at All Hallows and says, "Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first."

This is an edited version of Declan Kiberd’s essay Ulysses and Us, from Voices on Joyce, published by UCD Press