The author of such literary classics as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1882–1941) was one of Ireland’s most celebrated novelists known for his avant-garde and often experimental style of writing.
Philip Kitcher has taught at several American Universities and is currently John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia. He is the author of over a dozen books including Advancement of Science, Science, Truth and Democracy, The Ethical Project and Joyce’s Kaleidoscope. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was also the first recipient of the Prometheus Prize, awarded by the American Philosophical Association for work in expanding the frontiers of Science and Philosophy.
Simply Charly: You’re chiefly known as a philosopher whose work centers around the general sciences and mathematics. How did your interest gravitate toward literature in general and James Joyce, in particular? Are there philosophical themes in Joyce’s work that impinge on your own work in philosophy?
Philip Kitcher: One part of the answer stems from my having grown up in the UK at a time when students were forced to specialize around age 15. I was torn between studying mathematics and focusing on literature (English, French, and German). I chose mathematics. During my undergraduate days, I switched to the history and philosophy of science. But my interests in literature and music never waned. Shortly after I arrived at Columbia, my colleague and friend Lydia Goehr encouraged me to do something I had always planned eventually to do, namely to write about philosophical themes in music and literature.
That’s only part of the story. The other concerns the development of my work in the philosophy of science, as I found myself concentrating on issues about the role of the sciences in human lives. Particularly through my work on the human genome project I was led back to the central philosophical question of the good life. In recent years I’ve been mainly concerned with questions about values, about the place of scientific knowledge in society, and, above all, with the main themes of pragmatism. All this reinforced a long-held perspective on literature.
Joyce has been central to my reading since early in my teens. When I finally came to grips with Finnegans Wake (around 2001), it seemed a very natural place for exploring issues about how to live. In my reading of it, it’s centrally concerned with how to come to terms with a blotched and flawed life at a stage when there is no possibility of altering its central pattern. Of course, that’s only one of the very many ways of approaching this extraordinary work.
SC: Joyce grew up in Dublin, Ireland, but spent his adult life in the European cities of Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. While he left his native country behind, he never stopped writing about it. Why do you suppose this is so?
PK: When Joyce was asked, near the end of his life, whether he intended to return to Dublin, he replied: “Have I ever left it?” In my reading of his work, he was always preoccupied with how human lives can be confined or distorted or blighted. That is evident in the stories of Dubliners, which chart many ways in which the city induces paralysis. Joyce was fascinated, I think, by the difficulties of escaping the traps in which he saw so many people’s lives as captured. He probes this predicament in Portrait and Ulysses, where the lives of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly are all threatened by it—not doomed, as so many of his lesser figures are, but threatened nonetheless. Finnegans Wake returns to the theme, with an almost obsessive concern for whether escape is ever possible.
SC: Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses, was released in the same year as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In the same way that Eliot’s work is treated as the modernist poem, Ulysses is regarded as the modernist novel. What specifically makes these works modernist?
PK: I suspect that if you posed this question to five critics of modernism, you might receive at least six distinct answers. Modernism can be variously understood as downplaying the importance of straightforward narrative, eschewing realism in terms of the introduction of subjective perspectives, using references to other literary texts to offer rich possibilities of interpretation, and offering highly ambiguous characters and situations. You can find these features to different degrees in Ulysses and The Waste Land. You can also find some of them in other principal works of modernism: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Musil’s The Man without Qualities, and Woolf’s The Waves—and I suspect that you could find modernist critics ready to hail each of these as “the modernist novel.” Allusions to other texts are less frequent in Proust and Woolf; ambiguity is even more prominent in Mann and Musil; Woolf deploys six voices to show the differences among perspectives, while Proust emphasizes the changing subjectivity of his narrator.
How you think of modernism will largely be determined by which works serve you as paradigms, and which features of the works most interest you. My own inclination is to view all the authors I’ve mentioned as important modernists and to treat modernism as a family resemblance concept (in Wittgenstein’s sense). So I think all four features I picked out are important, but that none of them is “the” critical property of modernism.
SC: Ulysses has long baffled readers and challenged aspiring writers. Yet today, it’s widely considered as the most influential novel of the 20th century? Where does its greatness lie? What is so revolutionary about it?
PK: In my view, we should relax and not worry about being “baffled.” When my students tell me that they are sure they “don’t get all of Ulysses,” I tell them to abandon the idea of an “all” to be “gotten.” This is a great novel, not a crossword puzzle. You can read it every few years and discover wonderful new things in it. I suspect that it (like Finnegans Wake) is inexhaustible.
