Put us all into it

Put us all into it

In Brief

When Myles Crawford, in Aeolus, tries to interest Stephen in writing something for the press, he suggests that he could "Put us all into it." When Bloom thinks in Eumaeus of writing something for a newspaper as Philip Beaufoy has done, he thinks of presenting "a miniature cameo of the world we live in." Both journalistic moments predict the great novel that Joyce unveiled in 1922: a fiction that would give not only an encyclopedic account of human life but also a densely specific recreation of 1904 Dublin and its people. 

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Glancing with "scornful invective" at the sorts of tripe he must shepherd into print—"Foot and mouth disease!" ("All balls!"), "Great nationalist meeting in Borris-in-Ossory" ("Bulldosing the public!")—the editor asks Stephen for something bigger: "Give them something with a bite in it. Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father, Son and Holy Ghost and Jakes M'Carthy." His quotidian palaver about the Holy Trinity evokes the theological concerns that Joyce incarnated in Ulysses. Oceans of ink have been spilled on Bloom as a spiritual Father, Stephen as his consubstantial Son, and Molly as a Spirit hovering between them. Against this hyper-symbolic dimension of the novel, Crawford's words also anticipate its hyper-concrete reproduction of Dublin life. Jakes M'Carthy, an actual newspaperman, stands in for the hundreds of real people (now detailed in Vivien Igoe's The Real People of Joyce's Ulysses) that Joyce included in his novel. When Ulysses was first published, the city was reportedly abuzz with people asking one another, "Are you in it?"—a striking fulfillment of Crawford's prophecy.

As he sits across from Stephen in the cabman's shelter, Bloom is thinking of something he might write. Having discovered a kind of mental consubstantiality with Stephen (this Fatherly thought has not yet occurred to the Son), he sees the two of them sitting at the center of a galaxy of people, places, and events: "Added to which was the coincidence of meeting, discussion, dance, row, old salt, of the here today and gone tomorrow type, night loafers, the whole galaxy of events, all went to make up a miniature cameo of the world we live in, especially as the lives of the submerged tenth, viz., coalminers, divers, scavengers, etc., were very much under the microscope lately. To improve the shining hour he wondered whether he might meet with anything approaching the same luck as Mr Philip Beaufoy if taken down in writing. Suppose he were to pen something out of the common groove (as he fully intended doing) at the rate of one guinea per column, My Experiences, let us say, in a Cabman's Shelter."

The demimondains surrounding him, thinks Bloom, constitute an underrepresented slice of Dublin life which readers might like to hear about. And the cabstand might serve as the setting for a short fiction suggesting that these people are representative of something larger. Scaled up, this modest literary ambition would produce Ulysses, which represents the gritty particulars of an impoverished colonial capital and finds enduring realities of the human condition in the lives lived there. Ulysses is no "cameo," though. It is a microcosm of "the world we live in": a compendious demonstration that even the smallest, lowest, and most ordinary particulars of human experience encode cosmic truths.

Much American criticism has minimized the importance of the novel's representation of Dublin people and places, an approach which must never have made much sense to Dubliners. One American writer who bucked that trend early on, pointed out to me in a personal communication by Vincent Altman O'Connor, was Joseph Frank, the Dostoevsky biographer who was also a daring critical theorist influenced by Russian formalism. In Spatial Form in Modern Literature (1945) Frank argued that Joyce imagined a readership of Dubliners who would be thoroughly familiar with the people, places, and histories mentioned in Ulysses. Tossing out mere mentions of these particulars across hundreds of pages, the author expected readers to supply all the missing information, place the various pieces in context, and thereby contemplate the collective life of Dublin "spatially," i.e. synchronically.

For natives the task is relatively easy, since for them Dublin is already a single, organic entity. Relatively easy: the people of the book are now gone, the history more distant, and countless buildings demolished. Strangers must work much harder still to know Dublin, in the same way that they gain familiarity with all of Joyce's other unifying constructions: laboriously, piece by piece, with little sense at the outset that the totality could ever be held in mind simultaneously: "unless one is a Dubliner, such knowledge can be obtained only after the book has been read and all the references fitted into their proper place and grasped as a unity." Frank remarks that "Although the burdens placed on the reader by this method of composition may seem insuperable, the fact remains that Joyce, in his unbelievably laborious fragmentation of narrative structure, proceeded on the assumption that a unified spatial apprehension of his work would ultimately be possible."

The end product, ideally, is "a sense of Dublin as a totality, including all the relations of the characters to one another and all the events which enter their consciousness." After multiple explorations of the city represented in Ulysses (Frank perceptively noted that "Joyce cannot be read—he can only be re-read"), one can almost be said "to become a Dubliner. For this is what Joyce demands; that the reader have at hand the same instinctive knowledge of Dublin life, the same sense of Dublin as a huge, surrounding organism, which the Dubliner possesses as a birthright."

JH 2020
A Bird's Eye View of Dublin, drawn in 1890 by W. H. Brewer and first published in the Illustrated London News. Source: jamartprints.com.
Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form in Modern Literature (1945). Source: www.goodreads.com.