Ulysses as the Definitive Psychogeographical Novel
“I read that Bloom once came this way,Graffiti in the gents’ toilet at Davy Byrnes bar, Dublin.
The happy wanderer of his day.
A journeyman like Ulysses,
He had a lunch of wine and cheese”.
A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma
Ulysses is an infamously cryptic novel. Its revolutionary structure sees a storyline which parallels perhaps the greatest of epic poems, Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses being the Latin name for Odysseus), with chapters drawing on a brilliant range of literary techniques, while sometimes employing unfathomable streams of consciousness. In addition, according to Joyce himself: ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.’
Although Joyce was aware that his complex approach might overtax the plain reader, he wrestled with the dilemma as to what extent his design should be explained. Initially, he wasn’t even keen on using Homeric titles for chapters, as that so obviously telegraphed his intentions. It wasn’t until eight years after full publication that Joyce was finally persuaded to relent. To help readers negotiate the analogies he authorised his friend Stuart Gilbert to devise a diagram charting all 18 episodes according to subjects, colours, symbols, techniques and even body parts!
It was in Joyce’s psyche to insist on orderly schemes ‘to make sense of it all’. Joyce’s father once recalled his son’s fascination in cartography at the age of seven, remarking: ‘If that fellow was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he’d sit, be God, and make a map of it.’
Ultimately, Joyce remained unconvinced the schematic was a good move, as the device clearly stapled his work to Homer’s, and the framework, though undoubtedly clever, indicated that his system was enslaved to another. In essence, contrived.
However, the initial deconstruction led to an explosion in the serious study of the novel’s intrinsic literary styles, influences, interpretations and meanings, with some arguing it is this aspect which is of paramount worth, whereas the relatively basic narrative pales into insignificance by comparison.
Nonetheless, many do like the plot: the cluttered minds of a bunch of Dubliners getting drunk, underpinned with a layer of politics, religion, sex, British imperialism, Irish hypocrisy and global anti-Semitism. And Bloom is such an intriguing character: the anti-hero’s anti-hero, to the extent that you find yourself rooting for his cause, yet feel frustration at his actions, wishing he could have been this, or done that.
Perhaps Joyce’s greatest literary trick was mooring Ulysses in a lost world of innocence. As stately plump Buck Mulligan performed his morning ablutions on that fateful summer’s day in 1904, Ireland was under British rule, Einstein was relatively clueless, man could barely drive a car – let alone fly a plane, and the most sophisticated military tactic was the cavalry charge. By the time the book was fully published in 1922, global war and civil conflict had fundamentally changed things forever. In that intervening 18 years, the world had come of age, technology had made a quantum leap, and Everyman sang songs of experience.
The Definitive Psychogeographic Novel
In his 2006 book Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley set out the main areas of study: ‘To a large extent this history of ideas is also a tale of two cities, London and Paris…’ and ‘…rarely strays beyond these locations.’ One might argue, however, that on a proportionate scale, Dublin is equally rich on the psychogeographic register, and I believe this owes much to Joyce’s seminal work.
I would go as far as to say that Ulysses is the definitive psychogeographic novel. However, I stress novel. It is fiction. Even if the itinerancy of the characters seems free-willed, random, or even aimless (witness Bloom in the Lotus Eaters episode), it is not. The author was the puppet master, always in control.
The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov certainly admired the novel’s psychogeographic qualities. According to Cóilín Parsons in The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature: ‘The compelling element of Ulysses for Nabakov was its tracing of itineraries in and through the city, telling stories of the places and spaces of the city through its own complex geography.’ Indeed, Nabakov felt a simple map of the main protagonists’ wanderings in Ulysses would have been more helpful than Gilbert’s schematic.
More recent writers seem to concur that Joyce worked under a strong psychogeographical influence. Maria Tymoczko suggested in her 1994 study The Irish Ulysses, that Joyce was manipulating Dublin for the sake of artistic order. She contends: ‘Joyce is not merely a raconteur of events and anecdotes about Dublin… …his attention to the topography and traditions of Dublin is an extension of the nationalist validation of history and geography.’ Eric Bulson asserts in Novels, Maps, Modernity (2007) that ‘Ulysses is as much psychogeographic novel as it is cartographic novel’. In her 2015 academic paper Psychogeography in Ulysses, Carla Hunter states: ‘The psychogeographic quality of connecting space and time, of imbuing the present with the importance of the past, is a quality shared by Ulysses,’ which backs up her belief that: ‘Joyce’s Ulysses clearly follows the as then unnamed literary tradition of psychogeography.
Even if the actual term psychogeography had not been invented when the book was published, Joyce was advocating the practice within it. In the Scylla and Charybdis episode, the author uses Stephen Daedalus to suggest that Shakespeare employed psychogeographic techniques to add detail to his work: Stephen imagines Shakespeare traversing London, from his abode in Silver Street, via the herbal gardens in Fetter Lane, the Bankside brothels, the bearpits of Paris Garden, and the Globe Theatre, intricately linking the city and its inhabitants to create his theatrical visions: ‘Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.’
In the Cyclops episode, Stephen’s inner monologue invokes a psychogeographic technique: ‘Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!’ Composition of place is a specific practice in a series of meditations known as the Spiritual Exercises, developed during the Counter-Reformation by the founder of the Jesuit order Ignatius Loyola in 1548. It requires an application of the senses and imagination to fuel contemplation. The faith should be perceived and absorbed through the five individual senses to evoke an overall sense of spiritual ecstasy. The Catholic church encouraged composition of place during the mass: Roll up! roll up! Step into paradise for an amazingly vivid experience! See! realistic art, powerful imagery and illuminating stain glass; Hear! Latin chants, harmonious hymns and symphonic bell ringing; Smell! fresh flowers, sweet candles and exotic incense; Touch! holy water, rosary beads, and the sign of the cross; Taste! the Holy Spirit through the communion bread and wine. A compelling and hypnotic stimulant (witness Bloom emotions at All Hallows church in the Lotus Eaters episode), this concept proved an extremely powerful antidote to the puritan austerity of the Protestant mass, which of course, it was designed in response to.
Joyce is suggesting that if we use our faculties and mental capacity in this manner we can apply it to create a psychogeographic experience: one finds an appropriate place, examines all its physical attributes in close detail, using local sounds, smells, tastes, colours and texture, reflects on events that have shaped the space, then delves into one’s own thoughts and feelings that arise from being at the scene. In so doing, one is recomposing the place using its own complexities to create another dimension of infinite richness and depth. A personal journey of discovery.
Bloom is the perfect avatar of that embodiment of psychogeography, the ‘flaneur’: The idler-about-town who provides a commentary on the urban scene; chronicling the mood of the city. Bloom even proposes his own psychogeographic devices: ‘Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub.’
North-west is the general compass direction that both Bloom and Stephen ultimately follow on their Dublin movements. The north-west passage seems to have some resonance in literary orientation. Scholars have established Odysseus did the same on his Mediterranean voyage. So did Thomas De Quincey, attempting to steer an escape route though London in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in a chapter often cited by experts in search of psychogeography’s roots.
Is the psychogeography tag justified for Joyce’s Ulysses? Or does it add just another layer of superfluous complexity to the novel? Does such critical over-analysis suck all the marrow from the storyline? Or does one acknowledge that the aura which surrounds the book stems from such examination? In the end, I guess we might have to accept the fact that Joyce knew exactly what he was creating: a terrible beauty.