yes I said yes I will Yes.
June 16, 2007 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Happy Bloomsday! James Joyce's Ulysses, named the number one novel of the century by the Modern Library, took place 103 years ago today. Can't make the reenactment in Dublin? Listen online right now to a live onstage reading at Symphony Space in New York. (previously)
posted by danb (58 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have to read it again, do I?
posted by stavrogin at 12:33 PM on June 16, 2007

yes i said yes i will yes
posted by scody at 12:36 PM on June 16, 2007

Man, that first link is a doozy. Took me a _while_ to read all 18 'Episodes' all the time reading again a story I've read already a few times while trying not to be too distracted by the add for "Out-Drink Santa Ring tones" and god knows how many pop-ups.

Happy Bloomsday.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:42 PM on June 16, 2007

hur hur hur hur
hur hur hur hur
posted by Kattullus at 12:50 PM on June 16, 2007

Snot-green and scrotum-tightening. Huzzah.
posted by Haruspex at 12:51 PM on June 16, 2007

(I'm enjoying the onstage reading quite a big. Thanks danb!)
posted by Kattullus at 12:51 PM on June 16, 2007

Holy shit, is it Bloomsday again, already?!
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:58 PM on June 16, 2007

Didn't google used to have a little cartoon for this day?
posted by 517 at 1:11 PM on June 16, 2007

Here, 517.
posted by stavrogin at 1:14 PM on June 16, 2007

Just last week I gave up after Episode 9.

I've never met a book so determined not to be read.
posted by futility closet at 1:18 PM on June 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

I know someone who claimed they read it cover to cover. Claimed.
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:30 PM on June 16, 2007

I've never met a book so determined not to be read.

I felt that way for the longest time. I had tried and failed to get far into it many times. But, as a New Year's resolution a couple years back, I resolved to finish it. I decided to chunk it up, read a bit at a time, read it in the morning, at night, silently, aloud etc. I was through the first couple of books when I ran into a couple of friends, (one of whom was similarly inclined to me and the other who had wanted to read it again). We decided to start a weekly reading group in where we'd tackle bits at a time, read some passages aloud (usually involving large quantities of Jameson), and discuss it.

It sounds nerdy, but it was a great idea, and I feel like I got a lot more out of it (as well as enjoying it to pieces) by doing that way. Long story longer, it took me a year and a half to finish, but it was completely worth it.
posted by psmealey at 1:31 PM on June 16, 2007

Hi, futility closet! Nice to meet you!

psmealey has the right idea, I think. I would not have been able to tackle Ulysses on my own. Not even close. (I read it in a class.)
posted by danb at 1:35 PM on June 16, 2007

Whenever I masturbate into a foamy green sea, I shed a tear for Ulysses.

And throw the idea of reading aloud being nerdy to the wind. With help from our herbal friend, we've had a round robin reading circle. We'd purposely difficult books (Pynchon, DFW, Joyce, etc.), get a pack of beer and either read silently to an audio recording or read aloud. It helps having a professional voice actor in the group. It is much more fun to read such books in groups, similar to watching a movie with a group versus watching it home alone. Anyway it has grown to a very strange, wonderful mix of scenesters, intellectuals and a few professional athletes. The key is the heterogeneous makeup of the group, or else it just gets nerdy.
posted by geoff. at 1:41 PM on June 16, 2007

I read it in two different classes. The second time with a "study guide" (there were several that were passed around - I think we were discouraged from owning one for some reason) it was incredibly helpful and really interesting as well.

It is not a book written for our times. Though it is manifestly a book of our times.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:41 PM on June 16, 2007

OK, you've all inspired me to try again. psmealey, pass the Jameson's. See y'all in 6 months.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:49 PM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks, psmealey and geoff. Maybe I'll try again someday. But I really resonated with Joseph Collins's 1922 New York Times review, which called it "the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century" but also said "not ten men or women out of a hundred can read Ulysses through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five of them will do it as a tour de force."

