Either Odysseus was the worst sailor in Greek history, or he took the scenic route home for a reason. Dante tended toward the second interpretation. His Odysseus is punished as the Ulysses of the Aeneid, a dirus (dreadful) type who is scelerum inventor, a “contriver of crimes.” In Canto XXVI of Inferno, Dante condemns the Homeric original to the Eighth Circle, among the false counselors, for misusing the gifts of reason and rhetoric, a ten-year streak of lying and trickery. When he gratifies his desire for knowledge and experience, it is at the expense of his family and duties in Ithaca.

This Ulysses is a secondhand scoundrel: out of Latin not Greek, and damned by medieval Christian morals. In Ulysses, James Joyce casts the modern shadow of this Ulysses onto Leopold Bloom by making Bloom an advertising salesman for the Freeman’s Journal. The adman is a false counselor, a trickster exploiting insights into psychology as Odysseus does—not unlike Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, who, if Dante is right about life after death, will be toasting right now in the Eighth Circle as “the father of public relations” and the author of Propaganda (1928), the first English-language how-to guide of its kind.

Oliver St. John Gogarty, the poet and nationalist who became the Buck Mulligan of Ulysses’ opening scene, called Joyce “the Dante of Dublin.” Dante was Joyce’s favorite writer, and Dante reconstructed the city of his birth in a metaphysical schema while in exile, but Joyce does not extend the sincerity of the compliment to complete imitation. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus bumps into the Beatrice he has been avoiding, he is ashamed by his deployment of Dantean morality to dodge the duty of compassion. Joyce describes Stephen’s feint for the moral high ground in the false coinage of advertising language:

Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped. She asked me why I never came, said she had heard all sorts of stories about me. . . . Asked me was I writing poems? About whom? I asked her. This confused her more and I felt sorry and mean. Turned off that valve at once and opened the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri.

There was another, more admiring Latin view of Ulysses. Horace, in the second poem in his first book of Epistles, advises a young man that Homer is a better guide to what is “foul or fair” in human nature than Chrysippus, a second-generation Stoic, or Crantor, a follower of Plato. The Iliad is the foul aspect: “There is error inside and outside the walls of Troy.” But “in Ulysses, Homer shows us a fine/ Example of what virtue and wisdom can do.” Horace’s Ulysses is the “tamer of Troy.” He has “studied with insight the ways/ and the cities of men, and endured many hardships” in his struggle to bring his men and himself back home, over “wide seas, un-drowned by waves of adversity.”

Dante develops his Ulysses into an ambivalently heroic figure by combining the Aeneid’s characterization with Horace’s interpretation.

Dante develops his Ulysses into an ambivalently heroic figure by combining the Aeneid’s characterization with Horace’s interpretation. This permits the heroic catastrophe that Dante substitutes for Ulysses’ homecoming. When Dante’s Ulysses leaves Circe, he is not pulled by the desire to return home. He is pushed by “l’ardore/ ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto/ e de li vizi umani e del valore”: “the desire/ to gain experience of the world/ and of the vices and the worth of men.” Instead of returning to Penelope’s hearth and bed, and the violent confrontation with her suitors that this requires, Ulysses pursues a final vanity, a last voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules and the frontiers of knowledge.

Dante, W. B. Stanford points out in The Ulysses Theme (1954), substitutes Homer’s “centripetal, homeward-bound figure” with “a personification of centrifugal force.” Next to Homer’s original, he says, Dante’s saga of Ulysses is, despite its brevity, the “most influential in the whole evolution of the wandering hero.” In the decades since Stanford’s judgment, Joyce’s treatment of Ulysses has become the most influential of all. Joyce’s annexation of the entire written past has turned Homer and Dante into prologues, stepping stones on the path toward the wandering anti-hero Leopold Bloom.

Dante, we are always told, did not know Homer. Nevertheless, his dispatch of Ulysses on a final voyage fulfills Tiresias’s prophecy in Book XI of the Odyssey, a prophecy that does not appear in Book VI of the Aeneid. In Hades, Tiresias tells Odysseus that he will return home, but not forever. Once he has “dealt out death” to Penelope’s suitors, he will “go overland on foot, and take an oar.” He will make a last a sacrifice to Poseidon, and then set out to “a seaborne death/ soft as this hand of mist.”

Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (1833) recoils from domestic softness and physical decay and seeks to isolate a last taste of heroism: “To follow knowledge like a sinking star/ Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Yet in Horace’s view, the virtues of the Odyssey—discernment, endurance, compassion, the ability to resist temptation—are the bitter fruits of knowledge, born from the follies of the Iliad: “In-fighting, cunning, and crime, lust, and anger.” The moral of the tale can be isolated, but its sources are mixed, and the moral would not be discoverable if they were not.

This mixing of the hot and the cold, the pure and impure, is that of Joyce’s Bloom, the Hellenic-Hebraic-Hibernian Everyman who must represent everybody and everything in what he calls “warm, full-blooded life.” It is also what prevents Ulysses from sliding into mere trickery as a language game as Joyce sends his Odysseus-Ulysses on his final voyage, past the Pillars of Hercules—Gibraltar, the birthplace of Molly Bloom’s mother Larita Laredo, to starboard—and beyond the frontiers of understanding.

In Ulysses, Order and Myth,” his review for The Dial in November 1923, T. S. Eliot described Joyce’s “mythic method” as more than “an amusing dodge, or scaffolding erected by the author for the purpose of disposing his realistic tale.” Instead, it is “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” By “manipulating a continuous parallel between antiquity and contemporaneity,” Joyce, Eliot wrote, made “the modern world possible for art.” We may have shot the Pillars of Hercules and the western sun may be sinking, but thanks to Joyce, we still have a map, a mythic shadow cast by the declining rays. The same recognition occurs in Baudelaire’s fan letter to Wagner, written after the poet attended the Paris premier of Tannhäuser in 1860: “I knew your music already. . . . it seemed to me that the music was my own.”

If there were advertising on Parnassus, its language would sound like Eliot’s claims for Joyce, which are really Eliot’s claims for Eliot. For the parallel between antiquity and contemporaneity in Ulysses is intermittent and incomplete. Eliot’s method in The Waste Land, which was, like Ulysses, published in 1922, is centripetal. He draws in antique or Renaissance elements, sets strange juxtapositions amid the ruins of contemporary life, and allows the emptiness to amplify the mythic resonance. The visual analogue would be Giorgio de Chirico’s The Soothsayer’s Recompense (1913), one of those dreamscapes in which distorted perspective leads past fragments and ruins to a horizon blocked by a steam train.

Joyce’s method is accumulative and expansive. He creates a cryptic surfeit akin to Baudelaire’s correspondances, those flashes of harmony in the crowd, the glimmer of idéal in a dirty world of spleen. And Joyce is, ultimately, centrifugal. His characters, Ezra Pound wrote in the June 1923 issue of The Dial, “not only speak their own language, but they think their own language.” Each time Joyce draws the past into the consciousness of his characters, he expels it outwards into a web of association which simultaneously loosens and tightens. As this “scaffolding” expands, it becomes more subjective, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, but as it contracts, it defines a character. The visual analogue would be a Cubist painting, like Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1910) or Juan Gris’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1912). Look too closely, and the elements of the face disintegrate into single strokes. Step back, and the portrait coheres within the frame.

Joyce’s method is accumulative and expansive.

Eliot reduces the chaos of modern polyphony into a single voice and ordered form. Joyce gives voice to as many voices and resonances as possible: to press the polyphony beyond the frameworks of grammar. Eliot’s path from despair leads to the artificial provinciality of Four Quartets and its ritualized repetitions of paradoxes about the nature of time. Joyce’s paths of joyous multiplicity lead to the ecstatic disintegrations of Finnegans Wake. Eliot gives a dessicated, posthumous view of life: as the narrator of “Gerontion” says, “a dry brain in a dry season.” Joyce also looks backwards to a lost age, but as the prelude to Ulysses’ final voyage. The Dublin of 1904 no longer existed. The meaning of Joyce’s past had been changed utterly by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which took effect in the first weeks of 1922, the year of Ulysses’ publication. Like Dante’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is compelled to take a new voyage: the hero as plebeian and cuckold, “un-drowned by waves of adversity.”

