Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

Thanks to fellow blogger, Manja, for the following:

In 1932, renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote a largely critical piece for Europäische Revue on the subject of UlyssesJames Joyce‘s groundbreaking, controversial, and famously challenging novel. From Jung’s essay:

“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 monotonous 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 […] 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.”

In September of that year, Jung sent a copy of his article to Joyce along with the following fascinating letter.

Dear Sir,

Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well, I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

C. G. Jung


Gary to Manja:

Thanks, Manja, for that gem of cultural history. I often hear lavish praise or contemptuous disregard or sheer mystification from readers of Ulysses, but Jung captures the comprehensive experience best of all. The frustration, the admiration, the resentment toward Joyce, the moments of humorous tit-for-tat between reader and text – this is remarkably close to my own experience with Ulysses. And despite my large range of reactions, like Jung I feel the dominant one is that I have been fooled or defeated. For a more unambiguously satisfying experience with that modernist stream-of-consciousness style, I prefer Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I think it is the most successful expression of that style/period and one of the four of five best novels ever written in English. It unfolds into a wonderfully rich modernist novel without the maturbatory antics or readerly frustrations of Joyce’s prose. It too is a difficult novel, but while reading To the Lighthouse, I never once doubted that the difficulty was worth it. With Ulysses, I’m still not sure it was worth it.


9 thoughts on “Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

  1. Thanks Gary and Manja. I think the key to appreciating Ulysses is that it’s not a novel, if by novel we understand a complex narrative with a plot that unravels from the first page and culminates on the last. Because it’s not a novel the reader doesn’t have to read it from A to Z and this is the liberating secret of Ulysses. I prefer to see Ulysses like the Bible and who would think they had to read the Bible from Alpha to Omega in order to understand it. Of course we all think we must try at one stage (I mean Ulysses, not the Bible) and I’m sure Joyce would have wanted us to try… and yes, Ulysses must be the most hated book of all time… but hate it or love it, it’s out there, just as Kant and Warhol are out there, and we have to deal with them. Perhaps that is the sign of true artistic success, when the artist is able to put a very hard to digest plate on the Ideal World banquet table that, from the mere fact that it is there, will have to be endured by all conoisseurs who come afterwards, if they are going to truly be able to call themselves conoisseurs. One question to ask might be: were the artistic conoisseurs who died before Ulysses was published blessed or underprivileged?


    • Thanks, Paul. Tough call on blessed or underprivileged. I guess, grudgingly, it’s “underprivileged.” I’ll try reading Ulysses as a non-novel next time. I read the Bible alpha to omega a couple of times, too, and find the reading experience of the Old Testament akin to the slow build-up of chronic pain, whereas reading Ulysses felt page-for-page like acute pain. All kidding aside, both remarkable books that expanded my horizons. Still, reading Woolf was more of a pleasure than a pain, so I may re-read To the Lighthouse (as I do every 5 or 6 years) in prepping for Joyce.


  2. Pingback: Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners | shakemyheadhollow

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