Wednesday, June 1, 2011

...and another thing about the opening of ULYSSES

Because the setting of the first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses has become so familiar over the nine decades since its publication, we may have lost sight of just how incredibly disorienting the novel's opening pages are. Think back to your first reading of the book. If, like me, you attempted to read it 'cold,' without first dipping your toes into the tepid teawater of Joyce criticism, the first few pages must have left you entirely at sea (specifically, at the Irish Sea). This is because Joyce takes the principle of in medias res to heart and thrusts us into the midst of things we cannot possibly understand. Only late in the chapter will the attentive cold reader understand, by piecing together various clues, that the chapter takes place in and around the Martello Tower at Sandycove. To appreciate the extremity of Joyce's Modernist difference, the shock of his new, just consider how a 19th-century novelist might have begun Ulysses: "On the morning of June 16, 1904, a stately but rather plump young man known to all as 'Buck' Mulligan paused atop the stairs of the Martello Tower at Sandycove, a sleepy coastal village south of Dublin." That's a perfectly respectable Victorian frock coat of a first sentence that does everything a perfectly respectable silk-hatted first sentence should. It's also a fine substitute for Sominex. Joyce's 'cold open' is, by contrast, considerably more disreputable, disorienting, defamiliarizing. It doesn't make me drowsy.

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