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How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses

Turning Over Idly Signatures of All Things I am Here to Read : How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses

Paper on how to read Ulysses given by Philip Harvey at Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre in Brighton on the 16th of June 2014 as part of Bloomsday in Melbourne.


Nobody wished to claim my first copy of Ulysses. It was on a shelf in the lost-and-found at my school, incongruous amidst misplaced football jumpers and unnamed biology textbooks. It was a worn-out Penguin edition. No-one explained how it got there. Maybe it was a teacher’s guilty secret. Maybe someone left it in a classroom when they couldn’t find the dirty bits. I knew about James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but everything about Ulysses was different from any book I had ever seen. Like many a novice, I gave up trying to understand the Latin on page one and flipped to the back. I hate having a long wrangle in bed or else if its not that its some little bitch or other he got in with somewhere or picked up on the sly if they only knew him as well as I do yes because the day before yesterday he was scribbling something a letter when I came into the front room … he covered it up with the blottingpaper. Anyone’s first impression of Molly Bloom will be of something striking and beautiful, and mine was no exception. It was not so much what was being said, I hadn’t the context then to get much of the meaning, it was how it was being said. This was a state of being without punctuation but plenty of rhythm. Sentences seemed to stop and start arbitrarily or with some grammatical logic of their own, and the vocabulary was rich and colourful, full of surprise images and vivacious Irish idioms. The voice was thrillingly single-minded. It was full of talk outside my personal experience, but I wanted to know more. Molly Bloom, I noticed, was not interested in full-stops and only went for capitalisation as the mood took her. As I started reading in other episodes of Ulysses I gradually found the whole book had an attitude about matters of style. No-one spoke in quote marks like in a normal novel, but after an indented dash. Some episodes used English that wasn’t modern at all, or set out the words in ways that were without reference to anything, precisely. Undoubtedly those first teenage encounters instilled interest, essential in any work of literature, which left open the possibility for returning to Ulysses when I was ready to know more. This experience also taught me that James Joyce was deeply interested in how people read. All of his games with word-play, layout, syntax, punctuation – the presentation of Ulysses itself – was about the pleasures of reading. He deliberately created a unique reading environment for the reader. He said himself that when someone opened Ulysses they would recognise it instantly as Ulysses and no other book. Just as he wished to see Ireland and existence in a renewed way, he does so by challenging our reading habits, by making us read the language in a new way. All of this takes time, and even though none of us will meet Joyce’s expectation of spending our whole lifetime reading his writings, we are enlarged by giving over long time, slow time, to gain from the comedies he puts before us. I can say of my first copy of Ulysses in chorus with the Honourable Mrs Mervyn Tallboys when reporting on an obscene Spanish photograph and wanton billet-doux sent to her by Leopold Bloom in an overheated moment: “I have it still.”


Because Ulysses is a book for adults. Its concerns are almost entirely about how adults negotiate with the world. I found there were a number of ways of reading Ulysses, when I returned to it in my twenties and thirties.

(a)   The first thing I discovered is that Ulysses is a gigantic network of cross-reference. When I dallied with Molly Bloom in my youth I had no idea that half the things she talks about in her monologue are facts past and present mentioned elsewhere in the novel. This completely shot the popular idea I had been given that the book was some kind of stream of consciousness. What Molly is streaming is the hard realities of her urban existence, all detailed elsewhere in Ulysses, albeit on soft mattresses after a heady afternoon of love-making. And this art of cross-reference is at work and on show in the lives of the other two main characters as well, cross-reference that deepens with time-soaked reading.
(b)  The second thing I found was that Ulysses has one enormous footnote, is in fact reliant for its survival on footnotes. In Finnegans Wake Joyce calls the three greatest European poets of the last millennium Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper and today we could not properly or fully understand Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare without the aid of footnotes. It is astonishing to think that 14th century contemporaries of Dante read the Divine Comedy and got all the references to politicians, artists &c. as though they were reading the Saturday paper. We can read Dante for enjoyment but still need a note to tell us why that particular pope is upsidedown in the quicksand. But from the start, every page of Ulysses required a footnote somewhere and the footnote business went from a jog to a sprint after Joyce’s death. There are books entirely dedicated to annotation. Much of Joyce criticism is a slavish exercise in finding out what else the words mean than their literal meaning. We ask ourselves what kick Joyce got out of loading his book with enough secrets to keep the scholars busy for centuries. Not only do we enjoy having 1904 Dublin recreated for us in 2014, we also have to go to the trouble of seeing how Joyce recreated it. Some people ask: what’s the point? I found after going to Dublin that those with a knowledge of Dublin will always have a headstart on the rest of us, but that footnotes are as much a history book as a clue to the purposes of Ulysses: to be treated as a necessary good and not an evil necessity. The difference between knowing Leopold Bloom’s ancestors were Hungarian Jews and why we have Martello Towers is one kind of good, for which a discerning reader will best judge the significance.
(c)  The third thing I found is the biggest footnote of all, the various biographies of Joyce, his family and friends, and pre-eminently Richard Ellmann. Some readers talk about life before and after Ellmann with the same rapture as Molly recalls life before and after Gibraltar. For some people, Ellmann is like a second Ulysses, a key to all mythologies within the main text. This view recommends highly Ellmann’s achievement, though nothing can replace the realised masterpiece itself. In terms of slow reading, or proper reading in fact, this passion for biography tells me this is because Ulysses is insistently autobiographical. All three main characters are projected aspects of the mature Joyce, while countless minor characters are described through Joyce’s personal perceptions. This is not simply some ego trip, but the transmutation of raw knowledge and experience into the forms taken by the novel. Any biography that assists with our awareness of how Joyce did that will be an asset for the seasoned reader.


