Carl Jung’s Delightfully Disgruntled Review of Ulysses and His Letter to James Joyce
By Maria Popova
“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!” young Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the pleasures of rereading. One of the literary canon’s least common candidates for rereading is James Joyce’s sprawling 735-page novel Ulysses, serialized in installments between 1918 and 1920, and eventually published in its totality by legendary literary steward Sylvia Beach on Joyce’s fortieth birthday: February 2, 1922. It is a book that few people begin, even fewer finish, and fewer still reread. (Marilyn Monroe did all three — a fact that might surprise the judgmental and those who subscribe to limiting beliefs about the false divide between pop culture and “high” culture.) With its protracted stream-of-consciousness narrative, which stretches a single day across 735 pages, Ulysses can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a mind longing for speed of thought.
This frustration is what led legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — founding father of modern analytical psychology, and a great champion of the human spirit — to write a blistering review of Ulysses a decade after the novel’s release, published in the German journal Europäische Revue in September of 1932. Found in the second volume of Robert Deming’s James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (public library), the review is intriguing and even irresistibly delightful — especially for me, as someone who believes that the “critic” better serves the public as a celebrator rather than eviscerator — because Jung’s disgruntlement seems directed at his own exasperation, almost as though he was more upset with his own response to reading the book than with Joyce for writing it. It is the experience that Jung criticizes — well capable of admitting Joyce’s artistic genius, he remains nonetheless amusingly aggravated by the book’s effect on him. But this strange and all too human duality is best exemplified by a curious letter Jung sent to Joyce shortly after the review was published, reproduced below.
Jung writes in his review:
Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin — a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. Is all of this perhaps one single, immensely long and excessively complicated Strindbergian pronouncement upon the essence of human life, and one which, to the reader’s dismay, is never finished? Perhaps it does touch upon the essence of life; but quite certainly it touches upon life’s ten thousand surfaces and their hundred thousand color gradations. As far as my glance reaches, there are in those seven hundred and thirty-five pages no obvious repetitions and not a single hallowed island where the long-suffering reader may come to rest. There is not a single place where he can seat himself, drunk with memories, and from which he can happily consider the stretch of the road he has covered, be it one hundred pages or even less… But no! The pitiless and uninterrupted stream rolls by, and its velocity or precipitation grows in the last forty pages till it sweeps away even the marks of punctuation. It thus gives cruelest expressions to that emptiness which is both breath taking and stifling, which is under such tension, or is so filled to bursting, as to grow unbearable. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.
Of course, this outrage over hopelessness and nothingness is only natural for a man who believed that “man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Jung, indeed, is self-aware enough to separate his deep disappointment in the book’s substance from the genius of Joyce’s style, adding a reluctant recognition of the latter:
If we regard the book from the side of technical artistry, it is a positively brilliant and hellish monster-birth.
And yet this creative merit does nothing in the way of alleviating Jung’s escalating irritation, which he goes on to articulate ever more floridly:
I had an uncle whose thinking was always to the point. One day he stopped me on the street and asked, “Do you know how the devil tortures the souls in hell?” When I said no, he declared, “He keeps them waiting.” And with that he walked away. This remark occurred to me when I was ploughing through Ulysses for the first time. Every sentence raises an expectation which is not fulfilled; finally, out of sheer resignation, you come to expect nothing any longer. Then, bit by bit, again to your horror, it dawns upon you that in all truth you have hit the nail on the head. It is actual fact that nothing happens and nothing comes of it, and yet a secret expectation at war with hopeless resignation drags the reader from page to page… You read and read and read and you pretend to understand what you read. Occasionally you drop through an air pocket into another sentence, but when once the proper degree of resignation has been reached you accustom yourself to anything. So I, too, read to page one hundred and thirty-five with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way… Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter…
But what lends Jung’s indignation and bitterness great humanity, integrity, and even sweetness is the letter he sent to Joyce on September 27, 1932 — almost immediately after the review was published. A testament to the admirable civility of letter-writing at its best, it was a missive that both irked Joyce and validated him — one of which he was reportedly rather proud.
Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.
Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.
Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.
With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,
For his part, Joyce must have appreciated the integrity of Jung’s gesture and his ability to both criticize the novel and celebrate its capacity to produce fruitful friction in the reader, thus achieving the hallmark of great art — transforming us by unsettling us. Two years later, Joyce sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.
Complement James Joyce: The Critical Heritage with Joyce’s most revealing interview, conducted by Djuna Barnes shortly after Ulysses was published, his recently discovered children’s book, and his humorous morphology of the many myths about him.
Published February 2, 2015