Wyndham Lewis on Joyce’s “Ulysses,” 1927

Bracing counter-mainstream stuff from a premier critic of the last century, in his Time and Western Man:

Ulysses is “the sardonic catafalque of the Victorian world . . . like a record diarrhea,” without “romanticizing,” unlike Proust in his Recherche.

In it Joyce was a trickster: “The mere name suggests a romantic predilection for guile.” (92)

It features a “merging of analects,” selections from various sources (or here styles?). In his early years as a writer, Joyce had been “rather unenterprising and stationary” in this respect. Dubliners, his story collection, was written in one style, Ulysses “in a hundred or so.”

In fact, Joyce’s “ability to be influenced by all sorts of people and things” remained undiminished as he kept growing “more susceptible to new influences, of a technical order.” Thus the merging of analects as above.

The style made the man, says Lewis. He was “a craftsman pure and simple,” nothing more, “has practiced sabotage where his intellect was concerned.” Indeed, Joyce’s mind was of “extreme conventionality,” his characters “walking cliches . . . ready-made and well-worn dummies,” to which his “intelligence was so alive.”

He’s the equivalent “in music [of] the supreme instrumentalist.” (This is the summit of Lewis’ praise for Joyce.) His characters are “the material of broad comedy, not that of a subtle or average reality at all.” (Which makes for hard reading. I know I found it so.)

Throughout Ulysses he betrays a “radical conventionality of outlook,” in all of which he is “a craftsman not a creator.” A virtuoso at the typewriter, he is no great thinker, hanging “a mass of dead stuff” on “lay-figures” (mannequins, nonentities) “without a life of their own.”

More to come of this all-in-all thrashing of a literary favorite . . .


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