“You were not born to be a teacher, I think. Perhaps I am wrong”
“A learner rather”, Stephen said.
“And here what will you learn more?”
Mr Deasy shook his head.
“Who knows?” he said. “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”
– James Joyce, Ulysses
Wisdom literature is a genre of literature that aims to offer teachings on virtue and wisdom into nature and reality. Declan Kiberd, in ‘Ulysses and us’ writes that Joyce saw that modern literature was rarely sought for its ‘lived wisdom’ and Joyce wanted to correct that. He set Ulysses alongside Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible because he believed it could project ideas of virtue. The main character, Leopold Bloom helps a blind stripling across the road, gives money to a fund for the deceased Paddy Dignam; thinks about how to improve transport systems and combat cruelty to animals. Bloom believes in the plays of Shakespeare for the practical wisdom they convey which help solve the problems of living. As a Jew, he identifies with the Jewish people not for their suffering but their achievements. He exemplifies a blend of imagination and practicality.
Joyce saw reading as a democratic activity. He tried to produce a more active-creative reader. Kiberd writes, that the “need now is for readers who will challenge the bloodless, technocratic explication of texts: Amateur readers who will come up with what may appear to be naïve, even innocent, interpretations”. Kiberd writes that technique and intellect have overshadowed the feeling function in relating to and engaging with texts. Ulysses is an attempt to put emotional experience at the core of reading.
Can reading literature like Ulysses make us wise? How might moral exemplars like Bloom make us more moral? Reading great literature is not entertainment, but education. What can we learn from deep immersion in and contemplation of this work of art?
With wisdom literature, we do not read to become better at reading; we read to become better at living.