Joyce is modernism’s household god. Or is he?

Dear Jim,

Interestingly, due to a quirk with my Internet provider, when I hit the “Reply” button to respond to you, your e-mail fills with strange typography, making it difficult to decipher and highlighting the printed nature on the page. How appropriate for a discussion of modernism on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday.

Back in high school when my best friend and I were cutting our teeth on Ulysses we used to celebrate Bloomsday every June 16. These festivities featured a lot of Guinness stout—after drinking two or three bottles of which we’d begin reading sections of the novel out loud. Sometimes we’d begin at the beginning, with “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan … ,” and sometimes we’d dip into the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter to sample the lampooning of various literary epochs, and quite often we would hitch a ride on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy for five or 10 minutes. And every year, after the Guinness got us into the mood, we would recite the lush, febrile prose of the Gerty MacDowell section. On a beach at night, Gerty MacDowell watches a fireworks display, while a man, a stranger, stands close to her doing something to himself very much like fireworks exploding. The entire scene is written in a breathless romance-novel style the comedy of which we failed to pick up on, so distracted were we by Gerty’s transgressive excitement at being made the object of erotic delectation.

One hundred years after Bloomsday, I can say without a doubt that Ulysses was the book, more than any other, that made me want to be a writer. It changed my life and removed the other possible lives I might have had. And yet what, as teenage devotees, did my friend and I actually understand about Ulysses?

We knew the basic story: On a single day in June of 1904, Leopold Bloom takes a walk through the city of Dublin, while back at home, his wife, Molly, awaits her lover, Blazes Boylan. We could have charted the mock-epic correspondences between Ulysses and Homer’s The Odyssey. We knew that this novel was “experimental,” but since it was the first novel we’d ever taken super seriously, its experimental qualities came to us not as elements of a revolutionary literary method but as established doctrine. Lack of punctuation, word combinations (as in the phrase “scrotumtightening sea”), discontinuities of narrative, formal shifts, and stylistic metamorphoses—this was literature.

The book’s chief impact—and since we’re trying to figure out what Ulysses, and, by extension, what modernism means to us today—was the sense of the novel as a religious object. To read Ulysses initiated you into a mystery cult. It set you apart from other people, other kids at school, and if you were growing up in the suburban Midwest, it opened up a world where art, deep learning, and the mastery of language were the things that mattered.

So before I respond to your thoughts, Jim, and discuss modernism, I want to emphasize how much Ulysses formed my identity, or my sense of my own identity, long before I knew what modernism was.

In 1975, I was a kid happily living in post-Christian America. That was something I took for granted growing up in my agnostic, non-church-attending family: The movement of history was taking us beyond religion and superstition. If you lose your religion, you look for something else, and in my case this was writers and writing. The Modernists styled themselves as secular priests. Stephan Dedalus turned down the Jesuits for the spiritual calling of being an artist. Dedalus was Irish, like me, and had a strange Greek name, like me, and liked to write, like me, and so I identified with him and, after a while, with his creator. During my freshman year of college, while other kids were spiking their hair into luridly colored Mohawks, I wore dark suits and round glasses like Joyce and carried a pharmaceutical-supply cane around in the hope that it would seem like “an ashplant.”

Now, in my so-called maturity, I am less stupid. And less influenced by Joyce in my daily literary practice than I expected to be. I’m able to place Ulysses in literary history and have developed some ideas about that history that I think are pretty close to those you just stated. Let me try to give a shorthand description of what modernism is, or was, for me, and, by defining its reasons for coming into being, contrast them with our situation today.

Your idea that modernism arises out of an obsession with what to do with the literary past is astute. I totally agree. Ulysses was Joyce’s own response to his literary past. In that single book he recapitulates not only the original Homeric epic but just about every literary epoch thereafter. While he’s doing all that, Joyce manages to tell a story that has never been told before—about Dublin and Dubliners—while sending up every established mode of storytelling.

