‘My consumers are they not my producers?’James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
James Joyce's writing is famously, notoriously difficult, especially his two epic works, Ulysses, sometimes described as the book everyone claims to have read but no one actually has, and Finnegans Wake, whose difficulties have led to innumerable reading groups formed for the sometimes lifelong task of reading and puzzling over the book, a page or two at a time. A famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe exhibits the paradox of Joyce's fame as a writer, coupled with the complexities of his writing: Monroe, wearing a swimsuit, sits in a park absorbed in Ulysses. The contradictory conjunction of movie star with great book in the picture is worth, as they say, at least a thousand words - how could the icon of mass celebrity culture, and a supposed 'dumb blonde' to boot, undertake the reading of the twentieth century's supreme work of high literature? It turns out that Marilyn Monroe did succeed in reading at least parts of the book, and the fact that she wanted to make the effort says as much for the celebrity of Joyce and his novel as it does for the intellectual aspirations of the star. In fact, the paradox of the photograph lies not its seeming encounter between opposite poles of modern culture, but in its proof that James Joyce's rarefied literary works are also themselves artifacts of mass culture. Any reader or student approaching them for the first time has Marilyn Monroe as an inspiration, and as quirky evidence that Joyce's writing, like Joyce the author, is as much a part of mass culture or consumer culture as we all are.
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