A World of Waste, Stripped of Transcendence: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ at 100

Jared Marcel Pollen
Jared Marcel Pollen
13 min read


Few novels become institutions, to have departments rigged up around them, whole constituencies and spheres of scholarship, as works of lifelong study, fascination and confusion. Ulysses, whose publication centenary will be observed on February 2nd, is one such book. Like Marx’s Kapital, Joyce’s door-stopping opus has kept academics well fed and reliably employed for generations; it has kept grad students busy and ambitious readers cringing under its weight. It has been endlessly finessed and deconstructed, yielding piles of scholastic matter, commentary, analyses. It is a book that—despite being frequently listed as the “greatest” novel of the 20th century—few have actually read. People feature the book on their shelves, its spine pristine, like an action figure unopened. One wishes to be seen reading it in public, and completing it is considered a badge of honor. More than any other novel, Ulysses has become our obscure object of desire, the eminent fetish of our literary culture.

This is appropriate, in its way, since this is exactly the world in which Ulysses is set: a world of quirks, bores, longueurs, curiosities, and perversions—and it is the recurrent synthesis of all these things that push the novel forward in the absence of dramatic movement. It is not narrative, it is rhythmic. It doesn’t work through linear, or even non-linear­, progression, but through a repetition and layering of theme. Most novels do not work this way, which is why Ulysses frustrates readers. If you try to read Ulysses as you would any other novel, you will invariably find yourself asking: “What is the point of this?” “Why does this matter?” “What is being accomplished here?” All novels that experiment with form teach you how they should be read, but some have a steeper learning curve than others. Ulysses, which is a kind of anti-novel, is a plunge, and demands to be read on its own terms.

Crucially, the world that Joyce creates is one in which everything is reduced to mere matter: ideas, technology, news, history, religion, myth, literature, the body, and the modern metropolis are all gathered into a heap of debris. Readers who jokingly refer to the novel as a phonebook are righter than they know. The book is a directory, an information system (Joyce even went so far as to claim that cabbies ought to read it in order to memorize the map of Dublin). It is packed with facts—streets, addresses, advertisements, headlines, businesses, products, family histories, the names of thousands of citizens, living and dead, references, landmarks, locations, every tram line and every station. In a word, the book is full of junk. Unlike well-behaved novels, which make an effort to avoid junk and toss out what is unnecessary, Ulysses leaves it all in. In doing so, it attempts to assimilate our fat, encyclopedic lives. No other novel of the modern era captures (to scale) the emergence of a world in which everything has become “content.”

The key here is in the relationship between junk and art in the economy of objects/information, in which word and waste—“The letter! The litter!”—are constantly in flux, cycling and metamorphosing. Joyce would take this a step further in Finnegans Wake, whose central image is a dunghill, a “middenhide hoard of objects,” which is called up again and again “by a commodius vicus of recirculation.” In Ulysses, everything, including people’s inner-monologues, are part of the furniture. Everything is simply a thing—stripped of transcendence, dying but never dead, because it is always being reincarnated. The most prescient critic of this was Walter Benjamin, who pointed out that objects were robbed of their “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction, and who described history, in materialist terms, as a “pile of debris.” In the absence of aura, we install a fetish, a busy impulse to caress, collect, and consume. And like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Ulysses is a bricolage of banality and triviality, which collects and reuses the detritus of culture and capital.

Joyce undertook a major artistic transformation in order to achieve this, at risk to his own gifts. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his first novel, is an unimprovable masterpiece; there isn’t a comma or a clause out of place in it. But Ulysses is a highly imperfect novel (by design), and shows a serious lack of editorial rigor. This is clear based on what we know of the book’s composition. It began as a short story, to be added on to Dubliners, and exploded into a 730-page tome. Oxford scholar (and Joyce expert) Jeri Johnson notes (in her introduction to the Oxford World Classics reprint of the 1922 text) that “Joyce’s method of composition was almost entirely accretive. That is, he virtually never deleted a line.” He worked piecemeal—first writing a draft and then inserting into it all sorts of notes that he’d collected over the years. In 1931, literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote that Joyce had put “too many things” into his book. But these “things” are not just wallpaper, or even atmosphere. They are the novel’s very essence, and like its characters, we as readers are continuously submerged in them.