The course of Leopold Bloom’s day—the centrifugal push away from home, the centripetal pull back to the marriage bed—might be summarized as “In my end is my beginning.” But, as Guy Davenport noted in “The Symbol of the Archaic” (1974), Joyce sought to make “a Heraclitean circle of the modern and the archaic, joining the end to the beginning.” Bloom’s wanderings may evoke ancient paths, but he cannot step in the same stream twice, and that is his modernity and his futurity. Joyce is more concerned with means than ends—relative meanings, like Bloom’s thoughts of his dead father and dead son Rudy, not final endings. This is why the last word goes to Molly Bloom, whose soliloquy affirms that the fullness of life goes on regardless—especially the life erotic. That was an aspect of the business of living with which Eliot, who had been born with a double hernia and wore a truss all his life, was not especially comfortable.

In 1924 or 1925, Joyce typed out a schema of Ulysses for George Antheil, the American composer who was then living above Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company. The “Correspondences” section shows how far Joyce’s associative paths digress from their Homeric framework, even when the Homeric notes sound loudest, as in Joyce’s fifth chapter, “Lotus Eaters.”

Homer mentions the Lotus Eaters only briefly in the Odyssey: the real action in Book IX occurs after Odysseus has dragged his men back to the boat, in the encounter with the cyclops Polyphemus. Joyce, however, gives an entire chapter to the Lotus Eaters—after all, his hero’s name is Bloom, and his journey an inner sleepwalking. The scaffolding of “Lotus Eaters,” as delivered in the schema, is bolted together with Homeric echoes of self-gratification (“genitals,” “narcissism”), sacred consumption (“Eucharist”), and modern footnoting (“botany,” “chemistry”). The Irish are a nation of sleepwalkers, oblivious to their history and identity, and the language of flowers runs through the chapter too. So far, so Homer. But the “Correspondences” are:

Lotuseaters—Cabhorses. Communicants. Soldiers, Eunuchs, Bather, Watchers of Cricket.

Cricket is part of the English imperial myth, and watching cricket the very image of Edwardian lotus-eating. A game that can take five days and still reach a draw requires epic reserves of the Homeric virtues of endurance and patience. And Odysseus stopped at Corfu, where the Victorians created the best cricket pitch in the Mediterranean at Spianada Square. The overlay of Odysseus, Corfu, and imperial cricketers is an invitation to a Homeric correspondence, but Joyce cannot accept it. For there are no watchers of cricket in “Lotus Eaters.”

“Heavenly weather really,” Bloom muses as he walks past the Trinity College sports ground. “If life was always like that. Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out. They can’t play it here.” In 1879, the uneasy relations between absentee landlords and poor tenants had broken down in the protests known as the Land War; the managed hostility of the gentlemen-versus-players game was no longer possible. In 1901, the Gaelic Athletic Association banned cricket as a “foreign” game. Bloom recalls Captain C. F. Buller, the Irish soldier and eminent Victorian cricketer who “broke a window in the Kildare street club with a slog to square leg”—then reflects on the rising and fall of the Irish nationalist mood:

Donnybrook more in their line. And the skulls we were acracking when M’Carthy took the floor. Heatwave. Won’t last.

The stream of consciousness has slipped the bonds of the Homeric scaffolding. This is what Pound meant when, in a 1923 piece for The Dial, he described Joyce’s correspondences as “part of his medievalism . . . chiefly his own affair, a scaffold, a means of construction, justified by the result, and justified by it only.” Pound was a greater adman than Eliot, and possibly the greatest hype man in the history of literature, but here he was telling the truth. In June 1921, when Joyce received the galley proofs of Ulysses from his printer, Maurice Darantière, he filled the margins with Homeric revisions and additional correspondences. The book was already written.

The stream of consciousness has slipped the bonds of the Homeric scaffolding.

Joyce disliked Eliot’s footnoting of The Waste Land—a promotional device for an otherwise “inconveniently short” poem, disavowed later by Eliot as a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship”—but the Irishman laid many false trails of his own for Ulysses. The Antheil schema was preceded by the Linati schema, a “summary-key-skeleton-schema (for home use only)” sent to his Italian translator Carlo Linati in 1920. Then Joyce sent a revised version to his French translator Valery Larbaud, to assist Larbaud’s preparations for a lecture at Paris on Joyce’s imminent novel. When the English writer Stuart Gilbert saw pages of Larbaud’s translation of Ulysses in the window of Shakespeare and Company—Sylvia Beach also understood the language of advertising—he became involved in correcting the French translation and, eventually, working with Joyce on the revised “Gilbert schema.” This was published in Gilbert’s pioneering Ulysses: A Study (1930), and then, like Eliot’s footnotes, disavowed by its author.

