Thursday, 8 December 2016

That picture of Marilyn Monroe reading 'Ulysses'

It's been a while since I posted -- blame the man I met, and subsequently married, since my last post -- so there's lots to catch up on from the past couple of years...

Let's begin with Marilyn. Over the last two years I've been working on an edited collection entitled Navigating the Transnational in Modern American Literature and Culture, and in addition to co-editing and co-writing the introduction, I wrote a chapter for it entitled 'Man and the Echo: W. B. Yeats in Contemporary American Poetry and Song'. During the same period, I had been discussing (with a variety of people) the ways in which apparently 'high' culture becomes assimilated into apparently 'low' cultural forms–and the attendant presumptions (and snobberies) that come with this. I was also reading my colleague (and friend) Edward Clarke's book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry, which brilliantly connects pop culture with poetic culture in a challenging and provocative way.

Inevitably, as might be the case with all academics working in Irish studies and/or Modernism, my thoughts turned to Joyce's Ulysses, a book that seems to be the most cited in discussions of 'high' and 'low' art; only relatively recently, Declan Kiberd argued (in Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living) that the novel had been misappropriated by the academy and was meant to be read and discussed by the 'everyday' person walking around Dublin. This, perhaps inevitably, led me onto Marilyn Monroe, and that famous picture of her reading Ulysses (not upside down, as some cruel commentators have often claimed).

What I am interested in, is what this photograph does to our expectations (and presumptions) as readers. In one sense, the photograph, taken by Eve Arnold in 1955, is one of the most persistent and iconic images of American artists interacting with Irish culture. It's a surprisingly touching, innocent pose which (perhaps inevitably, but certainly frustratingly) has now become more famous for its discussion of whether Monroe actually read Ulysses than for the beautiful composition of the photograph. Arnold, however, insisted that Monroe was reading the novel, and that she was travelling around with it in her car for some time. What is perhaps surprising, though, is not that Monroe was reading Ulysses, but that there was so much disbelief surrounding whether the 'dumb blonde' American actress could read it. But perhaps the more pertinent question is: why not?

It's always a challenge, when confronting images that subvert our expectations concerning 'high' and 'low' culture, to know how to respond to them. We're nervous lest we should be condescending or patronising, or (perhaps worse still) cheerleading: there's a kind of gun-ho, 'you go, girl!' mentality to the declaration 'Why wouldn't she have read it?'. Yet at the same time, we know that Ulysses has beaten many a reader. A colleague of mine once said in a lecture that only around 1 in 8 of the people who claimed they had read the novel actually had. Are you part of this secret majority? Your secret's safe with me.


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