Homer wrote The Odyssey in Greek. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in Latin. Dante Alighieri wrote about the death of Ulysses in the Inferno, part of his Divine Comedy, written in the Italian dialect of Florence. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in … dozens of English languages. The reverberations, even in this broad list, are astonishing. They fall together like the clicking of great dominoes. All of these writers are tampering with the lives of heroes and gods, making decisions, in effect, instead of gods, and playing with our collective imagination in the process. Reaching for too much, perhaps? “Man’s reach must not exceed his grasp,” wrote Robert Browning; Joyce will later come along to say that he simply wrote “a sequentiality of improbable possibles” (Finnegan’s Wake).
It is impossible to escape Joyce while walking through Dublin: Dawson Street, Davy Byrne’s, a statue, a plaque, a bookstore’s display window, a busker.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned
--Introvibo ad altare Dei.
This is the beginning of Ulysses, where Joyce has Mulligan call out to Stephen Daedalus:
--Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit….
--The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.
So Joyce brings together priests, fathers, ancient Greek myth, religious orders, bodies and morning ablutions, and the “mild morning air” surrounding the tower…. spilling over onto just… two pages.
It’s a beautiful kind of Modernist pulling-together, an equating of all things, to say that anything we notice becomes, then, notice-able. Samuel Beckett had worked for Joyce as a secretary. He told the interviewer James Knowlson that “I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away.” Two Irish writers, finding and clinging to extremes.
Joycean excess may stem, at least in part, not only from the Modernist air the author inhaled (Pound, Stein, Eliot…) but from his reading: everything, including the Inferno (in the original Italian, in all likelihood). Dante’s journey with Virgil into Hell allows the poet to create sublime cataracts and deep sorrows, to expose sins and “fitting” punishment (think of the two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, attached through eternity: “there is no greater sorrow/ than thinking back upon a happy time in misery”) and, perhaps most importantly, re-imaginings, as in a new version of the death of Ulysses. Instead of returning home to Ithaca, Ulysses and a small band of his followers continue on their voyage, leaving behind families and lovers, travelling
…. where Hercules ordained
The boundaries not be overstepped by man.
[They sail on, then ] …. from afar
Appeared a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I ever beheld. Joy seized us straight;
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung …. so fate decreed
And over us the booming billow closed. (Canto XXVI)
Just in sight of an earthly paradise – drowned, down to the bottom of a funnel of water, instead of arriving at the peak of a mountain.
This is one of the 34 images that have inspired the artist Liam Ó Broin. Here is his Canto XXVI print, “The death of Ulysses” (my photograph):
Many of the other lithographs offer stark black and white contrasts, so this print is unusual for its colors. It struck me as stunningly beautiful because the lithograph seems to offer us both the mountain and the whirlpool in a few layered strokes, the greens and blues here simultaneously offering hope and despair.
Ó Broin’s series of lithographs respond to each canto in Dante’s Inferno, part of a projected series on the full Divine Comedy. These lithographs (singly, or in a full limited-edition book) take the inclusive nature of the works of Dante and Joyce and pare that abundance down to a spare, astonishingly stark and beautiful scene, worthy of Beckett (whose Waiting for Godot begins with the stage setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening”).
Ó Broin has selected quotations from each canto, or has interpreted for himself the essence of the vision. Here are two sample titles: from Canto X, “Heretics are people with whom we simply disagree,” and from Canto XXX, “Truth – hidden by lies, is even deeper, beneath silence.” The artist says that this series is “not intended to be an illustrative chronology,” but it certainly feels, to me, to be a thorough, and profound, re-interpretation, pulling from the original a moment that “shimmers with ambiguity” or another that “is scathing in its condemnation” or another that is, simply, “deeply personal” to the artist (all quotes are from the artist, from the brochure called “Inferno, A Journey”). Ó Broin notes that the concerns of the 14th-century Dante “people’s aspirations, hopes, concerns, the battle against injustice, poverty, ill fortune, and an evolving process of morality” and “the human pursuit of peace, contentment, love and fellowship” resonate with us now and “that continuity makes Inferno so real” (brochure). Dr. Riann Coulter notes that this is really a “collaboration” between Dante and Ó Broin. The images from each canto that Ó Broin has created pull Dante’s concerns into sharp focus, nowhere more so than in the final image, from Canto XXXIV, of Lucifer (my photograph):
This portrait comes from Dante’s difficult description of the three faces of Lucifer:
….words would fail to tell thee of my state….
I did spy
Upon his head three faces….
At every mouth his teeth a sinner clamped [Judas, Cassius and Brutus]….
[and slowly, Virgil and Dante exit until]
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.
The three-part print here seems both ghastly and gorgeous; in its very ambiguity it hints that, in seeing the vicious fate spelled out for Lucifer, Dante will be able to climb back to tell the story -- the story he has imagined for all of us – so that we can see in these three faces the stars beyond.
If you are anywhere near the Graphic Studio Gallery in Dublin, see these works, and talk with Ian Bewick at the gallery. He has much to say about the work.... See these prints if you can.....They are lovely "improbable possibles" that will stay with you.