All of which still only gets us so far in how to read Ulysses. As I said, my earliest reading was at the end of the book, not the start. In fact, I’m not sure I have read Ulysses straight through from “Stately, plump…” to “Yes I will Yes” but I have read the whole thing several times, some sections hundreds of times. Bloomsday in Melbourne helped there. And as I said, Joyce in his layout directs us in how to read. But he does more, because he gives other clues about how to read his book through his descriptions of the reading behaviour of his characters. I am now going to quote some of these descriptions and construe readerly meanings from them.

[page 45]
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.

Stephen on Sandymount Strand. One of the first direct references to reading in the book is about reading everything, anything at all in the world – not just words, but all things. This invitation to the reader is a wake-up call. Joyce asks us to read everything in creation, in the light, through our eyes and our experience. The signatures are the shapes, forms, and qualities of all things, animate and inanimate. And Ulysses itself is filled with descriptions of all things in careful detail: natural things, manmade things. And all of those minute descriptions, page upon page, are sensory celebration not just of the physical existence of Dublin but of our world in general – the world of daily, physical existence. All of which is one way of reading the book: as a reverie of all things visible.

[page 77]
-Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
-Met him what? he asked.
-Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.
-Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
-O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

Molly having breakfast in Eccles Street. She began to search the text with the hairpin. We are asked to read Ulysses with Molly’s hairpin. That is to say, we scan again to find things needing further elucidation. Joyce is conceding that his book is full of big words that make us so unhappy. We have about as much chance of knowing what metempsychosis means as Leopold Bloom. But Joyce is telling us not to be afraid of the big words, whose meaning anyway is open to several meanings and endless wordplay, as indeed metempsychosis itself reappears throughout the book in outlandish reformulations. Molly is our model of going for help, and if Poldy does not come up with the goods she may have to go somewhere else. All of Ulysses is read using Molly’s hairpin. It is not untrue to say that the whole text hangs together using her hairpins.  

[page 83-85]
Bloom kicked open the crazy door of the jakes … Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door window. The king was in his countinghouse. Nobody.
Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit…
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 at stool. An impression persists that Ulysses is all head stuff, cerebral reading, but here Joyce tells us that reading is about the slowness and process of the body. Reading is done at our own physical speed and, of course, without the body we couldn’t read. Furthermore, we read Ulysses itself as an ode to the human body. The book opens with a half-naked man intoning words of the Roman Mass and ends with a half-naked woman recalling again the affirmation of her own body. Between these scenes we are asked to read closely the regular and irregular processes of the body we ourselves inhabit. Regular is Bloom after breakfast:

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it.

He lives in a world of transitory reading, where permanence can be torn away and used for practical ends. And where his day’s plan is found in a here-today-gone-tomorrow newspaper: “What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.” We read the book slowly in order to measure for ourselves the passage of time.

[page 106]
He walked cheerfully towards the mosque of the baths. Remind you of a mosque, redbaked bricks, the minarets. College sports today I see. He eyed the horseshoe poster over the gate of college park: cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot. Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye.

Bloom at his creative best. Bloom is an advertising man. Wherever he goes he is checking for new ideas to put into advertisements. We today, in our world of 24-hour promotions, are even more immersed in this way of thinking than Dubliners in 1904. “Something to catch the eye” is a motto of Ulysses also, and how to read it. First, because the entire book is riddled with the everyday words of newspapers, noticeboards, hoardings, tickets, programs, flyers, menus &c. – the ephemeral printed language of the city. We are made to see all of this. Far from being written out of the script, it becomes integral, is enjoined, is part of the script. We read the multiple distractions on show everywhere. Then also, “something to catch the eye” is Joyce’s own working aesthetic. His novel is itself a parade of word surprises. Even the paragraph we just heard has mosque, redbaked, minarets, horseshoe, cod in a pot. We are presented with a profusion of gorgeous vocabulary that keeps our attention and elevates the entire reading experience.

