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If history is a night from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, writing could be said to be a dream into which James Joyce awakened, his pen a machine to turn bad dreams into good…[1].

From the illustration copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

From the illustrated copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

In Ulysses, James Joyce plays with language and non-linear narration, disrupting our sense of time while also using the text as a demonstration of him becoming an artist. It is thus written in light of the inevitable event – the creation of Ulysses as a text, and the fulfillment of history as Joyce perceives it [2]Ulysses relies on history and its direction to make its central argument; it transforms the past to work towards this end by using mythology, national history, and even syntax. If it is as Stephen famously said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” then Ulysses is Joyce’s nightmare made into a dream.

Ulysses is able to play with categories – history, fiction, mythology, etc. – to create a narrative that is a radical break from prior forms. Its end goal is one of salvation: just as Odysseus in the ancient Greek classic Odyssey comes back to reclaim Ithaca and bring it peace, Ulysses is a prescription for the Irish nation, for the next artistic epoch, and for the modern age more generally. This essay seeks to historicize the text by tracing Joyce’s views on history and its direction, while also using Ulysses as a means with which to understand history conceptually.

I.   Joyce’s Theory of History

Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in The New Science and his other works theorized on a concept he called “corsi e ricorsi” or a cyclical theory of history. He posited that “man [creates the human world, [and] creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society” [3]. Thus, the individual is a creation of the world or, to put it alternatively, “society is a book in which to read the soul” [4]. History, according to Vico, runs in three stages – theocratic, aristocratic, and democratic or the divine, the heroic, and the human [5]. Eventually, there is a break (ricorso) and then a return to the divine, after which the cycle repeats itself indefinitely. Joyce was so moved by these theories that he himself remarked that they “forced themselves upon him through the circumstances of his own life” [6]. He also possibly saw the stages Vico described manifest in his own progression – starting from his early fear of God, to his then newfound love of his family, to his final dispossessed, ordinary state [7]. It is also likely Joyce saw in Vico’s search for a scientific form of history an analogy to his own struggle for new art or literature [8]. Both Vico and Joyce can be said to be pushing back against the authoritative traditions that have kept narratives and histories tightly sealed, and both are interested in mapping “counter-histories.” Altogether, Joyce and Vico find their answer in mythology, transforming fiction and using it to make history anew [9]. Although these might seem to be contradictory — history and fiction — they form a special relationship in Ulysses and every telling of history more generally.

In the second chapter of Ulysses, Stephen has ironic contempt for history as an authoritative subject [10]. For the students he is teaching, and also for himself, “history was a tale like any other too often heard” [11]. His students do not want to hear positivist interpretations of history as fact, irrelevant to the lived experiences of its people – his pupils simply want “a ghoststory” [12]. They turn instead to poetry and fiction by reading Lycidas by John Milton. Later in the chapter, Stephen denounces Mr. Deasy’s claims on history and his argument that its direction is “towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” [13]. Stephen so strongly disputes this because he sees it as history being destructively taken away from humanity; it obscures history as the real force it is, placing it outside of the human realm from which it was created. We see this “reclaiming” of history in another crucial passage in the text, from Scylla and Charybdis, where speaking of Shakespeare, Joyce writes: “He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible” [14]. For Joyce, Shakespeare was great because he embraced in his artistic vision the “all in all in all of us” [15]. The details of everyday life were part of his subjects. And what made him a great artist was his relationship to this World, and that he was “able to go beyond the limitations of his own ego in order to achieve the impersonality and objectivity that is necessary for dramatic art” [16]. As Vico theorized that man creates history, then is it within the artist’s power to do more than reproduce the known World; he can create it himself, and from cultural and personal fragments he can create it anew. To harken back to Mr. Deasy’s claim – it is therefore not history that tends to God towards the manifestation of His will. Instead, “it is the artist that creates the world, rather than God” [17]. And history being circular rather than linear, the artist therefore “goes forth, but returns to the same place” [18]. It is then through this intersection between history and art, as Joyce derives from Vico, that we can read the soul like a book. History is thus art’s necessary impetus. “In apprehending his soul, Stephen sees what is possible for him” [19] and, in doing so, also sees what is possible for history – be it Irish or otherwise – because the world cannot be divorced from the soul. If anything, according to Joyce, it must be viewed through it. It is through our imagination that our past becomes incorporated into our present.

