Modernising Ireland

Ulysses - James Joyce, Declan Kiberd

There once was an author who lived in the lovely Italian seaside town of Trieste. It is not a town that I have visited, though I would like to one day, and it wasn't all that long ago that he lived there, relatively speaking of course. This author decided one day that he would like to write a book. It wasn't the first book that he had written, he had written a couple of others previously, but it was going to be a special book, namely because he wanted his book to be really, really thick. He wasn't the first writer to write a thick book, but this thick book was going to be different to other thick books because he wanted to confuse people, but confuse people in a way that as they read it they knew that they should know what was going on, because the book made sense, but they would not necessarily understand what he meant, which would confuse them. This meant that they would have to read this thick book again, and if they were still confused they would then seek people who were experts in thick and confusing books to tell them what it meant, which would require these experts to read this book so that they could tell others what this book meant. However, he also wanted to write this book so that these experts would disagree with each other, which meant that they would have to read this book again, because they were experts and to admit that they did not understand what the book was about would make them look silly, and experts don't like looking silly.

So this author sat down and began to write his book, and he took a long time to write this book, and when he finished this book some of the important people read this book and could not understand it, and because they could not understand it they decided that it must be bad, so they banned it. However the experts, who had read this author's other books, knew that this author wasn't bad, so they read it and they then wrote books telling people what this book was about. However the experts disagreed with what the other experts said, but they did agree that this book wasn't a bad book, it was a good book. In time, the important people who had banned this book had passed on, and a new generation of important people came along, important people who had been taught about this book by the experts, and because they were taught by the experts they agreed with the experts that it was a good book (but where confused as to what this book was about because the experts could not agree on what this book was about, except that it was a good book) so they decided to no longer ban this book. So more people began to read this book, and because the experts had told them that it was a good book, they also agreed that it was a good book.


Is it a good book?

That is a decision that cannot be left to the experts because the experts say that it is a good book, but we cannot simply listen to the experts because it is a decision that we must make for ourselves. Just because an expert says that a book is a good book (and I am not an expert) does not mean that it is a good book. It could simply be that because the expert believes that there must be a meaning to this book, and that the meaning of this book is hidden, then it must be a good book. Just because a book is confusing does not necessarily make it a good book, and just because the meaning is hidden does not mean that it is possible to learn that meaning, and if it does have a meaning, then maybe that meaning differs across who those who read this book, because everybody who reads a book sees their own meaning in the book, and just because their meaning differs from an expert's meaning does not mean that the expert's meaning is correct, and their meaning is not. The meaning of the book may differ between who reads it, and the reader's meaning may in fact be the correct meaning for this book.


What is the meaning of the book?

The meaning of this book is discernible only by the reader of this book, though it is true that many others seek to have an understanding of what that meaning is, so one can always seek the Fountain of Knowledge though many experts do not believe that the Fountain of Knowledge provides the true meaning of the book. Since there is debate about the usefulness of the Fountain of Knowledge, there is also place where people go to read the book without reading the book (not that I went there before reading the book because to read the book without reading the book destroys the joy of reading the book, and also makes me look silly).

Yet it may be good to say what I believe is the meaning of the book, because even though I am being very obtuse, I probably should share my thoughts on what I believe this book is about. The book is about two things: the modern world, and the ordinary. Certainly there are other things about this book, such as the father and the son, but for now we need only consider the modern and the ordinary because that, to me, was the essence of this book.


What is the sense of the modern?

The author was writing a story about his home town of Dublin, and he was writing about a time of change. The world was changing, moving from the antiquities of the past to the new world of the modern. At the time of writing Europe was tearing itself apart in the midst of a war, and this war differed from many of the other wars because it was the first truly modern war. The Irish were still looking to the past, to a time when they were independent, and yearning for a time when they could return to that independence. In fact during the writing of this book we see the rise of Micheal Collins and the republican movement in Ireland, which resulted in Ireland seceding from the United Kingdom. However the author was showing that Ireland had entered the modern world along with the rest of Europe, and Ireland could not return to the past, but needed to seek a new identity in the modern world.

