Literary Bucket List: Ulysses

For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my Books to Read Someday list.

I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Intrigued by the Martello Tower, I managed about five or six pages; mostly, the tome served to add extra weight to the backpack.

Last couple years, I've felt that maybe I'm now focused enough to succeed where my younger self failed. (My younger self was more interested in crawling Irish pubs). Also, my brother-in-law read it and has spoken to me on several occasions of his love for this book.  And he isn't even a current or former English major. I have a graduate degree in English but have not read Ulysses, one of the defining literary works of the modern era. There's less Someday available than there used to be. It's time.

In late May, I bought a copy of the Vintage paperback edition and set a goal of 10 pages a day, which so far I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). Now I'm about 250 pages in. Here's my take so far.

How difficult is it, really?

The difficulty level varies considerably from episode to episode. If someone were to conduct a survey of readers who gave up on Ulysses, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority said they threw in the towel somewhere around page 36 or 37. This is the "Proteus" episode, which records the internal thoughts of Stephen Dedalus as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary or cultural allusion after another, and it's nigh impossible to follow his  train of thought without understanding the references. And without being a Jesuit-educated, early 20th century Irish intellectual, that's not so likely.

Luckily, we have Google. And not only do we have Google, we have browser-equipped smartphones.  For me, then, the experience of reading this section consisted of alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that served as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide.

Other sections are less daunting; they mostly require attentiveness, as Joyce ditched a lot of traditional narrative scaffolding in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on.

Worth the effort?

At this point, 250 pages in, I would definitely say yes. The book is exciting in the way that I find Shakespeare exciting -- there's a similar linguistic virtuosity. It moves effortlessly between the serious and the Pythonesque; there's more comedy in Ulysses than one might expect from a modernist literary landmark with a formidable reputation.

Favorite moments so far?

Just about anything with Leopold Bloom in it. I was particularly taken with the "Hades" episode, which follows Bloom and companions as they ride to a funeral. Tragedy, farce, profound, mundane: many gamuts are spanned.

UlyssesIn  the ninth section, "Scylla and Charybdis", young Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego) tries to impress several literary eminences of the time, and fails. They are dismissive of his theorizing and snub him by conferring about an event to which he is not invited. There's a nice irony in that Joyce is now much better known than any of these figures. And I learned some things I didn't know before about Hamlet.

You'd like this book if you like...

Scrabble. A vocabulary booster if ever there was one. Do you own a gamp?  Are those birds over there rufous? How does one learn to walk in chopines? Not knowing these words makes me feel like a bosthoon.

Puns and wordplay, dialogue, Dublin, character portraits, Irish literary history, exploration of the human condition, solving puzzles, looking up stuff.


Tweenhood With Zombies

During my late childhood and tween years I often puzzled over a difficult Question. It was an especially perplexing one because I couldn't figure out how to articulate it correctly. I'm aware now that this hard-to-define Question was actually a combination of questions, and that the central one had to do with what philosophers of mind term qualia.

If I'd had the right terminology at hand, I might have asked: why is there a sense of subjective, conscious experience?  And why do have such a sense; why is it something that is instantiated in the form of an Self? Does everyone else have it too? This third question bothered me especially. It's difficult to prove that anyone else is having a subjective experience, because such experience is, well, subjective. Making statements about it requires knowledge of what's going on inside another person's head.

And even observing the contents of someone's head isn't enough: one could subject another person to an MRI and still be unable to detect whether any qualia were happening in there.

What if I'd been born into a world of zombies? Or suppose this was a world that is partly inhabited by zombies, and partly inhabited by sentient beings who experience qualia? How could we distinguish one from the other? There seems to be no way to logically rule out the possibility that zombies are moving among us. Indeed, a now-famous thought experiment by David Chalmers invites us to conceive of zombie twin: "someone or something physically identical to me (or to any the conscious being, but lacking conscious experiences altogether."

The creature is molecule for molecule identical to me, and identical in all the low-level properties postulated by a completed physics, but he lacks conscious experience entirely....he will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on. It's just that none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie. (The Conscious Mind, 94-95)

Chalmers's purpose wasn't to suggest the existence of a zombie population, but to show the difficulty of explaining qualia in physical terms. If we can conceive of a zombie world, though, what's to prevent our actual world from being populated, to some degree, by zombies? How can we know?