II.   Meta-history and Mythology

Even though Stephen teaches history in Nestor, it makes little sense to him. Watching the schoolchildren play, he laments:

I am among them, among their battling bodies in the medley, the joust of life… Time shocked rebounds, shock by shock. Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts [20].

This is undoubtedly the nightmare of history; it is chaotic, bloody, and harsh. It is senseless, a “meaningless progression of names, dates, and places.” History is like a specter haunting the living [21]. A string of brutality, it reminds Stephen of Rome, asking Bloom in Eumaues to “oblige me by taking that knife away. I can’t look at the point of it. It reminds me of Roman history” [22]. In Eumaues, for example, the cabman’s shelter is filled with historical insight, oftentimes nonsensical. The Phoenix Park murders, the Irish nation, Roman history, Judaism and Christ, the Evening Telegraph – “all are points on an indiscernible compass” [23]. History’s presence is totalizing, almost as a thing outside of ourselves, as Haines remarks in the beginning of the novel: “we feel in England that we have treated you [the Irish] unfairly. It seems history is to blame” [24]. And too, for the Irish, “history was like a tale too often heard, their land a pawnshop” [25]. Stephen is thus trapped in its spell and Joyce, also, is under its boot for he, too, is forced to confront it to create his Irish epic.

Unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to humanize history. For it is true, “persecution… all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations,” [26] but Bloom retorts this remark brilliantly: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life” [27]. That which is really life, to Bloom, is “love” [28]. While history is a nightmare to some, it is altogether “rendered more beautiful still by the waters of sorrow which have passed over them and by the rich incursion of time” [29]. Therefore, history gives life depth – it exists in sorrow, but it also brings love and community based on shared precedent. History is also familiar, and unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to act with it. And it is familiar because it is cyclical for “history repeats itself… so it returns. Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home” [30]. Bloom thus unifies two ways of looking at experience to produce a meta-history incorporating fiction to “produce a kind of reality that… is more clearly enunciated and immediate than anything which might have occurred in documented history” [31].

It is through literature and art that Joyce is able to make the nightmare into a dream. Although history is cyclical, it is “repeating itself with a difference” [32]. This gap or difference allows for the dream. If it was a “matter of strict history,” it would not be explanatory of anything besides fact. Thus, art and history intersect on some level if we consider that narratives repeat themselves with difference, as does art and life [33]. It is all a matter of perspective. We are exposed to history in Ulysses through varying perspectives: Stephen’s, Molly’s, and Bloom’s, all of whom are no less valid in some sense than the other, along with other minor perspectives. They cycle through each other and what better way to demonstrate history as being precisely that, the cycling of perspectives. This constant shift was commented on by those who spoke to Joyce himself. After Joyce asked his friend Frank Budgen about if “[Cyclops] strikes [him] as futuristic,” Budgen responds in a fashion that (appropriately) might as well had been Joyce:

Rather cubist than futurist, I said. Every event is a many sided object. You first state one view of it and then you draw it from another angle on another scale, and both aspects lie side by side in the same picture [34].

Mythology and fiction then, on some level, are necessary to account for the gap, the difference, in history. And Ulysses is a textual embodiment of this necessity, and how myth – the mystical, fictitious, etc. – is required to make sense of history in some relevant way. A bare example would be the format of Ulysses as a text. Being based on the Odyssey, the entire novel is dotted with references to the Homeric epic poem. This mythology frames the novel beyond what could have just been a mundane, boring day. In one such instance, in Cyclops, the entire framing of Bloom and the Citizen as analogous to the battle between Odysseus and the Cyclops is a mythologized rendering of a relatively common, non-event in Irish public life. Yet, this myth gives it life for it is through fiction that we understand what is actually at play.

