This year, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses both reach the grandfatherly age of one hundred. The authors both took full advantage of the high modern assertion of an artist’s right to not make it easy for the audience. This can be a risky choice to make. There’s been plenty of debate in the last few years about how difficult serious fiction should be allowed to be, especially when competing with the endless distractions of mass media, which were only just starting to develop when Eliot and Joyce were writing.
Luckily for us, reading highbrow fiction was still a status symbol in the Roaring Twenties, which created a reverence for the author not as mere popular storyteller but as master of the labyrinth. Writers didn’t think twice about doing pretty much whatever they wanted with their stories, whether putting it all in or taking as much out as possible. Self-consciously arcane references, the deluge of stream of consciousness, portentous mythological or Shakespearean titles, and the sheer number of pages that stack up can be daunting.
Making such a kitchen-sink aesthetic choice puts the onus on an author to keep the reader interested precisely because the author is demanding a lot of the reader’s attention. No matter how complex or erudite a text’s world-building may be, if it has the magic, intrigued readers will start puzzling over all the arcane language and terminology—and they’ll like it. Just ask any of the legions of J.R.R. Tolkien fans.
Following the rallying cry of their mutual friend, promoter, and fascist crackpot Ezra Pound—“Make it new!”—Eliot and Joyce did just that and made it work for their differing goals. Generations of readers have rewarded “The Waste Land” and Ulysses with copious attention. Eliot’s poem takes us on an ethereal, haunted drift through the unreal city of the dead, waiting for the dry land to be reborn. Joyce’s notoriously earthy novel celebrates a day in the life of a few extraordinarily ordinary people living in turn-of-the-century Dublin. The two texts complement each other as day follows night.
“The Waste Land,” appropriately, flickers with darkness. April may not necessarily be the cruelest month, but a line like that will stop you in your tracks and let you know what kind of a world you’re about to enter.
The poem moves from voice to voice, from Vedic utterings to barroom conversations to bird songs. The world it presents is shattered, and the full scope of its universal catastrophe can be properly described only in fragments. Doesn’t sound so far-fetched in our age of doomscrolling and binge-watching, does it?
As bad as we like to think we have it now, we should remember that, a hundred years ago, the world really had gazed in horror and understood the meaning of the phrase, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Civilized Europe had just torn itself to shreds; hundreds of thousands of people had died horrific deaths in muddy trenches in the “war to end all wars.” How do you think art was supposed to look and sound after that? As one critic described the modernists, “The world gave them Middlemarch, and what they handed back was The Sound and The Fury.” Even today, the phrase “I never knew death had undone so many” cuts more deeply after a worldwide pandemic that has claimed a million American lives alone and still isn’t finished with us.
“The Waste Land” is suffused with an ominous fog hovering over a shell-shocked world. Eliot’s collage is filled with allusions, and its grainy montage creates an almost voluptuous ambiance, an eminently haunted mise en scène. Read it out loud, or listen to it being read, and it builds its rhythm. I treasure the anecdote of Ralph Ellison’s that reading it as a curious young writer-to-be changed his life. Ellison shared little of Eliot’s social background or life experience, but he was profoundly struck by the poem’s capacity to move him, even though he didn’t quite understand what it said.
Well, that’s not so unusual—unless a reader was already familiar (as an educated European audience in the Twenties might have been) with several languages, the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, Jacobean drama, London rivers, Buddhist scripture, and more. Eliot evidently once admitted that, when writing it, “I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying.” Maybe it was a good thing for the erudite, cosmopolitan, introverted Eliot to let go a little: His intuition did all the work for him.
The dreamlike “Unreal City” contains multitudes, which take the form of muttered cadences of overheard conversation, tinny snippets of popular songs, and echoes of the grandiose past poised over nothingness. Eliot lived up to the demands that all difficult writers make, then and now: You don’t necessarily have to “understand” everything in a poem like “The Waste Land” to feel it and respond to it. Those elliptical minor key reverberations will haunt you.
Great as it is, “The Waste Land” is rather impersonal, distant, somber. In contrast, I love the fact that Ulysses, which Eliot greatly admired, inspired its very own worldwide literary holiday. There should be more of those. Bloomsday falls on each June 16, the day in 1904 on which we meet Leopold Bloom, then follow him and some of his fellow Dubliners on their travels through Dublin. It also happens to be the day when Joyce had his first date with his saintly, long-suffering wife Nora Barnacle. The book was published on Joyce’s fortieth birthday in February 1922.
