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?


softdrink said...

I'm okay with Bloom's everyday, average Joe-ness and his lack of heroic qualities. The only thing I'm worried about is that he might not fight for Molly (although, granted, she doesn't seem like much of a catch). But he obviously adores her, so I'm not understanding why he seems so blase about Blazes.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Fizzy - I actually quite like Molly - and Leopold. The second half you learn more about Molly and, I think, it's easier to like her there. The Blazes thing is much stickier though, and was frustrating for me to unravel all the way until the last chapter...