"A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses James Joyce's new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it —even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it— save bewilderment and a sense of disgust."

How can that be, you know, great?
posted by futility closet at 1:56 PM on June 16, 2007

I've read it three times in its entirety, and individual chapters repeatedly (my favorite is Cyclops, which literally makes my cry with laughter in parts -- I used to do a staged reading of a section of it every year for Bloomsday celebrations). All the suggestions above are great -- use a guidebook or an annotated version, drink some Jameson's, read it outloud, and allow yourself to be swept away in its weird, wonderful, heartbreaking joy(ce)fulness.

As I've said before, one of the great secrets about Ulysses is that it's fucking funny. It's like taken a drunken tour of a foreign city in the midst of a celebration you don't fully understand, but are more than welcome to join in. Jump in, hang on, and enjoy.
posted by scody at 2:00 PM on June 16, 2007

How can that be, you know, great?

My sentiments exactly. While I am certain that there is something to be gleamed from the book, I wonder if that something is truly worth the somethings I could get out of the eight novels I could read in the same time. Some day I may read it, but right now my shelf is full of books that want to be read (or at least read that way), so the excerpts I read as an undergrad will have to do.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:08 PM on June 16, 2007

Never read a novel you have to make yourself go on with (unless you're being paid for it, of course, or you're paying for a course). Enjoyment is all that matters in literature. It's fine to try something because everyone says it's great, but if you give it a fair shot and you don't like it, drop it.
posted by pracowity at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2007

While I am certain that there is something to be gleamed from the book, I wonder if that something is truly worth the somethings I could get out of the eight novels I could read in the same time. Some day I may read it, but right now my shelf is full of books that want to be read (or at least read that way), so the excerpts I read as an undergrad will have to do.

I'm not prone to having my mind blown, but Ulysses blew my mind. Not merely the unconventional narrative, but the sheer number of unconventional narratives combined with an allegory that works and individual themes within each chapter. And the fact that Joyce had a mind powerful enough to pull this all together and share it's impact with the reader.

I read it as part of a Joyce/Yeats college class. It wouldn't have had the same impact if I had just sat down and read it. It would have had even less impact if I hadn't been a strong Classical studies student in high school. I don't who has the knowledge and perception to get 20% of what goes on in Ulysses without a guide. I've never met anyone who comes close to having that much knowledge and mental wattage.

I've read plenty of fiction, and nothing comes close either in sense of awe or sense of accomplishment upon finishing.

Save dismissive "it's overrated" or "it's pretentious" for Finnegan's Wake because that is probably both of those. Joyce tried to top himself, and he overreached there. But Ulysses is going to stand with or without revisionist criticism. Because everyone who reads it with the proper guidance (be it a teacher or a good volume of annotation) understands that it's among the rarest treasures in literature.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: bewilderment and a sense of disgust.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:45 PM on June 16, 2007

I never read it. I have listened to Cream's "Tales Of Brave Ulysses," numerous times, usually with a snootful. That's roughly the same thhing, right?
posted by jonmc at 2:54 PM on June 16, 2007

I'd love to see a Venn diagram illustrating the overlap between the "I didn't get/enjoy Ulysses, therefore it's universally unreadable" proponents in Joyce threads and the "I've never been monogamous, therefore everyone cheats" proponents in relationship/fidelity threads.
posted by scody at 3:12 PM on June 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

scody: I'm very monogamous and I've never managed to get more than a few pages into Ulysses, so I'd wager it has more to do with intellectual limitations.
posted by jonmc at 3:14 PM on June 16, 2007

Actually, I wasn't referring to you, jon; I was referring to comments like this one from Marshall Poe. Though I did realize the second I hit "post" that you'd take it that way. And I was simply making a joke about broad-brush statements about "everyone" that arise from one's personal experiece.
posted by scody at 3:22 PM on June 16, 2007

“How can that be, you know, great?”

I have mixed feelings about that. There's a certain egalitarian desire to believe that greatness should be in some sense universally apparent. The problem, though, is revealed by asking the question, "apparent under what conditions?"