I don’t know whether it still challenges aspiring writers. The attempts I know to imitate it fall very far short. It’s not so much influential, I believe, as evidently a very great work (although, perhaps idiosyncratically, I would rank the Wake as even greater). It’s extraordinary for its observations of human life. Joyce thought that Freud had very little to teach him, since Freud underrated the complexity of the conscious mind. The prose is sometimes amazingly lyrical, often startling in its originality. The deployment of different narrative techniques on so broad a scale is breathtaking, and re-reading always discloses new types of Joycean narration. It is brilliantly funny and disconcertingly painful. To my mind, it’s a comedy in the sense of Dante’s title—and The Divine Comedy is the work most obviously comparable to it.
All that is vague. Let me be more concrete about one part of the book. Chapters 11 to 14 often perplex readers because each is marked by new and different styles. Chapter 11 (“Sirens”) presents an hour in the Ormond Hotel as if what occurs there (and elsewhere, and in Bloom’s troubled thoughts) were a piece of music. Chapter 12 (“Cyclops”) is narrated by an unnamed figure, a splenetic malcontent, who describes the events in Barney Kiernan’s tavern—and who is interrupted by voices that riff on those events in a variety of genres. Chapter 13 (“Nausicaa”) is concerned with an hour on Sandymount Strand, first using a mixture of the language in which Gerty MacDowell thinks and of the language of the magazines that have formed her tastes, and then, taking us, for the last time, into Bloom’s interior monologue. Chapter 14 (“Oxen of the Sun,” which Anthony Burgess described as the chapter he would most have liked to have written) follows the development of English prose from flat-footed Latinate constructions to the dissolution of language in a drunken argot. All of this stylistic variation isn’t just Joycean pyrotechnics or even a feast of very funny jokes (although parts are hilarious). The styles make vivid the lives of the characters—the disappointed promise of Simon Dedalus, the jabbing thoughts that trouble Bloom, the pretensions of the Citizen and the diminished lives of those who attend him, the sad shallowness of Gerty, the sleepy turning to Molly of Bloom’s post-orgasmic thoughts, the consensus among so many historically distinct voices concerning Bloom’s errant course. These chapters contain a novelistic richness unmatched in any work I know—except for the rest of Ulysses and the even greater complexity of the Wake.
SC: Joyce modeled Ulysses after Homer’s classic “epic poem” the Odyssey. Each of its eighteen sections corresponds to a specific adventure in Homer’s epic. Why did Joyce do this? Was there a specific purpose or effect he wanted to achieve? And why did Joyce choose the Latin name, “Ulysses,” over the Greek one, “Odysseus?”
PK: Joyce wasn’t entirely conscientious in his modeling of the Odyssey. At one point, Odysseus chooses to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, rather than venture through the Wandering Rocks. Ulysses contains both alternatives (including the course Odysseus didn’t follow). Sometimes the parallels are quite well developed (“Nestor,” “Aeolus”). At other times, they are obscure (“Oxen of the Sun,” “Eumaeus,” “Ithaca”). My own view is that Joyce echoed Homer selectively, subordinating the official parallels to his deeper novelistic purposes.
Joyce chose Odysseus as his hero because he thought of Odysseus as “complete” in a way most literary protagonists are not. Odysseus is a husband, a father, a son, a ruler, a man of action, a subtle thinker, and a wanderer. Bloom echoes the Homeric figure in being many-sided. In seeing Bloom’s wanderings as parallel to those of Odysseus, we’re invited to recognize the heroic in the everyday—or to appreciate the ordinary aspects of the great hero. Why Joyce chose the Latin form of the name, I don’t know.
SC: As much as Ulysses is acclaimed as one of the greatest modern literary classics of the 20th century, it has not been without its critics. One recent critic, Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars, has stated that Ulysses “gives a bad name and a misleading genealogy to “experimental literature” and that “all Joyce’s tired and antiquated modernist tricks had long been anticipated by Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, that amazing 18th-century novel that eclipses Ulysses in every way and shows how we’ve lowered the bar for anointing innovative literary “geniuses” ever since.” Do you find any merit in his charge?
PK: Absolutely none. Tristram Shandy is a splendid book. It introduces some interesting novelistic innovations—I wouldn’t call them “tricks”—but anyone who thinks that it already exhausts Joyce’s repertoire just hasn’t read Ulysses with any care or understanding: just in terms of narrative techniques, those Joyce introduces are far more numerous, more complex, and more revealing than the methods deployed by Sterne (or, for that matter, by any other novelist I know). Sterne inspired Joyce, and Joyce thanked his source in one of the most brilliant pastiches of “Oxen of the Sun.”
