“The Everyman’s Epic”: Journalism, Ordinariness and the New “Mass” Epic

January 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the “Aeolus” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus tries to express to Professor MacHugh that he has “much, much to learn” about Dublin, but that he also has a “vision” (Joyce 119). Whether his vision pertains to the city or to his artistic aspirations is unclear but also unimportant. Rather, the interruptions by yelling newsboys and the distracting errands Stephen’s group is running are critical in their significance to Joyce’s conception of the epic form, his fascination with mass media and the influence of external factors on an artist’s product.Joyce struggles to forge a new role for Ulysses in the literary pantheon of great epics and novels while trying to exceed and confound historical standards of greatness. In “Aeolus”, Joyce runs into problems defining his work in context of epic legacy. Also, he toys with the sprawl of his ambition and tries to straddle multiple meanings of ‘novel’ and ‘epic’. Joyce’s decision to construct “Aeolus” to resemble an assortment of newspaper clippings, with headlines followed by concise blurbs, allows the author to examine Ulysses’ position in a constantly shifting canon of epics and the novel’s role as a reader-created tale of the average man. Evidence of Joyce’s historical homage, his acknowledgement of Ulysses’ previous and future stimuli, is less pervasive in this chapter -his reliance on intertextuality is limited to mostly Irish sources. However, the predecessors to Joyce’s modern epic are still present in the work, though mostly in distorted reincarnations. The “Aeolus” characters – especially Christ look-alike William Brayden, “Mr. Editor” Myles Crawford, even Bloom, the representative of “the gentle art of advertisement” – are still paragons of mankind, but they represent the epitome of the flawed human rather than the godlike superman (Joyce 111). Patrick McGee identifies an even subtler distinction between the ambassador figure from Homeric epics and the mere examples from Joyce: “the social stability of the patriarchal subject in Homer is undermined by the incommensurability of the modern, decentered subject, which has no relation to the whole” (McGee 194). None of these figures is guaranteed a triumphant ending; Bloom’s ad for Keyes is rejected, Brayden ascends the stairs and disappears, Crawford is flippant, bombastic and penny-pinching. Perhaps the failure to perform traditional heroism occurs because, Michael Gillespie points out, most characters cannot naturally command the narrative’s focus and are swallowed by the city, arguably the true epic force in Ulysses. Stephen, telling his Parable of the Plums to a distracted Crawford, Lenehan and Burke, “must struggle to make his ideas heard and to draw from others some acknowledgement of their worth. He spends much of the remainder of the day striving to earn the regard of his fellow Dubliners, and he must also pass the remainder of the novel competing for the attention of the reader” (Gillespie 161).In the meantime, Joyce intends for the reader to sift through the myriad perspectives presented in “Aeolus”, none of which “achieves a position which allows one to derive a consistent and logical meaning from the diverse elements of the discourse and that no discrete creative pattern proves sufficient to encompass all the vagaries of the work” (Gillespie 155). This is not an epic with a social agenda other than to identify the larger-than-life but mundane details of normal people’s lives or the slight absurdity of such a colloquial phrase as “bullockbefriending bard” under the title “the Grandeur that was Rome” (Joyce 108-9). The relatively unexciting vignettes of “Aeolus” are only stimulating due to their placement in a self-proclaimed ‘epic’ and because Joyce hands readers freedom of interpretation. We make of Ulysses what we will; the absence of a driving force leaves the chapter “drawing the reader into a deeper commitment to the creative process involved in the production of a text” (Gillespie 154).Unlike traditional epics, which feature distinct, unattainable heroes of the Gilgamesh or Beowulf variety, Joyce avoids pinpointing a central vortex in Ulysses, shunning outlandish events or flamboyant characters in favor of a more accessible and applicable text: the everyman’s self-constructed epic. “In striving toward the universal,” Gillespie writes, “Joyce felt the attraction of a narrative strategy that would step over the bounds of individual consciousnesses while retaining the personal view … No reader can ignore the range of odors and hope to form a coherent text” (Gillespie 172). This is not to say that Joyce’s characters do not aim for the same grandeur of Odysseus – MacHugh is obsessed with kyrie eleison and Ignatius Gallaher’s “inspiration of genius” is a favorite topic of conversation (Joyce 110). But for Michael Seidel, Ulysses is notable as an epic on a more human level: “Joyce may reposition the Odyssey in Dublin, but his hero is not a king, has not the assistance of a goddess, and is not mythically endowed, Epic resolution in Ulysses is more a hope than a promise” (Seidel 84). So the text seems to oscillate between attempts to surpass history’s preset criteria of literary superiority, comprehensiveness and peer-judged worth and efforts to strike free of history altogether and creating something entirely new. The ingrained journalism comparison suggests “Aeolus’s” interest in daily reinvention and Joyce’s desire to write the common man’s bible. The bolded headlines, Gillespie contends, circumvent a sense of lineage common in most epics and instead require each reader to consider the chapter differently than the next reader: “This very process of reading asserts an implicit contract between