The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2014

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SEPT 2014 Issue

Joyce’s Sublime Depravity

Kevin Birmingham
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses
(The Penguin Press, 2014)

James Joyce’s Ulysses perches atop any number of Greatest Novel lists, but sit today’s average reader down with the tome and the first few pages will ratify its current reputation as “difficult,” “weird,” or even “impenetrable.” Subverting literary formality, Joyce wove so complex a verbal tapestry that even his most capable and dedicated early supporters often struggled to make sense of it. Virginia Woolf complained of its lack of coherence and, weighing result against ambition, lamented “the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind.” Ezra Pound deemed a section “magnificent in spots, and mostly incomprehensible,” and on consoling Joyce over poor sales of the far tamer A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, exclaimed, “If you will write for the intelligent, how THE HELL do you expect your books to sell by the 100,000??????”

And yet, it wasn’t the opaqueness of Ulysses that stood as its primary impediment. In The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham asks us to dwell less on the book’s literary greatness and more on why the book is socially revolutionary. After all, there are myriad guidebooks on how to navigate its formidable terrain, and even without them the ambitious reader may wade through to an overall aesthetic appreciation. But what would perhaps be most confusing, even more than 750 pages of experimental prose, is the insert at the front of every edition: “The Monumental Decision of the United States District Court Rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey Lifting the Ban on ‘Ulysses,’” a motion brought by the U.S. government “on the ground that the book is obscene.” Our reader, struggling through the text, might reasonably wonder what all the fuss was about. Ulysses is hardly Fifty Shades of Grey. And while it may seem like the issue was nothing more than naughty Joyce’s ability to raise a blush in his buttoned-up post-Victorian readership, the novel’s legalization was in fact a watershed in the long labor of a culture redefining itself.

Birmingham weaves a tortuous tale, from Ulysses’s inception to its legalization, of how a novel shook the cultural foundations of its time. Writing in the early part of the 20th century, when the specter of world war engendered massive social upheaval and inflamed conservatism, Joyce decided at a young age that “being an artist meant storming the barricade of an entire society built on lies.” But the scrawny, fragile writer, afflicted with syphilis and rapidly going blind, was never to be the one rallying disaffected students to the town squares. His was to be a literary anarchy, tested first in Dubliners, honed in A Portrait, and unleashed in Ulysses.

The war had given Joyce what it gave the Dadaists and the anarchists, what it gave Lenin and Freud: the sense that everything was about to change, that the crackup of Europe and the fall of empires portended something truly revolutionary, and if a novel were skillful enough, it could advance all of civilization.

Birmingham carefully develops the interplay between the cultural milieu in which Ulysses had its slow birth and the content of the novel as it progressed. In 1918, Ulysses began its serialization in The Little Review, an American journal embattled because of its editors’ ties to anarchists. At the time, obscenity laws in Europe and the U.S. were well established. The Comstock Law, banning public material that might be loosely construed as lewd or lascivious, was 45 years old. But World War I compelled the U.S. government to intensify its deterrence of political dissent, and 1917’s Espionage Act, banning any brand of anti-American activity, codified its fervor and subsumed the longstanding morality crusades. By the time Ulysses’s first chapters appeared, parading both sexual candor and institutional contempt, foreign editor Ezra Pound and his colleagues at The Little Review couldn’t be sure whether the journal would be found in violation of the Comstock Law, the Espionage Act, or both. And as if taunting the ever-increasingly zealous moral authorities, Joyce escalated his novel’s luridness with each chapter. The all-powerful Post Office, primary arbiter of all things censorial, banned the January 1919 issue of The Little Review for protagonist Leopold Bloom’s recollections of an amorous picnic with his wife, Molly, her “woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her.” The May issue was even more handily proscribed, citing among other offenses Buck Mulligan’s proposed play about masturbation, “Everyman His own Wife (a national immorality in three orgasms).” The eye of the law was concentrated upon Ulysses, and when Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, published it in full in 1922, she risked imprisonment, as did anyone who attempted to transport a copy into the U.S.

