They say there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that has been will be again, no matter the weary dreams of men. The thoughts and theories of a Utopic society where all is fair and right in the world are lost in the common threads of the web of life.
In Episode Two of James Joyce’s historic novel, Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus proclaims, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake!” There are many theories as to the meaning of Joyce’s choice of words within the context of the novel, one of them being Stephan Dedalus’ desire to overcome his own less than stellar childhood. Not so ironically, after reading the biography of James Joyce, himself, it is glaringly apparent that Ulysses is a veiled biography of Joyce’s own emotional world, since boyhood.
Joyce didn’t grow up in your average household. His father was nowhere near father of the year, and his mother, well in Joyce’s eyes his mother was weak and in need of protection, as well as an overwhelming amount of love and adoration. Thus, throughout the iconic Ulysses, Joyce smatters the contents with attributes of amor matris.
The entire work of Ulysses is a diatribe of Joyce’s view of the world in which he lived as a child, and the one in which he lived as an adult; in some cases nothing more than an exercise in stream of consciousness. In my humble opinion, it is Joyce making sense of the world in the only way he knew how – through the art of writing – giving order to the chaos.
Which brings all things full circle. There are none of us who have had the ideal childhood. By way of misfortune, or by way of fortune, all of our pasts are flawed, marred, and scarred. Whether we grew up in lavish homes or in mud huts, we all began this journey in the same conglomeration of star dust as human beings – impractical and imperfect.
We go about our lives, growing into the expectations of the environment in which we are immersed. Most people never question, or at least outwardly question, the outcome of their lives. You grow up in poverty, you die in poverty. You grow up wealthy, you die wealthy. And in either case the world keeps turning.
And then, there are those who rail against the machine; like James Joyce. Of all the things in the world he did not want to be the most was to be like his own father. He knew, since the time he was about ten years old, that the likelihood of that happening was pretty high. His father was cynical, and critical at best, when it came to Joyce’s obsession with writing, and learning. In those days, you rose no higher in society than your father’s position. If you did, you fought like hell to get there, with no regrets and no apologies.
Joyce was, by no means, a heralded author in his day. In fact, he was more popular in Great Britain and Europe than he ever was in his home country of the United States. American society was, to his chagrin, much like the man he knew as his father – cynical and critical, but Joyce never gave up, he didn’t quit. He kept on writing and traveling abroad, because that was where he found the meager bits of joy that existed in his life.
Sometimes we have to go deeper than the story that we are reading, and delve into the life of the author in order to understand the true depths of the premise. Sometimes, first impressions are not the ones intended, and we cannot judge a person by the chapter of their life we walked in on. We aren’t perfect, not a single one of us.
Ulysses was written in eighteen separate, yet connected, episodes, covering the entire life of a man we simply knew as James Joyce. He was, at times, impractical in his methods, improbable in his theories, and imperfect in his life. But at the same time, James Joyce was iconic in writing one of the most remembered works of modernist literature. James Joyce a.k.a. Stephan Dedalus overcame his childhood by simply being who he was – with no regrets and no apologies.
In literature we learn to live, to love, and to conquer.