Human Dignity in Joyce's Ulysses

More than one description of Joyce - and particularly the one I'm reading by Declan Kiberd - focus on Ulysses as a glorification of the human spirit, a sort of paean to real people in parallel to the paeans to idealized men that were to be found in books like, well, The Odyssey. (One could have some strong words of difference about whether Odysseus is an idealized man, of course. Perhaps that's the point). Stephen is a normal man attempting to be an idealized man, and in many way, Bloom is simply a normal man trying to be what he is.

This sort of story is a difficult one to grapple on to, of course. IT is, in many ways, the biggest sacrilege in the book - our culture, through a thousand ways, builds itself around the idea that all of us should be struggling to move up from our current position. This is the definition of the American dream, and while slightly different historically, was certainly at least the stuff of fairy tales. Great souls rise above their circumstances, the words say, and become great through sheer force of will. I don't necessarily disagree with this, I do sometimes wonder at the teaching that is inextricably attached as a verso - that those who do not struggle towards our, frankly narrow, definition greatness have failed, wasted their lives. Normalcy is mediocrity - or in an odd,  twist of fate, even sub-normalcy. People who are not 'smart' are 'stupid'. People who are not 'driven' are 'lazy'.

I don't think this is the disease, per se, I think, rather, that it is a symptom. I don't know that Bloom (or necessarily even Joyce?) would agree, but reading sections four through six, where Bloom is introduced, the power he has in my eyes is that he is never struggling for primacy. The person who need not struggle for greatness is a pretty common trope, but usually this is on, say, the Mr. Miyagi vein of heroism : one has attained such mastery that struggle is no longer necessary (I will interject here as a side note that I remain dubious that this state exists in real life). Bloom, on the other hand, simply seems apart from greatness - he sees people struggling for it, just as he sees, say religion, but in both cases, he simply watches from afar. I find this, in my own brain, inconceivable, but I so WISH I didn't.

In a sense, though, this is also the troubling aspect of Joyce - Bloom is, decidedly, not great. He is not an ideal (I think Kiberd sometimes wishes to make him one, but I think Joyce is fairly realistic about his heroes limitations). This is both the horrifying and fascinating side of Joyce. Modern stories I have read frequently have these nasty, grey-moraled heroes, but one is supposed to either bitterly accept that this is the best we can get, or roll our eyes at the awful people that sit behind the masks we worship, or simply to laugh at the vanity of human pursuit of greatness. With Joyce, there is no irony, really, in his Bloom. Bloom is, simply, who he is. And so when Joyce makes him the hero of the novel, and plots his life as a parallel of the Odyssey, it's not to mock the Odyssey, and it's not to mock Bloom. Bloom is the bona fide hero. Which puts me, as a reader in an uncomfortable position. I want to, at some level, force Bloom to start 'acting heroic', I want to have a reason to admire him. And then, I'm reminded, this is the HARD work, this is the work of actually looking to discover what basic human dignity is. It's very easy to find dignity in the classic hero (though sometimes easy to find flaws as well). I would argue that it is often even fairly easy to find dignity in the extremes that are held up as the laboratories of dignity: poverty has a rich, powerful dignity much like heroism, even crime can have dignity. Homeless people in dire suffering or starving masses in third world countries, we have learned as a society, by and large, to look for dignity here (though not necessarily to do anyhting about it, sadly, or to go looking for it).  But normal, bourgeois humanity, the lifeblood of most of our day to day interactions, we have been taught is low, callous, cultureless, personalityless. A middle class advertising man in early 19th century Dublin had the same totemic soullessness in some ways that a suburban soccer mom has in a hip, trendy book today. And we ARE in love with talking about the soullessness of 'normal' people - American Beauty, the middle section of The Hours, Pleasantville, even kid's movies like Over the Hedge make no bones about making this broad generalization, for instance.

