The very first time a patent was filed for a \”Paint by Numbers\” kit was long ago in 1923, only a year after the appearance of James Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses.
The proximity of these two events is charged with meaning for Professor Eric Bulson, who includes this fact within the introduction to his new study from the modernist master's great work, Ulysses By Numbers.
“Paint by Numbers” kits, he explains, make use of an outlined image having a numerically organized color scheme \”that might be filled in by aspiring artists.\”
Bulson, who chairs the university’s English Department and it is the Andrew W. Mellon All-Claremont Chair within 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, plus much more.
But wait, a literary study that focuses on numbers, not words?
For Bulson, applying a computational method of this book-the writing of which was supported by a grant in the National Endowment for that Humanities-offers a critical road less traveled by other Joyce scholars. Often, such scholars think considered of numbers belongs in scientific research, not really a work of literary criticism.
Bulson acknowledges that this type of view not only misses the purpose, additionally, it surrenders an exciting opportunity to see Joyce's monumental novel in a fresh, revelatory way.
\”I am in no way recommending we read all literary texts by numbers,” he says early on within the book. “I am suggesting, however, that we still think about this computational turn less as an ominous threat to the very foundations of literary criticism, something that will destroy the integrity of humanistic endeavors, and much more being an opportunity to think about what it can do to the approach we take to build relationships the texts we already love.\”
A New Approach, New Insights
Any Joyce admirer knows the author thought deeply about the thematic aspects of his short stories and novels. In the case of Ulysses, beginning with its very title, Joyce offered us (and the earliest readers) schemata that connected Leopold Bloom’s experiences in Dublin on June 16, 1904, using the epic wanderings from the Greek warrior Odysseus.
Mythic parallels aside, numbers offer us another entry-point into comprehending the novel, Bulson writes, and \”can be found where you least expect them.\”
What, for instance, are we to make from the Bloom household's address at number 7 Eccles Street? Or the seven letters from the book’s title and the seven years given, around the book’s last page, as time 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 this is from the first print run (1,000 numbered copies) despite the fact that that number’s not entirely accurate?
Such questions only provide simple facts 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) on paper 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 usually 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're surprised and we wonder how to handle our surprise.\”
In exploring the obvious and not-so-obvious numerical facets of Ulysses, Bulson says numbers \”are proof of an organic process through which the novel arrived to the planet.”
They not only give us surprise method of taking a look at a masterpiece, he argues, but can provide us with richer insights in to the very act of artistic creation.
“Reading with and against them,” he explains, “gives us the opportunity to encounter that burst of imagination accepting the terms with the urgency of the fictional plot because it was being written, discoveries of experimental approaches for representation of character, time, and space, and even the inevitable aging from the writer, an experience as time passes that shapes how any thing of beauty makes being prior to it being release.\”