Ulysses and Art

“Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

There are as many types of art as there are artists. Each one, from a universe of her own construction, sends signals across unimaginable distances of space and time, to the receptors in her audience. The compositions of Mozart, written centuries ago, sound as fresh as any 21st Century artist still finding their voice. Paintings on the walls of caves, from tens of thousands of years ago, by artists lost to time, will communicate their messages to people who will be born thousands of years in the future.

Art can provoke or pacify, in the seasons for each. One piece of art can reach out a hand of hope to one of us while simultaneously slapping another in the face, and what shocks one generation will soothe another. Once the boundaries have been pushed, new beauty will be discovered in what had been unexplored territory.

Two thoughts struck me while reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. The first was amazement. The idea that any person could present such a manuscript to an agent or publisher with any hope of seeing it in print is still difficult to believe. And not just because of the time in which it was written. In fact, if anything, it would probably be even more unreasonable to expect its publication today.

My second thought was, of course it was banned. This book was written in 1921 and contains scenes like this one, from a 200-page section of the book that is written as a play and in which the main character, Leopold Bloom, is transformed into a woman:

Bello (a pimp):

“my boys will be no end charmed to see you so ladylike, the colonel, above all. When they come here the night before the wedding to fondle my new attraction in gilded heels. First, I’ll have a go at you myself. A man I know on the turf named Charles Alberta Marsh (I was in bed with him just now and another gentleman out of the Hanaper and Petty Bag office) is on the lookout for a maid of all work at a short knock. Swell the bust. Smile. Droop shoulders. What offers? (He points.) For that lot trained by owner to fetch and carry, basket in mouth. (He bares his arm and plunges it elbowdeep in Bloom’s vulva.) There’s fine depth for you! What, boys? That give you a hardon? (He shoves his arm in a bidder’s face.) Here, wet the deck and wipe it round!

Even its greatest admirers will admit that Ulysses is a difficult book to read. Joyce does not offer a lot of assistance to his readers’ comprehension, preferring to keep an uninterrupted focus on his singular and groundbreaking interpretation of what is possible in a novel. But there are also moments of observation that would fit in a more conventional book, as in this excerpt from the question-and-answer portion of the book:

What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising, and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her powers to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.

Tomorrow: Ulysses and The Law

Published by mikepowernyc

New album "Observations" available now. A veteran of NYC’s underground music scene, Mike Power played on the stages of such beloved lost venues as CBGB’s and Kenny’s Castaways, as well as stalwart surviving ones like Arlene’s Grocery and the Bitter End as singer/songwriter/bassist with Late Model Humans. In 2020, quarantining from the global pandemic he worked remotely with other artists to record a collection of new music called Observations, that infuses his punk roots with introspective acoustic pieces.

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