June 28, 2014

Ulysses, the Sex Pistols, and the End of Everything

Reading Ulysses for the first time since I was a teenager. (I know, weird, not to say crazy, thing to do.)

In high school the flash and gimmickry and Tristram Shandyness loomed far larger for me, and I suppose I was more impressed with what seemed like absurdity and obscurity for its own sake. It was in the same spirit that I used to pseudo-proselytize, with a smirk, things like Exercices de Style or that guy who shot himself in the arm and called it a sculpture.

Then in college I read it as primarily an ironic commentary on the Odyssey -- which it is, of course -- smugly feeling I had decoded all there was to decode in it, the original smirk having endured and deepened.

Now that I'm generally less impressed with myself, it seems I'm a bit less impressed with it, too, while I (probably) admire it more. It turns out you can just pick Ulysses up and read it as you would an ordinary novel. And it is of course genuinely impressive that it can be all those things at once. But it is undeniable that its comparative ordinariness, as I experience it now, diminishes it somewhat.

One absurd comparison that springs to mind is the difference between hearing the Sex Pistols in 1977, when I was 13 and it sounded like the destruction and end of everything, vs. now, when you put on the record and it sounds like just another rock band.

It was always just another rock band, and it was always just another novel, too. But that naivety that allowed me to celebrate the end of everything ironically but, in another sense, without irony -- that was precious and I wish I could get it back sometimes.

Posted by Dr. Frank at June 28, 2014 08:04 PM