A book on the wrong shelf, damn it: The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham had got itself among the field guides to Asian birds. I placed it where it belonged: on the shelf devoted to Charles Darwin and his works. “All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution,” said William J. Bryan, three times a presidential candidate, when prosecuting at the notorious Scopes Monkey Trial of 1924. This was a show trial designed to raise the issue of teaching evolution in schools. Some time later, checking a Darwin reference, I realised I had made a mistake. I had confused the book with Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. The book I had put alongside it was actually about Ulysses, the great and for some, notorious novel by James Joyce. EM Foster called it “an attempt to make crossness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed.” 2 February 2022 is the 140th anniversary of Joyce’s birth and the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. Like Darwin’s The Origin of Species, it remains a dangerous book. Both books have been vastly resented: both have been widely and wilfully misunderstood – and for the same reason. Ulysses was banned in the United States before it was even published, after a chapter appeared in the magazine The Little Review in 1920. Copies of the book were repeatedly burned, lest the words contaminate America. Nonetheless, this was the first English-speaking country in which the book was freely available.
That happened after another show trial, this one in 1932. The book was finally published in England in 1936. It was never banned in Ireland, but it wasn’t available either: you couldn’t buy a copy of Ulysses in Dublin until the 1960s.
DH Lawrence loathed it. Perhaps it threatened his status as the frankest novelist around: “Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty mindedness.” I suspect the J-word was intended to carry a special sting: a mere sensationalist, incapable of writing anything that would last.
Virginia Woolf hated it even more. Perhaps it threatened her hopes of being the top novel-writing modernist. She was so appalled she fell back on snobbery: “The book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insolent, raw, stinking and ultimately nauseating.” (Joyce had a degree in modern languages.)
All of which seems a bit much for a book that retells The Odyssey in modern dress, converting Odysseus’s ten-year journey home from Troy into a single day in Dublin: 16 June 1904. Where’s the harm in that? Both works begin with a troubled young man seeking his place in the world and continue with an equally lost middle-aged man seeking home and tranquillity: the older man has a series of adventures before meeting up with the younger man. In Ulysses they drink cocoa and all is made well. Sort of.
Forster, Lawrence and Woolf all know one end of a novel from another and all are agreed on the essential nastiness of Ulysses: a heap of dung crawling with worms… secret sewers of vice… revolting blasphemies… these are among other judgments from elsewhere.
But Ulysses is a book about a nice man. Leopold Bloom, who plays the part of Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), is a sweetheart. He’s a freelance space salesman who spends the day pootling about Dublin: and perhaps the most remarkable thing about his odyssey is the number of small acts of kindness he packs into the day. Ulysses is about kindness.
Bloom goes to a funeral he could easily have skived, he helps a blind man across the street, he’s considerate of the waiter, he puts up five bob in a collection for a widow, he advises her about her late husband’s life insurance, he visits a maternity hospital because a woman he knows is going through a difficult birth, he rescues the drunken young Stephen Dedalus from an altercation with a British soldier, buys him coffee and takes him home for aforesaid cocoa and good conversation.
Bloom also stands up against oppression. He is confronted by a bar-room bigot, who spits on the floor when Bloom (whose father is Jewish) says that his country is Ireland. Eventually, though much goaded, Bloom says (a bit like Desmond Tutu): “But it’s no use… force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the every opposite of that that is really life.”
He is asked what he means.
“Love… I mean the opposite of hatred.”
And that, actually, is what the whole damn book is about, if you wish to have it in reductively simple terms: a point missed by all those eminent novelists and by the vast number of less well-qualified people who have denounced the book as evil.
The revelation I had when rearranging my bookshelves is that Ulysses was condemned as an evil book for the same reason as The Origin of Species: “I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damnifications of humanity,” said Thomas Carlyle.
So let’s look at Ulysses chapter 4, in which Bloom buys himself a mutton kidney and fries it for breakfast, makes tea, brings his wife Molly a cuppa and some bread and butter while she lies in bed, gives the cat the kidney paper to lick, repairs to the outhouse and: “Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone.”
Bloom does something that scarcely any other hero in history has done. Unlike Hamlet, Harry Potter, King Arthur, Frodo Baggins, Beowulf, James Bond, Winston Smith, Humbert Humbert, Dr Aziz, Orlando, Sherlock Holmes, Sebastian Flyte, Raskolnikov, Vronsky, Captain Ahab, Peter Pan, Jay Gatsby and the Invisible Man, Bloom has a shit.
