Skip to content

Portals of Discovery

Awaking from the nightmare of genius

It is unlikely that anyone on Pete Buttigieg’s ill-fated presidential campaign foresaw the kerfuffle that would come from his repeated statements that James Joyce’s Ulysses is his favorite book. There was a surprising mismatch between what Buttigieg (and the team of consultants who probably helped him pick out his favorite book) thought he was signaling and how everyone was interpreting that signal. They should have expected it, though. In the hundred years since the novel was published, Americans have used the book as a symbol more than a text, discussing what it signifies while remaining mostly ignorant of its contents.

Here’s what Buttigieg was probably trying to say by telling Twitter, Esquire, and town hall meetings that he was a Ulysses guy: he is literate and cultured, but in a non-pretentious way, a man of the people. This was, after all, in the wake of a group of American writers dramatically and self-importantly declaring themselves as part of the #Resistance against Trump. They would defeat racism and ignorance through literary sensibility, like this was communist Czechoslovakia and they were all little self-elected Havels.

Plus, Buttigieg was probably trying to tie himself in the voters’ imagination with President Obama and his yearly recommended reading lists and the photographs of his shopping trips to beloved independent bookstores. Over the years, he had been slowly altering his public speaking cadence and rhythms to match Obama’s, so it’s likely he was trying to capture that uncritical (until very recently) support Obama enjoyed from media types and the literati intelligentsia, such as it is in the United States, by showing everybody that, yes, he, too, reads the best books.

Here is how his signal was interpreted by the demographic he was trying to win over: Pete Buttigieg wants us all to know he went to Harvard. The idea that anyone other than scholars or snobs might take any pleasure in the famously “difficult” prose of Ulysses was declared absurd, and from there dozens of think pieces and Twitter threads and counterarguments blossomed. Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, sent a much-circulated and swiftly deleted “No one is reading Ulysses for fun” tweet. Jeet Heer, then of The New Republic, called it “performative intellectualism.” Our literary elites may all come from the same expensive institutions as Buttigieg, but they are all working stiffs in their own minds, pretending to feel solidarity with the working classes (as long as they didn’t vote for Trump, of course). Buttigieg made himself an easy target for projection and scapegoating.

What he didn’t seem to realize was that he was about twenty years too late to use Ulysses in the way he intended. In recent decades, Ulysses has been a frequent target on social media and in academic circles alike, getting caught up in arguments about whether difficult books are ableist, and about the narcissistic entitlement of male writers publishing long books, and about the whiteness of the canon. It’s an illustration of how quickly and how comprehensively the academy has swallowed up the whole idea of art in America. And while there have always been class and educational hierarchies in the art world, never before have we had such strong barriers not only in the creation of but also the enjoyment of the so-called “high” arts of modernist literature, opera, and visual art. Not only are tickets to the theater increasingly expensive, not only are arts education programs disappearing from public and rural schools, but there is a pervasive idea that art is for the privately educated while the rest of us get Netflix and YA novels. Arts criticism is written in a specialized and academic language, and artists and writers have disappeared from television talk shows (unless, of course, they write for children).

Yet the idea that Ulysses is only for the snooty, or that no one is reading it for fun, would be news to the crowds of people who head to bars around the world to drunkenly and joyfully read from Ulysses every Bloomsday, or to the people who keep Ulysses on international bestseller lists, or even to nineteen-year-old me, who read Ulysses mostly on a beach in Spain, absolutely broke and trying to get by on one sandwich a day for sustenance, but in a state of ecstatic delight and enthusiasm.

Ulysses is a symbol, all right. But in these times, it’s a symbol for all the wrongheaded and frustrating ways we talk and think about the way art is made and received and appreciated. There are better, and more accurate, ways of thinking about Ulysses that explain why this maligned, beloved, and still controversial novel holds such a power over our understanding of what art does.

Canon Fodder

Ever since parts of Ulysses first appeared in The Little Review in New York and The Egoist in London, which both began serializing it in 1918, the work has been used to prop up overblown statements on degeneracy, genius, art, and pretension. This was particularly true in the years when the issues of The Little Review, and then the novel, were all but impossible to purchase due to the various burnings and bannings. (After it was judged in New York in 1921 to be obscene, the novel was banned in the United States through 1933.) At that time, there was a sense of coolness and transgression and exclusivity in claiming to have read it. Ulysses was being heralded by the avant-garde as a world-changing event, and if you were in on it, you could associate yourself with the underground smugglers, or at the very least with Europe.