SC: Because of its daunting complexity, Ulysses has spawned a cottage industry of exegetical commentary which has resulted in a plethora of annotated editions and study guides to help the reader navigate its many notoriously difficult passages. Do you find any of these secondary resources helpful in elucidating Joyce’s novel? And if so, can you recommend some of the more useful guides among them?
PK: In general, I advise students to read Joyce—slowly, carefully, savoring the words. Time is better spent with Ulysses than with any of the commentaries.
But if you are all at sea, there are some excellent books that can orient you. I recommend:
- Richard Ellmann James Joyce (a great biography)
- Hugh Kenner Ulysses
- Anthony Burgess ReJoyce
- Michael Seidel James Joyce: A Short Introduction
- Clive Hart and David Hayman (eds) James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays (a superb collection, containing studies directed at each of the chapters).
SC: Since its publication in 1922, few readers have realized that Ulysses is one of the most error-ridden of major literary works—a result of Joyce’s often-illegible longhand, errors in proofreading and non-English speaking French typists and printers. How can a book so important to the English literary canon continue to be enjoyed around the world with so many egregious errors (one estimate counts 5,000 gaffes)? And what has been done to correct these mistakes?
PK: Joyce was not renowned for his penmanship, he had bad eyesight, and (thanks to censorious reactions to published extracts—in particular to “Nausicaa,” a chapter that strikes modern readers as inoffensive) Ulysses was originally published by heroic amateurs. Most of the mistakes are quite small, and only bear on interpretation at a very fine level of detail. But now we have Walter Gabler’s wonderful corrected edition, and that probably provides something infinitesimally close to Joyce’s intentions. If you want to read Ulysses, this is the edition to buy—although I do wish the publisher (Vintage in the USA, Penguin in the UK) would bind it better. As anyone who teaches it knows, the delightful task of showing the many wonderful connections across the chapters quickly generates a need for several rolls of book tape.
SC: Although written with nary a punctuation mark, many regard the final section of Ulysses (often referred to as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy) to be the most engrossing part of the book—some say the only chapter worth reading. Why do you think these 50 some pages have so resonated with readers around the world?
PK: The only chapter worth reading??? It’s a great chapter, to be sure, but so are the others. Having read Ulysses somewhere between ten and twenty times, I find my judgments about favorite chapters constantly changing. On my last few readings, I’ve come to understand Joyce’s own judgment—that “Ithaca,” the penultimate chapter, his “ugly duckling,” is a marvel. “Hades” (chapter 6) is a long-time favorite, relatively straightforward in its narrative, and containing some remarkable sentences (“The felly harshed against the curbstone: stopped.”). “Sirens” (chapter 11), “Cyclops” (chapter 12), “Oxen of the Sun” (chapter 14) have been among the chapters I’ve loved most, almost since my first reading (when I was fifteen—and, obviously, didn’t “get” a lot of it!). When I taught the Joyce course at Columbia last fall, “Aeolus” (chapter 7), “Wandering Rocks” (chapter 10), and especially “Circe” (chapter 15) struck me with great force. I even began to warm to “Nestor” (chapter 2), a section that had always seemed the weakest in the book (although, in almost any other novel, it would be a high point).
“Penelope” (chapter 18) gives us, for the first time, the voice of Molly Bloom. Her monologue isn’t divided into sentences, although there are eight divisions that look like paragraphs. Her speech runs on continuously, connecting thoughts and topics in a way that seems utterly natural. Joyce had plainly listened very carefully to women’s speech, particularly that of Nora Barnacle, the woman who left Ireland at his side, who lived with him, bore him two children, and eventually became his wife. I suspect that Nora is responsible for many colorful turns of phrase, for example, Molly’s caustic comment on male genitalia “what a man looks like with his two bags full and his other thing hanging down out of him or sticking up at you like a hatrack no wonder they hide it with a cabbageleaf”. But there’s been a fair bit of controversy about whether Joyce’s image of women imposes a male vision of what they “should” be. I incline to think that Joyce was a better listener than some of his feminist critics have taken him to be.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of the chapter. “Penelope” is readily comprehensible, even on first reading. The voice seems natural and direct, less “artificial” than many of the previous styles; (I think this is a judgment that deserves some critical reflection). Molly is witty and shrewd, candid and observant. Many passages are poignant, and the final page brings the monologue to a beautiful climax. That page, like the closing paragraph of “The Dead,” like the last few pages of Part I of the Wake, and like the final pages of the Wake, is a prose poem. Joyce’s efforts at verse were mediocre, but these four passages are the most poetic prose in our language.
