Jung’s Essay on Ulysses


James Joyce with Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn, ca. 1923.






Like every true prophet, the artist is the unwitting mouth-piece of the psychic secrets of his time, and is often as unconscious as a sleep walker.

Carl Jung, in his essay on Ulysses






James Joyce’s Ulysses is frequently considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It is not surprising that Jung spent considerable time trying to come to terms with the book.

In 1932 Jung wrote a long essay on it (in the Europaische Revue), which had been published 10 years earlier. One of the problems with the Web is that it doesn’t contain all the original material that Jung wrote. These are excerpts from the one article on the Web that had some quotations from this essay:

From Jung and Ulysses

…I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way. The incredible versatility of Joyce’s style has a monoto-nous and hypnotic effect. 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…”

The whole work has the character of a worm cut in half, that can grow a new head or a new tail as required…This singular and uncanny characteristic of the Joycean mind shows that his work pertains to the class of cold-blooded animals and specifically to the worm family. If worms were gifted with literary powers they would write with the sympathetic nervous system for lack of a brain. I suspect that something of this kind has happened to Joyce, that here we have a case of visceral thinking with severe restrictions of cerebral activity and its confinement to the perceptual processes….

Yes, I admit I feel have been made a fool of. The book would not meet me half way, nothing in it made the least attempt to be agreeable, and that always gives the reader an irritating sense of inferiority. Obviously, I have so much of the Philistine in my blood that I am naive enough to suppose that a book wants to tell me something, to be understood–a sad case of mythological anthropomorphism projected on to the book!…One should never rub the reader’s nose into his own stupidity, but that is just what “Ulysses” does…All those ungovernable forces that welled up in Nietzsche’s Dionysian exuberance and flooded his intellect have burst forth in undiluted form in modern man. Even the darkest passages in the second part of “Faust”, even “Zarathustra” and, indeed, “Ecce Homo”, try in one way or another to recommend themselves to the public. But it is only modern man who has succeeded in creating an art in reverse, a backside of art that makes no attempt to be ingratating, that tells us just where we get off, speaking with the same rebellious contrariness that had made itself disturbingly felt in those precursors of the moderns (not forgetting Holderlin) who had already started to topple the old ideals…

From the causal point of view Joyce is a victim of Roman Catholic authoritarianism, but considered teleologically he is a reformer who for the present is satisfied with negation, a Protestant nourished by his own protests. Atrophy of feeling is a characteristic of modern man and always shows itself as a reaction when there is too much feeling around, and in particular too much false feeling. From the lack of feeling in “Ulysses” we may infer a hideous sentimentality in the age that produced it. But are we really so sentimental today?…there is a good deal of evidence to show that we actually are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions. Think of the lamentable role of popular sentiment in wartime! Think of our so-called humanitarianism! The psychiatrist knows only too well how each of us becomes the helpless but not pitiable victim of his own sentiments. Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality..

It is therefore quite comprehensible that a prophet should arise to teach our culture a compensatory lack of feeling. Prophets are always disagreeable and usually have bad manners, but it is said they occasionally hit the nail on the head. There are, as we know, major and minor prophets, and history will decide to which of them Joyce belongs. Like every true prophet, the artist is the unwitting mouth-piece of the psychic secrets of his time, and is often as unconscious as a sleep walker…’Ulysses’ is a ‘document humain’ of our time and, what is more, it harbours a secret. It can release the spiritually bound, and its coldness can freeze all sentimentality–and even normal feeling–to the marrow. But these salutary effects do not exhaust its powers…There is life in it, and life is never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the gods nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it–detachment of consciousness is the goal that shimmers through the fog of this book. This, surely, is its real secret, the secret of a new cosmic consciousness..

