Modernism and Modernist Culture

Modernist Themes in Ulysses

Modernism and modernity are difficult terms to pin down. As Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane note, “Modernity, in normal usage, is something that progresses in company with and at the speed of the years, like the bow-wave of a ship; last year’s modern is not this year’s” (22). Rather than define “modernism,” they use the term to identify a “distinct stylistic phase” in the history of literature and art that reflects a permanent modernizing of feeling and thinking:

"Yet the word retains its force because of its association with a characteristic contemporary feeling: the historicist feeling that we live in totally novel times, that contemporary history is the source of our significance, that we are derivatives not of the past but of the surrounding and enfolding environment or scenario, that modernity is a new consciousness, a fresh condition of the human mind – a condition which modern art has explored, felt through, sometimes reacted against" (22).
We attempt in this brief space to identify in Ulysses a few of the distinct stylistic and thematic elements that characterize modernism.

Restoring Order through the Use of Myth

Modernist writers were reacting to a world that was becoming disordered and unrecognizable, due to war, political instability, new technologies, increasing global commerce, and changing attitudes toward gender and sexuality. One modernist reaction was to restore order to their perceived world by using myth, and Joyce seems to have been the first writer to do so. T. S. Eliot, in his 1923 critical essay of //Ulysses//, says it best:

"It is here that Mr. Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery. No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary. . . . If it is not a novel, that is simply because the novel is a form which will no longer serve. . . . In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. . . . It is simply a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. . . . Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method" (482-83).

Joyce uses myth in two distinct ways in Ulysses. First, the entire structure of the novel is based on the story of Odysseus and his lengthy struggles to return home and to his wife, Penelope. In Joyce’s novel, of course, Leopold Bloom represents Odysseus and Molly Bloom represents Penelope. Stephen Dedalus takes on the role of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. If this parallelism seems obvious now, almost a century after the novel’s appearance, it was a revolutionary idea in 1922. Joyce fits his characters within the broad outlines of the Odyssey myth, yet he makes the characters and their feelings entirely new: the newly imagined within the order of the eternally known.

"The act of fictionality thus becomes the crucial act of imagining; and Modernism thus tends to have to do with the intersection of an apocalyptic and modern time, and a timeless and transcendent symbol or a node of pure linguistic energy" (Bradbury and McFarlane, 50).

As noted by Michael Patrick Gillespie, The Odyssey provides not just the broad narrative for the novel, but “the scaffolding upon which Joyce elaborates his own world-view” (386). In other words, Joyce is not recounting the story of Odysseus in new language: he is using that story as a framework to say something about specific individuals in the city of Dublin in the early twentieth century.

Joyce’s second use of the “mythic method” is to sprinkle various allusions to Homer’s epic, as well as other myths, throughout the work. Such allusions are especially abundant in Episode 1, Telemachus. We see “Epi oinopa ponton,” Homeric Greek for “upon the wine-dark sea,” for the first time at 1:78, an epithet that recurs throughout The Odyssey as well as Ulysses. A few lines later, Buck Mulligan’s “grey searching eyes” alludes to Athena, the grey-eyed goddess (1:86). On the same page, Buck says, “I’m hyperborean as much as you” – an allusion to a mythical people of Greek legend who lived beyond the mountains of the north wind in a place of everlasting spring and youthfulness (1:92).

These recurring allusions and epithets operate on two (or sometimes many) levels. There is the literal meaning within the narrative (often in dialogue or interior monologue), such as where Buck Mulligan gazes out over Dublin bay and uses various terms for the sea (see above, 1:78). And there is the allusive meaning that takes the reader out of the narrative and into another world, a world imagined by legend.

Modernist Temporality

The first five chapters of Ulysses (and, presumably, the rest of the book too!) exemplify several stylistic aspects of modernist disjointed temporality. To start with, Stephen’s famous declaration “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” reveals his anxious fatalism and his acute awareness of the indelible imprint of the past (e.g., his childhood, British imperialism, mythic literature, etc.) on his own life trajectory.

The actions occurring in the “Nestor“ and “Lotus Eaters” chapters unfold at the same time, and this simultaneity upsets narrative forward momentum in favor of a temporal stasis that adds nuance and perspective to previously introduced events. This narrative trick instantiates the kind of Nebeneinander (“ineluctable modality of the visible”) aesthetic mode Stephen is so enthralled by. In The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, Stephen Kern notes that Joyce’s “simultaneous literature” was inspired by his fascination with cinematic montage (76-77). Kern writes:

“In Ulysses, he improvised montage techniques to show the simultaneous activity of Dublin as a whole, not a history of the city, but a slice of it out of time, spatially extended and embodying its entire past in a vast expanded present… Joyce hoped his readers would go back to the book many times, continually building up the network of cross-references scattered throughout until Dublin came to life” (77).
That is, with these simultaneous chapters, Joyce makes one day mythic by dilating time and revealing by refraction the infinite metaphorical depth of mundane events. Further, the “vast expanded present” is a shared present: the reader is privy to Stephen’s and Bloom’s perspectives, but the recurring characters that spill over from one simultaneous chapter to the other make us aware that thousands of Dubliners occupy the same temporal and geographic space. The reader, then, is also implicated in the novel’s temporal manipulations and its narrative “present;” our threshold for sensory overload dictates how far the narrative can dilate.