Every work of art requires context to be understood well enough for its greatness (if it exists) to be apparent. In many cases, that context is provided simply by sharing a language in a culture at the time. In other cases, more rarefied contexts are necessary. Not to bring up that long argument about classical music appreciation we had recently, but I think one can safely say that someone with no experience whatsoever with any form of human music is not prepared in almost any way to recognize greatness in the classical music we consider "great".

I suppose I would argue that, all things being equal, relative levels of greatness can be judged by relative levels of "preparation" are needed for the greatness to be apparent. There's a long argument behind that having to do with relative levels of difficulty of achieving greatness in wide versus narrow contexts.

And it also depends upon the "all things being equal" thing. It's not always possible for a wide context to suffice to say what an artist wants to say. This is especially true for any art that is critical of other art. It's entirely possible that were the context of Ulysses "wide" in this sense—that is, any random literate person were to have the sufficient context to appreciate its greatness—then it would no longer be great. Because its greatness may, in fact, lie in the interplay between Ullysses's narrow-context and its implicit criticism of the wider-context in which it resides.

This is what would make 4'33" great, assuming one were to argue it's great. Certainly it's what makes Duchamp's Fountain great. It's not great in the wider context, and it's not great in a narrow context in the absence of the wider context. These are examples of why critical art may be a special case where preparation is almost always necessary. And I do think—not having read Ulysses, mind you, but having read much about it—that Ulysses may best be understood as a critical piece of work. Not simply as a novel, but as a criticism of the novel.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:39 PM on June 16, 2007

Happy happy. A great, great book. If it's not your pint of guinness, that's fine, but that says nothing about the quality of the book, just as you loving Danielle Steele says nothing about the quality of her books.
posted by OmieWise at 4:02 PM on June 16, 2007

It is almost like a play in which read aloud it surpasses being read in silence, far surpasses.
posted by caddis at 4:25 PM on June 16, 2007

Sometimes just having to put effort into something can make it seem more worthwhile. Of course I'm not saying that about Ulysses . . .I'm speaking of MetaFilter.
posted by nola at 4:27 PM on June 16, 2007

It is almost like a play in which read aloud it surpasses being read in silence, far surpasses.

Does this work for Harold Pinter? I've always wondered how that guy won a Nobel prize in literature. It couldn't have been for his writing.

It took me 8 attempts and about as many years to read Ulysses. The book itself, printed in the 60s, is held together with duct tape.
posted by stavrogin at 4:37 PM on June 16, 2007

Oh damn, I forgot my favorite link of all: Ulysses for Dummies.
posted by danb at 6:08 PM on June 16, 2007

scody--Cyclops is my favorite as well. Not always, just this time through. It's certainly the most damning.
posted by OmieWise at 7:35 PM on June 16, 2007

Yep, it's just so lacerating -- the aridness of that brand of Irish nationalism, the anti-semitism, the self-congratulatory sentimentalism, etc. -- and so scathingly hilarious at the same time. I think my very favorite part is the list of Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity: Patrick W. Shakespeare! (I also love the bit where they're arguing over whether Dignam's actually dead or alive. "Maybe so," says Joe. "They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.")

Well, I hoist a cup of the foamy ebon ale to youse all!
posted by scody at 8:28 PM on June 16, 2007

The woman reading the soliloquy right now is quite good.
posted by danb at 8:55 PM on June 16, 2007

Heh. "I don't like books with a Molly in 'em!"
posted by scody at 9:12 PM on June 16, 2007

Does this work for Harold Pinter? I've always wondered how that guy won a Nobel prize in literature. It couldn't have been for his writing.

What a callow, embarrassing remark. I wonder how much Pinter you've actually read or seen, though I can take a guess.
posted by inoculatedcities at 9:21 PM on June 16, 2007

I read Ulysses cover to cover. With a big fat book of annotations to explain all the obscure references to Irish politics and Greek mythology. It took me three years. I enjoyed every bit of it, and still had plenty of time between chapters to, you know, eat, sleep, read other books, start a family, see a couple movies...
posted by ericbop at 9:42 PM on June 16, 2007

What a callow, embarrassing remark. I wonder how much Pinter you've actually read or seen, though I can take a guess.


