March 1, 2021

In Bulson’s New Book, Understanding Joyce Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3

NUMBER THEORY: Like the shaded areas and assigned numbers in a "Paint by Numbers" kit, Professor Bulson explores key numerical aspects of James Joyce's masterwork in his new study "Ulysses By Numbers."

The first time a patent was filed for a “Paint by Numbers” kit was way back in 1923, just a year after the appearance of James Joyce’s landmark novel Ulysses.

The proximity of those two events is charged with meaning for Professor Eric Bulson, who includes this fact in the introduction to his new study of the modernist master’s great work, Ulysses By Numbers.  

“Paint by Numbers” kits, he explains, use an outlined image with a numerically organized color scheme “that could be filled in by aspiring artists.”

Bulson, who chairs the university’s English Department and is the Andrew W. Mellon All-Claremont Chair in the Humanities, wants us to see Ulysses in a similar light—as a text whose numerical aspects help us understand the book’s organization, its meanings, its composition, and much more.

But wait, a literary study that focuses on numbers, not words?

For Bulson, applying a computational approach to this book—the writing of which was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—offers a critical road less traveled by other Joyce scholars. Often, such scholars think a consideration of numbers belongs in scientific research, not a work of literary criticism.

Bulson acknowledges that such a view not only misses the point, it also surrenders an exciting chance to see Joyce’s monumental novel in a fresh, revelatory way.

“I am by no means recommending we read all literary texts by numbers,” he says early on in the book. “I am suggesting, however, that we continue to think about this computational turn less as an ominous threat to the very foundations of literary criticism, something that will destroy the integrity of all humanistic endeavors, and more as an opportunity to reflect on what it can do to the way we engage with the texts we already love.”

Professor Eric Bulson, author of “Ulysses By Numbers.”

A New Approach, New Insights

Any Joyce admirer knows the writer thought deeply about the thematic aspects of his short stories and novels. In the case of Ulysses, starting with its very title, Joyce offered us (and his earliest readers) schemata that connected Leopold Bloom’s experiences in Dublin on June 16, 1904, with the epic wanderings of the Greek warrior Odysseus.

Mythic parallels aside, numbers offer us another entry-point into understanding the novel, Bulson writes, and “can be found where you least expect them.”

What, for example, are we to make of the Bloom household’s address at number 7 Eccles Street? Or the seven letters of the book’s title and the seven years given, on the book’s last page, as the years of composition, 1914-1921? Or the 60-paragraph-long musing of Stephen Dedalus? Or the impact of deadlines and word counts on the chapters Joyce published in the Little Review? Or the meaning of the first print run (1,000 numbered copies) even though that number’s not entirely accurate?

Such questions only scratch the surface of Bulson’s thoughtful exploration. Numbers, he shows us, shaped Joyce’s experience of writing the novel as much as, some 600 years earlier, numbers mattered to Dante (the numbers three and nine, especially) in writing about Beatrice in the Vita Nova and Divine Comedy.

The author of several well-received critical studies including Little Magazine, World Form, Bulson already has garnered much praise from acclaimed critics about his newest work.

“Numbers in literature often have magical or secret meanings,” writes renowned Nabokov critic Michael Wood of Ulysses By Numbers, “but this remarkable book also shows us other, quite startling modes of literary counting, giving us the pleasure we find only in the best critical readings: we are surprised and we wonder what to do with our surprise.”

In looking at the obvious and not-so-obvious numerical aspects of Ulysses, Bulson says numbers “are evidence of an organic process by which the novel came into the world.”

They not only give us an unexpected way of looking at a masterpiece, he argues, but can give us richer insights into the very act of artistic creation.

“Reading with and against them,” he explains, “gives us the chance to encounter that burst of imagination coming to terms with the urgency of the fictional plot as it was being written, discoveries of experimental techniques for representation of character, time, and space, and even the inevitable aging of the writer, an experience with time that shapes how any work of art comes into being before it is let go.”