Atheism, Poststructuralism and Ulysses

February 18, 2010

James Joyce

The following quote does well to sum up one of the many reasons why James Joyce’s Ulysses is my favorite book:

Ulysses, published in 1922, marked a departure from the 19th-century novel. In its account of a day in Dublin, the novel depicts events, but largely ignores plot and suspense – the conventional realist structure, in other words, of enigma leading to final disclosure. As an alternative, Ulysses offers dazzling wordplay and the pleasure of unexpected formulations, explicitly displaying language as a succession of games in which the main opponent is convention itself. Nor does Ulysses much resemble Homer’s Odyssey, the work it continually alludes to and parodies: the brilliance of Joyce’s ironic reinscription of the epic depends on that difference. Ulysses is overtly, jubilantly textual and intertextual. Its pleasures reside in the signifier, not in an imagined space on the other side of the writing.

Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey, (103)

In reading this little volume, I’ve come to a strange understanding of why I like poststructuralism so damn much: it corresponds very well with my worldview. I am an atheist, but not a dogmatic or an angry one. I’m not an atheist because religion has done something to piss me off, or because I think science offers truth. Deep down, I just don’t think there is such a thing as truth.

This notion may seem depressing to you, but it’s strangely very freeing to me. I just don’t think there’s any meaning to our lives, at least not in the overarching metanarrative sort of way. I take comfort in the idea of chaos, that the universe is just a mindless gathering of energies unmotivated by any unifying principle. I love the fact that we make our own meanings, that we have to in order to survive. It’s what makes us human, to me.

And I’ve come to realize that Ulysses reaffirms this strange belief in me. When I first read it, I was not yet at peace with this strange philosophy. I was furious with the text for being so purposefully obtuse. I felt like Joyce was laughing at me from between the words, at my futile attempts to wrest meaning from his book. As soon as I finished it, I declared it the most hated book in existence and cursed it any chance I was given.

But something kept drawing me back to it. The second time I read it, in England, something had clicked into place in my mind. Maybe it was reading Ulysses that helped me get there, I’m not sure. But I learned to read the book for what it was, not what I thought it should be. I realized suddenly that trying to interpret Ulysses, trying to arrange its words into pattern of order, is doing a violence to its very nature. I’m not saying you can’t find meaning in Ulysses, as I certainly have. But that there is no central meaning, no metanarrative that offers a final truth. Ulysses is like life, I realized. It’s not meant to be understood, but experienced.


12 Responses to “Atheism, Poststructuralism and Ulysses”

  1. Bill Smith Says:

    I love you and I love the way you write. Your literary voice is clearer and stronger than most anyone’s that I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of Vonnegut. Keep writing, kiddo! The more you write, the clearer and stronger you become.

  2. Madison McClendon Says:

    Have you considered ordained ministry?

    • oddrid Says:

      Hahaha well the thing about atheists is that so many of them are dickwads. People would just want me to talk about how evil the Church is and how enlightened we are.

  3. Hannah Says:

    I think it is odd that not many people ever talk about the freeing experience of atheism. It is assumed you are an atheist because of some anger at religion. When it really doesn’t have to be that.

    • oddrid Says:

      Yeah, and I mean, that impression does come from somewhere. There are a lot of angry and elitist atheists out there. A lot of my calm comes from having such good friends that are theists. I don’t feel animosity towards their beliefs at all. Just, whatever gives you peace.

  4. Sighter Goliant Says:

    Hey friend just fyi it is now Feb. 23 and I’m still waiting for your next thoughts kthxbai plz don’t approve this comment it is gadflyish

    • Sighter Goliant Says:

      Dang I am on auto-approve now.

    • oddrid Says:


      My b man I have been slacking in my reading so I don’t have anything to talk about. Tomorrow though I promise I will have something to talk about, probably very boring.

  5. Kaci Ksiazek Says:

    Though I would’ve loved it much more if you added a relevant video or at least pictures to back up the explanation, I still thought that your write-up quite helpful. It’s usually hard to make a complicated matter seem very easy. I enjoy your weblog and will sign up to your feed so I will not miss anything. Fantastic content

  6. Inez Breden Says:

    Completely understand what your stance in this matter. Although I would disagree on some of the finer details, I think you did an awesome job explaining it. Sure beats having to research it on my own. Thanks

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