But, that's just it - this is the sort of person Bloom is, on the outside (and in some ways, inside) level - a completely unromantic hero, undistinguished, unspecial, unimportant. If he were alive today, he'd work a vaguely roled job in HR or Marketing, maybe lower middle management in some soulless corporation (see how easy it is to say that?) and live in a little McHouse in the burbs of a mid-sized city, sometimes going in to see a show, but mostly just (somewhat awkwardly) talking to his fellows about the latest action flick, ogling girls at the office, and driving his SUV home at the end of the day. But, none of this makes him less human (even though I do love movies like the middle section of the Hours, and think there's a lesson there, too). None of this makes him less deserving of human dignity - and he does not have to break that mold to merit dignity. The protagonist in 'Fight Club' is a human being, and deserves our respect as such -- but so did his boss, or the spineless coworkers he left behind (Fight Club, in some ways (and I think in some ways purposefully) actually has a great deal to say about this demonization of the mundane).

And this is what's troubling. This is what, at some level, is the deeper part of the complaints about having to read a scene where he's sitting down for his morning poop, or worrying about the soap that he left in his hip pocket that's jabbing into him, while simultaneously not wanting to be seen moving it. Yes, these things are ridiculous. They're also part of what being human is. But it's harder than one would expect to keep that in mind while reading. At least for me - hey, I was raised on Victor Hugo, remember?

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Happy Valentine's Day

So, I love my wife, and it's Valentine's Day. And I thought, man, what should I post? It's very hard to know. I mean I could have serenaded her, but all the songs I know are musicals, and Amanda doesn't like them. I could write a poem? Sometimes that can turn out bad. And my poems can have a mixed message in them, I'm afraid...

Maybe I could enlist the help of the Lord of the Underworld?

No... no, that's a really bad idea.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proteus Chapter of Ulysses

Before I get into this post, oh my friends, I must apologize ahead of time. I'm currently reading three different books: Ulysses, Ulysses Annotated (a book of annotations on the text of Ulysses), and Ulysses and Us (a book discussing why and how Ulysses is intended for the common man, instead of intellectual highbrows) I blame this on my friends who have organized Jousting With Joyce this month. But I'm having a LOT of fun. I read the book a few years ago, and I will not link to the review - it was so awful that it's the only review I've ever actually gone back and deleted content from. But I'm understanding it much better the second time. So, the short of it is: for the next month and a half, much of this channel will be devoted to Ulysses. Which I know makes some of us cringe in terror or hatred. So, I'm sorry.
But that's just the way it is.

So, before we began the book, Jill over at Fizzy Thoughts mentioned something interesting about chapter 3 of Ulysses, a chapter which Joyce titled, after the fact, Proteus - namely that this is the chapter that most people turn away at and never finish the book. And I will confess now, the first time I read Ulysses, this chapter took me, I kid you not, a month and a half. For fifteen pages. And I didn't understand a thing in it.

Well, that's not really true. I did understand something: I understood that the chapter was in stream of consciousness, and that the consciousness being streamed was confusing and... eh... just a little obnoxious. Pretentious, snotty, and a little full of itself.  Declan Kiberd in Ulysses and Us admits this up front:
Many readers drop Ulysses at this point, finding themselves unable to keep up with Stephen's remorseless and obscure pedantry...
Yeah, that pretty much gives my initial feeling of the chapter. It's what he says afterwards that really captures how I felt reading it the second time:
...but the truth is that Joyce is laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was. Nobody could understand all that Stephen says or thinks. Nobody could take all of his ideas with utter seriousness. 
No, seriously. The closing words of the chapter, dramatic and stirring:
Behind. Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.
The 'behind, perhaps there is someone'? It's because Stephen just picked his nose and wiped it on a rock because he doesn't have a handkerchief, and he's afraid someone may have caught him at it.  So, he looks over his shoulder, to see the great silent ship, deep and powerful symbol of the child Telemachus waiting for a father to come home who he has never met, silent and forboding, is all because he didn't want someone to catch him picking his nose.