The actual story of Ulysses (such as it is) proceeds in an elegantly simple way: a meek, middle-aged, Jewish Dubliner named Leopold Bloom leaves home on the morning of a June day in 1904, and ambles around the city, haunted by thoughts of his dead son, as his wife Molly, who is disloyal to him, readies another cuckoldry. At the same time, a young, lapsed Catholic named Stephen Dedalus, recently forced to return home from self-imposed exile, also strolls the city, haunted by thoughts of his dead mother and his absent father. The two eventually intersect, have a conversation, walk home, then part. They are wanderers, looking for one another. In finding the young man, the old man hopes that he can install him as a son to resurrect his lifeless marriage. But that’s not really what happens in Ulysses. What happens is everything else.

Over the book’s 18 “episodes,” the three main characters all find themselves drifting among the dross of modernity, at various registers of what Nabokov described to his Cornell students as “the theme of the latrine.” As an advertising agent, Leopold Bloom is a maker of middlebrow objects, and he lives among the junk of commercial culture. Bloom is intelligent and sensible in a middle-class way; we’re told that he has “a touch of the artist” about him. He is empathetic and has a sense of how things should look. He gets ideas for ads throughout the day, and critiques others that he sees. As Joyce’s archetype for a kind of everyman, Bloom longs for a simplicity that the novel never shows him. In the penultimate chapter, as he lays down in bed, face adjacent to his wife’s bottom, his thoughts reach for a kind of grace, a paring down of all things:

What were habitually his final meditations?
Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.

This, ironically, is a statement against the novel itself—the very opposite of the journey we and Bloom have just taken. And it is at this moment, as Bloom drifts off to sleep, that we enter Molly’s consciousness.

Molly Bloom is low-brow, a singer, a vulgar artist, who exchanges her gift for money in clubs and concert halls. We’re told that she likes trashy, 19th century romance novels (Bloom even procures one for her during the day, titled Sweets of Sin). As a touring singer, Molly prostitutes her talent, as her lover and impresario, Hugh “Blazes” Boylan, takes her on tour, acting as a kind of pimp. Molly, therefore, is not in control of her own voice. It is fitting then that the monologue that closes the text—a rambling logorrhea—is in a voice that is thoroughly her own. The decision to give Molly the final word is essential. In a novel that is full of words, Molly is the word made flesh. She is the book embodied, and her coda is an accretion and an affirmation of all things.

Whereas Leopold Bloom is an everyday craftsman, Stephen Dedalus is a craftsman of the high-kind, a poet stranded in a sea of philistinism, trying to shed the scholastic and religious waste of his youth. Stephen’s thoughts are abstract fragments, dredging up images, turns of phrase, and bits of scholarship, amid windy surges of pomposity that are often self-regarding. Unlike Molly, Stephen refuses to whore himself out for money, and feels guilty even taking pay for his work as a schoolteacher. He is just as prolix as Molly, but there is something decidedly less unshaking in his verbosity—he can barely reach the end of a thought without it falling apart.

Stephen, the protagonist of Portrait, and Joyce’s alter-ego, has had his poetic ambitions denied. In the final section of Portrait, he stands on a beach, watching a “bird girl” bathing, her long legs in the water. (This is one of the many epiphanies of the novel.) Soon after, he wonders “can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art?” At the close of the novel, Stephen vows to leave Ireland, to Paris, where he will create. When we pick up with him in Ulysses, a year later, he is back in Ireland, and the beach is strewn with waste:

The grainy sand had gone from under his feet. His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada. Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily…Broken hoops on the shore; at the land a maze of dark cunning nets; farther away chalkscrawled backdoors and on the higher beach a dryingline with two crucified shirts. Ring-send: wigwams of brown steersmen and master mariners. Human shells.