And if that’s evil then you and I are just as evil just about every day of our lives. But as the non-lavatorial Hamlet himself remarked: “All of which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down.”
Hamlet was talking about ageing rather than defecation, but the principle holds good for both: when it comes to the stuff that links us with our fellow-members of the animal kingdom, it is widely held to be dishonest to set it down.
Joyce’s wanted Ulysses to be a book about absolutely everything. Each chapter has its own colour, organ of the body and science. These chapters include some of the most exalted soul-filling passages ever written: but his characters have bodies as well as souls, and both must find full expression if the book is to be complete.
So Stephen takes a walk on the beach: and asks: “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand?” He later muses: “Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men?” That is not a purely rhetorical question: it has an answer, perhaps not all that reductively simple after all. Stephen then writes a poem, for what else could he do? He also picks his nose and has a piss: “He laid the dried snot picked from his nostril on a ledge of rock, carefully. For the rest, look who will.”
There is an echo of this later on, when Bloom listens to music-makers in a pub: “It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the ethereal bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessnesss…”
A few pages later, leaving the pub full of steak and kidney and cider, Bloom – well, let’s let Joyce tell us: “Pprrpffrrppfff.” We’ve all done that too (each person averages three pints of gas emitted every day), just as we’ve all been taken to the heavenly heights by a piece of (soaring) music.
And in the last chapter, as Bloom’s wife Molly lies half asleep in a reverie of love, lust and memory – “yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes…” And in the course of this rhapsody she slips out of bed to use the chamber-pot and finds that her period has started.
This is not all comic debunking. It also works the other way: it elevates. We are all poor bare forked animals, but we can raise our eyes to the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. We all have greatness within us, just as we all have a digestive system: life would be unliveable without both.
It is, I suspect, the digestive rather than the sexual references (nowhere near obsessive, as they are in Lady Chatterley’s Lover), that attracted such horror to Ulysses. It wasn’t the illicit sex that caused so much trouble (these merely compounded the offence); it was the stuff we all do every day to stay alive.
And that’s also the reason why Darwin attracted such incontinent hostility after the publication of The Origin. The idea of evolution – in terms of the transmutation of species – was not new; it was already around as a thrilling heresy. What Darwin did was to show us how it works. Not only that: he researched meticulously to show us how it must work.
He pointed out that animals and plants under domestication are modified over the course of generations by selective breeding: think of great Danes and Yorkshire terriers. Darwin called this process artificial selection. He then proposed that wild animals and plants are modified by the shifting pressures of existence. He called this process natural selection.
“How extremely stupid not to have thought of that,” declared Darwin’s great champion, Thomas Huxley. Darwin wrote The Origin as a book of popular science: it’s still highly readable and as you do so, you can see his argument move inexorably into the arena of the bleeding obvious.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is not a theory as we use the term loosely: I have a theory that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that Covid vaccinations actually implant microchips. It is a theory as a scientist understands the term: the only explanation that fits the known facts. This theory is undeniable by argument: it is only deniable by bluster. And people have been blustering ever since.
The Origin ends as a perfect cliffhanger. Darwin never once mentions the origin of humanity in its pages: but both the question and its answer are implicit in every paragraph. If chickens share a common ancestor with pheasants and peacocks, so humans must share a common ancestor with monkeys and apes.
Bluster was the only counter-argument: “Man’s derived supremacy … [is] utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God,” said Samuel “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford. Benjamin Disraeli gave us a phrase for the ages when he mused: “Is man an ape or an angel? I am on the side of the angels.”
And that is how we humans see ourselves: separate and above the rest of animal kingdom, a single layer below the angels with only them between us and God. We are not just better than animals: we are of quite different stuff. In more recent years it has become clear that belief in God (and/or angels) is no longer necessary to maintain this standpoint.
The fact of evolution has not been in scientific doubt for well over a century. The mechanism by which evolution operates was discovered at about the same time that Darwin was writing, though it wasn’t widely known until later: the experiments of the Moravian monk Gregor Mendel began the science of genetics. We now know that we share 98 per cent of our DNA with chimpanzees, and that we are kin to dolphins and eagles, flies, worms, oak trees and roses: and so, like the characters in Ulysses, we humans consume, digest, urinate, defecate, ejaculate, menstruate, parturiate – and about a dozen times a day we fart. “Fff. Oo. Rrpr.”
And yet the characters doing all these things are also revelling in beauty and joy and love. What’s more they are playing the parts of kings of queens of mythology: Bloom/ Odysseus is the exiled king of Ithaca, Stephen/Telemachus is the dispossessed prince and Molly/Penelope is the queen awaiting a royal homecoming.