I can't


possibly think of


anything good about


Harold Pinter.

posted by stavrogin at 10:10 PM on June 16, 2007

Does this work for Harold Pinter? I've always wondered how that guy won a Nobel prize in literature.

(a beat.)

Wow. Just (pause) wow.

(a beat.)

posted by tzikeh at 10:15 PM on June 16, 2007

re: Pinter

The fact that stavrogin used Pinter's unique style to slam him at the same moment that I used it to praise him just goes to show that, as with any work of art, what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it.

Just because you don't like something doesn't mean it's qualitatively bad; just because you like something doesn't mean it's qualitatively good. Pinter's pretty much hailed as a master playwright both by critics and by his contemporaries. If his particular take on the human condition doesn't resonate with you, well, nobody's forcing you to read it or attend productions of it.

Same goes for Joyce.
posted by tzikeh at 10:21 PM on June 16, 2007

Wow. I think I'll have to drop in on Symphony Space next Bloomsday. That was fantastic.
posted by danb at 11:04 PM on June 16, 2007

While I am certain that there is something to be gleamed from the book, I wonder if that something is truly worth the somethings I could get out of the eight novels I could read in the same time.

Put it in a spreadsheet schedule, grease it up with intentionbutter and priorities, and stick it somewhere moist. Books and stories and fun are more than quantities to be acquired efficiently or delivery vehicles for your edification and improvement.
posted by freebird at 12:57 AM on June 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does anybody know of a place to listen to it now that it has passed? Sounds like an incredible way to go to sleep (I promise I'm not being sarcastic).
posted by my homunculus is drowning at 2:52 AM on June 17, 2007

While I am certain that there is something to be gleamed from the book, I wonder if that something is truly worth the somethings I could get out of the eight novels I could read in the same time.

The thing is, trying to read a complicated work can open a bunch of paths, which can be immensely rewarding. For instance, last year I started reading John Ruskin's Fors Clavigera. A few letters into the second volume he starts writing in depth about Sir Walter Scott. I've never read Scott, so I've got no context for what Ruskin is talking about (that's true for most of Fors, but this bit was particularly galling for some reason). So I put down Ruskin for a while and start working my way through Scott. Somewhere in there Scott makes a reference to Edmund Spencer. I'm intrigued (I no longer remember why), and now I'm two thirds of the way through The Faerie Queene. But there it turns out that Spencer was very conscious of the epics that went before him and he's trying to emulate them. This too is intriguing, so now I have to find somewhere to slot in Ariosto and Tasso (I'd never even heard of Tasso before). He's also drawing quite a bit on the murky mingling of myth and truth that is early English history. Better add Geoffrey of Monmouth to the list. And so on.

Meanwhile, volume two of Ruskin sits with a bookmark a quarter of the way through, waiting for me to pop back up to that level. Once I get there, it will probably only be a matter of time before it entices me to go back down.

So while I could have just given up on Ruskin and read a bunch of books that I have a better context for in that time (and I have taken quite a few breaks), I wouldn't have had the rich and -to me- fun experience that being baffled provided.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:53 AM on June 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

obligatory link to Jorn's Joyce Portal
posted by caddis at 7:16 AM on June 17, 2007

Years ago, when I taught Hebrew to children, a boy, 10 years old, brought a copy of Naked Lunch to class. What do you think of this, he asked.

Tell me what you think, I said.

He came back the next day, having read the first chapter.

I'm not ready to read this yet, he told me.

