This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography.  The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.

What do you do if you yearn to belong to your city of origin but also feel threatened and suffocated by it? One response is to write about the place critically. Describe it as a place of deadening limitation, spiritual death even, somewhere any sensitive intellectual would have to abandon. But write also, with an insistence, a passionate attention to detail, and with an ambition to transform the built environment into the lyrical, such as to create an atmosphere of intense attachment and nostalgia.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is certainly all this – his utilisation of the city of Dublin as the setting for Leopold Bloom’s journey of self-discovery is steeped in nostalgia. Joyce had long left Dublin by the time he wrote Ulysses and his reconstruction of the city was entirely created through memory and recollection, not just from himself but also through his intensive questioning of family members who had stayed behind.

Imagination,’ Joyce said once, ‘is memory.’ And while this is, in a sense, true – since fantasy’s raw material must consist of what we know, our wildest dreams have recognisable components – it is also true that, for an exile, memory can be vexed and problematic. Time stops, for the remembering expatriate, and the past becomes his native land. Strangely frozen, it can only be challenged in the imagination.

As Dante in his exile challenged his past by using Christian myth to suppress time and give his enemies hell, Joyce, too, suppressed time by making Ulysses happen in a single day. Dante was a political exile who yearned to go home: Joyce, who exiled himself, chose not to. What they have in common is that both focused their energies in art, where memory’s poison can become its cure.

What, though, about more ordinary exiles? The less genial millions who are less focused on the past? What happens to their remembering imagination and imaginative memories? The story in Ulysses tells of how a man travels to ‘re-find’ himself, after cruel mistreatment in his homeland leads him to sinful self-enclosure. His remedy involves an ‘exploration of the entire cultural world’.

The underlying idea is that immersion in this world is central to a process of recovery, which can place a person’s individual existence within a wider system of value. In that attempt, the exile also recovers the sights, sounds, and textures of the lost but beloved city, which is somehow redeemed by its inclusion in the healing narrative. This healing narrative asks the same question: how does one live? This is a question examined all the way through ‘modern culture’, beginning with the Odyssey, through the New Testament, the Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s most celebrated works.

Joyce’s novel reconstructs not just the city in modern terms but uses the metropolis as a prism to refract the journey of Homer’s Odyssey through the wanderings of Leopold Bloom on Bloomsday: June 16, 1904. In the Odyssey, Homer presented the hero’s voyage as the journey of a soul in the process of discovering itself. In the New Testament, Jesus said that such a person in formation would have to leave father, mother and family in the act of individuation, knowing the sadness of exile before the joy of a renewed community. In the Divine Comedy, Dante demonstrated the path back from depression to serenity. In Hamlet, Shakespeare showed how a special providence shaped human ends despite the accidents which frustrate us. These are all works of wisdom literature, and Joyce places his own work in this series of texts; which teach people how to live through the medium of the journey.

The way out of hell, as Dante observed, lies at its dead centre, an aphorism fitting of the character Stephen Dedalus. Modelled on Joyce himself, Stephen is perpetually depressed and melancholy. He wishes to escape his pain but first must fully live through his own desolation in all its raw immediacy. Only when he sees that his problems are linked to those of all humanity will his pain begin to lose some of its sting. Joyce’s project was to return the sacred to the everyday. In Elizabethan times, Stephen Dedalus jokes, Shakespeare’s were as common as Murphies. It is the ordinariness of life, the everyday quality of its lived wisdom, which attracted Joyce to such classic works and made him want to add one of his own. He captured the poetry of everyday life in the city.

But why is the journey through Dublin so complicated? It’s important to note that Joyce’s Irishness was passive, innate – his aim was to be a European artist rather than a provincial hero. Joyce left Ireland but could never leave it alone. His books are about Dublin, all of them.

By analysing the city as a whole, Joyce personalises the metropolis which has the effect of bringing the periphery to the fore; the dreams of the city are often unreal and frightening but the facts are mainly brutal. The streets are the zone of the collective and the street dwellers are enthusiastic users of public space. Ulysses offers an almost seamless blend of the private and public dichotomy into urbane art.

The streets serve as a teacher, offering lessons, encouraging people to look after one another, to offer support to the weak and the infirm. No one is allowed to remain anonymous in Joyce’s Dublin, each and every citizen maintains a strong personal signature, so that they might remain unique to themselves. In this regard, the city is an amalgamation of modernist topography and rural parochialism, equally looking to the future as much it does the past.

