Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ulysses: James Joyce, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha

Well, it is that day.  Again.  Bloomsday, the James Joyce equivalent of Groundhog Day.

I used to despise the chore of having to read a James Joyce novel.  Not only that, I despised people who went around pontificating about the greatness of his works.  I read them as-at-gunpoint in college.  And years later, as an older man and with the best critical works at hand, I occasionally tackled one of his books again along with a reading group.  Eventually I became somewhat of an expert on the book and the critical literature.  I could see its value as a work of art, but my heart just wasn't in it.

That all changed when I discovered John P. Anderson's FINDING JOY IN JOYCE:  A READERS GUIDE TO ULYSSES (2000).  This non-academic (a recovering lawyer) explained the novel in a way that seemed miraculous to me, in a line-by-line interpretation.  I went on to read his multi-volume study of FINNEGAN'S WAKE, as well as his other critical works.  All of his books are now well-worn treasures on my "most-beloved" shelf.

From Anderson's introduction:

"The principal issue in this novel is creating individual meaning in modern life.  This continues to be the principal issue for human kind as the 21st century opens.  Stephen Dedalus, a character in the novel representative of the young Joyce, has the modern disease of the spirit, narcissism.'

"Joyce's medicine for the diseased spirit is a custom blend of self-realized individuality combined with a detached respect for the human unity.  This blend combines Jesus and Buddha, not as they have been marketed by institutional religions but as they lived their lives as humans.'

In Joyce's blend, the respect for the unity does not limit human possibilities.  Indeed, Joyce's Way to the eternal is for each individual to maximize his or her own human possibilities within recognition of the unity.  Founded on his own personal experience of the human condition, Joyce's existential medicine can provide spiritual health in the 21st century.'

"The sublime joy in Joyce is the art by which the levels of existential meaning are brought forth.  Many consider Joyce's art as seminal for modern literature.  He enlarged the possibilities of prose with revolutionary techniques and methods of coherence.

And his methods carry meaning.  In Joyce's Architecture, the material is cyclical and the part implies the whole.  These patterns bear the imprint of Joyce's views of historical and ultimate reality:  history is cyclical, and the human condition implies the nature of the powers that be.  Joyce's art is, in my opinion, one of the wonders of Western civilization.  My purpose is to make its power and beauty accessible to you.'

"But readers beware:  reading Joyce can fundamentally alter your entire outlook on life.  This is what Joseph Campbell, pre-eminent mythographer and life long Joyce reader said:

"When you are reading Joyce, what you get is radiance.  You become harmonized, and that is what it is about.  It is not teaching you a lesson.  It is feeding you, giving you spiritual balance and spiritual harmony."

When I first read Anderson's introduction, I thought it a great conceit.  I had already read the most acclaimed critical works and some minor ones as well, and I was always skeptical of anyone who saw religious ideas in the work.

But, as it turned out, he was right.  His book awakened in me a different way of seeing, a new mode of interpretation--at least for this reader.  With the help of Anderson's study, I am now able to see the universals that were there in the work all along, symbolic connections to what Emerson called "the Oversoul."

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