Oh the ineffable, polarizing, misunderstood James Joyce. How he has baffled and inspired countless legions of innocent readers, tossing and turning them with his convulsive writing and experimental wordplay. Here we pay homage to that man who, for better or worse (but mostly better), has left an indelible mark on the literary community. It was during this same week in 1934 that the U.S. Court of Appeals settled the controversy over James Joyce's Ulysses, justly ruling that the title could neither be confiscated nor banned. Thank heavens for that. Censorship, as Mark Twain reminds us, is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it. In "yes I said yes I will Yes.," edited by Nola Tully, we excerpt a lovely collection of scorn and praise from writers and reviewers alike responding to the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses. Let the whirlwind of opinions begin.
There are not many literary holidays that stand out in the calendar year. The twenty-third of April, thought to be William Shakespeare's birthday (as well as the date of his death), is one, and it's a fine spring day for writing a sonnet to your beloved, or walking in the park where birds do sing, hey ding a-ding a-ding. Calendars noting authors' birth dates remind you to honor your favorite writer in whatever way seems appropriate.
But there is only one annual commemoration of a fictional date, a date in which something happened in a book. As far as I know, there are no celebrations of the day Huck Finn and Jim set out on a raft in the Mississippi, or the day Ishmael made a fateful decision and signed on board Captain Ahab's Pequod, or even the day Saul Bellow's hero Augie March failed to seize the day.
Yet, the sixteenth of June, the day on which James Joyce sets all the action of his epic, Ulysses, has, for some reason, turned into a major literary event, "Bloomsday," celebrated each year all over the world, from Dublin to New York and around and down to Sydney, Australia. And we may well ask "what is that reason?", which is also a way of asking just what is so special about Ulysses that causes otherwise sane people to want to live inside it for a day each year, whether by reading its pages, listening to actors wrestle with its linguistic challenges, tracing the fictional footsteps of its protagonist through the actual or imagined neighborhoods of 1904 Dublin, or even eating fried kidneys for breakfast?
The biographers tell us that Joyce chose the date of June 16, 1904, for his chronicle of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom because it was on that date that he first walked out with his own inspiration for Molly, Nora Barnacle, who would be his lifelong companion and mother of his children. But he may also have chosen to set his "chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle" on a long day, a spacious day, five days before the summer solstice, when, in the latitude of Dublin, Ireland, the daylight lingers into late evening, and there's room for everything.
Room for everything...? Yes, that may be the first reason for the unique status of Ulysses that encourages the lovely madness of celebrating Bloomsday each year. The novel is "allincluding." Think of a human feeling, a part of the body, a bodily function, an activity of man- or womankind, and the odds are very good that you'll find at least a reference to it, if not a deep exploration, somewhere in the pages of Joyce's creation. Sports, sex, politics, cooking, parenthood, sons, siblings, daughters, lovers, death and burial, imagination, swimming, streetcar noise, newspaper ads, religion, capital punishment, sado-masochism, butchers, cocoa, Greeks, trees, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, restaurant menus, outhouses, music, books, flirtation, drink, fantasy, cosmetics, bath salts, school, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, song lyrics, violence, fireworks, dogs, cats, rats, cows, protest marches, ferryboat accidents, jealousy, or philology-they're all in there somewhere, and that's only the beginning of what could be a very long list!
A second reason could be that the central characters of Ulysses are people we can deeply identify with in one way or another. The first time I read the book I was a young man not too far from Stephen Dedalus's age. Like him, I had recently experienced the death of my mother, and I felt very close to the young schoolteacher, dressed in mourner's black, moping his way through the city's streets or walking along the beach with his ashplant walking-stick, watching the waves ripple and thinking about mortality. At another point in life, when I had become the father of a daughter, I found myself resonating with Mr. Leopold Bloom and his worries about his young filly, silly Milly. And where is the married couple who cannot identify with some aspect of the marriage of Molly and Poldy, its stresses, its contradictions of spunkiness and sterility, its ultimate basic soundness?
A third reason for wanting to dwell in the world of Ulysses for at least one day a year is all the rest of the people in it! By which I mean, the enjoyment of encountering the hundreds of minor characters who people its pages and parade through the neighborhoods of Dublin and the hours of Bloom's day. What a collage of portraits, small and large! Some of my favorites: the outrageous and blasphemous mocker Buck Mulligan; young Master Dignam, whose father Paddy was buried this morning, now thoughtfully making his way to the butcher shop; Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, the twin barmaid sirens; the cyclopean superpatriot citizen; Blazes Boylan, the coarse superstud; Bella Cohen, the whoremistress of Nighttown; Gerty, the twilight temptress of the seaside; the superior, the very reverend Father Conmee, S. J., the pedestrian priest whose long walk provides the backbone to the "Wandering Rocks" episode; poor Mr. Denis Breen, who walks the avenues with a protest sign reading "U.p. up"; Nannetti, the Irish-Italian printer; Professor MacHugh, the rhetorician; or the amply named passer-by Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell-these are only a baker's dozen of the hundreds (thousands?) of vividly limned figures who populate the sixteenth of June, 1904, in Dublin and whom you can figuratively greet like old friends when you partake of a Bloomsday celebration.