And so the colour of Dublin life in 1904 bears resemblance to that ascribed by George Simmel to the polis of ancient Athens: in which a people of ‘incomparably individualised personalities were in constant struggle against the inner and external oppression of a de-individualising small town’.

Dublin’s history and geography have piqued the intellectual curiosity of Ulysses readers ever since the novel was published, and it is essential to remember that many of the foundational markers set up to help readers navigate Dublin’s streets derive from the author himself. Joyce’s mischievous delight in shaping interpretations and waylaying potential leads, received its most sustained appreciation in the earliest studies of Ulysses in the 1930s, by his friends Frank Budgen and Stuart Gilbert.

It is Budgen’s book, in particular, that has provided us with the background information delineating Joyce’s effort to bring the geographical and historical specificity of Dublin into being. Budgen recalls one episode, now completely canonical in Joycean mythography, when Joyce claimed that Ulysses could function as a blueprint if the city happened to disappear: “One important personality that emerges out of the contacts of many people is that of the city of Dublin. ‘I want,’ said Joyce, as we were walking down the Universitatstrasse, ‘to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’”

Budgen’s recollection makes manifest Joyce’s belief that a topographical and timeless picture of Dublin has, in fact, been reproduced. But in truth, the audacious claim that a city can be reconstructed from scattered place names and the circumnavigatory patterns of characters and trams does not bear out.

Ulysses has been written so that geography becomes central to interpretation, and the act of reading the story is concomitant with tracing the movement of the various characters in each episode from one site to another. But this geographical reading experience is the logical derivative of a geographical writing experience.

Referring to the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode, Budgen corroborates Joyce’s tactile exercise of actually mapping out the narrative: “To see Joyce at work on the “Wandering Rocks” was to see an engineer at work with compass and slide-rule…” Joyce wrote the ‘Wandering Rocks’ with a map of Dublin before him on which were traced in red ink the paths of the Earl of Dudley and Father Conmee. He calculated to a minute the time necessary for his characters to cover a given distance of the city.

Promoting the image of the artist as cartographer, Budgen celebrates a mode of writing in which the story is told as if on a map and reveals the valuable role of geographical and temporal precision in the layout and development of the episode. This evocative image of Joyce with the map, arranging his characters and sustaining nineteen parallel locations, is a testament to his scrupulous tendencies.

However, the story of Joyce writing on the map in order to chart the paths of Father Conmee and the Earl of Dudley provides us with a very peculiar companion to the “God of creation above and beyond his handiwork.” In order to write himself out of the text into impersonality, Joyce maintains the focus on the city itself as though it were entirely an objective reality rather than an imagined nostalgia.

Precision, accuracy, authenticity, realism: these are all terms that have circulated in discussions of Joyce’s Dublin to identify his almost heroic attention to navigational details. But in the context of Joyce’s life and work, maps produce the illusion of geographical closeness, paradoxically telling us more about the relationship between Joyce and his penchant for geographical abstractions than about the actual city of Dublin.

Bloom’s earliest memory sitting above a map tracing his father’s exilic wanderings serves as an analogue for our role as readers, tracing not only the characters in the novel but also the curious demands of the author. The novel’s seven-year gestation, in fact, is complemented by a geographical signature: “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” As the first-time reader of Ulysses stumbles upon these final three words marking Joyce’s own migrations, the reality of the Dublin (absent from the list) which he has left behind seems all the more remarkable. But the Trieste-Zurich-Paris addendum also stands as an affirmation that only as the wandering exile could he bring Dublin into focus.

The nostalgia evoked by Joyce’s ersatz wanderings are indicative of a homesickness, yet this homesickness is not an urge to be at home itself, but a desire to be at home everywhere. Such is the scope of the wisdom modelled through Leopold Bloom.

What Joyce created was no longer nostalgia for the notion of the local home but a yearning for a totality of existence which was, and still is, hopelessly fragmented in the modern era. In the city, every day is an exaggeration. Everywhere we look, we can see the dread of boredom – the intolerable state of not being able to find a diversion. A dread of the spectacle turning off. Ulysses offers a way out of this labyrinthine maze, and embodies an intensely ordinary kind of wisdom – a humane vision of a decent life under the encroaching pressures of modernity.

The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.