As Stephen walks along the flotsam and jetsam, his thoughts spill out in an alliterative tumble of memories, verse, scraps of French, anecdotes, lines from Hamlet, half-remembered names and conversations. Looking out at the sea, he tries to collect the moment and compose a poem, but it falls to pieces. He reflects:

Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara [a Sanskrit word meaning eons]. Pico della Mirandola [a legendary 15th-Century Italian polymath] like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once…

Here, the epiphanies that were so profound in Portrait are now but decaying pages in libraries. Stephen feels the breeze on his face. It goes up his nose, passing through him, in mockery of Shelley’s image of the poet as the Aeolian harp over which the wind passes and makes music, the process by which the mind becomes a “receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.” At roughly the same time Stephen is walking in the wind, Bloom is in the outhouse, breaking wind, as he reads articles from a magazine called Titbits. “Something new and easy,” he thinks. “Print anything now. Silly season.” Bloom fancies maybe doing a sketch for the magazine, and his thoughts soon drift to poeticisms (“Evening hours, girls in grey gauze”) before tearing out a page and wiping himself with it.

The world of waste provides the epic setting for the modern myth. In From Cliché to Archetype, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the city as a vast waste land, junkyard, or museum of artifacts is the theme of all the epics from the Iliad to Ulysses. The city as center of consciousness is also a vast middenheap of discarded clichés whose retrieval forces upon them an archetypal character.” In epic form, Ulysses thus obliterates any distinction between thought and things. This creates a unified field in which the inner-monologue is broadcast on the same wavelength as the clink of hooves, the shout in the street, the pub piano, the church bells, the toilet flush, the rolling of the sea.

It is this obliteration that characterizes the flow of Joyce’s prose. In Ulysses, that thing we call “stream of consciousness” is utterly different from the internalized rhythms we find in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner. It is, rather, an externalized rhythm, the voice manifested in the world of things. We see this throughout the novel, as the authorial voice shifts seamlessly in and out of character’s perspectives. Sometimes we don’t know who’s talking. This is exploited further by the various literary parodies that Joyce employs throughout the novel: the cheap reportage style of the scene in a small diner (Episode 16: Eumaeus); the play script (complete with stage directions) in Episode 15: Circe, the novel’s climax; the carousing polyphony of Episode 11: Sirens; the Catechismal Q&A of Episode 17: Ithaca; and in the Aeolus chapter, Episode 7, where the drama and the character’s thoughts are literally made into headlines. Characters speak in the language of their environment. They are what they eat.

The most excellent parody appears in Episode 13: Nausicaa, told in the bourgeois prose of women’s periodicals. It is the story of Gerty MacDowell, a teasing “chance encounter” between her and Bloom, one that is riddled with tired novelties, mixed metaphors, pseudo-profundities, and cringing bits: “Wonderful eyes they were, superbly expressive, but who could trust them? People were so queer.” And, “Her words rang out crystalclear, more musical than the cooing of the ringdove but they cut the silence icily.” In this scene, we see that the same waste-strewn beach that Stephen strolled along in the morning is now strewn with dead language. It is a testament to Joyce’s courage—and his selfishness—that he was willing to write so badly for so many pages (one senses him taking joy in it). But this is deliberately thematic. Again, we observe that the style itself is dead matter. In his lectures on Ulysses, Nabokov rightly described these clichés as “bits of dead prose and of rotting poetry,” and argued that what Joyce does “is to cause some of that dead and rotten stuff to reveal here and there its live source, its primary freshness.”

This happens at the climax of the Nausicaa chapter. Gerty notices Bloom watching her; she lifts her dress to reveal her garters, and Bloom has his famous wank, simultaneously peaking with the explosion of fireworks over the bay. During this breathless, headlong rush, the style crumbles, and as we come down, the hackneyed phrases diminish and are gradually replaced with Bloom’s observations. It is a brilliant shift, a masterful scene, and it is appropriate that some of the worst prose of the novel is accompanied by some of the most beautiful. As Bloom recomposes himself, the sun sets and his thoughts turn to Molly, who at that moment is finishing her tryst. Bloom sees a bat darting back and forth in the twilight, and his formulations are poetic in their childlike wonder and simplicity: “Like a little man in a cloak he is with tiny hands…” And right after: “Howth a while ago amethyst. Glass flashing.” After junk we get gems.