Modernism arose out of fatigue and self-consciousness. At a certain point (let’s say 1904, why not?) the heaviness of the European literary tradition, the baggage of what over here (I’m writing from Berlin) they never tire of calling “bourgeois culture,” became too great, and the only way to escape from the parlor room of this culture, with its antimacassars and overstuffed sofas, was to break through the wall. So a writer like Joyce, who began writing lean, naturalistic stories, came to write big novels that increasingly subverted narrative rules. If bourgeois culture perpetuated itself through its accepted literary rules, then to reveal them for what they were­­—conventions, not absolute truth—was to attain a measure of intellectual, even spiritual, freedom. The reason we’re still talking about Bloomsday 100 years on is that Joyce’s achievement transcended literature and came to represent, for even those who have never read the book, something fundamental about the 20th century: consciousness. Modernism at its purest was a form of self-realization. It woke the reader up to the systems of meaning imposed from outside, from culture and tradition and blind faith. Modernism was very much about going inside the mind to see how it works, what historical detritus is piled up in there. It’s no coincidence that Joyce is the master of the interior monologue.

You and I went to college during the heyday of deconstruction. Back then semiotics appeared to be a new, breakthrough discipline. But now it seems to be a continuation of modernistic principles, exposing the philosophical biases of language itself. The question for us is, what shape is the bourgeois parlor in now? Should we mess it up some more? Kick a few more holes in the door, shatter the windows?

I get a sense your answer is no. After Finnegans Wake, I myself don’t see a way to proceed with the Joycean project. He took that as far as humanly possible. When I think of Joyce’s achievement, I’m staggered. That man could walk on water. But following him brings a risk of drowning.

Now before I go on, I want to register my uneasiness with what I just said. I’m fearful of the complacency of a certain anti-Modernist, antiexperimental stance that’s becoming more and more fashionable these days, even in literary circles. Experimentalism always seems dead until some great new experimentalist comes along and breaks the mold. A new experimental novel would look, or read, like nothing we’ve seen before, and if one ever comes along I will be very happy to see it. But I agree with you that the moves people make today to seem antitraditional are enervated in the extreme: the footnote thing, the author appearing in the book, etc. I am yawning even thinking about them. The most successful original work right now will arise from a more subtle pushing along the margins rather than from a frontal assault on narrative or sentence structure. I agree that Sebald is a prime example of this. In terms of my own work, I’ve tried to “make it new” either with content, for instance having a hermaphrodite narrate Middlesex, or with voice, as with the first-person plural narrator of The Virgin Suicides. Joyce is still in the background for me. Like Ulysses, Middlesex is also a mock epic. And I took the idea from the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Ulysses to have my book reprise, in a sort of quiet, underground way, the history of literature. Since the book was about genetics, it seemed right to make the novel itself a kind of novelistic genome. But I never wanted this kind of formal play to upstage the main story itself.

Two last points before I sign off.

I depart a little from your idea that everything comes from the Romantics and the Romantic creation of the self. For me, Joyce’s subject was not the self so much as language and the way the self both consists of, and curiously dissolves within, language. Leopold Bloom isn’t really a character with a self. He’s a walking reference book.

But I agree with you about Proust. I’ve never felt that Proust was a Modernist. I always thought they misplaced him in those survey courses. You’re right: He’s a late Romantic. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is an exploration of the self, the deepest ever made. Just because some of the pathways Proust’s thought, or sentences, took corresponded to interior musings of Joyce, doesn’t make Proust a Modernist.

When I was younger, I always thought that Joyce would be the most influential writer of the 20th century. Now it seems to me that Proust is. More books bear his mark than Joyce’s. Maybe the question for writers right now is whether to follow the Proust-Romantic route or depart from it. If so, how? Anyway, I send this back to you now. And don’t forget. You’re going to tell me why English-language culture ended in 1977. Maybe I’ll tell you, later on, why the new “multicultural” novel isn’t really new at all.

Best, Jeff