So I agree with those who admire “Penelope”—even as I disagree with those who think it’s the only worthwhile part of Ulysses
SC: As complex as Ulysses may be for many readers, it pales in comparison to Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final novel, in its degree of difficulty. What was Joyce hoping to achieve with this work after having spent 17-long years writing it? How do you think one must approach it to gain any benefit from reading it?
PK: A standard way of contrasting Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is to suggest that the former is the “book of the day”—it is supposed to focus on the events of a single day, and it represents the waking thoughts of some of its characters—and the latter is the “book of the night”. This contrast is problematic in several ways: one elementary point is that the action of Ulysses starts around 8 a.m. on June 16, 1904, and ends in the wee hours of June 17. But it is possible to approach the Wake by reading it as an attempt to do for nighttime experience what Ulysses had done for the daytime experience. One of the very best books on the Wake, by John Bishop, the editor of the Penguin edition of Joyce’s last work, pursues this approach with great skill and sophistication (James Joyce’s Book of the Dark).
I connect Finnegans Wake to Joyce’s earlier work in a different way. As I’ve said before, Joyce was preoccupied with the question of how human lives, lives that are not only finite but also blotched, flawed, and misshapen, can be worthwhile. Dubliners is the book of failure and defeat: all but the final story reveal how lives can be cramped, confined, and paralyzed. In the last story, “The Dead,” there’s no assurance of anything better, but there are glimmerings of hope. Portrait is the view from youth: how can a figure of great promise find his way, escaping the traps that so easily confine those around him? It ends with Stephen’s diary entry, announcing his resolve to imitate his namesake (“father”?) and to soar in flight. Ulysses reintroduces Stephen after the attempt has ended, like that of Icarus, in a fall. Stephen has lost his way, and in “Proteus” (chapter 3) we follow his directionless feet, as he moves away, with no clear goal. The next chapter brings on stage the central figure of Ulysses, Mr Leopold Bloom, advertising canvasser, a very ordinary counterpart to Stephen. Bloom, like Stephen, is a wanderer, who has lost his original direction—he is Dante’s pilgrim who “in the middle of his earthly life” has lost his way. Ulysses takes up the question “How to live?” when the “straight way” has been lost. As with the ending of “The Dead,” but on a much vaster scale, we are given an ambiguous ending. There is no assurance that Bloom’s life will find its course again—but there are glimmers of hope.
Finnegans Wake, on my reading, offers the view from the end of life, when you look back on what you have done and been and consider whether it can be vindicated. Joyce’s extraordinary cornucopia of neologisms, allusions, fragmentary anecdotes and fables—and dreamscapes—explores all aspects of human life, in the large and in the small. It is an invitation to us to construct our own narrative, to respond imaginatively in light of our own idiosyncratic experiences, and to weave together, out of the many colorful threads he provides for us, our own reflective story. Its ending seems to me to complete Joyce’s version of the comedy (“by that divine comic Denti Alligator”), to offer a secular consolation and to celebrate the worth of the ordinary.
My book Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake, tries to work out this approach in greater detail—and to help readers who are (understandably) confused to find their way in the Wake. I don’t contend that mine is the only right perspective: I admire the works of other “Wakeans,” particularly Bishop’s book. I hope at some future time to write more about Joyce’s efforts to transform the reader into a writer (“gentlewriter”), and how this sets a completely new agenda for fiction. For now, though, I offer just a few pieces of advice for those approaching the Wake for the first time.
- Relax. Don’t think you have to “get” every word.
- Listen. The Wake is profoundly musical. Read it aloud, and let the assonances affect you.
- Find company. Exchanging thoughts with friends as you read together is very helpful. But beware of people who think that their reading is the only possible one.
- Linger. When you find a passage that stirs your imagination, stay with it for a while. Explore possibilities until the well seems to run dry.
- Avoid. There are admirable sourcebooks on the allusions in the Wake—and these can help a lot once you have formed your own embryonic perspective. But reading Joyce in one hand and the sourcebook in the other is no way to appreciate the music, poetry, and significance of this book.
When all else fails, try one of the introductory books. Anthony Burgess has some useful chapters on the Wake in his ReJoyce. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t conclude my short list of tips by confessing that I wrote Joyce’s Kaleidoscope because I thought none of the other standard guides really supply what is needed.