Ulysses is a symbol for all the wrongheaded and frustrating ways we talk and think about the way art is made and received and appreciated.

Now that the novel is easily available and in the public domain, the cool thing to do is to declare not to have read it. In America, Ulysses currently has all the cultural cachet of homework, assigned reading, something you are supposed to endure because it is good for you. Rejecting it now becomes something of a performance, of thumbing your nose at authority, much like pretending to have read something forbidden and smuggled across the border did a hundred years ago. This is particularly true on social media, where people pretend that they are saying something very shocking and controversial when they reveal they don’t like a film beloved by critics—or maybe they pretend to be some sort of feminist icon by saying they’re not going to read this book by a man that some man they went on a date with said is good. Twitter, after all, is the place to find all the worst conversations about what art ought to be.

Much of American culture consistently confuses personal taste with right-mindedness. Liking or disliking a cultural object on social media often serves as a stand-in for a bald statement of your political affiliation, your educational background, or your place in the social hierarchy. Social media arguments where people take sides on which cultural product is superior to the other, like the Marvel vs. Scorsese discourse, endure for months and years because people can’t stop trying to use their faves to humblebrag about their political or moral rectitude.

Taking these statements from the various controversies that suggest Ulysses is bad actually—whether people mean of bad quality or bad in a moral sense because of its author being a straight white male—as genuine expressions of opinion could be used to show how out of fashion the modernist project has fallen, or how confused the boundaries between art and entertainment, literature and television, intellectual elites and fanboys have become. But I think there is something more interesting going on here. It is always a mistake to take seriously anything that is said on social media, but underlying these petty squabbles about representation, access, and the moral lessons we can learn from art is a real anxiety about social cohesion. We’re not fighting about whether Ulysses is a good book or a bad book; we are fighting about which content creators’ contributions get to be valued, who gets paid attention to and receives access to resources, and whether hard-won but very recent and fragile gains in visibility and institutional support will suddenly disappear.

What is good literature, who gets to be designated a genius, what the canon should hold is all in flux, and these fights are being waged in proxy wars and indirect conversation. After decades—centuries, really—of insisting that the canon is simply an objective list of the best things ever written, we now understand designations of “best” and “important” to be determined through systems of subjugation. The canon and the myth of genius are used to gatekeep whose work is seen as universal and whose is seen as marginal, and who gets access to the material support and institutional backing that makes careers and bodies of work.

Behind the online squabbles, then, is a prevailing belief that artistic production is the purest expression of the human spirit. As Terry Eagleton writes in Literary Theory: An Introduction, “The value-judgments by which [literature] is constituted are historically variable, but . . . these value-judgments themselves have a close relation to social ideologies. They refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others.” But if the canon is just a method of exercising power, then maybe there is no distinction between high and low art, or good and bad. Maybe tradition is merely a method of control that can be overthrown, maybe my Twilight fan fiction is as good as Paradise Lost, maybe James Joyce is just a pervert and William Shakespeare is just a hack and I am the true genius here.

And yet ordinary geniuses still can’t construct a canon, or even control the bestseller lists. It’s often easier to exert influence indirectly with a posthumous “cancellation.” James Joyce makes a strange nexus for these conversations, as his life story is hardly that of a patriarch. I’m always certain he’s moments away from being claimed as an anti-colonialist crip writer, fighting the good fight against toxic masculinity by making the hero of his narrative a wanking cuck. But no. The question is whether Ulysses should still be seen as a symbol of greatness, of experimentation. It takes up space in the canon that should, it is implied, be filled by a writer who is not white, not male, not heterosexual. If we pay attention to Ulysses, that is time and intellectual energy that could be used paying attention to the work of some marginalized or forgotten figure who is, under this new confused understanding of what constitutes good literature and bad literature, just as talented a writer as Joyce.

Do a quick search for “forgotten writer” and you’ll find any number of women writers, writers of color, or working-class writers being “reclaimed” in some halfhearted essay that spends more time explaining the structural forces that worked against the possibility of celebrating this writer than explaining why their work is any good. This must be why books about James Joyce have dropped off in recent decades, or at least have been sequestered in the academic sector with titles like Narcissistic Mothers in Modernist Literature and The Joyce Paradox: Form and Freedom in His Fiction, while stories about his “lost genius” daughter Lucia proliferate.