artist, audience, and artifact, acknowledging an intellectual engagement with the work and affirming belief in the possibility of forming some text encompassing the vagaries of the evolving paradigm” (Gillespie 179).The mixed journalistic and literary styles of “Aeolus” also promote Joyce’s hybridized notion of ‘epic’. The simultaneous draw of newspaper writing – Ulysses as a tireless recorder of objective humanity and history – and the creative license of journalism results in the amalgam of styles evident in “Aeolus”. Though actions of several characters are meticulously tracked in brusque reporter’s prose, the presence of censorship, editing and literary awareness are also visible through metaphor (“a smile of light”), parable (Jacob’s 11 brothers), intent, etc. (Joyce 110, 101). At one point, an unidentified editor/narrator comments on John F. Taylor’s speech, visualizes it, anticipates it: “His listeners held their cigarettes poised to hear, their smokes ascending in frail stalks that flowered with his speech … Noble words coming. Look out. Could you try your hand at it yourself?” (Joyce 117). But Joyce’s justifications for conceiving an epic in the first place remain mysterious: does he strive to reserve a spot in the overwhelming bulk of great literature past, “slipping his words deftly into the pauses of the clanking” (Joyce 99)? Or does he want to forsake example and “paralyse Europe” with a shock of originality (Joyce 111)? It turns out that Joyce wants both. He knows that an epic cannot exist on a clean slate, in isolation of its predecessors, its author’s biases, its readers’ biases, because, as McGee writes, “we are confronted with the paperspace, a space that expands and divides beyond the limits of the book, that includes the history of its criticism, its reception, its social context and so on” (McGee 182). The best path to literary uniqueness is through innovation, not separation from the past. But the novel’s preset, concrete state – bound into a book rather than in changeable electronic or verbal form or even on a wall scrawled with matches (Joyce 101) – means that its influence cannot be infinitely innovative. Because Ulysses is tied down by a book spine and does not lend itself to mass dissemination, part of its pioneering capabilities will always remain static. Nevertheless, achieving a grand range of coverage and connections for his epic is still a priority for Joyce in “Aeolus”. Imagery of overlapping sounds, bustling populations and extensive travel permeate this chapter, as if Joyce is striving for an all-encompassing effect of total, continual relevance. The repetitious “thumps”, “bingbangs” and “clanking” that Joyce writes into the chapter’s “threefour time” soundtrack combined with the whirring telephone are both realistic and awesome for the reader (Joyce 98, 105, 112). From the omnipresent, interchangeable “bevy of scampering newsboys” to the influx of characters (as opposed to the relative dominance of Stephen and Bloom in the first six chapters), “Aeolus” becomes a human convergence point where every reader can have a point of reference (Joyce 120). Lists also dominate “Aeolus”; they become all-inclusive, exhaustive chronicles of the minutiae of life while engulfing readers with information and sonic overload about “hackney cars, cabs, delivery wagons…” or “Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea…” (Joyce 122, 96). Perhaps aware of the limitations of his book form, Joyce emulates newspaper and advertising structure, hoping to reproduce their mass appeal and vast distribution while remaining “the stately figure [that] entered between the newsboards” (Joyce 97). Joyce’s book teeters towards stagnancy and the threat of becoming passé while attempting to remain timeless and contemporary at the same time, a dilemma that does not concern newspapermen, who can “veer about when they get wind of a new opening. Weathercocks. Hot and cold in the same breath” (Joyce 103).But bulk communication can cheapen meaning, Joyce understands, especially when “letters, postcards, lettercards, parcels, insured and paid, for local, provincial, British and overseas delivery” are “loudly flung” into the post office, as if without respect for their messages, less valuable than the shoes being shined next to them (Joyce 96). There is an argument for the singularity of the epic and its position to tell the story of an entire culture or nation using focused, selective tactics, rather than the endlessly spawning creative excess of “Aeolus”.The prevalence of repetition in this chapter – the steady repartee between the sounds of communication and the occasional “false lull” of silence – and its contrast with the overstimulation of thoughts only solidifies Gillespie’s point that Ulysses’ text is best used as a venue through which readers are responsible for discovering their own set of meanings. The idiosyncrasy of the style of “Aeolus” belies the mediocrity of its characters, not one of whom “stands as the dominant force reflecting the complexities of the entire work, for the attention demanded by a variety of characters does not allow a reader to derive a single, continuous perspective that encompasses the formal and thematic virtuosity of Ulysses” (Gillespie 154).WORKS CITEDGillespie, Michael Patrick. Reading the Book of Himself: Narrative Strategies in the Works of James Joyce. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1989. Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random House, Inc. 1986.McGee, Patrick. Paperspace: Style as Ideology in Joyce’s Ulysses. USA: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.Seidel, Michael. Epic Geography: James Joyce’s Ulysses. “The Novel’s Epic Geography”. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976.

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