Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bloomsday 2016

1961 edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses
Remembering its origins

By Jonathan Price

June 16 is the day Joyceans have designated “Bloomsday,” and it is one of the more erudite and celebratory holidays in the literary calendar. Compare Shakespeare’s birthday, which I suspect fewer people could name or remember (but that’s just a suspicion). It is not a birthday, and it is not called “Joyce’s Day,” or “Ulysses Day,” but “Bloomsday,” because the novel it celebrates gives us an intimate portrait of a key, but also typical, day in 1904 in the life of its central character, Leopold Bloom.
    Bloomsday celebrations go on worldwide, but also helter skelter, spread across the English-speaking (and reading) world as luck, civic promotion, intellectual sophistication would have it. There is one now in Sacramento, California, where sometimes there are public readings of Ulysses, or trivia contests on Joyce and the novel in Irish bars. There is also one every year in Dublin, Ireland, Joyce’s hometown, though he was a very longterm Irish exile; he is now celebrated by a museum in the city and a display in its airport, an increase in knowledge and recognition since 1972, when I first visited Dublin, and when the museum had been a scant collection housed in the Martello tower on the Irish coast, where Joyce (and his literary avatar Stephen Dedalus) lived for a brief period as a renter. The tower plays a role in Ulysses, Joyce’s 1922 novel that has created the milieu and substance of Bloom’s day itself.

The novel is set retrospectively, and somewhat nostalgically, on Thursday, June 16, 1904, and all its 783 pages (in my 1961 edition) and 18 chapters are chronologically governed by the waking hours of that day. And, technically, the next day (June 17) for its final chapter takes place in the early hours of Friday. Ulysses is not the first literary work set on a single day. Oedipus Rex (Sophocles) should come to mind for those with a sense of literary history; those seeking a more recent exemplar could look no further than Saturday (Ian McEwan). Even the late TV series 24, allegedly devoted to 24 hours of a single day, partook of this strategy and mystique. But there are many aesthetic examples. The classical sources, according to Aristotle, often sought compression of action and emotion, and a single day seemed appropriate for those. But these were dramas, where concentration, and the two- to three-hour period of performance, seemed ideally appropriate to this kind of condensation. Nevertheless, Joyce expects his reader occasionally to think in terms of the classics by giving his novel a title referring to Ulysses, the Roman version of the Greek hero Odysseus, and alludes thus to the Odyssey (Homer), perhaps the closest the Greeks came at the time to a novel.
    A key difference Joyce himself noted and many subsequent readers of Ulysses have observed is that in his novel, there is little of great tragic or national moment, as, say by comparison in the revelation that Oedipus is the son, as well as the husband of the current queen Jocasta, and that he slew his own father, unknowingly, years ago. Oedipus is not only the king, but he learns he is the source of the plague on his city. Similarly, in Homer’s Odyssey there are events of great power and moment and violence – references to the great Trojan war, and a climactic section where Odysseus emerges from the disguise of a beggar to slay the conspiratorial and loutish suitors of his wife Penelope and retake possession of the government of his home island Ithaca. In Joyce’s working papers for the novel, Ithaca and Penelope are the names of the last two chapters.

    But the modern novel offers no violence, nor any national cataclysm; though published in 1922, it is set before World War I (ended 1918) and before the Easter Revolution in Ireland (1916). Why? Because Joyce believed that literature shouldn’t mislead humans about the nature of human experience by iconizing only particular days and particular figures and military heroes. From his point of view The Odyssey provided a template for this view, as its hero is the Trojan War’s first draft dodger and most of the subject matter is about love and longing and loss. For Joyce every day has a meaning and a rhythm, and his hero, Leopold Bloom, is without honor in his own country of Ireland, an itinerant salesman for a local newspaper, and, essentially, a walker in the city. The only “external” events of some moment that occur in Ulysses are that Bloom’s wife, Molly, commits adultery, arguably for the first time in their 16-year marriage, and Bloom offers friendship, and perhaps inspiration, to Stephen Dedalus.
    Otherwise, this is a novel of the everyday, the normal experience of life, though it is seen primarily from inside, from the interiors of the minds of its three principals, Stephen, Leopold, and Molly. As a “typical” or representative or even epic day, it contains a death and a birth, and each chapter supposedly also incorporates an organ of the human body, so it contains a universe. In this way Ulysses is one of the most varied, fascinating, inclusive, and frustrating novels ever written. Many critics consider it Joyce’s masterpiece, though others plump for Finnegans Wake, a later, much more challenging and difficult work. Like the latter novel, Ulysses contains intellectual challenges and puzzles, words in other languages, old jokes, and memorable puns. One of its puzzles, “Who was McIntosh?” continues to fascinate and elude Bloom late at night, as it still does many of the novel’s readers. McIntosh is all surface and perhaps no substance, a last name included in an obituary notice of a person who simply appears in a macintosh at a graveyard funeral and is mis-identified by the Dublin newspaper. Personally, I think, he is Mr. Duffy from Joyce’s “Painful Case” – a story in Dubliners – a lonely man who was offered love and never took it, but returns regularly to the grave of the person who had loved him. The in-joke (or covert dedication of Ulysses, which has no official dedication page) is that June 16, 1904 was the date Joyce first recognized his love for Nora Barnacle, who, as Joyce’s father prophetically observed, would stick to him for life.

Image from the website of the
James Joyce Centre, Dublin
The Bloomsday celebration in Dublin frequently includes a city tour that follows the peregrinations of the novel’s main character through his day, which Joyce’s scrupulosity in detail made possible to trace, since many of the streets, buildings, and physical maneuvers remain available. Each location in many ways is like a symbolic station of the cross, beginning Bloom’s day at his row house at 7 Eccles Street (with its echoes of ecclesiastic and religious significance). The lintel was still standing in 1972 when I was there, with “Molly” in graffiti on it, but the house behind it had disappeared. It may have totally vanished by now. So Bloom’s day is full of symbols and religious echoes and literary allusions, but is also grounded, as Joyce desired, in the daily, gritty, intimate reality of life. Joyce once observed, “If Ulysses is not worth reading, life is not worth living.”

The title has three s’s; the novel opens with a giant S and closes with a memorable memory of Molly’s ending in seven yeses. It is an affirmation of life and literature, and Bloomsday is a great day to remember its author, to celebrate Ulysses, and for those who may not have done so, to begin reading the novel itself, for which there are now many aids, since its legendary difficulty can easily fade with help.

Copyright © May 2016 by Jonathan Price

1 comment:

  1. Jon, Bloomsday was on the same day of the week as today back in 1983 when the four of us Deans (and Geoffrey's cello) flew from San Jose, California to Raleigh-Durham Airport to begin the North Carolina phase of our life. I was aware of it then, and the memory has ensured that I have never forgotten that we flew on June 16.