If a book as long as Ulysses were of a single texture it would probably not engender the same kind of passions and obsessions. But since each of the eighteen sections of Joyce's masterpiece has its own style and form and linguistic distinctiveness, the silent reader or the listener to a Bloomsday reading encounters endless variety, and never grows bored or weary. A lifelong reader whose familiarity with the text is deep can still pick up Ulysses, riffle through its pages, and be confronted with a bounteous buffet of literary flavors to choose from: the unpunctuated stream of consciousness of a young man strolling the strand in the "Proteus" section; the howling headlines and tabloid paragraphs of the newspaper episode; the interlocking jigsaw puzzle of "Wandering Rocks"; the over-sweet Victorian lady's magazine prose of "Nausicaa"; the phantasmagoric play script of the Nighttown "Circe" episode, in which the italicized stage directions provide some of the biggest laughs; the cool, exceedingly precise and detailed scientific questions and answers of the homecoming scene in "Ithaca"; the sonic experimentation and fragmented musicality of the "Sirens" episode; the incredible experience of watching the English language itself gestate and evolve from pre-Anglo-Saxon through Chaucerian, Elizabethan, Swiftian, and Dickensian parodies to jazz-age scat in the "Oxen of the Sun" section; and right on up to Molly Bloom's let-it-all-hang-out free association as the book ends. What a choice of treats!
Some people's fun with Ulysses may, of course, be based on the puzzle-lover's joy of figuring out complicated structures. Whole library shelves are devoted to books that help the intellectually curious reader to comprehend the architecture of Joyce's ambitious undertaking. Understanding the eighteen-episode structure as a series of six triads, each embodying a progression of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; or, if you want to see it another way, a triptych with a big central panel and two smaller panels on either side; that is, a three-episode prologue about Stephen Dedalus's morning, twelve central episodes detailing Mr. Bloom's day and containing several near-misses as he and Stephen almost-but don't quite-meet, until at the very end they finally come face to face in the book's climactic moment, and a three-episode epilogue in which the two men are together for a while, separate, and continue to coexist only in Molly's nighttime thoughts.
Joyce himself gave great impetus to this kind of analytic appreciation of his book by allowing a schematic plan of the book to be published, detailing the ways in which each episode has not only its distinctive literary voice, but also its own part of the body, its own color, its own symbols, its own correspondence with the little journey that Bloom's bar of soap makes on its way through his various pants and suit pockets, and its own parallels with figures and events in Homer's Odyssey. I must confess that the first time I set out to read through the entire book I armed myself with these guides, side by side with my Ulysses. But after a while I came to feel, as most readers probably do, that the training wheels could be removed and I could keep pedaling without their aid.
James Joyce is said to have predicted that people would be puzzling out his Ulysses for many years to come, and for me it continues to be the case that with each new reading, and with each year that I direct actors in Symphony Space's June 16 celebration, "Bloomsday on Broadway," I find myself discovering new connections, new reverberations, and new meanings in small details and large themes-as more blanks in the crossword puzzle get filled in. That unnamed man flirting with the flower-shop salesgirl in the "Wandering Rocks" episode is of course Blazes Boylan on his way to his afternoon rehearsal/assignation with Molly Bloom! Several of the somber-suited Dublin men in attendance at the Glasnevin cemetery in the morning "Hades" episode turn out to be on the list (if you can believe that list) of Molly Bloom's amorous conquests, catalogued so fully in the "Ithaca" section's catechisms! Stephen's unorthodox theory of Shakespeare'sHamlet, expounded so calculatingly and eloquently to his National Library cronies in the "Scylla and Charybdis" scene, with its focus on the two Hamlets, father and son, King and Prince, has more and more resonances, each time one reads or hears it, with the drama of two Dedaluses, father and son, and even more with the central theme of Ulysses, the spiritual father-and-son relationship between Bloom and Stephen.
Compelling human interest, dazzling variety, emotional identification, the rich palimpsest of people, from the book's complex major protagonists to the tiniest vivid word-portraits of background figures in the streets and saloons, the intellectual challenge of mastering the structure and details of a book it took Joyce almost ten years to write-all of these are partial explanations for the reading public's continuing attraction to James Joyce's Ulysses. Nevertheless, it remains the case that for many people, including quite a large proportion of English-major college graduates, the book has remained unread, or half-read, for a variety of reasons.
It's a big book, and if you flip randomly through its pages in a library or bookstore, you're playing a tricky game of literary roulette. You may get lucky as your eyeball comes to rest on a page that looks easy enough to comprehend, with narrative description and clear dialogue that take you right into the story and its delights. Or, if you're not as lucky, you may hit upon a page that's far more difficult to penetrate. What is this? Where are we, and what's going on? And this may be discouraging enough to make you assign Joyce's epic to your private list of books that you mean to get around to reading one day-maybe.
What a shame for that to happen to anyone. But there is one surefire, proven, and time-tested way of overcoming one's fear of "that big, forbidding, incomprehensible epic" that you didn't manage to master in college. And that is to hear sections of it, or all of it, read aloud by good actors.
This was the original idea behind the annual literary event that has been taking place at Peter Norton Symphony Space, a performing arts center on Manhattan's Upper West Side, since June 16, 1982. Those who know Ulysses well will enjoy hearing chunks of it read by Broadway, television, and film actors who enjoy sinking their teeth once each year into finer and more challenging lines than they usually get to speak. Those who are new to Joyce's work, or awed or frightened or just simply bewildered by it, can be swept up and carried into Bloom's world by the voices, the intelligence, and the brimming enthusiasm of terrific actors.