Bending Instead of Queering Ulysses: A Gay Male Reading of James Joyce’s Novel

For Bloomsday, June 16th, which celebrates the life of James Joyce and his novel, Ulysses, I wanted to add my ideas to the celebration and discussion. Here is the introduction from my (non-published) essay, “Bending Instead of Queering Ulysses: A Gay Male Reading of James Joyce’s Novel”:

Part One: Introducing a Different Way of Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” --Immanual Kant

Gay Male Perspective as Theoretical Framework: A Political Act of Reading Literature

Can Molly Bloom be viewed as a gay man’s diva? Can Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dadelus’ friendship be viewed as a gay daddy-son relationship? Can Leopold Bloom be viewed as the bisexual counterpart to the homosexual D.B. Murphy? Can quintessential stereotypes of gay male culture be used in positive ways to interpret aspects of James Joyces’ Ulysses? Can a gay male reader use his imagination when reading any work of literature, whether gay or straight literature, in order to visualize his own existence and self-worth? Yes! To all these questions.

What is most important for me is that I show that a text, such as Ulysses, which has not been viewed as a “gay” text by critics and scholars, can be empowering to gay readers who need to see their lives and sensibilities—and same-sex desires, fantasies, and love—in all aspects of culture, society, and daily life. This is a political act of reading. Like the journeys throughout Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, I imagine this essay to be my journey as I try to read and understand the novel with my own identities, sensibilities, and perspectives. Obviously, this essay does not provide an exhaustive gay male interpretation of Ulysses. This is not an exhaustive journey of how one gay man reads Joyce’s classic novel.

So, with Kant’s words in mind, I wish to introduce the purpose of my essay, which will be to perform a “gay male” close reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, instead of a “queer” reading. Two of my identities—gay/sexuality and male/gender—will be used to analyze and interpret the “gay” or “bent” aspects of the novel. I consider my goal to be a gay-male reader-response theoretical application on to the text, and reaction to the text. As Louise Rosenblatt argued, in her influential work, Literature as Exploration: “the reading of any work of literature is, of necessity, an individual and unique occurrence involving the mind and emotions of some particular reader and a particular text at a particular time under particular circumstances” (6). And with my gay (or non-post-structural queer), lavender or pink, and bent, crooked, skewed mind, body, eyes, lens, perspective, sensibility, observations, and experiences, I will explain my personal reasons, desires, and passion for my research, argument, and analysis. In his book, Interviewing as Qualitative Research, Irving Seidman writes that “Research, like almost everything else in life, has autobiographical roots” (24). He also states that “a researcher must have some passion about his or her subject” and that a researcher “needs to understand and affirm his or her interest in order to build on the energy that can come from it” (24-25). The research and analysis that I will present in this essay is rooted in my own life—my own observations and experiences as a self-identified, out gay man. My arguments and analyses that I present in this essay are interpretive and imaginative. I do not mean to suggest that Joyce meant to include gay themes in his novel, or that any of the gay aspects that I notice are based on scientific facts.

Trying to Do Something New or Different: Bending Instead of Queering the Text

Ezra Pound’s famous statement: “Make it new!” It is the slogan of Modernism. And after Modernism and Post-Modernism, I am not sure that anyone can make anything new. It seems like everything has already been said and written about James Joyce and his Ulysses. I do not know if I can contribute anything new to the study of the novel. But if not new or fresh, then I hope to bring a different perspective to the reading of the canonical modernist text.

I read the essays in Quare Joyce, edited by Joseph Valente; the 1994 special issue of the James Joyce Quarterly, with the theme and title of “Joyce and Homosexuality,” which was also edited by Joseph Valente; and “Ulysses” in Critical Perspective, edited by Michael Patrick Gillespie and A. Nicholas Fargnoli. My epiphany occurred while reading Joseph Valente’s essay—in his own book and in Gillespie and Fargnoli’s book— “Ulysses and Queer Theory: A Continuing History” (88-113). I realized that Valente uses a postmodern poststructuralist queer theory to analyze a modern text, Ulysses, which is fine, as I will use a postmodern approach of interpreting the text with my own identities. However, I disagree with Valente’s approach because he places the novel in a vacuum and erases all identities and sensibilities from reading it. He makes errors and assumptions about queer theory and the text. He reveals his limitations with queer theories (yes, plural). For someone who claims to present a history of the queer theory, through which he has chosen to analyze the novel, Valente tends to be extremely subjective and biased, does not illustrate a complete history, and at times, seems ahistorical in his analysis. I disagree with many of Valente’s ideas. Therefore, I am analyzing Ulysses, using a gay man’s sensibility, through a gay man’s perspective, focusing on the discourse of modern gay studies instead of postmodern poststructuralist queer theory, doing the opposite of what Valente did, and proving his approach incorrect as he tries to fit a square peg (Ulysses) in a round hole (queer theory)—or vice versa. The puzzle pieces simple do not fit when they are the wrong shapes, and simply trying to queer Ulysses for the sake of queering it and showing its normative and non-normative aspects does not make much sense.

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