This may seem facetious, or pretentious in and of itself, to write some grand sweeping complex chapter that is essentially about a stupid college kid wandering along the beach and killing time for an hour. Maybe it is, but I don't think so. It would have been much easier to just write a snarky satire of a chapter, talking about how stupid college kids are. The power of James Joyce is that he doesn't do this - instead he simply records what it feels like to be that person. There are parts of the mind that just find this bewildering, or course, let me address that first. In some sense, like Kiberd said, it is meant to be confusing. Part of Stephen's problem is his education. If you took this chapter apart, probably half of it would be a quote, an allusion, a lampoon, or a paraphrase of the words of someone else, and Joyce argues (in a different way in the previous chapter) that education, sometimes, aims for htis goal: to make people who are good at spouting at the correct bit of information at the correct time. It's a problem that is different now from Joyce's time, where rote learning was a huge measure of academic prowess, but it is a bigger problem now, perhaps, in our time when education's purpose has been narrowed to the point where it's largely presented as nothing more than a way to ensure you get a good job someday. Even so, though, part of the problem is, I would argue, intrinsic to this sort of free association thought. Some of the things in Stephen's mind are not academic esoterica: there's lyrics to pub ditties and popular songs, there's references to Hamlet in plenty, which isn't exactly obscure, there's references to the CAtholic Mass, which most of the people around Stephen would have been intimately familiar with. The problem is, anytime you enter someone else's mind, you will find that there are places foreign to you. This is perhaps amplified by the difference in time and space between Stephen and us, and by the differences in our respective educations. But at the same time I think it's partly simply the uncrossable chasm between two souls, the fact that we can peek inside someone else's head, but never truly climb in.

Apart from the bewildering nature of Stephen's head, though, there is the pretentiousness of it. And make no mistake, it is a chapter, stuffed to the gills, with pretentious. It is very easy to dislike Stephen, here. But at the same time, I don't think that is Joyce's point - in fact, I think it says a lot about us as readers, willing to seek out clues about whether to like or dislike a person so easily. Every person is a person at some level. Stephen is  young, he makes mistakes, he can be annoying, but he's a person, and in the midst of all his wandering, there are some real, powerful, and beautiful emotions. The problem is that he does not how to pick them out of the mire. He doesn't realize that as much of the beauty comes in the 'low' as the 'high' parts of his thought, that his work scribbling a poem is far less powerful and human than his yearning for someone to love him as he thinks about the shopgirl he saw the day before, or the brooding loneliness he feels as he watches the dog running along the beach. Stephen is, simply, who he is. One may dislike him, but to hate him, that takes a special force. It is easy for me to hate some characters, because there are characters. I would present that authors construct them so that they can be hated or loved, as often as not. But Stephen is not a character in the same sense - to hate him is to hate a human - a ficitonal one, yes, but we do not have the luxury in Ulysses of having simlpy a hateable side of a person before us. If we are to love or hate anyone in Ulysses, we must hate them the way we would hate another person - which reflects and teaches the reader something about how it is that they really DO love and hate, teaches them where the line lies for them.

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America and Democray: 1850 and 2010

The last week of listening to the popular uprisings in Egypt has been deeply stirring for me. As a very uneducated but passionate historian of sorts, revolution has always drawn me to it: the Russian, the French, the American, the Haitian, even the English Civil War, in a different sort of way. There is something to a people being stirred up into something that rash that makes me feel a sort of clumsy kinship.

I've also been listening to a very intriguing book: Clotel, or The President's Daughter. Published before the Civil War in London, Clotel is usually considered the first novel by an African American, and as one would expect for it's time, it's an abolitionist polemic, following the life of a woman and her two daughters (and eventual granddaughter), whom were sired by Thomas Jefferson (just the daughters. This isn't THAT kind of book). And reading this book has made me very troubled, because it tells a great deal about America. 

