Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

May 31–June 7, 2001


They’re on an Odyssey

For these avid readers, James Joyce’s Ulysses is a lifetime project.


Joyce brothers: Rosenbach Museum & Library Director Derick Dreher and discussion leader Michael Barsanti share their fascination with the great Irish novelist.

The British soldiers who knock down Stephen Dedalus act at least partly on motives growing out of the tangled past of Britain and Ireland. No one in Vicki Mahaffey’s reading group doubts this.

But there is much more going on in the 15th chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses than a British/Irish feud. The eight men and women sitting in a faintly musty study in the Rosenbach Museum and Library on a Wednesday night just don’t agree on what. No two members of the group come to the "Circe" chapter from the same angle.

"Everyone discusses the chapter, but without really getting into Homeric allusion," says Evan Turner, former director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pointing to imagery of a cracked mirror, he says it’s clear the chapter is not just about Irish/ British opposition. "What Joyce is doing with mirrors has to do with an Odyssey parallel."

For physician Perry Ottenberg, the mirror passages are about "different images of the human being." He’s reminded of Nabokov; the characters of Dedalus and Leopold Bloom start to fuse, in a Nabokovian way, into one person.

Michael Dishler, an acupuncturist, has read Joyce critics like Hugh Kenner and Richard Ellmann; to him, the imagery raises questions of perception and illusion. "Are you Michael, or are you a projection of me?" Mahaffey says, expanding on his point.

It is no surprise that different readers voice many different views of a novel that has perplexed readers since it first came out more than eight decades ago. Nor is it surprising to hear thoughtful comments on Ulysses at the Rosenbach, which has been home to the manuscript of the novel since A.S.W. Rosenbach bought it at an auction for $1,975 in 1924. Members of the museum staff set up readings at the star-studded Bloomsday ceremonies that take place every June 16.

But for many, the novel demands attention on more than just one day out of the year. Discussion groups led by Penn scholars Mahaffey, an English professor, and Michael Barsanti, a doctoral candidate, meet monthly at the museum. For all kinds of reasons, personal, intellectual or both, the participants find themselves so drawn to Ulysses that they are willing to spend hours of their everyday lives trying to see through the mist of its wordplay and figure it out.

For some Ulysses fans, the novel just gets their Irish up. Barsanti says that many of his students are Irish-American and identify with the patriotic tensions suggested in the text. For instance, in the second chapter, "Nestor," Stephen talks about Irish issues and the cause of freedom to the shady Mr. Deasy, who calls Stephen a Fenian (after the Fenian Brotherhood, a failed and quixotic IRA predecessor founded in 1858), a nasty thing to say to someone who cares about the Irish. Deasy is one of a gallery of people — others being Haines and Privates Carr and Compton — who, Barsanti says, affirm the anti-British and pro-Irish views of some of the readers in his class.

In the last 10 to 15 years, Mahaffey says, interest in the politics of Joyce and of Ulysses has shot up. (She recalls that when she first began reading Joyce in high school, people saw him as an apolitical modernist, and saw any political content in his work as incidental.) But the primary attraction of Ulysses is the sense, says Barsanti, that the novel — named the best of the 20th century in a 1998 poll — is a core part of a modern education.

"Many writers have been influenced by Joyce," Drew Giorgi reminds us, suggesting William Gaddis and Don DeLillo as examples. Giorgi, a fiction writer and a teacher at Mount St. Joseph Academy, is one of the younger readers in a group ranging from 30- to 80-year-olds. He’s growing more interested in the Irish political subtext as a result of the Rosenbach classes he attends, which he says are casting light on a novel he first read as a grad student in night classes at the College of New Jersey. Lucy Hackney, the wife of the chairman of the Rosenbach board of directors, values the chance to study the novel in depth.

Fred Mogul, a producer at WHYY who is working on a radio documentary about one of the reading groups, says that it offers him a chance to go back to school, in a sense, and on his own terms. To him, the novel is "a literary Everest," and a reader needs to take it in at his or her own pace, not in a few weeks, as is the lot of some college students. The rewards of getting to the top are greater this way.

For Perry Ottenberg, the classes satisfy a mix of intellectual and personal interests that began many years ago. His interest in Nabokov dates back to his years as a Harvard med student in the 1950s, when he unwittingly received an unexpectedly intimate exposure to the Russian novelist: Nabokov, at Harvard lecturing on Joyce and other topics, wound up undergoing a fluoroscopy in Ottenberg’s operating room. (Ottenberg managed to reach around the x-ray gear and shake his hand while literally looking through him.)


The doctor is still very much under the influence of Nabokov’s teachings on Joyce. Just as Nabokov had a deep interest in the classical subjects of Telemachus and The Odyssey, and how they echo in literature and history, so Ottenberg has been exploring these topics as they appear in the pages of Joyce.

Eager to explore questions of how to interpret Joyce’s words, members of the reading groups urgently want to know exactly what he wrote. In some cases, the ongoing question of narrative voice — who is saying what and where the switch from one voice to another takes place — grows a bit less murky when the bits of dialogue appear in the text as Joyce meant them to appear.

Barsanti has helped make readers aware of how the Rosenbach document, and the 1984 Gabler edition of Ulysses which purports to follow it word for word, are more correct than other versions of the novel. Thanks to the many ways in which it differs from some editions of Ulysses, the Rosenbach manuscript has been at the heart of furors over what Joyce himself meant to appear in print.

For example, Barsanti says, there is the scene in Chapter 15 where Stephen Dedalus asks his mother what emotion all men know. The answer is love, and it is Stephen himself who gave the reply in a past chapter, when talking to a man in Dublin’s main library. But the line where Stephen speaks of love comes from the Rosenbach manuscript; it didn’t make it into all editions of the book. In editions where it’s absent, says Barsanti, the scene in Chapter 15 reads quite differently. When Stephen asks his mother a question he’s already answered a few chapters ago, the question does not strike the reader the same way it would if Stephen truly seemed not to know the answer.

Sometimes, though, even with the correct version of Ulysses in hand, a reader can still get lost among all the allusions, neologisms and multilingual puns. That’s when it helps to have a guide like Mahaffey. Showing how Joyce uses words with multiple meanings to represent unconscious points of awareness, she points to the similarity between the French words for sea (mer) and mother (mére). She notes that this parallel may help the reader to understand why Stephen Dedalus is equally afraid of drowning and of his mother, who figures prominently in his bad dreams.

With Mahaffey and Barsati at the helm, members of the Rosenbach discussion groups are in no danger of drowning in the roiling seas of Joycean prose. More often, they’re surfing joyously, ever alert to new insights, fresh connections, well-chosen words — the quality in Joyce’s work that none other than Nabokov referred to as "the demon’s flash of gaiety."

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