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Books and Cylinders: Seeing and Reading Ulysses

by Heesok Chang
Associate Professor of English
Class of 1951 Reading Room

Ulysses is arguably the greatest literary work of the last century: the most influential of all the grand texts of international modernism; an enduring touchstone for intrepid writers and artists; a must-read for English majors and earnest book clubbers; an inexhaustible source of industry for teachers and scholars. In bringing together Dale Chihuly’s splendid Ulysses Cylinders with Vassar’s impressive collection of rare and valuable editions of the novel, these dual exhibits – seamlessly curated by Mary-Kay Lombino and Ron Patkus – pay thoughtful homage to Joyce’s masterpiece. This exhibition adds yet another chapter to Ulysses’s storied, century-old public reception.

It also invites us to reflect on this reception. Amongst other things, the juxtaposition of the golden glasswork and the precious books throws into relief Ulysses’s protean afterlife: its transformation from taboo to totem, from scandalous literature (banned in the U. S. from 1921-33, in the U. K. from 1923-36) to fabulous object (a first edition recently sold for $440,000). Value and notoriety go hand in hand in the cultural marketplace, of course, something Joyce banked on. The fact that there exist so many prized editions of Ulysses cannot be separated from its long and ultimately productive entanglement with state censorship. The publications on display here include several issues of Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s The Little Review, the avant-garde magazine in which Joyce’s text first appeared in serial form before the U. S. Post Office halted its circulation on the grounds of obscenity; a 1927 printing of Ulysses’s 1922 debut in book form (reset in 1926), published under bookshop owner Sylvia Beach’s startup imprint; the first authorized American edition brought out by Random House following Judge Woolsey’s landmark ruling of 1933; a limited Bodley Head edition published in 1936, the year the novel became legally available in England. Shakespeare and Company’s cover establishes the tone for subsequent designs: “Ulysses” and “James Joyce” set in block letters against a monochromatic backdrop. The stately jackets, coupled with the heft of the 700 pages they wrap, herald the heroic accomplishment of the author. But these early editions also attest to the work of the many, the cunning army of individuals (so many of the leaders women) enlisted in the campaign to see Ulysses published: the patrons, lawyers, promoters, editors, designers, publishers, typesetters, ad canvassers, advertisers, booksellers, subscribers, reviewers, and more. It takes more than a lone genius to bring “the most dangerous book” into the world.

Also featured here are two mass market editions of the novel that visitors to the exhibition are likely to own, ones purchased to be read rather than displayed: the revised and reset 1961 Random House issue and a reader’s version of Hans Walter Gabler’s 1984 “Critical and Synoptic Edition.” Anyone who has followed the controversy surrounding Gabler’s “corrected text” – a text based primarily on a handwritten copy Joyce made between 1917 and 1921 (the “Rosenbach Manuscript”) – will know that there is no standard or authoritative version of the novel. When it comes to Ulysses there is no such thing as the text. There are only flawed embodiments – reincarnations – of an ideal text that nowhere exists. This is an unfortunate situation for scholars though perhaps a fitting fate for a work so thoroughly shaped by the author’s anti-Platonic sensibility. Ulysses is not a book about ideas; Joyce was bored by arguments and generalizations. Line by line, word by word, the text makes a powerful plea for the primacy of sensory experience and embodied particulars. It treats language itself as a kind of malleable, material thing. Inversely, the external world of the novel discloses itself as authored text. Channeling Aristotle and Aquinas, Stephen ponders the irreducibly sensible nature of human apprehension as he strolls Sandymount strand: “Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.”

A driving concern for the young poet, ever ready to turn the world into words, must be: what do I read when I see? The reader of the novel, on the other hand, might be more likely to wonder: what do I see when I read? What do we picture when we picture Stephen or Bloom or Molly? How do we visualize Dignam’s funeral, the musical interlude at the Ormond, the phantasmagoria of Nighttown?

Questions regarding the relationship between image and text must take on a certain urgency for illustrators, though they don’t seem to have worried Henri Matisse very much. He could make neither head nor tails of Joyce’s writing so based his commissioned etchings for publisher George Macy’s upmarket version of Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey instead. This illustrated edition follows an emergent twentieth-century practice in which artists “exploit the book medium to express their ideas in graphic terms which may have little relevance to the texts they nominally illustrate.”[1] The same cannot be said for Robert Motherwell’s evocative line etchings for the Arion Press edition (1988). From his first encounter with Ulysses in 1935, Motherwell looked repeatedly to Joyce’s work for subject matter and technical inspiration. He read the texts as a scholar might, poring over the voluminous commentary and underlining striking passages. Mary Ann Caws notes that the artist “found both [Joyce’s] verbal association and the emphasis on key words of enormous use in his own work, as colours relate to other colours, forms to other forms.”[2] However Motherwell’s etchings might serve Joyce’s text it’s clear that they are not strictly “illustrations.” They do not attempt to elucidate the narrative or merely adorn the book. They do not really depict character or action. Our focus shifts constantly from the rudimentary numerals and shapes on the page to the inked lines that compose them. These rutted figures index the hand that held the needle and etched the lines. It is as though Motherwell were trying to graft his images onto Joyce’s text at the moment of its graphic incision, at the moment the author put pen to paper, prior to the conjuring of visual shapes and verbal meanings, prior to the distinction between drawing and writing.