The prose of Portrait consists of smooth 19th century sentences; but Ulysses is another world entirely. Its sentences belong to the world of the telegraph, the radio, the newspaper. The short staccato clauses read like telegrams. Stephen is a poet of the book age, and we see his attempts at linear thought crumbling before modernity. Bloom, on the other hand, is a poet of the newspaper age, and his thoughts are all information and full stops:

More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot. Then lump them together to save time. All souls’ day. Twentyseventh I’ll be at his grave. Ten shillings for the gardener. He keeps it free of weeds. Old man himself. Bent down double with his shears clipping. Near death’s door. Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them…

The only form big enough to assimilate all these voices—all these clippings—is a broadsheet. And Ulysses is what a newspaper would read like if newspapers were 700 pages. It even has a dateline: June 16th, 1904. It is an epic that gathers, investigates, and reports on everything. Again, we see parallels with Benjamin. As with The Arcades, the narrative form of Ulysses is that of a newsfeed, with its fragmented, juxtaposed sections, and its many voices all streaming at once. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce would actually refer to this as the daily “twitterlitter” and “the all nights newsery reel.” McLuhan, whose own Joycean background formed part of his media-theory, pointed out in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, that “it was not through the book but through the development of the mass press, especially the telegraph press, that poets found the artistic keys to the world of simultaneity, or of modern myth.” Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the first poets of the newspaper age, made use of this same arrangement in his famous work, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. This is because, as McLuhan put it, “the popular press offers no single vision, no point of view, but a mosaic of the postures of the collective consciousness.” And it is exactly the newsfeed format that allows Joyce to access this simultaneity, where everything—history, allegory, myth—is layered in a great, all-consuming Now.

The feed, in this case, is highly symbolic, as it is also the great waste collection system, working through accretion and excretion. This is clearly dramatized in the outhouse scene, when Bloom wipes himself with the magazine (which is later recalled with great bathos: “Moses, Moses, King of the Jews” who “wiped his arse on the Daily News”). Joyce understood the relationship between consumption and expulsion, and the scene presages the way people now take their phones to the toilet. When we next see Bloom, he is at a newspaper office, watching “HOW A GREAT DAILY ORGAN IS TURNED OUT.” This time though, the organ is a newspaper. In the same scene, Bloom wonders: “What becomes of it after?” Toilet paper, kindling, something for a dog to pee on, packing for meat, fish, parcels, broken glasses—“various uses, thousand and one things.”

The world that Ulysses creates is a return to a kind of tribal consciousness, which is also the nature of the digital age in which we now live—one that is polyphonic, disembodied, full of dreck, distraction, diversion, and detours. This is exactly what the book does—like Dedalus and like Bloom: it wanders. The act of wandering itself becomes part of the quest for purification (again, recall Bloom’s last thoughts as he drifts off to sleep). And, as McLuhan expands: “Only by a conquest and occupation of these vast territories of stupefaction can the artist fulfill his culturally heroic function of purifying the dialect of the tribe, the Herculean labor of cleaning the Augean stables of speech, of thought and feeling.” In other words, clichés are a lower form of archetype, and their discharge becomes the archetypical quest.

This purification of the dialect is the very thing that Stephen sets out to do at the end of Portrait: “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Bloom also longs for this same distillation. Through both of them, we see that the wandering hero, the wandering Jew, the poet, the waste manager, and the purifier are all the same thing. Purification of dialect is what novels and poetry do. Great works manage to achieve this, and in doing so, they climb above the waste of history and into posterity. The avant-garde arose partly against the insidious middlebrowing of all culture. It was a violent reaction to kitsch, to a world of junk. Many artists attempted to discard this. Joyce embraced it, he swallowed it all, on a scale that only the culture itself can. Ulysses is a realization of Mallarmé’s remark that everything in the world exists to end up in a book. For that reason alone, it is the most important novel of the modern era.

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Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness. His work has appeared in LARB, Tablet, Liberties, and 3:AM. His debut novel, Venus&Document, will be published in spring 2022.