[If you’re wondering what a “preceptorial” is, please visit this post first.]
It may not top every list for best novel of the twentieth century, but every compiler must answer to its reputation: James Joyce’s Ulysses, regardless of rankings, is a certain masterwork.
First serialized in America (which, of course, led to an obscenity trial), the modern epic follows an Odyssey-like cast of characters over the course of June 16th, 1904, in and around Dublin. Simple enough slice-of-life, right? Wrong, when Joyce is at the helm. Eighteen episodes of multiple narrators, copious styles, countless references, even to itself — and then theres oh yes the stream of consciousness right without yes any they know punctuation right between except except right the final got it yes period.
Infinite reasons to steer clear of this monster? Infinite reasons to sail into its reach? I’ll let David Townsend, the tutor and pilot of this preceptorial, explain why he and his students chose the latter:
“This complicated book of many wiles and facets is a marvelous modern mate to its ancient paired text. And like its predecessor, Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses cannot be contained by any single genre, idea, theme, or rubric; each of its eighteen chapters is codified by the author according to symbols, organ, art, colors, and technique. Is it primarily a novel, a poem, an extended comic drama, a work of philosophy, theology, psychology, ethics, morality, autobiography, or politics? Yes, in some way it is. As does our own curriculum, Ulysses smashes categories and overrides departmental barriers of subject-matter.
“Joyce’s Ulysses is not likely to be considered a translation of Homer. Is it an imitation? How would Odysseus appear ripped from context? Is the interpretation of him as Leopold Bloom a fair and accurate account? Can an ancient text of such weight and precedent be imitated by a modern? Can it be matched in quality, characterization, poetry, and thought? Insofar as we at St. John’s like to read and think while leaving context primarily on the periphery, Ulysses is the ideal opportunity to test the limits of our principle.
“Also, Joyce examines many of the authors on our curriculum in the overt speech and stream of consciousness of his characters. Catechetical chapters allude to Thomas Aquinas. The Circe chapter echoes ancient dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Philosophical dialectics invoke every philosopher on our reading list. The Nostos echoes Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Chaucer. Allusions to poets abound. There are discourses on Shakespeare, and Stephen channels Hamlet. Music sounds from every page, and the theory of music is discussed and debated.
“A careful reading of the text will be a challenge and delight for those in the Graduate Institute. Addressing questions raised in this preceptorial will enable us to enjoy a long-lived conversation that will go well beyond this semester.”