So of course I make my return to blogging on Bloomsday.
For those who don’t know what “Bloomsday” is: June 16, 1904, the date on which the story of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” takes place, starting with plump Buck Mulligan having his morning shave and ending with Molly Bloom’s mind unfolding in wonderful, ecstatic language. In between, the main protagonists—Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom—crisscross Dublin, missing each other, until near the end they come together, our 20th century Odysseus and Telemachus.
In high school I read “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. I held off on “Ulysses” until I took a seminar at UCLA. And then, I was hooked.
Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.
“Ulysses” is nothing short of life. The life of people. The life of a city. The life of a nation. The life of history. There had been nothing in the Western canon like it before it, and, aside from “A la recherche du temps perdu”, nothing like it since. (“Gravity’s Rainbow” comes close, but Joyce still pips Pynchon.) It is a meditation on history, destiny, the lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell each other. It is a story of outsiders in a world made up of outsiders. (Even the people who think they are of the elect are in fact as exiled as the rest of us.) It is a story about finding your way home, or at least finding the beginning of the path towards home. It is a love story: of a love for humanity, and of a love for that other person without whom you cannot live. Its comedy is of the sort found in just living life. Its tragedy is of the same type.
Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
It is a novel of discovery. Of Joyce discovering his power in writing in the language of the colonizers. Of Bloom navigating his way through a Dublin which sees him as The Jew and as a husband who may be a cuckold. Of Daedalus trying to rekindle the spark set off at the end of “A Portrait”. And the Molly Bloom soliloquy, that rampant, stream of consciousness exposure of Woman, glorying in the wonders of the world and of herself.
From the first words of “Ulysses” I was grabbed a hold of. I had thought it would be a chore to read. Instead, I plunged into it, fascinated by the shifts of style, tone, timbre. Like its precursor “The Odyssey”, it is a musical text, ringing with the music of words, notes placed together in a way which only Joyce has been able to do in English. I found myself in that book, which was odd: a Cuban-American in Los Angeles. But the theme of exile, of not quite fitting in in what you’ve always considered your home, is a universal theme. As is the theme of continuing the attempt to find a home in spite of that. As Odysseus struggled to find home, so do Bloom and Daedalus. Molly Bloom is the apotheosis, the one person in the novel who is home, who is fully herself. Her condition is what Bloom and Daedalus aspire to. What we all aspire to.
The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.
To the degree which art reflects life, it can be considered a worthy failure. To the degree to which it brings forth new life, it can be considered something a bit more. All art is artifice. Life is stranger than can be captured in art. The purpose of art isn’t to capture life faithfully; in that it will always fail. It is to take life, transform it, translate it, make it grotesque, make it more than it is, get at the truth of it. Even realist fiction does this. More so a book like “Ulysses”, which eschews any pretense at 19th century realism. And the life from which it springs is deep, for it is a remembered life, written in European exile, Joyce writing to friends and family for confirmation of places in Dublin, making sure he gets everything right so that his phantasmagoria has a tether to reality.
– Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.”
– “What?” says Alf.
– “Love,” says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.
It is, in the end, a love story. Of Bloom’s love for the world. Of Bloom’s love for his wife. Of Bloom’s love for Daedalus. In a world full of hatred, Bloom is full of love. (And of course, his name is “Bloom”. The bloom of the flower. The bloom of life.) Just as Odysseus was a model for the Greeks, so Bloom is to be taken as a model for our times. An outsider. Ridiculed. Sometimes even hated. But full of the humanity lacking in those around him. Full of that humanity because he knows it’s lacking in others, because he doesn’t want to be them. A Jew, a cuckold, but still himself, still the authentic man. It is Joyce’s love letter to a fallen world. And it is magnificent.
Next year in Dublin, where I’ll quaff pints and listen to “Ulysses” recited as Joyce would have.