Joyce was simultaneously rebelling against the strictures of his time and transubstantiating them into his art. To those who supported Ulysses, it was a work borne of pure genius and, by virtue of not only its daring design but also its unflinching capaciousness, it was an undeniable public treasure. However, to Joyce’s rigidly upright critic-oppressors, for whom it was only just that someone so egregiously licentious should be afflicted with syphilis, Ulysses turned the author himself, a man untrammeled by scruple, into a public affront. Yet, in some way, it was through his illness that he bore his richest literary fruit. Wracked constantly by agonizing fits of iritis, Joyce’s life of pain turned his consciousness inward. Birmingham plumbs the intersection of the artist’s life and work:

His thoughts were the only life raft in the rising tide of pain, and the pressure pushing out from inside Joyce’s eyes expanded the seconds. To read Ulysses is to feel time’s dilation. We go so slowly through the characters’ thoughts because even the most painstaking mental contours were something to hold on to. Joyce wrote an epic of the human body partly because it was so challenging for him to get beyond his own body.

If Ulysses, then, was the effluence of a diseased mind, to distribute it was to risk contagion. “Print was the way an idea entered a culture’s bloodstream,” Birmingham explains, and Joyce’s epic of the body was seen as liable to infect a populace. John Sumner, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, summed up the threat: “Just as we have the parlor Anarchist and the parlor Bolshevist in political life, so we have the parlor Bolshevist in literary and art circles, and they are just as great a menace.” Joyce did more than encourage, he demanded that his readers think beyond the literary formality that reflected the formality they uncritically accepted in their lives. Institutional authority ensured its position by suppressing any threat to the narrow-mindedness of its populace. “To legalize what was once patently unspeakable” Birmingham writes, “is to replace silence with both debate and debatability. It is to invite deep—even systemic—uncertainty.”

Years after WWI, obscenity was still anarchy. But the question became: If lewdness is present in an unquestionable work of genius that is not about lewdness, does it qualify as obscene? The 1933 case contesting the ban on Ulysses hinged on the meaning of the word “obscene.” Though defined by the courts as “tending to stir the sexual impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts,” the nuances of the term had been bandied about in courts for years. Birmingham puts each side’s semantic gymnastics on impressive, and often comical, display. The defense contested dictionary definitions and attempted a disarming etymological lesson concerning the word “fuck.” The prosecution openly acknowledged Ulysses’s status as a masterpiece while maintaining the need to protect the masses from its corrupting influence.

Birmingham conveys Woolsey’s deliberations as if he had been there in the courtroom. The judge’s deepening cogitations over each counselor’s arguments, and over the novel itself (which he devoted three months to reading), only revealed the complete subjectivity of the case. Because our standards come from our living communities, they are living standards, liable to evolution and revision. If a tendency to “stir the sexual impulses” could not fairly be judged absolutely, should the mere presence of dirty words anathemize an otherwise monumental work of art? It is in the ultimate uncertainty of Woolsey, a lover of literature and critic of censorship, that Birmingham locates Ulysses’s danger. “There are passages of moving literary beauty, passages of worth and power,” Woolsey told the court. “Reading parts of that book almost drove me frantic. That last part, [Molly Bloom’s] soliloquy, it may represent the moods of a woman of that sort. That is what disturbs me. I seem to understand it.” Systemic reform began when one man, Judge Woolsey, confronted and accepted the side of himself that society would have him deny.

Birmingham’s achievement in The Most Dangerous Book is in anatomizing the revolution of individual thought that had to occur to advance a revolution of expression. Words enter the bloodstream and the organism flails, sickly at first, but then recovering. Soon the words are seen to belong to the song of the body, the song of life in all its forms. Judge Woolsey’s decision at the beginning of the Ulysses editions is a reminder that the artistic freedom we enjoy today was hard won, and might have looked quite different had Joyce’s book not been the apotheosis of its form.


Geoffrey Young

GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn. His debut novel, Fall, was published in 2010. More of his work can be found at


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2014

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