Ulysses’ is the creator-god in Joyce, a true demiurge who has freed himself from entanglement in the physical and mental world and contemplates them with detached consciousness. He is for Joyce what Faust was for Goethe, or Zarathustra for Nietzsche. He is the higher self who returns to his divine home after blind entanglement in samsara. In the whole book no Ulysses appears; the book itself is Ulysses, a microcosm of James Joyce, the world of the self and the self of the world in one. Ulysses can return home only when he has turned his back on the world of mind and matter. This is surely the message underlying that sixteenth day of June, 1904, the everyday of everyman, on which persons of no importance restlessly do and say things without beginning or aim–a shadowy picture, dreamlike, infernal, sardonic, negative, ugly, devilish, but true. A picture that could give one bad dreams or induce the mood of a cosmic Ash Wednesday, such as the Creator might have felt on August 1, 1914. After the optimism of the seventh day of creation the demiurge must have found it pretty difficult in 1914 to identify himself with his handiwork…

There is so little feeling in ‘Ulysses’ that it must be very pleasing to all aesthetes. But let us assume that the consciousness of ‘Ulysses’ is not a moon but an ego that possesses judgment, understanding, and a feeling heart. Then the long road through the 18 chapters would not only hold no delights but would be a road to Calvary; and the wanderer, overcome by so much suffering and folly, would sink down at nightfall into the arms of the Great Mother who signifies the beginning and end of life. Under the cynicism of ‘Ulysses’ there is hidden a great compassion; he knows the sufferings of a world that is neither
beautiful nor good and, worse still, rolls on without hope through the eternally repeated everyday, dragging with it man’s consciousness in an idiot dance through the hours, months, years. Ulysses has dared to take the step that leads to the detachment of consciousness from the object; he has freed himself from attachment, entanglement, and delusion, and can therefore turn homeward.

“It seems to me now that all that is negative in Joyce’s work, all that is cold-blooded, bizarre and banal, grotesque and devilish, is a positive virtue for which it deserves praise. Joyce’s inexpressibly rich and myriad-faceted language unfolds itself in passages that creep along tapeworm fashion, terribly boring and monotonous, but the very boredom and monotony of it attain an epic grandeur that makes the book a ‘Mahabharata’ of the world’s futility and squalour…the truth of Tertullian’s dictum: ‘anima naturaliter christiana’. Ulysses shows himself a conscientious Antichrist and thereby proves that his Catholicism still holds together. He is not only a Christian but–still higher title to fame–a Buddhist, Shivaist, and a Gnostic .

Who is Ulysses? “Doubtless he is a symbol of what makes up the totality, the oneness, of all the single appearances…Mr. Bloom, Stephen, Mrs. Bloom, and the rest, including Mr. Joyce. Try to imagine a being who is not a mere colourless conglomerate soul composed of an indefinite number of ill-assorted and antagonistic individual souls, but consists also of houses, street-processions, churches, the Liffey, several brothels, and a crumpled note on its way to the sea–and yet possesses a perceiving and registering consciousness!. Such a monstrosity drives one to speculation, especially as one can prove nothing anyway and has to fall back on conjecture. I must confess that I suspect Ulysses of being a more comprehensive self who is the subject of all the objects on the glass slide, a being who acts as if he were Mr. Bloom or a printing shop or a crumpled note, but actually is the ‘dark hidden father’ of his specimens.

O Ulysses, you are truly a devotional book for the object-besotted, object-ridden white man! You are a spiritual exercise an ascetic discipline, an agonising ritual, an arcane procedure, eighteen alchemical alembics piled on top of one another, where amid acids, poisonous fumes, and fire and ice, the homunculus of a new, universal consciousness is distilled!…Penelope need no longer weave her never-ending garment; she now takes her ease in the gardens of the earth, for her husband is home again, all his wanderings over. A world has passed away, and is made new.

(This is the final paragraph of Ulysses)

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibralter as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”

Additional Links:

The Dionysian self: C.G. Jung’s reception of Friedrich Nietzsche

Jung: A biography

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  1. […] For all of his frustration with the book—his sense that it “always gives the reader an irritating sense of inferiority”—Jung nonetheless bestows upon it the highest praise, comparing Joyce to other prophetic European writers of earlier ages like Goethe and Nietzsche. “It seems to me now,” he writes, “that all that is negative in Joyce’s work, all that is cold-blooded, bizarre and banal, grotesque and devilish, is a positive virtue for which it deserves praise.” Ulysses is “a devotional book for the object-besotted white man,” a “spiritual exercise, an aesthetic discipline, an agonizing ritual, an arcane procedure, eighteen alchemical alembics piled on top of one another […] a world has passed away, and is made new.” He ends the essay by quoting the novel’s entire final paragraph. (Find longer excerpts of Jung’s essay here.) […]

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