Empathy is one way of establishing the reality of other people's subjective experience; humans generally have the capacity to "understand another person's condition from their perspective," to use Psychology Today's definition of the term. The possibility of zombies probably bothered me more at a younger age because younger people are still building their capacity for empathy, some more quickly than others (I was a slow learner). Very small children don't have the capacity at all; they are unabashedly narcissistic.

It's true that empathy is not always reliable; some people know how to fake and manipulate. In theory, a robot could mimic human body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections so closely that we'd begin to empathize with it. We sometimes respond to the wrong cues: a dolphin, for example, is not really smiling. Its jaws are just shaped that way.

All that aside, though, empathy is reliable at least some of the time. That gives us enough to work with. We can recognize what others are going through; we can relate their experiences to ours. And empathy is not merely a process by which psychological functions in one person trigger a psychological response in another; a non-empathetic psychopath is capable of responding in this way. Rather, empathy involves the recognition that others are conscious beings. We can infer that not only are they having experiences, but that they have the experience of subjectivity -- we're all pinging the network: "here I am, here I am."

Another clue to the prevalence of qualia is the fact that people have philosophical discussions about the topic. If they weren't common to humans, we would have no reason to engage in such conversations. It would be like having late night talks on the subject of zzkvgt or brgrwatsq. (That can happen, after enough booze).

So, for  me, the clincher is that the question has been defined and asked. It means others have wondered about it, intensely enough to figure out how to express it precisely. Whatever qualia actually are -- epiphenomena of the brain, the result of "psychophysical laws," or some kind of non-material property -- we can be sure others have them. Most of us, anyhow. I think.

The Historical Seventies

Free to beIf you’re involved in raising a daughter in the United States, you’ll have heard of American Girls. And if you’ve heard of American Girls, you’re probably aware that there are Historical girls and Girls of the Year.


Each is a doll and also a character in a series of accompanying storybooks. But Girls of the Year are only available for one year, while their Historical counterparts stick around until the company decides to retire them.


I was mildly surprised to find out that one of the Historical girls -- Julie Albright -- has the same birth year as me. Julie (the character) and I both turned 48 this year, though she preceded me  by a few months: she’s a Taurus and I’m a Leo. I grew up in the interval between Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall, between the Summer of Love and the Apple IIe, between the Beatles and Wang Chung.


And so did Julie, whose name peaked in popularity in 1971, when it was #10 in the United States. (It is still in the top hundred. My name, Robert, peaked between 1920 and 1940 but was still in the top five circa 1971).


It feels odd to think of that era as “historical”. The term usually reminds me of dressed-up town centers or places like Colonial Williamsburg. Yes, significant history took place during the 1970s -- Watergate, busing, recession, the oil embargo, the non-ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, the bicentennial, the death of Elvis Presley. But history is being made all the time; it is not quite the same thing as being “historical.”


Partly I’m surprised because I don’t think of life during the 1970s as being eye-poppingly different from life today. Families went on vacations in station wagons rather than minivans, but these are just permutations on a theme. Kids stocked up on yo-yos, bouncy balls and collectible cards, as they do now. Pokemon didn’t exist, or the internet. In place of the internet, we had metal lunchboxes, preferably with Marvel Comics characters on them. There you go: the 1970s were the time before internet. But so were the sixties, fifties, forties and every other era since the origins of time.


I asked my seven-year-old, Heidi, what she thinks about the times described in the Julie books and in what ways they seem different from hers.


Although she took note of Julie’s cassette tape recorder, record collection and other obvious date-stamps, it wasn't the technological rewind that made the strongest impression. She said Julie’s childhood seemed “exciting, because she had lots of challenges.” In particular, she added, schools back then didn’t let girls play certain sports.


This is part of the main storyline of the first Julie book -- she’s great at basketball, but Coach Manley doesn’t want girls on the team. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it involves Title IX.

Advocacy is a theme in the later installments, too. Fifth-grader Julie defies the status quo and runs for student council president, a post usually reserved for sixth-grade boys. She helps a deaf friend stand up to teasers and tormenters, and works to end an unfair detention system at her school. And all of this while adjusting to her parents’ divorce. If I’m making Julie sound like a Girl Power stick figure, I’m not being fair: the writer of the series has created a complex character. She has moments of doubt and despair, but is stubborn enough to keep pushing.


So there’s one angle on the seventies: an era when entrenched attitudes still kept women from realizing their potential, though things were starting to change thanks to organized campaigns, legal action and something called Feminism. That’s true about the times I remember, and in that sense they were certainly historic.


Still not sure why they’re “historical,” though -- the fight’s still on.