These comparisons don’t drag down the kings, nor do they mock the ordinary people who play their parts. The book implies that we are all heroes: that the wondrous beings who people the greatest tales ever told are us and their struggles and triumphs are ours. Greatness is within the scope of an ad-salesman with an eye for women’s under-garments, a schoolteacher with a taste for poetry and booze and a part-time soprano having a bit of a fling.
Joyce said: “Nobody in any of my books is worth more than a thousand pounds.” But in his books such people, neither well-born nor rich, are measured alongside Homer’s gods and kings: and that itself was and perhaps still is subversive. Certainly it upset English novelists of more patrician background.
We have found it equally difficult to deal with both The Origin and Ulysses. They are both dangerous books that we need to defuse. We have done so very effectively by establishing widely-accepted, self-protective and half-willed misunderstandings that cut us off from the truth.
We cope with our kinship with gorillas by confusing evolution with progress. We like the idea that life gets more and more complex as it goes on. This not actually true; many organisms (most obviously parasites) have simplified as they evolved their successful lifestyles.
But we prefer to believe that evolution has a goal: and that goal, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, is wonderful old us. This idea is summed up for all time in the sequence – crouching monkey, knuckle-walking ape, stooping early hominid, proud upright white western male – known as the March of Progress.
And it’s complete nonsense. Evolution is not a ladder, it’s a bush with ten million growing tips. Evolution is not a symphony with a great conductor, it’s a jam session with ten million artists responding to each shift in the music. Evolution doesn’t work its way toward a goal: it is about doing whatever it takes to become an ancestor. Human intelligence is not the driver of evolution any more than wings or number of legs: it’s just what allowed our ancestors to survive when they first walked upright on the dangerous savannahs of Africa. The dinosaurs didn’t die out because it was time for something better: they survived for 100 million years before being wiped out by chance and a rogue asteroid.
We have a different defence against the dangers of Ulysses. We live in a society full of people who long to complete the London Marathon because it is (a) long and (b) difficult. It is equally full of people who hold off reading Ulysses because it is (a) long and (b) difficult.
The book has been demonised: too difficult to bother with. It sits on many shelves, perhaps read as far as chapter three, the one that begins: “Ineluctable modality of the visible”, or even chapter 14, which begins still more bafflingly: “Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.”
A Goodreads poll made Ulysses the most difficult of all novels, and by focusing on its difficulties we lose the reason for reading it – which, as Ernest Hemingway said, is because Ulysses is “a most god-damn wonderful book”.
I first read it when I was 17, without crib or introductory notes. I loved it, was baffled by it, was thrilled by my bafflement and wanted to find out more. The first reading of any worthwhile book is merely a reconnaissance: I’ve been reading Ulysses on and off ever since.
Because it’s a book to live with. It requires commitment, as all worthwhile things do: it rewards every reader a thousandfold. And always something new: a few years ago, I found a chunk I hadn’t paused at before: when Bloom has an uncharacteristic moment of depression, relieved when a cloud shifts: “Quick warm sunlight came running from Berkeley Road, swiftly, in slim sandals, along the brightening footpath. Runs, she runs to meet me, a girl with gold hair on the wind.”
So you don’t read this as you do an airport thriller. You take it at whatever pace seems right at the time, pause, go back, skip, reread favourite bits, get to the end, and then start all over again with stately plump Buck Mulligan. There are guides to the novel online and a little help through the labyrinth is always welcome: ulyssesguide.com is pretty good. There are plenty of printed guides: try Anthony Burgess’s Re Joyce. Ulysses Annotated is a treasure trove. But above all, read the god-damn book because it is god-damn wonderful. I have the (free) Gutenberg edition on my phone and read pages in queues and on trains. Embrace the difficulties, laugh at the jokes, sigh for the beauties, weep for the love, above all revel in the endless everythingnessnessness ….
Joyce didn’t write Ulysses for academics and clever dicks. He wrote it for you and he wrote it for me. If there’s one thing above all that the book gives us, the clue is in the author’s name. Ulysses is the book of joys.
All photographs from Seamus Murphy’s book The Republic (Allen Lane), © Seamus Murphy / VII / Redux / eyevine
Main image: Everyday life in Ireland a century after Leopold Bloom’s odyssey in Dublin. A man eats his evening meal in Abbeyleix
This piece will appear in the next edition of Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, then keep an eye out for a physical copy in our shop.