Mythologies are found throughout the text – from the relationship between the Holy Trinity and Bloom and Stephen [35], to even comparisons between Ulysses and Hamlet or Ulysses and Divine Comedy. These tie the connection between facticity and fiction, history and art, making both intelligible. In harkening back to previous great literature to create his own Irish epic, Joyce demonstrates what made Shakespeare so great: he was able to “actualize the real world” because he “[drew] the political reality of history out of his own ‘long pocket’ because he and the history of his nation inhere within one another” [36]. Bloom represents this actualization because for him, although history is brutal, nightmarish even, it can be redeemed. Bloom tries to convince Stephen of this ultimately and holds the key to his nightmare. He hints at this in Ithaca where Bloom discloses his meditations to “his companion” (i.e. Stephen), first talking about the vast expanse of the universe to place it all in perspective and then remarking:

… of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity [37].

Given that Ithaca relies on Divine Comedy for some degree of inspiration, the closing line of Dante Alighieri’s text is alluded to in just the few lines before Bloom’s remark to his companion. I think it is appropriate since it illustrates what the “key” to Stephen’s nightmare would bring, quite beautifully said:

[Virgil] and I entered by that hidden road to return into the bright world; and without caring for any rest, we mounted up, he first and I second, so far that I distinguished through a round opening the beauteous things which Heaven bears; and then we issued out, again to see the Stars [38].

Bloom is responsible for Stephen’s self-actualization, not just in his view of history, but in art, and in life. History is far from being alien, nightmarish, or a material force outside of us; it is rooted, if anything, in the opposite of all of this, just as Bloom exclaimed: it is rooted in “love,” the particulars that become overshadowed by history’s ghastly scope, and the interminable camaraderie that must exist for history to press onward despite the “waters of sorrow” passing over it.

III.   Conclusion

As Ulysses demonstrates, history is a spectral force. It possesses an overbearing weight, one that is felt on all levels of the human psyche. Yet, it is not rooted in anything beyond that which is human – and it is not tailored towards an end beyond us alone. Because it is rooted firmly in our own doing, it must be humanized or else it is haunting. In Irish history, or even just Dublin, Joyce hoped to find something greater than just historical particulars. Just as the Odyssey, Hamlet, the Bible, and others defined their respective epoch(s) by transcending them, Joyce hoped to do the same. Through particulars, he hoped to find the universal — that which binds all history together, and one that would represent his respective epoch.

For Joyce, history returns and comes in cycles; it is a recurring movement and a melody of ever-changing ebbs and flows. However, with each returning wave, history comes back with difference. And Joyce brought this difference to light. History alone can not do this because calculated fact-based narratives place us underneath it. Instead, Ulysses hoped to bring history closer to us. It demonstrates how a telling of history cannot distance itself from humanism. For the nightmare of history to be overcome, we must be put squarely in its reigns, to make it anew once again into the dream that it is meant to drive. We should take Ulysses to be this metamorphosis, of a nightmare to a dream.

