The Money Question at the Back of Everything: Ulysses and Capitalism

Joyce’s view of economics is still relevant in 2022, explains Adrian Howlett, PhD candidate, School of English. Adrian was one of some 300 researchers who participated in the 28th International James Joyce Symposium hosted by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin this week.

Every generation of Joyce’s readers finds itself in the writer’s work. Although it was hyperbolic for Joyce to claim that Dublin could be reconstructed out of Ulysses, we have somehow found ourselves living in a modernity made in Joyce’s image. The Joycean resonances in the present moment are no more apparent than in the economic sphere, where despite a century of development since the publication of Ulysses, the novel’s themes retain their prescience. The struggle between artistic potential and daily subsistence, the prominence of advertising and the generation of self-image through consumption are all themes which still resonate, while the spectral role of financial speculation in Ulysses shows a now-ubiquitous form of economic activity in its relative infancy.

Few novels are as economically driven as Ulysses: the presence of Leopold Bloom’s budget has posed conundrums for generations of scholars, but the fact that a character’s daily expenditure is mentioned at all is a testament to the economic detail of the novel. Similarly, the lack of a similar budget for Stephen Dedalus indicates the character’s relatively undeveloped economic consciousness, in which banknotes are reduced to nothing but metaphysical curios, worth less than writing paper. Stephen’s artistic ambitions are complicated by his dire economic circumstances, reflecting a problem which dogged Joyce for much of his life; although the great writer had a remarkable economic imagination, ensuring multiple editions of Ulysses were published at varying cost and quality to give them a value as collector’s items, his profligacy meant he often struggled for money, a circumstance which had a negative effect on his ability to write.

The promotion which surrounded Ulysses is reflected in the novel’s pages too, not only in Bloom’s (relatively lowly) role in the advertising industry but also in the role of consumers. It is a slogan for Plumtree’s Potted Meat that produces a recurring motif of failure and desolation for Bloom, but advertising and consumption also bring potential: he devises an image of crossed keys in an imagined advertisement for Keyes wine merchants, providing a sense of the possibilities of Home Rule via an allusion to the governance of the Isle of Man. Meanwhile, Gerty MacDowell uses a self-image largely taken from consumer goods, advertisements and magazines to conceal and overcome a physical impediment. At its most potent, advertising can change people and even nations.

It is in its discussions of finance that Ulysses brings us close to our current form of capitalism. One of Bloom’s imagined schemes is to use a “private wireless telegraph” to relay the results of English horse races back to Dublin, playing on Ireland’s time zone (Dunsink time) as being 25 minutes 21 seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time; although this loophole was closed by the adoption of GMT in Ireland in the wake of the Easter Rising, the relationship established between technology and finance pre-empts one of the defining themes of our times. In the last decade, a $300 million fibre-optic cable was laid between New York and Chicago, decreasing latency to almost the speed of light in order to ensure faster transactions could occur. Infrastructure projects like this share Bloom’s logic of seeing the potential in using temporal acceleration for economic gain, albeit on a far grander scale.

The role of speculation in Ulysses often transcends the boundaries of materiality altogether. Stephen’s Aristotelian scepticism about the value of banknotes may lead us to consider their broader metaphysical status, but some of Bloom’s other financial schemes suggest a deeper level of economic immateriality. Postage stamps are objects of speculation for Bloom, who believes they could provide “great monetary value” in contradiction of their face value. Bloom lists three particular stamps, each of which displays a distinctive feature: one is from a defunct state (Hamburg), another depicts a deceased monarch (Queen Victoria) and the third is defaced with a “diagonal surcharge”. These objects may have an immutable use value but as speculative commodities, they transcend this value altogether.

Questions of speculation and materiality are central to our current economic reckoning, with the prominent role of cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in recent years intensifying some of the questions asked by Joyce a century ago. Although his marketing of Ulysses allowed the book itself to become a speculative item, there is more than a hint of scepticism in Bloom’s schemes, which become increasingly implausible, culminating in a £1 million reward for “a solution of the secular problem of the quadrature of the circle”. The crash in cryptocurrencies precipitated by the collapse of the LUNA coin has brought these issues into focus in recent days, demonstrating the danger inherent to financial activity that transcends the physical world. Without the faith required to maintain value, money is, to quote Stephen’s complaint of his own finances, “useless”.

Although Bloom’s personal finances are far more grounded in the real economy, there is still a curiously speculative quality to one element in particular: “an endowment assurance policy of £500 […] intestated Milicent (Milly) Bloom […] with profit policy”. The implication is that the terms of the policy allow Bloom to cash out at a profit while still alive, making the policy as much an investment as a safety net. Notably, the beneficiary of the policy is Bloom’s daughter as opposed to his wife Molly. While superficially appearing to be a rejection of Molly, this detail also confers considerable responsibility on Milly, in that Molly’s position would depend on the actions of her daughter. The symbolic importance of the policy opens up questions of inheritance; just as Milly will have to deal with her father’s financial affairs, we are left dealing with the economic world bequeathed by our predecessors, with our own overdetermined capitalism ultimately reflecting previous developments.

Read more about the 28th International James Joyce Symposium here.