26 FEBRUARY 1972, Page 13

New myth for Ulysses

James Blish

Richard Ellmann Ulysses on the Liffey (Faber £3.50) In a preface, Professor Ellmann, Joyce's biographer, declares: "A recent writer on Joyce has said that after fifty years there is no point in looking for a new myth for Ulysses, but it is just that which I propose." On the flap copy, this appears as "a new myth in Ulysses." The altered preposition is a crucial one, for actually Professor Ellmann has, and states, no intention of offering some previously undetected underlying myth in the novel, such as, say, The Romance of the Rose (though he does point out that the Wandering Rocks chapter departs from the Odyssey in favour of the Argonautica). Instead, he proposes that Joyce meant the novel to be a myth in itself, a story which will explain to modern man how the world works and why it works that way, as for the Greeks the story of the rape of Persephone explained the phenomenon of the seasons. Professor Ellmann goes on:

Needless to say, Joyce's myth has four aspects —all good myths have. The first is literal: this is the narrative of Stephen's estrangement from Mulligan, Molly Bloom's infidelity, the meeting of Bloom and Stephen, their return to the Blooms' house and eventual parting. The thread is thin but sufficient for a new odyssey in which most of the adventures occur inside the mind. The second aspect is ethical, involving certain discriminations between desirable and undesirable life. The third is aesthetic, and presents a relationship between art and nature, as between art and morality. The last is anagogic, the ultimate justification of existence. The book concludes with an absorption of the first three levels into the fourth,

A true myth is a static explanation, good for all time; the relationship between Persephone and Hades is cyclical and frozen. A scientific explanation of the same phensmenon, on the other hand, is a description of a process, and subject to continuous • modification (the seasons differ in different parts of the world, the worlds axial tilt is subject to wobbles, there have been past glaciations, the position of the poles seems to have shifted all over the surface of the globe); and it does not have four levels, but only one, refusing to tell a story, draw a moral, make any aesthetic judgements (except the implicit ones of simplicity and consistency) or justify existence. A twentieth century myth, consequently, is a considerable departure from the epistemological spirit of its own times.

Joyce almost certainly knew enough about the sciences to be entirely aware of this, and Bloom's recurrant and fruitless thoughts about the acceleration of gravity, which is nothing but a process and amenable only to calculus — the phrase "per second per second" throws him every time — seems to be an ironic comment on the position of a man being turned by his creator into a myth if not against his will, at least against everything he has been taught about the world he actually lives in. The philosophical conflict becomes extended and overt in the penultimate catechism chapter, where the descriptions become almost entirely scientific and the actual movement of the story almost en tirely, mythically static. (In Finnegans Wake, this conflict is even more overt, culminating at one of many points in the smashing of the statically cyclical Viconian course of history by Lord Rutherford splitting an atom).

This at least is one way of explaining why "the [literal] thread is thin" and "most of the adventures occur inside the mind," and it is consistent with Professor Ellmann's attractive and well-buttressed theory. As Professor Ellmann views it, each of the three major sections of Ulysses is a demonstration of three propositions about the world, with sub-propositions and corollaries; and in the course of attempting to impose upon Twentieth Century man a myth for all time, told in terms of the most commonplace events imaginable or remembered, Joyce drew not only upon philosophers like Aristotle and Vico who would support his position, but on others like Hume whose scepticism would (scientifically — Joyce always allows the Enemy his due) put it to the test.

This is the most interesting and the most novel aspect of Professor Ellmann's text.

In addition, he has called upon some pre viously unpublished schemata by Joyce himself to show many major and minor cor relations of symbol, myths and text, which are printed in an appendix as fold-outs; and has himself made up similar tables to demonstrate his own schemata and sum marise his own account of how it all works. His book is certairly the most important on the subject to have appeared since the late Stuart Gilbert's, which it necessarily resembles.

After reading it, I re-read Ulysses, and as often before was struck by how un obtrusive all Joyce's massive apparatus is until the final chapters. It is a continual surprise to find how little one needs to know about the novel to enjoy it; most of it moves, or seems to move, as straightforwardly and with as much gusto as Torn Jones. Professor Ellmann seems to feel the same way about it, despite his intensive studies; he begins by calling Ulysses "the most difficult of entertaining novels, and the most entertaining of difficult ones." Quite so; but should you want to know more about the apparently infinite riches beneath the literal story, Ellman must now be added to Gilbert on the shelves. The book itself is handsomely produced, as befits a landmark.