Is Ulysses a Christian work?

(By the way, I only realized after I posted this entry that I had done so on Bloomsday, June 16, the 102nd anniversary of the original Bloomsday. Mere coincidence?)

Bill Carpenter writes:

After reading your somewhat disparaging remarks on Ulysses, I felt I had to put in my two cents. Joyce is probably the greatest Christian writer since Dante. His relationship to tradition is a Christian one, regarding it as real and essential, yet criticizing it from the standard of ultimate truth. I think Christianity, broadly defined, provides the standard of criticism of all conduct and reality depicted in Ulysses. It is mostly an Inferno and a Purgatory, but there are glimpses of Paradise: “the heaventree hung with humid nightblue fruit.” The problems posed by Bloom are Christian problems: how far does forgiveness go; how many times must one forgive; what happiness is in this world. Bloom is preeminently the man of sorrows, a type of Christ. Stephen’s despair is criticized from the perspective of a Christian rejection of despair, and his vestigial Christian bigotry is too. Joyce’s long-pursued aesthetic of epiphanic vision, a framing of the revelation of being, which he purported to derive from Aquinas, is evident in much of Ulysses. This is traditional and Western, though it exists in that region of the tradition that is arguably Greek and not Christian.

Stephen’s rejection of the Church and Bloom’s Jewishness may lead some to view Joyce as a modernist secularist, but I think that they really serve to further an a pursuit of Western Christian truth than a rejection of it. “Jewgreek is greekjew.” Harold Bloom sees Bloom as mysteriously recovering the Abrahamic covenant. Bloom (Harold) seems to claim to be a Gnostic, but I think the assertion is valid. it is also valid to see that validity as partaking of the Christian view of the Abrahamic covenant as reaffirmed in Christian revelation.

As a great Christian writer, Joyce transcends his modernism. The sometimes irritating modernist game of parodying historic literary forms is entirely compatible with a Christian critique of the forms of culture as inadequate to Christian truth. The detachment towards nationhood is compatible with orthodox Christianity with its roots in the Roman Empire. (A problem you have written of well.) Again, the problems raised by Joyce are the problems of the Western tradition. Any discussion of modernism is challenged by the difficulty of defining modernism, but I would say that Joyce’s tradition-rich truth-seeking enterprise is inconsistent with a modernism that finds truth only in the reiterative assertion of the artist’s ever-new creative vision.

Pound’s “make it new” is a cliche of modernism, but it is ambiguous whether this excludes a permanent truth outside ourselves. Pound was something of a Gnostic and Neoplatonist himself. He confessed that he could not “make it cohere,” which may be the tombstone of literary modernism. The Cantos seem finally to be one man’s meditation, like John Berryman’s Dream Songs, embodying the history of the man in his times. Literary form for Joyce, despite the evident virtuosity, at its best aspires to universal truth, not personal truth. The abstraction of modernism frequently fails to be universal because it provides the “consumer” no purchase in particularity from which to move to the universal.

LA replies:

Bill, you’re amazing me. When I was reading and studying Ulysses when back when, I don’t remember coming upon any criticism that argued seriously that it was a Christian work. I don’t agree, but I’m interested in the argument.

Mr. Carpenter replies:

That’s not surprising given the anti-Christian character of the avant-garde and its academic imitators. In addition, Joyce alienates all Catholic chauvinists, and then mocks Protestants from the Catholic standpoint. There are probably less celebrated Catholic critics who wrote of Joyce’s Christianity, but it’s more than 20 years since I delved into Joyce scholarship. Hugh Kenner is the closest who comes to mind, who saw Ulysses as something of a Christian Hell, but notoriously misread the final yes as the nether pit of acquiescence in sin. I believe a very strong argument can nonetheless be made that would involve the epistemological-theological-anthropological radicalism of Christianity, which finds in Christ crucified the ultimate reality, and is thus “deeper” than Greek metaphysics and rationalism. Bloom as hero is an ironic-beyond-ironic rendition of Christ crucified.

I don’t know when I will get to working out the argument. I can only present the fragments. Joyce’s social critique is much better understood as Christian, presenting a populous, Dantesque gallery of sinners, than as Enlightenment-based. Joyce’s vision is tragi-comic, not rationalistic. Nationality, in the form of Irishness and Jewishness, is an intense reality for him. His image of man is multilayered in a way I think you would appreciate, in which every individual being is an archaeological deposit of history and thought, an individual yet a multitude. For a Christian, Christ is Truth, and Joyce relentlessly pursues the truth of history, human relations, institutions, and selfhood, trying to find the essence of things and to appraise them from the dual, Christian point of view of their created, lovable “thus-ness” (his scholastic theme) and their ethical failings (his Christian perfectionism).

A difficulty I see in convincing you is that of having to widen Christianity to include a post-Enlightenment, watered-down natural-religion version of Christianity to integrate Joyce’s apparent individualism, anticlericalism, and aestheticism. Like our tradition, however, he contains powerful opposite sides of the great issues. Liberalism and liberal Christianity do not lack all basis in truth, they lack large swaths of truth, they are one-sided and imbalanced (cf. Voegelin’s “balance of consciousness”). Joyce’s Christianity is comprehensive, a vision of all Creation, tragic in the pain and cost and waste of human life, comic in the faith in saving truth.

