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Ulysses by Numbers: Cracking the code of James Joyce’s masterpiece

There are almost 30,000 unique words in ‘Ulysses’, JP O’Malley discovers in a new book that aims to use maths to deconstruct the literary enigma

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Puzzle: James Joyce said that Ulysses would keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant

Puzzle: James Joyce said that Ulysses would keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant

Puzzle: James Joyce said that Ulysses would keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant

James Joyce began writing Ulysses in 1914. The novel was initially published as 23 instalments that appeared between 1918–20 in The Little Review, a Chicago-based magazine. That serialisation was discontinued when obscenity charges were put against the avant-garde publication. They fought and lost the trial in New York. Nevertheless, Ulysses was completed in 1921 and 1,000 copies were first published in 1922 under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company: a Parisian bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate.

Beach was a member of Joyce’s inner literary circle who received a cryptic document now known in Joycean forensics as the schema. It contained a column explaining the Homeric titles for the novel’s 18 episodes. In September 1920, Joyce sent his Italian friend and translator Carlo Linati the schema with an accompanying note. It read: “[My damned monster-novel] is about the epic of two races (Israel-Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life).”

Jacques Benoist-Méchin was another recipient of the schema. He was given the task of translating ‘Penelope’— the final episode of Joyce’s novel — for an event organised by Beach in Paris in December 1921. Overwhelmed by his translating duties, the French writer and composer requested to see the annotated guide for reading Ulysses. Joyce initially only supplied part of it. “If I give it all up immediately, I’d lose my immortality,” the author explained in the playful correspondence to Benoist-Méchin. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles,” Joyce went on “that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

Ulysses by Numbers is a book that Joyce’s insatiable ego would most certainly have approved of.

We learn that Ulysses contains 260,430 words — 29,899 of them unique. The word ‘yes’ appears 359 times: 91 of these arriving in Molly Bloom’s closing monologue. The data-heavy computational critical theory that Eric Bulson applies here treats numbers as both empirical facts of reason and mystical symbols of revelation. The professor of English at Claremont Graduate University claims a good starting point to look for mythological and etymological meaning in Joyce’s novel is the title: U+L+Y+S+S+E+S=7.

7 Eccles Street is home to the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom. Seven is also the number of years Joyce spent writing the book in Trieste, Zurich and Paris respectively. The interplay between numbers and words in Ulysses is an idea Joyce borrowed from two of the cultures he was most familiar with: Greek and Hebrew. Bulson places Joyce’s novel within the wider pantheon of those two literary traditions.

The Pythagoreans believed numbers possessed all reason, opinion and harmony in the universe, but the Greek influence in Ulysses doesn’t stop there. The Latin variant of Odysseus is Ulysses.

This is important because Joyce based the entire foundational and mythological structure of Ulysses on The Odyssey: Homer’s epic Greek poem that recalls Odysseus’s return journey from the Trojan War to his wife Penelope in Ithaca. In Joyce’s mock parallel tale, Odysseus becomes the novel’s central anti-hero, Leopold Bloom: a Jewish advertising canvasser who solicits commissions from small businesses for Dublin newspapers.

Bloom’s very ordinary unheroic voyage across his native city is condensed into a single day, June 16, 1904, and largely consists of him walking, talking, eating, thinking, drinking, farting and masturbating.

Bloom is married to the voluptuous and unfaithful amateur opera singer, Molly. She becomes Penelope. The novel’s third main character is Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego. He also happens to be the central figure of Joyce’s semi-autobiographic debut novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Ulysses, Stephen is mythologised into Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope.

The father and son relationship between Stephen and Bloom carries significant spiritual and philosophical meaning, but no biological connection between both characters is implied.

The Hebrew influence on Joyce’s work was equally as important as the Greek. Kabbalistic scholars believed the hidden meaning of a text lay trapped in a complex esoteric code that revealed the secret knowledge of the universe. That Joyce specifically chose 18 episodes for Ulysses is no coincidence. In “Jewish mysticism, 18 corresponds with the value of letters in the Hebrew word for life (chet + yud = chai,” Bulson notes). Bloom’s Odyssean journeyings across Dublin are shadowed by the legend of the Wandering Jew: punished for taunting Jesus on his way to the crucifixion by being cursed to wander the Earth until the Second Coming.

Nearly a century after it was first published, Ulysses still stands as the apotheosis of high modernism and a revolutionary moment in the history of western literature. But can the daring literary experiment be deconstructed like a complex mathematical equation? This intriguing book makes a convincing case that, yes, it is possible.

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Ulysses by Numbers by Eric Bulson

Ulysses by Numbers by Eric Bulson

Ulysses by Numbers by Eric Bulson

Non-fiction: Ulysses by Numbers, by Eric Bulson
Columbia University Press 288 pages, paperback, €26.50; e-book £21.39

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