[page 155-156]
Bloom stayed in his walk to watch a typesetter neatly distributing type. Reads it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require some practice that. mangiD. kcirtaP. Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me … How quickly he does that job. Practice makes perfect. Seems to see with his fingers.     

Bloom at the newspaper office. The more we read Ulysses, the more we read it backwards. The more progress we make going forwards, the more enjoyable we find it going back to previous references. The internal monologues, for example, grow with re-reading. Just the shift in thought in this passage – from typesetter to hagadah to exodus – makes increasing sense when re-read. Carl Jung, when he read Ulysses, said, ““The book can just as well be read backwards, for it has no back and no front, no top and no bottom. Everything could easily have happened before, or might have happened afterwards.” The name typeset backwards is that of the departed Patrick Dignam, reminder too that Ulysses, though set on one day in time, tells everyone’s stories backwards through time. Although we know life goes on, Bloomsday itself is the culmination of everything up until that moment, which we look back from in order to see how we arrived at this present moment.

[page 166-170]
-Silence for my brandnew riddle!

Lenehan announces in the Freeman’s Journal office and it takes four pages of Dublin talk before we get the answer to “What opera resembles a railway line?”

-The Rose of Castille. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel. Gee!

Joyce once said that if the Catholic Church could base its foundation on a pun (You are a rock and on you I will build a rock) then it ought to be good enough for him. The Dubliners themselves thrive on punning right through the narrative. Joyce’s “employment of puns is daunting and programmatic” (Peter Porter), such that almost anything in the text could have a double meaning. When a friend once criticised his overuse of puns as trivial, Joyce replied: “Yes. Some of the means I use are trivial – and some are quadrivial.” Although it seems accidental in its placement, Lenehan’s joke about the Rose of Castille itself becomes layered with Freudian and other meanings once we make the connection that Molly Bloom, who grew up in Gibraltar, is herself a rose of Castille who resides, we know, in a house near a railway line. She imitates the sounds of the trains during her monologue.

[page 194-195]
A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. Bargains … He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H, E, L, Y, S. Wisdom Hely’s. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked. Our staple food.

The HELYS men are emblematic of how words come together and break up again. Later, Bloom crosses Westmoreland Street “when apostrophe S had plodded by.” This is poetic and linguistic consciousness itself at work, where the very letters of the alphabet are characters in the novel. Joyce invites us to read words in this way, so that we not only hear and see the construction of English vocabulary, but how words fragment, how syllables carry effect, how sound itself is life in the making. Ulysses contains innumerable plays on the structure of words and is one reason for reading it aloud.

[page 236]
-All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

George Russell states the objective of art in the library. Joyce once said: “The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.” But then we know Ulysses springs out of deep life and puts into dramatic form the hard-earned knowledge borne of experience that we call human. Does it show forth wisdom? Let the individual reader be the judge. We read the novel as a comedy – it certainly has a resolved or ‘happy’ ending – but the way in which suffering and loss live together with the contradictions of ordinary daily life are close at hand throughout the book. It is the Quaker librarian, further on in this scene, asks, “Do you think it is only a paradox. The mocker is never taken serious when he is most serious.” After which Joyce writes the sentence: “They talked seriously of mocker’s seriousness,” rather like us in this seminar. Russell’s speech raises another question for the slow reader too; what is the main theme of Ulysses? The more I read the book, the more I know there is no simple answer to that question and people have different ideas about what is central and peripheral.

[page 277-278]
-Mournful mummer, Buck Mulligan moaned. Synge has left off wearing black to be like nature. Only crows, priests and English coal are black.
A laughed tripped over his lips.
-Longworth is awfully sick, he said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jew jesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn’t you do the Yeats touch?
He went on and down, mopping, chanting with waving graceful arms:
-The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.

Mulligan mocks Dedalus, i.e. Joyce, and Yeats together. Part of the fascination here though is that Mulligan could be describing Ulysses: “The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.” In fact, we have no choice but to think of Homer quite a bit because Ulysses re-enacts tales of the Odyssey in domestic coded fashion. Our appreciation of the novel is improved, if not always helped, by familiarisation with the Homeric parallels. We are made to accept a literary tradition going back millennia. Later in his life Joyce brooded over the concern that the structure of Ulysses was over-determined (as we would say), yet Homer (and Dante and Shakespeare) play roles in our understanding of the novel. There are other ways in which “one thinks of Homer.” It helps to know, for instance, that the Greeks heard Homer as a series of examples of masculinity, because that is a central theme in this book of Joyce’s. Ulysses is a journey, but it is also a series of tests for the individual that must be met and lived through.