She’s become a symbol, too, of the potential genius that is lost because of discrimination and lack of support. Starting with 2003’s Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, Carol Loeb Schloss’s poorly researched and fantastical “biography” of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter in which she’s reimagined as a prodigy who would have flourished if only she had been recognized in her time (the reality being that she maybe could have been a genius if only she hadn’t suffered horribly and had a bad habit of starting fires), Lucia has been the subject of many a feminist reclamation project, from Kate Zambreno’s romanticized Heroines to truly unfortunate fictionalized versions of her life by Alison Leslie Gold, Annabel Abbs, Alex Pheby, and many others. In this version of the canon, Joyce becomes a kind of Saturn, eating his children’s potential and taking up the space that rightfully belongs to his daughters, both literal and metaphorical. Which is not to say that Lucia did not possess talent, but that to argue she’s an overlooked genius obscures her real-life experiences of mental illness and suffering.

As Eagleton points out, the canon has always been malleable. The way values and tastes change as societies shift and evolve are naturally reflected in the art that we designate as particularly important in any given moment. Certain works once believed to be important and profound suddenly look naive; books that showed up on syllabi and reading lists for decades are quietly and without explanation dropped. But now we’ve decided to try to work the other way around. As the political right seeks to root out all books that don’t meet their moral codes and soothe their feelings, right-minded liberals believe that if we change the canon to be more in line with our aspirational taste and values, it will necessarily follow that society will change as well. Which explains both why we are running around trying to solve structural issues of inequality with reading lists and why we think educating our nation’s elite children with Cisneros instead of Cicero will make them less racist.

The Artist’s Way

In her study of how the story of Vincent van Gogh became the defining myth of artistic genius, The Glory of van Gogh: An Anthropology of Admiration, Nathalie Heinich details how these cultural ideas of who an artist is, what their life looks like, and who gets to be designated a genius change through time. The penniless, eccentric virtuoso whose singular vision destroys what came before and births everything that follows is a relatively recent construction, originating roughly with the Romantics. Van Gogh and Joyce occupied similar places in the cultural imagination, and the story of their lives became not biographical but archetypal. This is what an artist looked like: financially unstable, completely dedicated to their craft, misunderstood during their lifetime. As Heinich articulates it, “[The artist’s] solitude and suffering, later his excellence and glory, are born out of the refusal to bow to the norms, to fall into step with tradition, to obey the canons.” That this fails to always align with the lived experience of the artist doesn’t matter—myth occludes the truth. Or, as Heinich writes, “the real is not reducible to what people say about it.”

“The complex operations required to [recognize greatness] show that there is no sure-fire prior guarantee that the singular will be identified, and celebrated,” Heinich writes. Our very limited conversations about the canon—this person is a genius; no, you’re wrong, it’s this lady over here—miss how art and its production and recognition works. Much of the myth of Joyce originates in the censorship of Ulysses, which was reversed when a district court judge ruled in 1933 that the novel was not obscene, finally allowing for its formal publication in the United States. The myth’s production confuses our understanding of how great art actually gets made and accepted, while also distorting our understanding of the events leading to the publication of Ulysses.

The story told by Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses is the legend of the obscenity trial. James Joyce becomes the marginalized genius, too radical for the masses and misunderstood by the conservative bourgeois society. Bennett Cerf and Random House, in challenging the original censorship ruling, get to be the institutional protectors of culture, swooping in to save an endangered work of genius from obscurity. Not out of any profit motivations, of course, but simply for the sake of art.

This is a massive distortion. As much as we are willing to question the idea of the canon and be suspicious of the motivations for its construction, we are far less motivated to question the idea of the lone genius. The myth of the genius positions the artist against society, against tradition, against community. The myth works backwards: the genius does not actually impose his will on the world; the world creates the conditions that allow for the art and artist to emerge. But it’s easier to control your own work rather than the entirety of the world, so focusing our attention on the individual instead of the condition of the environment in which they operate gives a much more satisfyingly egocentric story about artistic production.

I’m always certain Joyce is moments away from being claimed as an anti-colonialist crip writer, fighting the good fight against toxic masculinity by making the hero of his narrative a wanking cuck. But no.

