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A Rock N' Roll Ulysses Essay

4163 words - 17 pages

A Rock n' Roll Ulysses

In a letter to Carlo Linati, James Joyce wrote, "Each adventure [in Ulysses]. . . should not only condition but even create its own technique" (Dettmar, from Joyce, 143). Written nearly three decades before "long players" (phonograph record albums) were to invade the marketplace, Ulysses stylistically resembles a pop album (or the other way around). Ulysses was composed of eighteen "adventures" that created their own technique. The same principle applies to pop albums, which contain separate and distinct tracks that musically reflect the lyrical content (or parody that content). One album that is as stylistically challenging to the conventions of pop ...view middle of the document...

These stylistic modes, however, are not exclusive to postmodernism, and combinations of some of these styles exist in numerous books written prior the end of the second World War. Notable texts before this period using "postmodern" techniques include Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1767), Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and Woolf's The Waves (1934). If James Joyce's Ulysses is viewed as the crowning achievement of "high modernism," yet contains some of the stylistics of postmodernism, then what exactly is modernism?

Before comparing a "masterwork" like Ulysses to any pop album, I will concede that the pop album (in most cases) does not carry stylistic diversity or density, the philosophical and socio-political arguments, or the detailed characters that Ulysses does. There are instances where pop albums try to carry a storyline (these albums are known as concept albums). Famous examples include Tommy by the Who (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie (1972) (this title is often misapplied to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band [1967]). Since the album is a time constrained unit (the average album lasting forty-five minutes), there is not enough time to fully convey the issues dealt with in a novel, particularly Ulysses.

But stylistically, The White Album is a rock n' roll Ulysses. Just like its novelistic predecessor, The White Album expands on its prescribed genres, pop and rock n' roll, while simultaneously discarding established definitions of rock n' roll. What Ulysses and The White Album share in common as literature is their ability to tackle new genres, blend genres with ease, mock the genres they are appropriating, and advance their respective artforms by using (or abusing) the genres they handle using these tactics.

James Joyce's Ulysses is often acclaimed as a landmark text of "high modernism," as well it should be, with its exact and often brutally frank descriptions of internal thought and perception. A postmodern reading of the text (especially of the chapters that are written in Joyce's "secondary style") has been argued by some critics, but due to the novel's status as representing the peak of "high modernism" and its publication date of 1922, the postmodern reading has proven to be problematic.

In order for a new artistic movement to begin, the norms of that particular field need to be questioned, embraced and simultaneously overthrown: so for modernism to transform into postmodernism, certain shifts had to occur. The intellectually elite leanings of modernism (for instance, Eliot's use of Greek in "The Waste Land") were eschewed for an embracement of pop culture (for instance, Ginsberg's allusions to the Beatles and Bob Dylan in his poetry). Critic R. B. Kershner states, "As the poet Andrei Codrescu put it, where the modernist Pound had commanded 'Make it New,' the...

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