The Ulysses Paradox

May 7, 2018

I wrote this piece last year when I randomly learnt about the landmark case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. It was such a bizarre story that I was inspired enough to blog about it with my pseudo-art-historian hat on.

In 1922, in the temporal heart of Prohibition-era America, a man named James Joyce wrote what would be later considered the most controversial novel of the twentieth century. Ulysses chronicled the stream of consciousness of a character named Leopold Bloom, who lived in Joyce’s contemporary Dublin. The text was simultaneously esoteric and coarse, and whatever semblance of a plot punishingly difficult to follow due partly to changing, unreliable narration.

A literary magazine called The Little Review published chapters of the novel in serial form. This was common for the day, and would have otherwise been unspectacular – but for one chapter that depicted a female character masturbating. The ensuing public outrage directed at the Review halted further publication of the novel.

Until 1933. Random House challenged the prohibition in the landmark case, United States vs. One Book Called Ulysses. The case rested on discovering whether Ulysses was a work of obscenity and frivolity, or whether it contained serious literary merit. To do so, Joyce was hauled into court and ordered to testify on the intent of his work.

But to Joyce, this was asking the magician to reveal the nature of his illusions. Joyce knew that Ulysses was dense and unforgiving. He intended it to be that way. He was living and working in a time that saw Pablo Picasso subvert the basic requirement of consistent visual perspective. Joyce didn’t want permission: he wanted immortality. He told Harper’s Bazaar later on, “The demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my books.”

So, therein lies the paradox. As Joyce presumably cared about Ulysses existing in the public consciousness, which required its text to be published and distributed, the American legal system presented him an impossible decision.

The case to discuss intent seems immediately at odds with Joyce’s wider artistic purpose. And yet, the early twentieth century was a time for contemplation and iteration on what constituted art. For much of Western cultural history, the value of a piece was determined by its execution, which was a function of the skill of the artist. The artist was dreamer, designer, and builder. Then, Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal on its side and challenged a reigning art society to include it in an exhibition. They declined. The floodgates gave way to impassioned debate on the relationship between the artist, craftsmanship, and the work.

By ceding to the demands of the court, Joyce could attempt to lay the groundwork for an extended conversation on this emerging distinction between artist and artisan in the literary realm. His “reveal-all” would hold disproportionate weight among the traditional cultural elite who still held onto the marriage between artist and work, but perhaps his emerging cohort of modernists – the group most likely to engage meaningfully with Ulysses’ subtext and grant him his immortality – would see through his explanation as nothing more than a gesture of placation. Joyce believed the erraticism of Ulysses was its key to notoriety, and to interpret Ulysses on the public record was to surrender one particular route. But perhaps that was an acceptable risk, because in the likeliest alternative world, no part of his novel would ever be engaged by the general American readership, no matter how strange or bold the writing.

On the other hand, around that time America was learning one of many early history lessons about human nature: The forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. Alcohol prohibition laws gave birth to bathtub moonshine. The case was the highest-profile challenge to First Amendment application in recent history. Ulysses had gained more notoriety through the publicity around the case itself than any mainstream distribution network could ever afford it. Joyce didn’t need to do anything to promote or defend his work – resourceful and curious members of the public found a way to get their hands on it. Distribution via smuggling from French publishing houses wasn’t quite the same as Random House royalties, but it added an unquantifiable level of artistically-relevant voyeurism to the work.

In the end, the book was vindicated without Joyce’s involvement.