Writing about Ulysses today seems an almost pointless exercise. No book of the present century has attracted more attention from linguists and literary scholars, and the secondary literature on the novel has reached a degree of specialization that frightens off many potential readers. Indeed, it has become one of the great unread books - often bought but seldom so much as opened.
The basic structure appears simple. Set in Dublin, the novel describes a period of eighteen hours in the life of the city – from eight a.m. on 16 June 1904 until two o’clock in the morning of the following day. Seen as a whole, however, Ulysses has an encyclopaedic complexity: it comprises 29,899 words, 220 settings and 131 distinct themes, and the Austrian writer Hermann Broch calculated that each hour takes up an average of 75 pages – Well over a page per minute or almost a line per second. The subject matter may seem banal at first, but it is condensed into a form that gives it a timeless philosophical relevance, as an account of a journey into the remotest depths of human knowledge, of memory, of the unconscious and the irrational – an account, however, which is rendered with the accuracy of a bookkeeper and packed with verifiable empirical detail. Homer’s tale of the Odyssey is debased, as it were, to the level of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin, and at the same time elevated to the status of a universal myth which, as Broch said, “encompasses the quotidian existence of the entire world.” Instead of subjecting the events to a coldly analytical dissection, the novel opens them up and structures them in a way that invites the reader to follow and duplicate its cognitive movement. Precisely by its local, specific setting, it clarifies the essence of things and draws out their deeper significance in the context of the world as a whole. The reader’s ideas and perceptions are sharpened by the recreation of real experience, rather than through an appeal to intellectual understanding: dispensing with dialectics and abstract concepts, Joyce achieves the effect of what Vico called the “concrete universal“. Molly Bloom’s monologue at the end of the novel says far more about the female psyche – and the human psyche in general – than any number of academic treatises backed by samples and statistics. The description of Leopold Bloom, as a Jew struggling to find a place in Irish society, affords a revealing insight into the problems of assimilation and exclusion, while Stephen Dedalus epitomizes the figure of the critical, questioning artist, deprived of material success and social acceptance. At an early stage in our century’s history, Joyce addressed some of its key existential problems. As an artist, his duty was to ask questions, not to answer them, but in terms of content and form alike, he set a standard for the intellectual level on which this ‘permanent discussion’ was to be conducted. In America, Ulysses was condemned as pornographic and banned from 1922 until 1933, and for decades, Catholic Ireland kept its unloved son strictly at arm’s length. After court battles and with considerable delay, the endangered freedom of art was also able to assert itself in the case of Ulysses through the outstanding quality of the work and to prevail against small-minded ideologues. We should therefore always remember that Ulysses not only embodies world literature at the highest level, but has also become a synonym of modern artistic freedom and thus one of the positive symbols of the 20th century.
About the artist
*1948, Paduli, Italy. The artist lives in Milan and Benevento, Italy. Galerie Klüser has represented Mimmo Paladino since 1981, supported and organized numerous museum exhibitions, edited many editions and published various catalogues by the artist.