I'm 39. I'm Irish American and Jewish. I drink too much and drink often. My life has, to this point, been nothing but strange side trips off what, for other people, are the main roads. I'm educated in the classics, and in history. I reflexively make jokes, in the way that bullied children learn to, because everyone loves a laugh and forgives those who make them laugh. I'm a writer by trade and a reader by passion, and particularly love to read oddities and works of grandiose, if sometimes misplaced, ambition or passion. I've boxed in a Mexican gym in Los Angeles, gotten drunk with movie stars, written limericks and drinking songs, was beaten in a riot, fled the destruction of New Orleans, seen a city burn, stared at a 200-year old Buddhist monk's mummy in Thailand, sung Yiddish songs in cabarets, made movies with a ventriloquist dummy, and had my writing condemned by a state senator.

Just now, this day after Bloomsday, I feel I'm ready for Ulysses.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:47 AM on June 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

Fuck yes.
posted by freebird at 1:43 PM on June 17, 2007


-- I --

STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:


Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:

--Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!

Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.

--Back to barracks! he said sternly.

He added in a preacher's tone:

--For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.

He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos. Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.

--Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?
posted by vronsky at 4:57 PM on June 17, 2007

Molly Bloom's soliloquy was read by Fionnula Flanagan -- who, amusingly enough, played Gerty MacDowell in the 1967 film version of Ulysses. I recorded an MP3 of most of it, starting with the second "sentence"; if anyone wants a copy, drop me an email. (It clocks in at about 2:40 and is 145 MB.)
posted by danb at 8:32 PM on June 17, 2007

I've been thinking all weekend about Ulysses and about the standard set of criticisms of it. The two most frequently bruted about, here in this thread, even, are that it's either too boring or too obscure, or both as a consequence of each other. Dale Peck has suggested that all that's wrong with contemporary fiction writing can be traced back to Ulysses, and that it's precisely Joyce's focus on (experimental) form over content in the later part of Ulysses that is to blame.

It's not that I think those criticisms are specious. I'm actually particularly sympathetic to Peck's point, even if it's overstated, because I think Joyce truly was a genius and doing what he did so well poorly makes for shitty shitty reading. And of course the book, like most serious books, is sometimes boring and sometimes obscure.

On the other hand, I've always loved the book. I've read it several times, parts of it much more frequently than that, and I've always enjoyed it. The concept of enjoyment is precisely the issue. The critics of Joyce seem to have not only intensely self-referential, but also very narrow, concepts of enjoyment. If it does not please them in the way that they've come to expect from other books, well, then, it must not be worth anything. It's a strange notion, one that seems particularly defensive, as, in more populist literature, no one argues that Zane Gray is no good or elitist just because they don't like him.

There are many different ways to enjoy a book, and Ulysses fulfills many of them. It's a delicate character study (read just Calypso, the fourth episode and the introduction of Bloom) of a man trying to find his way in the world on a particularly difficult day. It's a portrait of Dublin, a picaresque, a comedy, a send-up of the notion of literary category, a quotidian retelling of a beloved epic, and an epic retelling of the banal. That it is also a puzzle, a palimpsest to be studied, a language to be learned does not detract from any of its other aspects, and, in fact, adds to them for many people. Many folks prefer the Sunday NYTimes crossword to the Tuesday crossword, finding in the difficulty a complex enjoyment that exceeds the easy ingestion of pablum.

I don't care if people don't like Ulysses, there are plenty of books that I don't care for. I do care when people seem to suggest that the fault lies in the book, and, indeed, that people who do enjoy it have somehow fooled themselves into liking something that they couldn't possibly enjoy. Despite the claims that the book itself and those who like it are somehow elitist, it strikes me that this attitude of accusatory and knowing dismissal is much more condescending than a simple acknowledgment that Ulysses isn't everyone's snotgreen sea.
posted by OmieWise at 5:41 AM on June 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

“If it does not please them in the way that they've come to expect from other books, well, then, it must not be worth anything.”

This may accurately describe some critics' criticism, or, more likely, their inner motivations for their criticism, but this seems to me to be the cardinal sin of criticism that any serious critic would know to avoid.

In my opinion, the biggest problem that the general public has in understanding and criticizing any kind of art is making the mistake that their enjoyment is in any way a reliable indicator of something's quality as a work of art.