***

[1] Christine Froula, “History’s Nightmare, Fiction’s Dream: Joyce and the Psychohistory of “Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Papers from the Joyce and History Conference at Yale, October 1990 (Summer, 1991), 857.
[2] This fulfillment is the creation of a new text for the era to fulfill the cyclical history that other great texts have done for their time.
[3] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 141.
[4] Ibid., 142.
[5] Ibid., 52.
[6] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce (New York: State University of New York Press, 1st Edition, 1987), 32.
[7] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey, 52.
[8] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce, 32.
[9] Ibid., 33.
[10] Stephen’s irony is appropriate given that Vico characterized the “human” or “democratic” epoch as one of irony.
[11] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition (New York: Random House, Inc., 1986), 21 (II, 46–47).
[12] Ibid., 21 (II, 55).
[13] Ibid., 28 (II, 381).
[14] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1041–1042).
[15] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1049–1050).
[16] Daniel R. Schwarz, Reading the Modern British and Irish Novel 1890-1930 (Wiley-Blackwell, 1st Edition, 2004), 17.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 102.
[19] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, (Bucknell Univ Press, 1st edition, 1993), 84.
[20] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 27 (II, 314–318).
[21] Robert D. Newman, Weldon Thornton, Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective (Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 239.
[22] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 519 (XVI, 815–816).
[23] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 239.
[24] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 17 (I, 648–649).
[25] Ibid., 21 (II, 46–47).
[26] Ibid., 271 (XII, 1417–1418).
[27] Ibid., 273 (XII, 1481–1483).
[28] As Joyce writes, “love loves to love love” (XII, 1493).
[29] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 272 (XII, 1462–1465).
[30] Ibid., 308–309 (XIII, 1093–1111).
[31] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 242.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 243.
[34] Corinna del Greco Lobner, “James Joyce and Italian Futurism,” Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), 73.
[35] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, 84.
[36] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition, 102.
[37] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 573 (XVII, 1051–1056).
[38] Don Gifford, Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated (USA: University of California Press, 2008), 581.

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

The Three Questions is a short story by Leo Tolstoy that was published in 1885. It contains a few moral sayings to live by, which we oftentimes just take as a given, but Tolstoy managed to keep you guessing for these answers until the big reveal at the very end.

A king poses three questions to his dear kingdom and is willing to grant a large sum of money for those that can answer them. The questions were simple.

  • What is the right time for every action?
  • Who are the most necessary people? 
  • What is the most important thing to do? 

For each question, however, he received all different kinds of answers.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right
time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days,
months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only
thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time.
Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the
right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be
absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was
going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said
that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it
was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for
every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who
would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

The answers to the second question were a bit less lettered, but still unconvincing.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said,
the people the King most needed were his councilors; others, the
priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the the most necessary.

And finally, the last question also received many different answers.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation:
some replied that the most important thing in the world was science.
Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was
religious worship.

The king was not satisfied with these responses. He decided to consult a hermit who lived in the woods beyond the outskirts of town. The king put on simple clothing and wandered up to the hermit’s house by himself without his usual guards to discover the answers to his three quandaries.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front
of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into
the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The king posed the three questions to the wise hermit, but he received no response other than a recommendation to dig. The king offered his support to the hermit, since he was weak and tired. The hermit thanked him and the king dug. After digging two beds, the hermit suggested the king rest. The king insisted he dig until he was finished and he did so until sunset. After finishing, he posed his same three questions again. The hermit responded with an observation, “here comes someone running, let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the
wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood
was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell
fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit
unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his
stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with
his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood
would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the
bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and re-bandaged the wound.
When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for
something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to
him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the
King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut
and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes
and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the
work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also
fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer
night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could
remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on
the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

After resting, the man said faintly to the king, “forgive me!” Confused, the king responds, “I do not know you, and I have nothing to forgive you for.” The man explains:

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who
swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother
and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the
hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day
passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find
you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and
wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had
you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved
my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your
most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The king was thrilled to have made peace with an enemy so easily. In an act of kindness, he then grants the man some servants, his own physician, and promised would restore the property that was formerly taken from him.

After leaving the man, the king walked alongside the porch to find the hermit. Again, he posed the three questions to him longing for an answer — the hermit responds, “you have already been answered!”

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my
weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone
your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have
repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time
was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important
man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards
when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were
attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would
have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most
important man, and what you did for him was your most important
business.

It was then the king’s questions were finally answered. The most important time is now, the one which concerns you immediately. The most important person is whoever you are with. And, finally, the most important thing is to do good with who you are with.

And, only then, did the king finally receive three true and honest answers for his questions.

*** 

The Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy

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