The book is about how language can be warped and changed by our drifting thoughts. It is the quintessential “stream of consciousness” work that touched off an entire genre of similar works by writers including Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
At the time it was revolutionary. Not just because it was a different style of writing but also because it broke the bonds of literary convention. It toyed with the art of narrative by freeing itself of simple things like punctuation, paragraph formatting and much more. It has several languages in it and even some music. There had never been a literary work like it, at least not until Finnegan’s Wake.
So much about the world has changed since the incarnation of Ulysses. Music, painting and art in general seems took off in directions thought unimaginable. I have a deep respect for Joyce because he was the first artist to stand up and tell the world that they are free to create art as they want to. He told artists they didn’t have to conform to centuries old dogma about aesthetics. Music doesn’t have to be an orchestra. Painting doesn’t have to be realistic. Sculpture doesn’t have to be lifelike.
So is it any wonder that not long after Ulysses was published, jazz music took off? Is it not strange that a young Spanish artist named Picasso took hold of the art world for 50 years?
As any type of artist can tell you, one of the happiest feelings in the world is when you create something spawned from a free mind. That did happen to me once when I was in college. I was in an art class and painting with oils. I always had an image in my mind that I wanted to transpose to a canvas but I would invariably adulterate it once it was painted, often times smearing the paint to tame the stark, broad brush strokes.
Then one day I was working on a painting that was simply a man working in a cotton field. I brushed him in a very 2-D fashion but when it came to the field, I wanted something with high contrast, extreme texture. I didn’t want to screw it up. So I tried something different. I told myself that I didn’t care how it would turn out, I would simply let go. If the painting turned out to be a mess, so what? I vowed to do what came naturally with the brush.
It turned out well. Very well actually. The rest of the class loved it and how the man in the center of the painting contrasted with the thick texture of the cotton field. More than anything though, I loved the painting because I made it free. It was a feeling that I wanted to accomplish almost more than the actual work.
I’ve never been able to do that on the keyboard though. I’m not much of an artist but I love that painting for what it represents. I desperately want to do that with my writing but it hasn’t happened yet.
I want to make my Ulysses.
Joyce shifted the world of art in ways that most could never imagine. Simply put, without him, there might have been no Elvis, no Beatles, no Jackson Pollock, no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Orwell, no Plath, no Miles Davis, no jazz, no freedom. Joyce forged the path many refused and subsequently opened the doors for all that chose to be different. Maybe some of those things would have come along without him, but not as soon or in the manner that it did.
Anyone who enjoys rock music, wildly off-beat literature, and avante-guarde art owes Joyce thanks. Yet, sadly know one knows who he is and too many in this world deny his genius because they can’t understand his syntax. Woolf, who worked with Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, dismissed Ulysses as silly. Yet, most literary scholars now consider it the greatest work of the 20th Century.
As for me, I hope some day that I can achieve that freedom in writing, regardless of what anyone thinks of it. Even if it is a literary mess, I hope it can reach some level of artistic freedom.
There really is no other feeling like it in the world.