There's a way that this mightn't be true, and a way that this might not be a fallacy for a good critic, but it requires such an expansion of the word "enjoyment" that I think that the same word should never be used in both those contexts at the same time (or perhaps never) because doing so is more confusing than edifying. Though I'm going to do so in this comment. :)

Taking that second idea of "enjoyment" and altering it to "appreciate" and/or "understand", then I think that I can imagine a critic making the mistake you're talking about if it's the case that are yet narrow-minded in what they can appreciate and understand. Nevertheless, that's a serious flaw in a critic.

I really don't understand how anyone can seriously talk about any form of art and make judgments of it primarily based upon their enjoyment. It's very strange and off-putting to me.

One example of something like this, only more narrow, that I like to talk about is the weird reaction that many people had to Blair Witch Project. A good number of people proclaimed it to be "not frightening". Now, while some of those people were very clear in that this was a subjective judgment that really meant "not frightening to them", many others made this pronouncement as if the movie were objectively not frightening with the implication that anyone who claimed that it was were defective in some way. Occasionally, this was an explicit accusation.

Which is really weird to me and infuriated me. Obviously, the movie is frightening if it frightens people.

I mention this example because other than these weirdos who want to tell everyone else that they shouldn't be frightened or shouldn't be laughing at something, the rest of us are perfectly aware that the experience of fright and humor varies and is not a really good reliable indicator of some strong objective quality. Therefore, many of us, possibly (hopefully) most, wouldn't say that a horror flick was objectively bad because we weren't scared, or that a comedy was bad because we didn't laugh. We're moderately prepared to believe that something can be good even if we didn't respond to it in the way that others do.

But I think the same thing can be said for the common notion of "enjoyment" (meaning something like: getting immediate not exclusively cerebral pleasure from something). Just because you might read a book, listen to a song, or watch a movie and not enjoy it in this common usage sense, doesn't mean that it isn't good. You just may not be wired up such that you respond to what is good or great about it in a way that you experience as this kind of visceral pleasure.

My judgment about the quality of any given bit of art is relatively indepedent of my experience of enjoyment of it. There's things I just don't like in any way, actually, that I can still rationally evaluate as "good" or "great". There's also things that I like a lot, including in the visceral pleasure way, that I can't rationally evaluate as "good". I don't have a problem with this.

It's really remarkable to me how almost universal it is in even threads here on MeFi where people's enjoyment of something is identical to their flat proclamation of whether it is good or bad. They don't qualify this. They shouldn't even have to qualify a "good" or "bad" claim, they should avoid it altogether and say "I enjoyed this" or "I didn't enjoy this" (assuming they really don't intend to make an objective claim). But the natural inclination which I don't think people go beyond is to simply substitute good and bad for enjoyed and didn't enjoy.

Because of this, people get in these heated arguments. When you say something is bad, you're saying it's objectively bad. Otherwise you'd say you just hated it. People often will then claim, when challenged, that their assertion was only intended to be understood as subjective, but I don't believe them. They may think they intend it that way, but their language use and other things gives the lie to this. I think we have a really strong instinct to make objective judgments about quality on the basis of our enjoyment.

The reason people take offense at the assertion that your favorite band sucks is because when it's made as an assertion of objective fact, then it becomes not a criticism of the band, but of you: someone who must have poor judgment to come to the wrong objective conclusion.

Ulysses is a very good example of a piece of art that is very hard for most people, even very literate people, to experience as pleasurable in the ways in which they are accustomed. It's true for literate people because, as I said in a previous comment, it's a criticism of the conventional modern novel. The ways in which most literate people have expanded their notion of enjoyment, perhaps internalizing an appreciation of a quality such that it becomes visceral enjoyment, is thwarted by a book that isn't like those other books they read and which it is implicitly criticizing. Therefore, almost no one reacts to this book in an easy, conventionally pleasurable way.