The figurative potential of the graphic line, its capacity to morph into an ear or an eye, a letter or a swirl, is luminously captured in the Ulysses Cylinders. The line is the vehicle of translation in these intricate constructions, carrying the burden of emergence from one creative stage to the next. Traversing the novel’s eighteen episodes, Chihuly’s collaborator, Seaver Leslie culls sundry characters, objects, landscapes, narrative actions, religious and mythological allusions, memorable words, names, phrases, times of the day and briskly sketches them onto paper. Next, glass artists, Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick rework these rudimentary images into outlines inked onto a heat-proof surface over which they trace lines of melting glass. Then, Chihuly and his team fuse these delicate drawings onto glass they have blown and colored into green cylinders inlaid with gold leaf.

The effect of the finished whole is visually gripping. It would be tempting to call the cylinders “ephipanies.” As Joyce defines it, however, an artist’s epiphany recreates the experience of a sudden profane illumination, a rare and accidental moment in which an ordinary object in the world (a basket, a clock, an old pair of shoes) suddenly shines forth in its appearance, bringing the beholder to a standstill. Presumably an epiphany captured on the page will reproduce for the mind’s eye the arresting image of the original vision. But the Ulysses Cylinders do not hold us in this way. They do not recreate vivid, standalone moments from the narrative. Despite their physical beauty, they do not fetishize the visual image.

We may turn to graphic adaptations of the novel – Robert Berry’s absorbing digital comic Ulysses “seen, for example – if we wish to see how an artist parses the text into visual frames. Despite Berry’s obvious fidelity and invention, readers of the novel should prepare to be jarred by his imagination. Is this how we picture Leopold Bloom: bald, with a comb over and a John Waters moustache? Neither do we imagine our hero sporting the affable face of Milo O’Shea (who played the part in the 1967 film version), nor the dour one of Stephen Rea (who took the title role in the 2003 Bloom).

In his recent book What We See When We Read,[3] Peter Mendelsund notes that authors give us, in fact, very little visual information about their characters: in the case of Bloom, a mourning suit, dark eyes, a moustache, a paunch, and, if we’re to trust the impressionable Gerty MacDowell, a “pale intellectual face” and a certain “foreign” air. According to Mendelsund, rather than diminish our engagement with the text, fragmentary descriptions of physical things like character and setting encourage the exercise of our readerly imagination. My Dublin is not a single city but an amalgam of real and invisible cities I have visited. My Bloom is not a finished person who accompanies his actions, but a shape-shifter who develops piecemeal scene by scene. As in dreams – or rather, the interpretation of dreams – his identity is a condensation. Reading forward and backward and forward (Ulysses can’t be travelled in a straight line), I fill in his appearance, his voice and gestures, from my own repertoire of images, many publically sourced (Shakespeare, Dante, Homer) but many also personal (an inquisitive friend, a lonely uncle, a kind teacher).

Readers might not recognize Bloom as he is drawn on Chihuly’s larger “Calypso” cylinder. But here the discrepancy is not jarring. That’s because this improvised sketch does not stand in for a likeness of a Bloom plucked from the novel. It does not represent what we see when we read. Despite the cartoon idiom of its line, it is not a cartoon panel. Rather, it acts as a graphic placeholder for a Bloom who does not live outside the text. The Bloom we see here is a virtual Bloom, a reader’s Bloom, vividly outlined, waiting to be colored in. He appears at the level of material inscription, like words on a page.

But unlike words on a page or illustrations in a book, the Ulysses Cylinders do not lie flat for our gaze. The horizontal text is made to stand upright and the linear line is made to curve around the circumference of a glass. Laid out side by side, these thirty-six beacons set the viewer off on an odyssey, a spiraling circuit that moves forward in reflexive loops, circling one “episode” after the next. We see the cylinders in succession, one at a time, but they were made by many hands to be seen together and to unfold over time. Like words in a sentence, their meaning only coalesces at the end of the line. The Ulysses Cylinders invite us to retrace the lines of their graphic and fiery composition and to circumnavigate their surface as the embodied readers Joyce imagined for his text.

Heesok Chang
Poughkeepsie, NY

[1] John Harthan, The History of the Illustrated Book (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 8.

[2] Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: with Pen and Brush (London: Reaktion Books: 2003), p. 144.

[3] Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read: A Phenomenology with Illustrations (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).