Diana Souhami challenges this myth with her book No Modernism Without Lesbians, in which she profiles the figures—mostly women, mostly queer—who created the environment for artistic experimentation. It wasn’t Bennett Cerf who brought Ulysses into the world, and as far as that goes, it wasn’t necessarily the lone James Joyce either. It was primarily the work of four lesbians—Sylvia Beach, Harriet Weaver, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Heap—who created the cultural infrastructure that allowed Ulysses not only to find its way into print but into the cultural conversation.

While Beach has been a marginal figure of interest—everyone knows of her Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company and vaguely knows she was the first publisher of Ulysses, even if her work is so devalued her memoirs are out of print—the rest of the women’s contributions have been obscured. We see that at work in The Most Dangerous Book, where Birmingham endeavors to show that Anderson and Heap, the editors of The Little Review, were simply not serious people. While everyone else in the book gets the dignity of being referred to by their last names, Heap remains “Jane” throughout, an act of diminishment and disrespect. Anderson is depicted as an empty-headed socialite, more interested in pretension and atmosphere than serious thought. Birmingham implies thickly that she did not even understand the text she was publishing; he is eager to give the real credit for Joyce’s inclusion to the magazine’s foreign editor, Ezra Pound.

When Anderson goes hungry in order to fund her magazine, Birmingham emphasizes that she dressed for her dinners of potatoes and biscuits in crepe de chine and a fur collar. When she loses her home because she can’t afford the rent, he makes her six months living in a tent on the shores of Lake Michigan sound like a camping trip. Her association with anarchist politics and the radical activist Emma Goldman make her, to Birmingham, suspect, and this justifies her abandonment by the larger literary community when Anderson and Heap are put on trial for publishing the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses and of “being a danger to the minds of young girls” in Anderson’s words.

Souhami restores Anderson’s central place in the story of Ulysses and modernism in general. She shows how the writers and artists and thinkers she championed in the pages of The Little Review were first ridiculed by the institutional publishing culture, and then, once they found widespread acceptance and interest, the institutions swooped in and rewrote the history to erase Anderson’s work.

What enabled the international lesbian community to be the site of artistic innovation? It was not just the mixing of classes and nationalities and political viewpoints in their social circles. It was a group of women freed from the tyranny of respectability, looking for new ways to think, new ways to express themselves, new ways to dress, new ways to live. Some were quite poor, others fabulously rich, and between them money circulated freely in the form of patronage and collection. Anderson funded the first issue of The Little Review in part with a friend’s pawned engagement ring. Beach kept Shakespeare and Company going through donations from heiresses who were also supporting various painters and writers, and Beach in turn opened up a spare room for the impoverished composer George Antheil, who needed a place to work. The UK serialization of Ulysses in Harriet Weaver and Dora Marsden’s little magazine The Egoist was funded through Weaver’s inheritance of her mother’s fortune, and it was her subsidizing of Joyce’s lifestyle that gave him the time to write. It was precisely their position outside of institutions and outside of social conformity that gave them the freedom to foster new ideas.

On this hundredth anniversary, we shouldn’t waste our time debating whether anyone still needs to read Ulysses, or whether Joyce is just another entitled straight white man, or whether something like Ulysses would be published today. We should instead remember how Ulysses was created in the first place and how far American culture is from recreating those same conditions today. In the same way that our conversations about the canon are backward—thinking we can reengineer a better society by reshuffling the mix of artists who get the imprimatur of genius—our attempts at cultural production are also backward. We’ve sequestered our cultural production, our critical culture, and our target audience into the university and other airless institutions, not only erasing and ignoring the work done outside of them—there is, after all, nothing new in that—but also actively trying to destroy it.

Institutions like universities and mainstream publishing are dead zones incapable of innovation; they are only able to co-opt the work of others and mass produce it. How does one expect to find something wild in a plot of feed crops constantly doused with herbicides? Even publishers that proclaim a devotion to outsider voices, whether it be Tyrant Books or Belt Publishing, mostly publish writers with advanced degrees and strong institutional ties.

Terry Eagleton tells us that literature “is an ideology. It has the most intimate relations to questions of social power.” The more interesting question isn’t who is allowed entry into this canonized space but what new ideas and forms are being allowed to proliferate and grow beyond its walls. Behind every genius is a group of crazy supporters and admirers and socialites making sure the artist is getting fed, read, inspired, and circulated. Whether we have any writers and artists capable of genius now is unclear; we won’t find out until we reestablish the communities that allow us to see them.