Meanings

    James Joyce, photograph by Sylvia Beach, Paris, Bloomsday 1925. Image courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Used with permission.

James Joyce, photograph by Sylvia Beach, Paris, Bloomsday 1925. Image courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Used with permission.

I’ve been reading and enjoying James Joyce’s Ulysses since first reading it in 1974. I remember asking my college professor, “Can someone who doesn’t know The Odyssey (the Greek story on which it is loosely based) make sense of this?” I asked because many sections of the novel were confusingly complicated…I was struggling through my first reading. Her answer was, “Yes, the association just lets you enjoy another level of meaning and interpretation.” Her answer opened me up to “levels of meaning” and I’ve been reading Ulysses that way ever since: a conundrum of meaningful entertainment.

Joyce, I think, created a richly blended world of reality and myth. Leopold Bloom, the novel’s central character, is a person who loves living life and all it offers as he wanders Dublin, just as Odysseus loves adventure and all it offers as he wanders the Mediterranean. But Bloom is not the hero that Odysseus is—he does not challenge the Sirens nor the Cyclops the way Odysseus does. I’ve come to understand Bloom’s behaviors and tastes and appetites as purely Epicurean: Bloom pursues and meets and enjoys the realities of Dublin life “with relish.” As a reader, I understand things about Bloom because they are the same and because they are different than his ancient Greek counterpart. He is completely a Dubliner, but he is mythic, too.

Other characters, other places, and other incidents in the novel have those same blended sources: part 1904 Dublin and part ancient Greek myth…and everything in between. Each time I’ve read the novel, I’ve understood more and different meanings of Joyce’s story because my own library of sources has expanded as I’ve experienced more of life, literature, and history.  My college professor was correct about enjoying additional levels of meaning and interpretation through association. For me, finding those levels is a beauty of the novel.

A few years ago, I bought the audiobook of Ulysses and was amazed at how clear and engaging the book becomes when it is read aloud in a voice tinged with an Irish brogue. I think the Irish brogue was probably how Joyce heard the book in his head while he was drafting it. The meaning of each sentence is clearer, plot developments are clearer, and characters themselves are clearer…and then it occurred to me: the producers of the audiobook have made specific editorial decisions to present the text clearly. “Read the sentence this way,” they must have told the performers. All the challenges and ambiguities and richness of potential meanings in the text are “pre-digested” by the producers…the audiobook presents an excellent single version of the book—a straight path through what can be a labyrinth of Joyce’s craft. For me, that clarity of such a complex novel is a beauty of the audiobook.

Thursday, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day on which the novel takes place. The Rosenbach Museum and Library at 2008 Delancey Place in Philadelphia features live readings of excerpts of the novel…attendees get to hear dozens of interpretations of the novel as the readers present their selections just the way they mean it.