In 1937 Joyce told Nabokov that the Gilbert schema had been “A terrible mistake. An advertisement for the book. I regret it very much.” In Lectures on Literature, Nabokov concedes that there is “a very vague and very general Homeric echo of the theme of wanderings in Bloom’s case,” but warns against reducing Ulysses to “a pedant’s stale allegory.” The Homeric scaffolding of Ulysses is not Eliot’s brittle, collapsing structure. For Joyce, the ancient world is a platform for departures to the future. Ulysses is not a recapitulation of the Odyssey: in experiential terms it is an expansion, a myth moving forward through history.

In “Ithaca,” the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom takes Stephen Dedalus home to 7 Eccles Street. There, he lights a fire in the hearth, puts the kettle on, and makes some cocoa. They discuss the resemblances between “the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages,” their “archeological, genealogical, hagiographical, exegetical, homiletic, toponomastic, historical and religious literatures,” the parallel between the historic travails of the Jewish and Irish nations, and the possibility of their modern political recovery:

their dispersal, persecution, survival and revival: the isolation of their synagogical and ecclesiastical rites in ghetto (S. Mary’s Abbey) and masshouse (Adam and Eve’s tavern): the proscription of their national costumes in penal laws and jewish dress acts: the restoration in Chanah David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution.

Stephen hears in Bloom’s voice “a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.” Bloom sees in Stephen “a quick young male familiar form the predestination of a future.” The “Ithaca” chapter is full of pairings, reconciliations, resolutions, and balances. “I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism,” Joyce wrote in 1921 as he fine-tuned the chapter. “All events are resolved into their cosmic physical psychical etc. equivalents. . . . Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.”

The balancing of the physical world in “Ithaca” and the intimate reconciliation of father and son make possible Bloom’s return to the marital bed, his reconciliation with Molly as he nuzzles her planet-like orbs—“the plump yellow mellow smellow melons of her rump”—and, in the final chapter, her reconciliation with him. But the visions of national liberation and historical reconciliation that precede it are the material of further voyages.

The planets are wanderers (planētēs), and the nations sleepwalk and digress through history like wandering (plankthē) Odysseus. Ulysses is, among other things, about the birth struggles of modern national consciousness. Joyce told Carlo Linati that Ulysses was “the epic of two races—Ireland and Israel.” The return to Zion and Home Rule for Ireland mingle in Bloom’s mind when he peruses a Zionist leaflet in the shop of the butcher Moses Dlugacz. The nations awake and move forward like the planets in “Ithaca,” “evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote aeons to infinitely remote futures.”

The two races of Ireland and Israel ran not in parallel but in something close to it over the following decades, though Ireland later chose to detach itself from Israel. In 1904, Bloom balances the two aspects of Irish nationalism. He admires the late Charles Stewart Parnell, who campaigned for Home Rule within the British Empire, but he socializes with Fenian nationalists who advertise their anti-Semitism and enjoys the appeal of full-blooded nationalism. The war that began just before Joyce began Ulysses caused the breakup of the cosmopolitan empires; the Easter Rising of 1916 was an overture to the collapse of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian empires in the following year.

In 1922, when Ulysses was published, Ireland achieved Dominion status, like Australia and Canada, and another satellite of the British Empire, the Palestine Mandate, was created by the League of Nations. Ireland’s first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, known as the “Sinn Fein rabbi,” later became Israel’s first chief rabbi. His son Chaim Herzog became Israel’s sixth president, and his grandson Isaac Herzog is the current president of Israel.

Bloom tells the Citizen—a Jew-hating nationalist based on Michael Cusack, who founded the Gaelic Athletic Association—that he is part of the Irish nation because he was born there. Later, the Citizen, making heavy work of urinating, calls this a Jewish trick: “Ireland my nation says he (hoik, phthook!) never be up to those bloody (there’s the last of it) Jerusalem cuckoos.” Despite their shared history, today the Republic of Ireland chooses to be the most anti-Israel state in the European Union.

Eliot wanted to truss the mythic to the modern as a kind of prop, but Joyce was happy to tie the critics and academics in a knot—until they started to tighten it. The fate of fiction since 1922 might confirm Hesiod’s chronology of decline—after the Age of Pulp, the Age of the Screen—but Ulysses has become, as Joyce intended, the last word in literature courses.

