A Joycean interlude

I just finished a five-week Zoom class with retired Dartmouth English Professor James Heffernan. Professor Heffernan is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II. Under Professor Heffernan’s guidance, we read the last five chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was the third installment of the three courses in which Professor Heffernan has taken students through the novel under the auspices of Dartmouth’s Osher (adult education) program.

Looking around online for something Joyce said about the novel, I came across Benjamin Heineman’s assessment of the novel 50 years after his first reading. And there is Professor Heffernan:

I urge that people read the first Ulysses I rediscovered, the deeply humanistic novel which is bursting with the enormous variety of life. I do have to say that my re-introduction to the novel was aided by 24 recorded lectures—simply entitled “Joyce’s Ulysses”—delivered by James A.W. Heffernan, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth (and available from The Teaching Company). Heffernan focuses primarily on the character and psychology of Stephen, Bloom and Molly but the lectures provide a guide through the chapters of the book and relate them to the Homeric myth and put them in context of other recurrent themes (e.g. Irish Nationalism). Perhaps that reading of the “first” Ulysses will provide a stimulus to explore the almost infinite dimensions of the second, literary one.

At least two of the last five chapters of Ulysses are absurdly difficult. The novel’s ending is ambiguous. For me, however, the novel had a happy ending, and not just because of the concluding chapter giving us Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness at the end of her husband’s long day’s journey. I finished it.

Molly’s husband is Leopold Bloom, the hero of the novel. He makes his living selling newspaper advertising. He is a decent if troubled man who has yet to recover from the death of his son, Rudy, ten years earlier. The novel’s penultimate chapter gives us Bloom’s nightly thoughts immediately before he falls asleep. His last thought each evening is:

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.

He falls asleep, in other words, meditating on the ultimate advertisement. The ultimate advertisement would necessarily be one “congruous with the velocity of modern life.” It must not require much thought to absorb. Bloom seems to anticipate a world whose attention span has been deformed by social media.

Ulysses itself is not “congruous with the velocity of modern life.” It is too difficult. It takes too much time to read and too much study to master. It reminded me that we need to slow down to savor the objects of our love (including the books we love). As time slows down for us on this magnificent American holiday, that is my thought of the day.



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