Ulysses and the danger of expecting “transformative” art

Trying to redress mistaken approaches to Ulysses, this article still gets it wrong:

The big question Birmingham’s book raises without precisely answering is whether Ulysses remains dangerous, now that the sexual mores and political anxieties of the 20s and 30s have vanished. When I put the question to him directly, he suggested that the novel is still dangerous—but only to those who take the time to read it. Birmingham compared reading Ulysses to taking a slow-acting drug that gradually reshapes our understanding of ourselves, working its way into our consciousness as we read it, unsettling who we are.

Birmingham is Kevin, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. James S. Murphy’s assumption that Ulysses — art — must have this transformative effect is akin to elementary and high school teachers stressing the nutritive virtues of Shakespeare and nineteenth century British poetry: you can’t leave the table until you eat two more bites of Coleridge!

By placing Ulysses on a pedestal, we lose sight of both its vulgar origins and its power to tell us deep truths about our world and ourselves precisely by keeping the earthy and obscene aspects of ourselves in view

A tautological argument. Books that tell us deep truths about our world are the ones kept on the pedestals Murphy wants to knock down.

When I read Ulysses at seventeen its ambition awed me, alas. Keeping Stuart Gilbert’s guide and a set of rather good Cliff Notes close, I rewarded myself for passing through the fire, as it were. Without knowing a thing about New Criticism I observed one of its central tenets: a novel or poem wasn’t any good if it wasn’t difficult. Readers wary of grabbing a novel laden with a century’s worth of cultural capital should consider the piecemeal approach. The first two chapters will surprise no one familiar with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or realist fiction since Flaubert. Learn which chapters appeal most to your sensibilities. Skip the rest. Try other stuff later if so inclined.

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