Modernism #6: How important was James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses?


James Joyce

Very, Ulysses is the ultimate Modernist novel and Eliot’s quote comes in a review of it. To Eliot,Ulysses had the importance of a scientific discovery. Itisa retelling of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, but in it the sweep, romance and adventurousness of Homer are replaced by the extended description of an average man walking around Dublin over one day, doing fairly unexciting things (he goes shopping; he goes to the pub; he has a bath). It is an epic of the everyday; it is a corruption of an old form (the epic poem) and a retelling of myth (The Odyssey) which conveys a modern understanding of the world.

But Eliot might as well have been talking about his own poem, “The Waste Land” – the ultimate Modernist poem – which was also published in 1922 (a remarkable year: perhaps the high point of Modernism). “The Waste Land” isanother retelling of a myth: the “Holy Grail” myth. It is a collage of different voices; a patchwork of literary and religious allusions, made up of fragments and shards, with no coherence and no solid core. Thus it, too, breaks the mould and creates a new one from the pieces – a mould that embodies what Eliot thought of as a chaotic cultural wasteland being ushered in by the increasingly secular, mass-produced and politically precarious society of the early 20thcentury.

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