We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.
-Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses
Toward the end of the “Eumaeus” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is bringing Stephen Dedalus home. It’s past midnight, and Stephen’s drunk on absynthe and has just been beaten by a British soldier outside a whorehouse.
Bloom is Ulysses, Odysseus, and Moses, a heroic anti-hero epitomizing the everyman. As a Jewish man estranged from his wife, he’s an outsider in every way: to his family, his country, and his country’s faith. In Stephen, he sees Telemachus (son of Odysseus in the Greek myth), but he also sees Hamlet and the potential for social leadership. Bloom admires Stephen’s emotional intelligence and artistic vision. He encourages Stephen to enter politics.
Stephen’s response could easily be read as apolitical. “We can’t change the country,” he says. “Let us change the subject.” If we read “subject” as subject of the sentence, it means Stephen just doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. But subject can also mean citizen.
The part of Stephen that Bloom can’t see is Daedalus, the classical Greek architect and artist and father of Icarus, for whom he builds wings. Stephen saying he wants to “change the subject” is really a mission statement and clarion call for the power of the novel. Instead of changing the government, he aims to change people, to change minds. And he aims to do that with books.
The study of any form of art can fairly be criticized as irrelevant, and even indulgent. There are enough serious problems in the world that require the attention of serious minds. But amidst wars of criticism and the politics of professional academia, the public understanding of literature is waddling in a mire somewhere between the ivory tower and the paperback bestseller’s list.
Ulysses, with the unique distinction of being at once one of the most important and least read novels of the last century, offers a timely reminder of the social role and utility of literature. Great writing – truly great writing – provide readers with an understanding of both themselves and reality that they get nowhere else. No other medium so completely recreates another world with so much power. No other medium has the ability to emotionally penetrate the mind so completely. No speech, rally, door-to-door campaign, song, promotional flyer, or even movie is as committed an activist as the novel.
Stephen Dedalus’ most famous corollary, after all, was Joyce himself.