People all over the world celebrate “the Blue Book of Eccles” by taking their own walks around their cities, dressing up like Joyce characters, reading their favorite chapters out loud, and drinking heavily, as is appropriate for a book that contains plenty of boozing and was infamous for its obscenity. As Joyce liked to say to the censors, “If Ulysses isn’t fit to read, then life isn’t fit to live.” Admittedly, you can easily get lost in the web of references in the world Joyce creates, but never fear: There is a cottage industry dedicated to mapping out every inch of the text. People become obsessed with it.
Maybe it’s because reading Ulysses can enhance your awareness of how much physical, emotional, and imaginative information is contained in a single, seemingly ordinary day. Joyce zooms in more closely than the realism with which he began his career so that he can examine life on a granular level. This laser-like focus means there is a good chance that the reader will see it, too. When I went to one of the Dublin pubs mentioned in the book, the better for it to extract my willing tourist dollars, there were stained glass windows depicting different scenes from the book, which was a nice touch. One of them was of Bloom’s lunch. If you peer at it closely, you see the four rivets of mustard that Bloom dabs on the corners of his gorgonzola cheese sandwich (which is available elsewhere) in the exact right spots, in all their glory. Sometimes epiphanies happen in the least dramatic of places, a very Joycean insight.
Even though Joyce suffered from failing eyes, he saw everything. Ulysses daringly changes narrative gears whenever it wants, gleefully switching tropes, tones, and genres. The text is filled with puns, paradoxes, dirty jokes, songs, quotations. No wonder it inspires musicians; it reads like music. Unlike most novels, it doesn’t just inform you matter-of-factly that Bloom is thinking about something. Instead, Joyce displays Bloom’s inner life right there on the page, with the inwardness that only literature can achieve.
We overhear Bloom’s various thoughts, memories, observations, and anxieties as they flit through his mind while he goes about his business on a Thursday in June. The great critic Edmund Wilson, who helped introduce Joyce and his peers to American readers, explained it like this:
Instead of reading, ‘Bloom said to himself, “I might manage to write a story to illustrate some proverb or other. I could sign it, Mr. and Mrs. Bloom;”’ we read, ‘might manage a sketch. By Mr. and Mrs. L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb which?’
No judgments about whether this quicksilver association is too much, but if you get into the swing of it you can read it and reread it forever, as Joyce intended.
While Eliot gazed at the ruin of civilization, Joyce’s approach is essentially comic. His mock-epic tale largely consists of average Dubliners doing the everything and nothing that eventually fill up our days: eating and drinking and walking and talking and excreting and remembering and noticing. No matter what you might be doing, the stream of consciousness gleams amid the bustle. Bloom (and Stephen Dedalus, his symbolic son, of A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man fame) is the titular anti-hero of his own little Homeric tale, encountering a Cyclops and being lured by Sirens, as he wanders around all day only to return home, finally, to good old 7 Eccles Street to his beloved though rather brazenly unfaithful Penelope, the legendary Molly Bloom. In other words, living a life.
You don’t necessarily read Ulysses, you inhabit it. Maybe it’s better to say that it inhabits you. These characters are alive on the page in a way that few other characters ever are because we see the world through not just their eyes but their minds and hearts, which turn out to be very worthwhile places to be. It’s a huge gamble with the readers’ attention. If you warm up to our observant, sensitive, witty, and essentially good-natured everyman hero, you will agree with what one character says—that “there’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.”
Eliot and Joyce famously applied the structure of ancient mythologies, of the Fisher King and Homer’s Odyssey, into their very modern texts to give them extra symbolic depth. People don’t seem to do that much anymore. Maybe antiquity doesn’t have the cultural resonance that it used to. Or maybe it’s useless to do if no one knows or cares about those ancient myths. That’s the way it goes. Eliot himself probably complained about how people didn’t know enough Dante to truly understand the modern world.
But Eliot and Joyce prove that, especially in our hyper-referential era, a private network of references and allusions can actually connect more deeply with an audience. Communicating through your own personally curated imagery is very common today. We do it all the time, sharing songs and pictures and playlists on social media and in text messages. Including musical notation on a page, as Joyce did, blew people’s minds back in the 1920s; but we can now see how far ahead of its time it really was. The way we casually play with text, changing spellings and using new terms and phrases as we type, is a very modernist move.
Despite all their difficulty and density, it’s interesting how both “The Waste Land” and Ulysses end with a kind of blessing. In Eliot’s case there’s a hushed Sanskrit prayer cast over the dead land (“Shantih shantih shantih”), while Joyce ends his symphony of the everyday with Molly Bloom lying next to her sleeping husband, on whom she enjoyably cheated earlier, thinking fondly of the distant afternoon when he became the love of her life: “and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes … and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” A hundred years on, we will relate to Eliot’s somber vision of death and despair; but it’s good to know that Joyce’s prosaic and prolix pub is around the corner.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.
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