[page 302]
Mr Bloom turned over idly pages of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, then of Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Crooked botched print …
He laid both books aside and glanced at the third: Tales of the Ghetto, by Leopold von Sacher Masoch.
-That, I had, he said, pushing it by.
The shopman let two volumes fall on the counter.
-Them are two good ones …
Mr Bloom, alone, looked at the titles. Fair Tyrants by James Lovebirch. Know the kind that is. Had it? Yes.
He opened it. Thought so ...
 He read the other title: Sweets of Sin. More in her line. Let us see.
He read where his finger opened.
-All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him! For Raoul!

Bloom selects books at the bookstall. He demonstrates in microcosm how we read Ulysses by reading other books at the same time. How the wildly varying styles of each episode are not separate from one another but part of the same interest. How there are parts we leave aside and other parts we return to. How we move rapidly from idle interest to total engagement on the same page. These books are not the high literature discussed by Stephen and his friends. They are penny dreadfuls, soft porn, true crime. It is some of these books and not Ulysses, ironically, that fit the definition of dirty books. Bloom’s own home library, catalogued toward the end of the novel, shows by stark contrast that the books he keeps are about facts: books of history and science. They are not the titillating literature he reads from the bookstall and keeps moving along in a surreptitious way. The scene warns us that Ulysses is about people reading books, high, middle and very low brow. Ulysses is a book about other books. Ulysses is about how reading directs our everyday lives.

[page 592]
He addressed me in several handwritings with fulsome compliments as a Venus in furs and alleged profound pity for my frostbound coachman Balmer while in the same breath he expressed himself as envious of his earflaps and fleecy sheepskins and of his fortunate proximity to my person, when standing behind my chair wearing my livery and the armorial bearings of the Bellingham escutcheon garnished sable, a buck’s head couped or.

The Anglo-Irish Mrs Bellingham gives testimony against Bloom at the Court of Conscience. Vital for our purposes here is the claim “he addressed me in several handwritings.” Joyce addresses the reader in several handwritings. Each of the eighteen episodes is presented using a different style, a different handwriting. By dispensing with a uniform mode of expression and employing very many more than just eighteen to tell the story, Joyce makes himself, the author, almost invisible. We have no idea what his true hand could be, concluding that all or none may be his true self. Even as we adapt to this way of reading, we find that the handwriting is sending its own messages, so that we engage with each episode on its own expressive terms. 

[page 896-897]
then a girl Hester … she gave me the Moonstone to read that was the first I read of Wilkie Collins East Lynne I read and the shadow of Ashlydyat Mrs Henry Wood Henry Dunbar by that other woman I lent him afterwards with Mulveys photo in it so as he see I wasn’t without … I don’t like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting … I couldn’t read a line Lord how long ago it seems centuries of course they never come back and she didn’t put her address right on it either

Molly remembers a woman from her youth. Hester was clearly a sophisticated acquaintance who introduced Molly at an impressionable age to Victorian chick lit and early detective novels. It reveals that Molly is a much broader reader than we guess from the books brought home by her husband. The passage reminds us that books change the way we see ourselves, and the world. Molly steps into the world of sensual and sexual experience -  by reading about it at the same time, just as we do when piecing together the knowingness of Ulysses. Joyce’s own attitude to reading – that we remember more than we ever know, even years later – compels him to extravagance, out of concern that we as readers can so easily forget, even down to not getting the name or the address right.

[page 899]
he always tells me the wrong things and no stops to say like making a speech your sad bereavement sympathy I always make that mistake and newphew with 2 double yous in I hope he’ll write me a longer letter the next time if it’s a thing he really likes me O thanks be to the great God I got somebody to give me what I badly wanted to put some heart up into me you’ve no chances at all in this place like you used long ago I wish somebody would write me a loveletter his wasn’t much and I told him he could write what he liked yours ever Hugh Boylan in old Madrid silly women believe love is sighing I am dying still if he wrote it I suppose thered be some truth in it true or no it fills up your whole day and life always something to think about every moment and see it all around you like a new world I could write the answer in bed to let him imagine

Molly thinks about the men. Molly Bloom is a close reader of life and writing. She knows that Blazes Boylan has no skill at love letters, as even now, after everything, on June the 17th she still wishes somebody would write her a love letter. We know that Ulysses is a love letter to Nora Barnacle, set on the day when she and Jim first walked out together. Indeed, there is a very elementary way of reading the novel, which is to understand that it is a love letter. The book is filled with love letters, but the relationship between the author and his heroine makes the whole book come alive. We share the secrets of expressions of love by reading Ulysses, Joyce is letting us in on the words in the letter and that is, I believe, how we are meant to read them: slowly, again and again, whenever we need to go back and read them.  


Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New and revised edition. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Reissued 1960 Bodley Head edition, published by Penguin Books, 1992.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature.
Porter, Peter. ‘I Rather Like the Sound of Foreign Languages like Ezra Pound’, in Life by Other Means : Essays on D.J. Enright, edited by Jacqueline Simms. Oxford University Press, 1990, page 128.


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