The surprise is that there's enough people who still are willing to see it as good or great. I think a lot of this is sustained by a respect for authority, that a very few true literary experts have placed high in the canon, and so many people, perhaps especially those who are more literate than the general public but not literature academics, are then willing to take the experts' word on the matter.

And then there are others who think it's merely fashion and some elaborate sort of scam.

The bottom line, though, is that none of us, no matter how refined and/or widely-aware our ability to enjoy something is, we still can't rely upon pleasure as a guide to quality. It may be something new, or perhaps there's a kind of good and great that simply cannot be experienced pleasurably in any way, by any reader (though that's very arguable).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:47 AM on June 18, 2007

Well put, EB. My use of the word "critics" was mostly meant to refer to people who offer opinions of the book, but are not professionals. However, I do think that, more than many works of art, Ulysses is criticized even by professionals too often by conflating enjoyment with quality.
posted by OmieWise at 7:13 AM on June 18, 2007

Well, part of the problem is that at least some (...most...) of the time people are praising the worth of something they don't actually enjoy, it's for shitty reasons. Like, they suffered through it and wear the fact as a badge of superiority. Or it's sub-culturally identified as good, thus their judgement is more about tribe-identification and self-perception. None of which really have to do with the "quality-apart-from-pleasure" you discuss. So while I agree the concepts are different, I'm deeply suspicious of things people don't "enjoy" but say I should read/do because they are "good".

I enjoyed the crap out of Ulysses. I laughed, I cried. Similarly with that other "badge" of (post)modern literacy, Gravity's Rainbow. Those books changed how I think about a lot of things, and had a good time doing it - as did I. Nonetheless, if people aren't enjoying them I don't encourage them to push on through, like reading a book is some kind of vitamin regimen or spiritual health retreat. If you're not enjoying it on some level, you're not getting much out of it, other than the ability to be a self-important jerk when you tell other people how *they* should read it and how awesome it is that you did. Go read something you like, and maybe try again in a few years.

That said - we are trained to have a stupid idea of pleasure in this culture. The same way people are raised to think dessert defines "good" and fresh vegetables taste "bad", there are some habits of aesthetic laziness and gluttony that need to be broken to live a healthy life.
posted by freebird at 8:49 AM on June 18, 2007

“If you're not enjoying it on some level, you're not getting much out of it...”

This seems reasonable, but I don't think it is if you give it some more thought. Think about the full range of human activities. Think about what value comes from different examples of them. Then ask if in every case where there is value, there is also enjoyment. There are probably more subtle ways to prove that value doesn't always mean enjoyment of any kind, but the most obvious is enjoyment that you don't get until much later. (Or even just while you're doing the activity.)

Think of comprehension of art as similar to comprehension of other ideas and insights. Say, a scientific insight. Well, people can work through problems over and over and then, one day, three weeks after they've stopped, they suddenly have the insight they had been looking for. I think we can assume that they struggled with this, like we struggle with other things that don't give us immediate reward, because we expect the reward, or are gambling that the reward, will come later.

Now why isn't reading a difficult book just like that—especially when there are many experts and other people who have preceded you in this endeavor that testify that there really is a reward to be found in reading it?

And I think that's probably the most trivial kind of example where there may be no discernible level of enjoyment, no matter how widely-defined, that comes from doing an activity that is valuable.

My intuition is that any example I will think of, if you are determined to expand the idea of "enjoyment" to include what I was arguing wasn't thought of as "enjoyment", you'll be able to. And that's because basically you'd be progressively redefining enjoyment to be closer and closer to nothing other than value itself.

And really, at that point, we're already starting to push value back to an ideal, and, if so, then we'll end up saying that it is "the Good". Which brings to my mind that likelihood that we'd want to say that Good brings it own enjoyment, and that enjoyment might best be called eudomania.

So what are we left with? Well, we've abstracted both value and enjoyment. But which did we have to abstract more? Which is the term that, for these purposes, we're not really that satisfied with from the beginning? Which term is it that you claim people badly understand in our culture?

