June 16, 2004

Bloomsday at 100

One hundred years ago, today, Stephen Dedalus did not awake to gaze upon the grey sweet mother of the Irish Sea from the Martello Tower’s parapet. Nor did Leopold Bloom close out an idiosyncratic, run-of-the-mill day curled up head to toe beside his wife, Molly, as her mind swirled with recollections and wonder over the ancient currents of passion that delivered her to the moment. Yet, of all the fictional anniversaries routinely celebrated, none is as resiliently real as that of June 16, 1904: the fictional "Bloomsday."

An incidence of the word made flesh, James Joyce's "Ulysses" tracks the movements of Leopold Bloom and a host of other characters through the course of an otherwise unremarkable day save for the attention afforded it. In so doing, Joyce recasts the ordinary person in the role of Odysseus and finds in the travails of daily life a mythically resonant Odyssey to rival that of Homer.

The precision, poetry and expansiveness of Joyce's writing is such that the world described in "Ulysses" takes on the aura of fact. So much so that, today, we celebrate a centennial of fictional happenings. But for Joyce, the date also held a real world significance for it marks the day he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Among the many, many things "Ulysses" is, it might also be regarded as a lasting memorial to the arrival of love.

In the nine decades since its publishing, "Ulysses" has consistently come to readers as a blessing of love, prompting each who delve into its indelible pages to find the myth-worthy truths of their own exalted ordinariness. This is the revelation that continues to draw people to "Ulysses" and, indeed, all of Joyce's work.

For me, the fiction of "Ulysses" and the reality of my life first intersected early in a summer of my late teens. With a stack of reference books scoured from area libraries, I set up my Joyce reading station on a card table in our Ohio basement. For that initial attempt, beside the furnace long into Fall, my comprehension was as dim as the candlelight by which - for romantic purposes - I read.

A couple of years later, I gave it another go. My friend, the poet Philip Norton, and I spent a summer getting full mileage out of our CTA monthly passes, riding and walking around Chicago reading the story of Stephen, Leopold and Molly aloud to each other. In the spirit of Bloomsday that year we fried up some kidney for breakfast. We managed to burn it without even trying.

Subsequently, enthusiasm and fate conspired to land me in Dublin. There, I rented a room for several months with the intention of studying at The Joyce Institute while experiencing first hand the real world referents of Joyce's fiction.

My first visit to the weekly reading group of the Institute turned out to be an auspicious occasion. Like a literary opportunist, I had unwittingly walked in to the concluding session of the group's four and a half year long reading of "Finnegans Wake." Despite my being something of a party crasher, I was treated with traditional Irish kindness and, oddly, even deference.

This latter response was explained afterwards when the man seated next to me - a person clearly given to Joycean heights of observation and obsession - presumed me to be a certain renowned Joycean scholar. I confessed my humble status but he insisted on verification by pulling out a thick, three-ring binder bursting with years' worth of news clippings concerning the comings and goings of various Joyce enthusiasts and reading groups throughout the Irish isle. The gentleman searched for, found and pointed to a particular newspaper photo of a gathering of Joycean scholars. I could not deny that the back of my head did bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the ponytailed scholar in the picture.

"Finnegans Wake," the work to which Joyce devoted 17 years of his life, is the aesthetic heir to "Ulysses." In it, Joyce brings to full fruition the innovative structure and word play he forged in that earlier novel. The Dublin reading group to which I was a (very) late participant plumbed the depths of "Finnegans Wake" by reading syllable by syllable, taking time to explore the etymology of each letter grouping across a variety of languages. Every venture to the dictionary then opened further paths of associative investigation to far flung sources, not the least of which was the varied life experience of the roomful of readers.

“Ulysses” and, especially, "Finnegans Wake" are progenitors of the concept now popularly known as "six degrees of separation" - that idea whereby through acquaintanceship any two persons on earth are separated by no more than six people. Yet, Joyce elevates even this awesome notion. By creating books designed to send the reader back out into the world, Joyce constructed, despite their reputation, the ultimate un-hermetic works of fiction. The reader finds in his or her hands linguistic treasure maps with which one can conceivably be set on a course to discover any given flicker of consciousness that has at any time made its appearance in the world.

The awareness Joyce inhabited and advocated has now been made manifest in the world at large. Our's has become a world of Joycean fiction. The proper heir to his life's work might well be the instrument allowing you to read these words right now: the internet. Like Molly Bloom following her passion, pursuing links on the web can potentially deliver one to virtually any thought anybody has ever had - such as this one, here. How rapturously ordinary.

Happy Bloomsday.

Posted by mark at June 16, 2004 01:22 AM

Happy Belated Bloomsday my friend. I can still recall the urine smell and challenging taste of the burning kidneys we ate that morning. Good to still be connected.

BTW: I have just picked up 'Life a User's Manual' by Perec. One of those works that has been boldly classed together with Ulysses. Have you read it?


Posted by: Phil Norton at June 24, 2004 10:05 PM