Ulysses at 100: Have we lost in faith modernist man?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London


James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in Paris on 2 February 1922. At the time, it was seen as the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature. It was the novel of modernism – an artistic period that was the break between the nineteenth century and the bridge to the barbarism of the 1930s.

What was the modernist man? Above all, he embraced freedom – he dared to know. He was free of the social conformities, the conventional morality, the control over human feelings that he saw as part of nineteenth-century European culture. The modernist man was in the search for truth about himself. There was no communication with others – every human being was imprisoned by a unique consciousness understood only by themselves. In the early twentieth century, the disregard for the old and the investigation of the new and the self was explosive and created different ways of looking and exploring man.

TS Eliot wrote in The Wasteland: ‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this, and only this, we have existed.’ Is this the only thing that gives us meaning?

But did Ulysses burn all before it? Did the modernists’ agenda of critiquing and distancing themselves from every traditional idea that had been held sacred by Western civilisation mean that the post-modernist man has nothing to hold onto? What happens when the subjective is all? When the modernist agenda of no control or no connection to the past, is the mainstream not the marginal?

Mary Kenny
journalist; playwright; author, The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland since 1922 and Something of Myself – and Others; columnist, Irish Independent Magazine

Mark Ryan
company director; performer, The Godot Company; performer of one-man-monologue, Finnegans Wake; author, War and Peace in Ireland

Helen Searls
chief operating officer, Feature Story News; founder, Washington Hyenas book club; Ulysses enthusiast

Justin Smyth
translator; tour-guide of Joycean Dublin; head of library service, Saint John of God Research Foundation; co-founder, Dublin Salon

Jane Sandeman
chief operating officer, The Passage; convenor, AoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny