Sunday, July 15, 2007


In my review of Ulysses I referred to it being a tribal book. By that I meant that one's membership of a certain type of literary tribe is indicated by one's opinion on it.
If you follow this link, it will lead you to page on the BBC, where Ulysses is discussed by all comers, after a brief and humorous summary of the book. The first respondent is Stephen Fry, the well-known polymath, who seems to suggest, in quite shrill prose, that those who criticise the book are 'childish' and 'fear-filled', and that Ulysses will be read 'when all around us has crumbled into dust'.
Other responses declare it to be a pile of pretentious rubbish.
I can't help feeling that the truth is rather more complicated, and the polarity of opinions does no service to the book, literature, or the truth in general.
I now realise how hard it was for me to read the book with an open mind, when sub-consciously, I was trying to decide which tribe I belonged to. I can remember having met so many irritating people, who, finding out that you had not read Ulysses, would feel they could play a conversational ace by spouting vaguely about its wonderfulness. Both Shakespeare and Dickens also suffer from the shrill praise of their champions, which serves to alienate much more than to include. And don't get me started on the Ancient Greeks.
It is only now, some days after finishing Ulysses, that I feel I can start to really think about the book, and not all the hoopla that surrounds it.
This sort of tribalism has leached into so many areas of life. I am sure it varies from place to place, from tribe to tribe. They are these beacons which help others to place us in a social context. What car do you drive? Where do you go on holiday? 'Florida? I'm sure its lovely - of course we ADORE Tuscany...' What music do you listen to, what books do you read. And by adopting a tribal totem for yourself, people assume you adhere to all the other totems of that tribe, and reject the totems of the other tribes.

The price of admission into a tribe is conformity, but the rejection of all of the totems of that tribe is conformity too, because you become an opposite, instead of yourself. And, eventually, just taking things on their own terms takes a great deal of willpower.


hugh said...

your thoughts about ulysses are fascinating. confession: i have neither read, nor listened to the whole book. just the bits I did for LV, and some other chapters....

ChrisHughes said...

Thanks Hugh.
It's funny - as time has passed, I think more of the book. It does beg to be reread, and if I did, I would treat it like a collection of short stories, tied together by some characters, rather than as a narrative with a big climax. So - a bit like Dubliners, (which I love), but with some complicated stylistic riffing.
And I am convinced that all the 'meaning' Joyce wanted to add (see here) is wasted. What works about the book is natural to him.