The heavyweight entry of the Ulysses centenary is The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses.1 When I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s, the newest edition—the fifteenth in six decades—was the Corrected Text, edited by Hans Walter Gabler. This text was so correct that it effectively finalized Ulysses. The Cambridge Centenary reprints a facsimile of the 1922 original withtheGabler edition’s corrections, with selected annotations from Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated (1988) at the bottom of each page. That is the good news.

Joyce was happy to tie the critics and academics in a knot—until they started to tighten it.

The bad news is that each chapter is introduced by a scholarly essay. These introductions are full of useful information—maps, photographs of the area fence of 7 Eccles Street that Bloom vaults over when he has forgotten his key—but their effect intrudes upon the flow of Ulysses like the newsboy who intrudes on Molly Bloom’s dreams by hawking the 5:30 edition. Worse, most of these essays make maximal use of the Homeric scaffolding. The editor, Catherine Flynn of the dreaded University of California at Berkeley, calls this an edition “designed to help you grapple with its difficulties.” It is, but it works by simplification.

The Cambridge Centenary is an epic of one race only. Little space is given to Bloom’s Jewishness and the complicated arguments it provokes about race, nation, religion, history, and belonging. For example, the annotations to the Citizen’s rant exclude Gifford’s useful explanation of “Jerusalem cuckoo” (derogatory slang for a Zionist) and his speculation that the Citizen’s difficulties (“there’s the last of it”) might be due to gonorrhoea.

When another drinker says that “it was Bloom gave the idea for Sinn Fein to [Arthur] Griffith,” the Cambridge Centenary mentions that in 1904, Griffith argued for Ireland’s autonomy within the British Empire to be like Hungary’s within the Dual Monarchy. Gifford’s fuller note refers us to Hugh Kenner’s suggestion that Bloom’s contemporaries would have been prepared for this claim “because Griffith was persistently rumored to have a Jewish adviser-ghostwriter,” a pleasingly Joycean exegesis. This is Ulysses: no amount of footnoting and speculation is enough. It would have been more in keeping if The Cambridge Centenary should have jammed the annotations all over the page, Talmud-style.

In the late 1980s, the Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo suffered a serious illness. He spurred himself through a long recovery by promising himself that he would illustrate Ulysses by 1991, the fiftieth anniversary of Joyce’s death. Joyce’s last living heir, his grandson Stephen, rejected the project, arguing that Joyce had not wanted illustrations in Ulysses. This was not quite accurate. In 1935, Matisse had illustrated Ulysses for the Limited Editions Club in New York, and Joyce signed 250 copies of the print run of 1,000. Perhaps Stephen Joyce was being polite.

Arroyo had a Surrealist streak, and Surrealism is an art in thrall to words. This attunes his illustrations (to a new edition of Ulysses published by Other Press) temporally—we could be in Zürich during World War I, when the Dadaists were looning about and Joyce writing “Lotus Eaters,” or the Paris of the early Twenties, when Joyce was finishing Ulysses and André Breton beginning his reign of error.2 These illustrations are for the experienced Ulyssean who has read the book more than once and wishes to meditate on its imagery.

Ulysses abounds in sexual fetishism, but, unlike most of the literature of sexual fetishism, the Surrealist variety included, Ulysses plays up the human comedy. The brothel scene, in which Leopold Bloom laces the boots of the madam Bella Cohen, is a spoof of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, played for laughs as much as kicks. Bloom, and Joyce, would have approved of the comically fruity buttocks on Arroyo’s drawing of the “frowsy whore with black straw sailor hat askew” who accosts Leopold Bloom on the quayside. Like Leopold on his first date with Molly, we know we are in sympathetic hands.

Joyce might also have appreciated Arroyo’s illustrations to Molly Bloom’s monologue. The mix of tender, Matissean bodies with regressive doodlings of erections and anuses is pure Joyce—though Joyce, had he been around to work on this edition, would have insisted the illustrations be scratch-and-sniff.


  1.  The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes, edited by Catherine Flynn; Cambridge University Press, 1200 pages, $39.95.
  2.  Ulysses: An Illustrated Edition, by James Joyce, illustrated by Eduardo Arroyo; Other Press, 720 pages, $75.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 21
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