For Joyce, the essence of Christianity was not in kneeling to the Pope or in agreeing with the details of salvation history, but in fidelity to the Creation and his calling in it. The Creation includes the revelation of its splendor, the insane asylum of human sin, and the epistemological whirlpool of ignorance and knowledge.

I should re-read Ulysses to test this hypothesis. In any case, given the constant meditation on sin, the Trinity, Hamlet, history, and nationality, their can be no question of Joyce’s devotion to tradition, to which he brings the Christian duty of judging it by the transcendent standard.

Cf. Dostoevsky, comparable in applying the Christian standard to modern society and thought.

LA replies:

Very interesting, thanks. However, I still don’t agree. I think that a novel’s using lots of Christian-based elements and themes is not necessarily the same as its being a Christian work. To be a Christian work, it has to express and embrace Christian truth, which, in my view, Ulysses decidedly does not do.

Sam B. writes:

Mr. Carpenter struck a chord with me. Although, as a Jew, I cannot completely identify with his view of Bloom as a Christ figure. Bloom is gentle and kindly, but his tossing the biscuit box at the citizen is not exactly a Christian act. Yet for all that, in spots and places, Mr. Carpenter seems to have grasped a piece of the truth (who in G-d’s name has it all?) .Like Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell” Ulysses is a very moral work. It simply does not wear its morality on its sleeve.

Mr. Carpenter cites Dostoevsky being in the Christian tradition, though unlike Joyce. Dostoevski informs all of his works with Christian perspective: Sin, confession, atonement. Dostoevsky does so by placing his scene-en-mise within the Christian doctrine. Joyce does so by showing the lostness of his characters precisely because they do not follow the essence, only the forms. Years ago, one of my professors, a kind of Henry Milleresque clone, spoke of “God’s choosing cracked vessels to make known His truths.” —Joyce, Rimbaud. Speaking of Miller—whom once in my spiritual adolescence I looked upon as a fount of all spiritual wisdom (his title The Wisdom of the Heart resonates), in his The Books in My Life, he makes a list of The Hundred Books Which Most Influenced Me, the one book conspicuous by its absence is the Bible. Curious, since most writers have been influenced by that Book. In that I would venture that Henry Miller is a modernist in the sense that Mr. Auster thinks of—a secular artist and 20th cent. man. [LA says: I would call Miller a happy pagan rather than a secularist.]

Yet Miller condemns Joyce for many of the reasons Lawrence does—Joyce’s emptiness, his “deadness” reflecting a dying civilization. It was also a criticism that the left, another anti-religious religion, also made of Joyce—Joyce dealt in decadence, not in proletarian “health”—perhaps because he transcended (in Auster’s sense) all the hub-bub of secular ideology and politics and remained firmly in the “school of Aquinas,” and always a son of the Church, even though he was anathema. Possibly because he was a Catholic in the most catholic (universal) sense. (I believe that Joyce’s disgust at the Church was not so much against the Church universal but against its narrow and parochial Irish form). Thank G-d for J’s Jesuit education.

LA writes:

I think what we’re seeing here is a kind of “literary” or “intellectual” Christianity, which is not the same as Christianity. Obviously Joyce is an intellectual gamester of a high order who plays maniacally with all kinds of cultural motifs, including those of Christianity. That does not make his work Christian. To be Christian a novel would have to accept and express the truths of Christianity, meaning following Christ, living life in Christ, and this Joyce’s novel decidedly does not do. Or you could have a work that does not show a “positive” Christian fulfillment such as I just described but focuses on unregenerate sin, yet it could still be Christian if the sin is placed in a Christian moral framework. I suppose “The Waste Land” (and certainly The Inferno) might fit the latter definition. Ulysses does not. It does not merely portray people living in sin, it constructs a world that parodies and rejects Christianity. From the opening scene of the book, where Malachi Mulligan nastily makes fun of the liturgy, to Bloom’s final scene in the book, in which he gets into bed with his sleeping wife, her body filled with another man’s sperm, and experiences “equanimity” at this appalling situation, because of the “nescience of matter, the indifference of the stars,” the book explicitly rejects Christianity, the divine order, and any objective moral framework in the universe. Indeed that final scene of “equanimity” represents the total victory of what modern secular liberals celebrate as “the merely human.” The fact that Joyce adds a “higher” dimension to the narrative by means of the all-knowing, cosmic narrator does not change what I just said. If there is a God in Ulysses, that God is Joyce himself, who is no Christian.

So with respect for Mr. Carpenter and Sam B., I profoundly disagree with the idea that Ulysses is a Christian work. It is an anti-Christian work. Yes, it is plays endlessly with Christian themes. But that no more constitutes Ulysses as a Christian novel than Bloom’s onanistic fantasy life constitutes a marriage.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 16, 2006 01:55 AM | Send

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