James Joyce's Ulysses: 'Obscene, Lewd, and Lascivious'

Monday, June 16, 2014

The book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was once illegal to own, sell, advertise or purchase in most of the English-speaking world. James Joyce’s Ulysses ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel forever, but when it was first published, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned it as “obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” Literary historian Kevin Birmingham tells the story of Ulysses, from Joyce’s initial inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses recounts how Joyce and some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win the freedom to publish Ulysses.


Kevin Birmingham

Comments [14]

Ed from Larchmont

The first video on T.S. Eliot was OK, hard to say he was anti-Semitic from that so much. And in 'The Waste Land' one of the four characters is Gertrude Stein, a Jewish woman.

Jun. 19 2014 10:44 AM
Ed from Larchmont

With T.S. Eliot it might also be like Shakespeare and Richard III - did Shakespeare present Richard III as he thought he was, or as popular opinion viewed him? So with Jewish people, was T.S. Eliot describing a popular view, to be held up to be seen?

Jun. 18 2014 08:56 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Thanks also for the pieces on T.S. Eliot and anti-Semitism. We are all sinners. But he was clearly in no way arguing for the ill-treatment of Jewish people in any way.

Jun. 18 2014 08:26 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Thanks for the stories on abuse of children in Ireland. Ireland has a streak of Jansenism (hatred of the body) in it, puritanical, so it's was hard on sexual sin, and hard on children born out of wedlock, but at least the sisters were there to take them in and give some help. The other charges are being investigated.

One thing about Joyce, though, he didn't say he left Catholicism because he loved God, just was dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, he said he hated God, and as a result hated the Church, no matter what it did, as a result.

Jun. 18 2014 08:17 AM

Read it & weep, Ed, if you've got any soul:

Jun. 16 2014 01:39 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Ed from Larchmont -- Eliot's anti-Semitic opinions have been well-known for quite some time. Here's a bit of info:

Jun. 16 2014 01:29 PM

Joyce smelled the coffee...

Jun. 16 2014 01:22 PM

Jun. 16 2014 01:19 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Joyce's language becomes more and more difficult, involved. He aims, to me, for the richest and densest possible language - as in Finnegans Wake, but even the richest language can't satisfy the human heart.

Jun. 16 2014 01:08 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Was this happening before the "redeeming social content" standard was used? Either way, did Judge Woolsey's decision to read the whole book have anything to do w/that standard?

OK, Mr. Birmingham just answered that--thanks!

Jun. 16 2014 12:56 PM
Ed from Larchmont

That Eliot is anti-Semitic is hard to believe, I'd like to see the case on that.
Eliot seems to dislike Joyce mostly.

Jun. 16 2014 12:54 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Ed from Larchmont -- James Joyce was a loving father. Padre Pio was a child molester. That's all I have to say about that.

Jun. 16 2014 12:50 PM
May from Brooklyn

Also scandalous was how Joyce used drastically different narrative techniques in the 18 episodes. While one is written almost as a play, another resembles an interrogation and the last other is a punctuation-less soliloquy.

Jun. 16 2014 12:48 PM
Ed from Larchmont

'Ulysses' was banned for a time, but it is much worse than obscene in spots, it is blasphemous, in the legitimate sense, which is worse, but not illegal. It is a conscious and deliberate attack on God. Joyce had been a devout Catholic but at about 20, of his own free will and for no specific reason, tempted by pride it seems, he chose the priesthood of art, instead of the priesthood of God, and he turned himself over to sin. The moment of choice is well described in 'Portrait', and one can't help seeing the influence of evil. ('I will see if I can see...') he says after his fateful choice.

'Ulysses' is one long scourging of Jesus, starting out with 'Pleasingly Plump', mocking the penitential practices of the Church, and ending with 'Yes ...', mocking Mary's 'yes', for Joyce it is yes to the 'sweets of sin'.

At the same time, one sees Joyce's style changing, different and more mature with each book. God doesn't take away one's talents. And he could mock God because he knew so much about Catholicism.

One can learn lots about Catholicism from 'Ulysses', without seeing it from the Catholic view much of it wouldn't make sense. One larger context is the Odyssey, but another is the Bible - he intends it as a kind of replacement Bible, fulfilling his program set out at the end of 'Portrait' to marshal an army of priests of art and enemies of God, where Leopold Bloom is the people of Israel (why he had to be Jewish, of course). And it's also the Life of Jesus (mocked), so Bloom had to be Jewish. In this Life of Christ the father and son, Bloom and Stephen, do not end up together. Blasphemous.

It contrasts with T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land, which has the large contexts of the story of the Bible (of salvation history) and of the Life of Christ, but here is not a replacement, but a paean (sp.?), an homage, a junior Bible that helps one read the Bible.

I agree with Virginia Woolf's assessment of Ulysses - a boring book, which is the result of sin - sin is boring. They interviewed Joyce's sister, a nun in Australia, in the 1980s and she said she didn't understand what happened to him after high school, he had been such a good student and person. The interviewer asked her if she had read his books and she said no, and had no interest in doing so.

The phrase of Jesus that to me applies to Joyce is 'What profits a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?' Joyce sought the whole world indeed.

St. Padre Pio is associated with June 16th in the Church, lets hope his intercession leads Joyce's last words 'that all might be good' to be accepted as penance for an unnecessary bad choice.

Jun. 16 2014 08:30 AM

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