What would a Morrisian analysis of Joyce’s great novel look like? Morris’s last public talk was given to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, so perhaps he wouldn’t have been wholly sympathetic to Joyce’s hero, the advertising canvasser Leopold Bloom. On the other hand he might have enjoyed the novel's utopian dimension, with its vision of the ‘new Bloomusalem’, and with his own ‘robust and daring parts’ (Burne-Jones’s neat phrase) he might have relished some of its earthy rudeness too.
But a Morrisian analysis is not the same as Morris’s personal literary tastes. The former would focus on that great structural split which tears Ulysses apart right down the middle. On the one hand, we have the uniquely encyclopaedic detail of that vigorous day in Dublin, as Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and all the others go about their interlinked business. On the other hand, at some radically other level of textual and readerly attention, we have the great mythic underpinnings of the plot, the numinous archetypes embodied by it: Bloom = Odysseus; Stephen = Telemachus; Molly = Penelope.
There is no Hardyesque ‘convergence of the twain’ here. Colourful surface detail and its underlying mythic meaning, the sensory and the semantic, simply do not add up, do not in any way come together; they remain schizophrenically alternative reading modes. All the good work that Morris’s News from Nowhere did in unravelling the stark binary oppositions of capitalism – city vs country, work vs pleasure, gentleman vs artisan - is here undone. Binary opposition reasserts itself forcefully in a mode of modernism that articulates an opaque society whose immediate experience absolutely cannot grasp its underlying structural determinants.
Exuberant though it is in so many ways, Ulysses is tragic in this particular one; and its brand of structurally fissured modernism is, as it were, what you get when the Morrisian revolution does not take place. This, alas, must be the literary-critical ‘skull at the feast’ of today’s merry celebrations.