Simultaneity, Parallaxis, and Relativity

Simultaniety in Memling's Passion of Christ

Nowhere (thus far) is Joyce’s commitment to simultaneity more evident than his “Wandering Rocks” chapter that repeats the same period of time as seen through the peripatetic prospective of several minor and major characters. The reader seems to be the only one who sees them all as operating synchronically. While Steven Kern has noted Joyce’s use of the Montage in “The Wandering Rocks,” his “obsession” (Kiberd) with parallax and relativity should not be left out in discussions of this chapter or other places in the novel.

Parallaxis- "This animation is an example of parallax - as the viewpoint moves side to side, the objects closer to the camera appear to move faster, while the objects in the distance appear to move more slowly"

In the post-relativity era (after 1905) it may not be productive to think of time without also thinking about space. While parallax is usually construed as a perspective and thus spatial term, Joyce uses his characters’ parallactic perspectives to produce different views on a similar subject. “The Wandering Rocks” uses the aggregate of positions these characters embody to show different sides of each other as well as their individual situations.

Another graphic representation of parallax.

Joyce incorporates parallaxis into his narrative technique more broadly through the figures of Stephen and Bloom. The two form a sort of matched pair alike in space, but not time. Each see the other through their different perspectives, seeing, according to Kiberd (203), reflection of each other in each other. By their ongoing association, Bloom sees a version of his past self who begins to regard Stephen as younger, more tempestuous version who is not in “control of his feelings about his personal past” (204).

Albert Einstein 1879-1955

Joyce is also preoccupied with the Einsteinium notion of relativity. Simply put, relativity is the idea that time is experienced relative to your position. Your experience of time, slow or fast, is dependent upon where you are in relation to what you are looking at (Kern 18). As Leopold Bloom is making his way through Dublin our perception of time seems to expand as he lingers at a discrete physical location (say the post office) but through stream-of-conscious daydream the moment grows to take up an inordinate amount of time. According to Kern, Joyce found “public time” an insufficient way of capturing the wide variety of temporal phenomenology (17). By framing the narrative within the extremely narrow temporal constraint of 16 hours while simultaneously dilating individual moments beyond the scope of “real time,” Joyce calls attention to the non-existence of a single, and absolute way to process temporal sensation.

Exploring Transformation through "The Exile"/Repatriation

In Christopher Butler’s essay “Joyce, modernism, and post­modernism,” the author points out that “Joyce’s revolution towards … sceptical relativism has its roots in the nineteenth century” (Butler, 261). As proof, he cites Matthew Arnold­­--English poet and critic often credited with bridging the gap between Romanticism and Modernism--who wrote the following passage:

“Modern times find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules, which have come to them from times not modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward, yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation … that for them, it is customary not rational. The awakening of this sense is the awakening of the modern spirit” (Butler, 262).

The third episode in chapter one of Ulysses is called “Proteus,” evoking the sea god whose nature is like that of the waves, constantly shifting and changing. What Arnold calls “the awakening of the modern spirit” is able to be traced throughout Stephen’s personal journey away from Irish nationalism and Catholicism, which culminated in his self­-exile to Paris. The beginning of Ulysses shows a nonreligious Stephen encountering the process of repatriation, his behavior upon his return marked by a refusal to kneel at his mother’s deathbed, and learned practices like his “Paris fad” of drinking tea with lemon (1:342).

In “Proteus” Stephen’s reflection moves from the idea of himself as a creation of
God­ ­”made not begotten” (3:45) ­onto a reverie about his time in Paris which appears in bits and pieces of French dialogue, and memories of
conversations, particularly those with other Irish expatriates. In the following passage, Stephen remembers discussing atheism with Patrice Egan:

"Patrice, home on furlough, lapped warm milk with me in the bar MacMahon. Son of the wilde goose, Kevin Egan of Paris …
--Je ne cois pas en l’esitence de Dieu.
--Faut pas le dire ámon pére. ­­
--Il coit?
--Moi pere, oui" (3:163-172).

This movement of ideas is reflective of the notion of culture taking on the responsibilities of religion (Butler, 262), and Joyce’s incorporation of the French language and imagery of Paris interjecting where before we had the picture of the setting, Sandymount Strand, show the mind of the repatriate, understanding one place through another.

Latin Quarter.jpg
“His feet marched in proud rhythm over the sand furrows, along by the boulders of the south wall. He stared at them proudly, piled stone mammoth skulls. Gold light on sea, on sand, on boulders. The sun is there, the slender trees, the lemon houses. Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets … Faces of Paris men go by” (3:209-215).

At the end of Stephen's section, he makes the decision to abandon his home at the Martello Tower, splitting from the pompous Englishman Haines and his complacent jester Malachi "Buck" Mulligan. Through this Stephen is portrayed as a perpetual exile, still transforming and changing since the last time he escaped his home. When before his thoughts were born of the alienation he forced himself into in The Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Stephen returns in Ulysses with ideas and images from a far off city.

Works cited:

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. “The Name and Nature of Modernism.” Modernism: 1890 – 1930. Ed. M. Bradbury, J. McFarlane. Penguin Books. London. 1991. Print.

Butler, Christopher. "Joyce, modernism, and post-modernism." The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Derek Attridge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial. 75.5 (November 1923), 480-83. Print.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick. “James Joyce: Ulysses.” A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. Ed. D. Bradshaw, K. Dettmar. Wiley-Blackwell. Malden, MA. 2006. Print.

Kern, Stephen. The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U, 2003. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Ulysses and Us: the Art of Everyday Masterpiece in Joyce's Masterpiece. New York: Norton & Company, 2009. Print.