Thomas Jefferson, in particular is a man of deep and powerful contradictions. On the one hand he was a slave owner who did, in fact, sire children with his chattel mistress. On the other hand he not only codified the idealistic "all men are created equal", he also gave a number of very stirring speeches denouncing slavery as a crime against liberty.

It is perhaps Jefferson's most famous quote on slavery, however, that really shows where these contradictions come from. In discussing slavery, he said:
"But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
In essence, said Jefferson, we cannot let the slaves go, because we need them to be slaves, even if that's wrong. The tragedy of this statement, of course, is that it is so easy to say when you live in a home where your luxury is made possible by the hands that you keep enslaved beneath you. Perhaps, Jefferson would argue, he was a good master and treated his slaves as best he could, but then if one had told him that George had meant to be a virtuous king this would have made nary a different in whether he was a tyrant. Keeping slavery extant for another 80 years after the Revolution - and turning a blind eye to what amounted often to de facto slavery for African American through much of the rest of American history - is not morally justifiable, it's simply politically and economically expedient.

Take a look, now, at our situation today. The biggest recipients of American foreign aid (at least the last time I heard the statistics) are: Israel, and Egypt. Egypt, in large part, because it maintains an alliance with Israel. This is a debatable policy, in and of itself, but even more troubling when one considers that through most of the time in which we gave this aid, we gave it to the government of a despotic dictator. A few years ago, when we went to war in Iraq, there were three basic purposes floated for the war: to prevent Saddam Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction, to destroy a base for Al Qaida and other militant terrorist groups, and to spread democracy in the Middle East. The first two of these reasons have been more or less debunked - Hussein didn't have any real weapons development anymore, and being a secularist, Al-Qaida was none too fond of Hussein. The third... is a trickier wicket. If we WERE, then, fighting an entire war to spread democracy, assert that human beings have an inalienable right to self-determination, then why is our response to Egypt so muted as a government? Shouldn't this be a moment for celebration, and for assisting our like-minded brothers and sisters? For using the ENORMOUS levers we have in Egypt - our foreign aid, for instance - to help those who are fighting for the cause of liberty?

Instead, our government is troubled, because when democracy DOES emerge, it's almost guaranteed that a considerable mass of the Egyptian people will vote for an Islamist party, changing the chemistry of our relationships in the region. Islamist parties are, generally, not terrifically fond of the United States, or of our ally, Israel. And after all, we have every right to look after our own interests. We cannot continue to work for good in the world if we lose the position we have in the world, now, can we?

Take a step back, for a moment, to the abolitionists. There was considerable breadth and variety in the abolitionist movement, but a significant portion of the movement was directly inspired by a fiery, fundamentalist Christian doctrine, one which, quite frankly, made government uncomfortable. Abolitionists, in fact, were not only frequently seen as terrorists, but did, in fact, commit acts that we would now consider terrorism: John Brown's raid, for instance, or the fighting funded in Bloody Kansas. Do I think this was right? I don't know. I cannot say. I can't damn them for it. Violence is awful, bloody, horrible stuff. But then, so was the violence being enacted on 6 million black men women and children. Was the plight of those people less cause for revolt than the plight of the Americans in 1776, who suffered from being overtaxed? I don't mean to trivialize the Revolutionary war, but not being able to send a representative to the parliament isn't quite the same as being a slave.

Which brings one back to today. Are the people of Egypt influenced by Islam? Certainly. Is the Muslim Brotherhood and it's Islamist agenda one of the inspirations for these protests. More than likely. But to argue that the people of Egypt should keep their dictator, or change on his timetable, is to argue that government is best when it is 'of the people, by the people, for the people, unless the people do not want what we think we should', which isn't a terribly moral high ground to take. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, could very bad things happen? Perhaps - although I think that this is partly just xenophobia. One is reminded of the French Revolution, when an angry and miserable French people let themselves be let into the monstrosities of the Reign of Terror. At the same time, it's worth mentioning that the French were isolated by all of the rest of the nations of Europe, an action that probably had a good deal to do with why the people were willing to turn to such savage shepherds.

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