The author shows us two aspects of Ireland that ties itself to the modern world. The Catholic Church made Ireland a part of Europe, and the legacy of Shakespeare connected Ireland inextricably with England. People still speak Gaelic in Ireland even today, but it is a dying language. The common tongue of Ireland is English, and this language that culturally defines the nation. Ireland certainly is a nation with its own identity, but it is an identity that includes the Catholic Church, and an identity that includes the English tongue and Shakespeare. While Ireland still holds onto its Gaelic roots, it is also the country of St Patrick and Guiness.


What does the ordinary mean?

The book is set across an entire day – a single day. All of the action in the book occurs within this day. It is an ordinary day, not unlike the many other ordinary days of the year. Certainly this ordinary day has taken on a significant meaning since the writing of this book, now being celebrated as Bloomsbury day, however at the time it was an ordinary day. During this day the characters do ordinary things, and talk about ordinary things. In fact nothing all that much happens during this ordinary day. Certainly it is a really thick book, and it only goes to show how the author has shown us how there is so much that can be seen within the ordinary. The characters of the book think ordinary thoughts, and do ordinary things. There is nothing really all that extraordinary about the events and the characters in this book. This is the essence of the modernist movement – it is a celebration of the ordinary.


HOMER: Yet this book also celebrates the past.

SHAKESPEARE: That is because the past is important. The past defines us, and gives us the identity and the character that makes us who we are, whether it be us as an individual, or as a collective entity such as a nation.

HOMER: Though the past is being transformed by the actions of the present.

EDISON: Certainly that is true, because the present creates change from the past, and the inventions of the present push things back into the past. Take the movie for instance: people no longer needed to rely on imagination in storytelling, they could now see the images on the screen, which meant that authors no longer needed to write books that intricately describe the settings, since the viewer could see the settings that were previously described, and the actors living within that setting.

HOMER: Literature did change, because film could not portray the thoughts and emotions of the actors. As the need for description subsided, the desire to descend into the psychology and emotions of the characters arose.

CONAN: But film is limited, and this lead to the development of stories that could not yet be portrayed on film.

HOMER: Though they did try, and in some cases succeeded.

SCORSESEE: Though film is a completely different medium to the written word for no matter how the film-maker tries, they can never truly capture the essence of the written word, just as the written word can never truly capture the essence of the visual media, despite many attempting to do so.


Here I must finish of my review where I am attempting to and failing to mimic the beauty and the uniqueness of the book with what I would call the mother of all run-on sentences which is actually eight sentences even though there is no punctuation whatsoever only paragraph breaks but even then these eight sentences run on for something like twenty odd pages which end up making your entire head spin because even though it is the written word when you are reading a sentence you are not actually supposed to take a breath which means that when you are reading this one incredibly long sentence you aren't actually supposed to take a breath because there is no punctuation telling you where you should take a breath which would make listening to the audio book rather interesting because I really don't know anybody who could seriously read the entire last chapter which goes on for about twenty pages without taking a single breath because it would be pretty much impossible to do so even if they tried which would mean that the impossibility of reading the entire run on sentence while taking a breath would completely destroy the flow of the text because you are not meant to take a breath and even when you are reading the book in your head you aren't actually supposed to stop reading until you reach a fullstop except there are no fullstops which means that you are supposed to read the entire chapter in one sitting despite the fact that you may have to do something such as get up and buy another coffee because coffee shops don't like you sitting in the shop without actually drinking anything and even if you decide to move you have to keep on reading the book because you can't stop reading until you reach a fullstop even though there are no fullstops meaning that you can't look up from the book to see where you are going simply because it does not allow you to do that and in the end you fall down a flight of steps and drop the book and lose the page which means that you have to start all over again which fortunately didn't happen to me but then I didn't read it properly because I would look up to see where I was going and then put it down mid-sentance multiple times simply to do things like go to work