My question, then, is this: why use the experience of pleasure to identify value when it is clearly not that reliable unless it's abstracted to something that's not useful as a test anyway, when you can just look for more reliable indicators of value? Like, say, the opinions of people you trust. And various other things we learn from experience to use as indicators of value.

I'm arguing two related things here, one specific to this argument, one more far-reaching.

The specific thing is that "enjoyment" is a red herring when looking for things that are worthwhile to do independently of seeking enjoyment for its own sake. (That is, we're looking for things that have "value"—ignoring for the moment the problematic assumption that enjoyment isn't intrinsically valuable). Either our enjoyment/value meter is so well calibrated and accurate that our concepts of value and entertainment are fully integrated, or it's so poorly calibrated that it's not useful. In the former case, we don't need the meter (because basically when we see one, we see the other). In the latter, it's misleading.

The more far-reaching thing is that in general learning to enjoy anything that is otherwise worth doing is a roundabout and misleading way to teach yourself to learn to do the things that are worth doing. It's a kind of a lie. We shouldn't need to tell ourselves that we'll enjoy it eventually because we'll understand how to enjoy it. We don't need to understand how to enjoy something. We either enjoy it or we don't. We only tell ourselves this about things that we're already pretty damn sure are worth doing anyway. So let's discard this childish self-delusion. It's a sort of pretense that everything in the world that is ever worth doing and good is just like double-chocolate cake. In some sense. Really? Do we need to go through these mental contortions...or perhaps might we just grow up?

That second paragraph uses the pronoun "we" intentionally. It certainly includes me.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:34 AM on June 18, 2007

Deep and important writing can still be enjoyable, see Shakespeare. Joyce is enjoyable and fun too; each sentence being filled with adventure in the words themselves. Yet, Joyce is work, really hard work. It's not so much the enjoyment or lack thereof, it's the work that causes the complaints. If he had thought of it, he would have written "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." Repeatedly parsing such sentences in a book approaching a thousand pages long just puts many readers off. For the less masochistic reader I would think an audio book version would be great, and slightly less embarrassing than reading the whole one thousand pages aloud which is the standard prescriptive. Reading Ulysses aloud is kind of like doing acid: in a group it is a blast, but alone it can elicit certain paranoias, although these paranoias differ substantially.
posted by caddis at 8:10 PM on June 18, 2007

“Deep and important writing can still be enjoyable, see Shakespeare. ”

Oh, yes, and I still hold to my long-held belief that the very best art is immediately enjoyable and accessible whether or not the audience is accessing at all these other levels that make it great. Well, I don't want to give the impression that that immediately accessible and simply enjoyable level is independent of the other levels and the work's greatness—the beauty of these greatest works is that all the levels work together in a most organic and seamless way. But as we can see with Shakespeare, you can experience a work on an apparent superficial level, enjoying it as a light comedy, for example, not being aware that this superficial level you're enjoying it at is working seamlessly as a part of the deeper and more difficult parts that you may or may not be aware of. To me, that's the greatest of the greatest, what artists should aim for. I think an artist should try to make his/her work as widely accessible as possible, limited by the constraints of the nature of the work itself.

Anyway, as I wrote earlier, some works may necessarily be difficult because the difficulty is part of the context of what the work is really saying. I felt that I had touched upon something pretty interesting when I claimed in my previous comment that art that is meta in any large sense, critical art, is necessarily gong to be difficult. I came up with that idea as I was writing the comment. But no one has reacted to it, so maybe it wasn't that interesting. Nevertheless, it seems right to me that this is part of why Ulysses isn't immediately enjoyable to most people. It's not only not meant to be, but it really shouldn't be if it's going to be successful at saying what it's trying to say as something that is in many important respects a criticism of the modern novel.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:58 PM on June 18, 2007

All fecund in its nuttiness.
posted by freebird at 1:23 AM on June 19, 2007

« Older Boyz Boyz Boyz Boyz Boyz!   |   "Tonight we will venture to the stages where the... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments