Reflections on Bloomsday
There was a Bloomsday improv comedy event — and yes, I’m being serious — and so I was the resident “expert” on Joyce. And so I wrote out a few thoughts about Ulysses and James Joyce and what Bloomsday means. I am not a Joyce scholar. Or even an especially smart person, but I do like to read. That is my only credential. I haven’t studied any of this so I’m probably wrong about something.
Also, I do think Joyce would have approved of improv comedy based on his book. Some of it was truly inspired.
You probably haven’t read Ulysses by James Joyce, but you’ve probably read The Odyssey. Or seen the movie or the TV miniseries or read the comic book or just generally know the story. The Odyssey, as you know, is the story of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) and how it took him ten years to return after the Trojan war. During that time he and his crew encountered cyclops and sirens and they traveled to the underworld and faced cannibals and magicians.
Now you know that saying about how every guy thinks that the song Desperado is about him? Anyway, James Joyce looked this epic poem in which a man faces monsters and cannibals and journeys to hell, watches people suffer and die unable to do anything, and is driven by this desire for home, and he thought, that’s every day of our lives. Every day has these moments pain and triumph and victory and tragedy if you look at it the right way. Not the daily lives of kings and soldiers and heroes, but in the lives of ordinary people.
So Joyce created a character, Leopold Bloom, and wrote a novel about one day. June 16, 1904 to be exact and about the character wandering about Dublin, about his wife and his friend and the people they encounter.
And because Ulysses is one of those books that people love that people obsess over, people created Bloomsday. And so every June 16th people around the world will have events around James Joyce and the book. There are plays and dance performances. In Dublin there’s a walking tour. In a lot of places they have marathon readings of the book. Because it’s good to get out and celebrate. Who doesn’t like a reason to celebrate? But also because this is a story that is about people and about our lives and part of Bloomsday is stripping away a lot of the noise around the book and trying to talk about and show how relatable it is.
Ulysses is a massive book. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a doorstop of a novel and it will take a while to read. But people are binge-watching TV shows and reading Harry Potter and A Song of Fire and Ice and all these other series of novels which are incredibly long. And yes, Ulysses is complicated, but it’s best to think about the book like Shakespeare.
Shakespeare can be hard to read. On the page there are a lot of words and phrases you can’t identify, it can be a slog at time. But it also manages to combine the high brow and low brow. Shakespeare wanted to make you laugh and make you cry and get a reaction out of you, and Joyce is trying to do the same.
But what walks and public readings and these events do is remind of us of what Joyce was doing. Because he wanted to celebrate ordinary life. This is a novel that was written between 1914 and 1921. The First World War. At the war’s outbreak Joyce was living in Trieste, back when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was then forced to leave, being an alien from an enemy nation.
This is a war in which millions upon millions of people died, a generation was wiped out. It was a war where individual lives were not considered. People like you and me were canon fodder.
And so it’s easy to dismiss the book as overlong and complicated, but some of that is intentional. he wanted to create an epic. An epic of ordinary life. An epic of Irish life. Because these weren’t things that are seen as worthy of greatness, of literature and art. Hell, they’re still not often considered worthy subjects.
But they are. We are. This is Joyce trying to represent us and to do so in a new way.
It’s that new way which is hard for people reading the book. Because each chapter is its own world, its own style. This is a novel that took years to write and it will take to understand it — if then. But my view about books — and life — differs from other people. I think it’s okay to read this book and afterwards go, I didn’t get a lot of it. The same way it’s okay to go on vacation to, say, France, and miss a lot because you aren’t fluent in the language and don’t know the history well and aren’t an expert in art history. It’s possible to have an amazing vacation, to have a life changing experience, without all that background. Even though you missed a lot and didn’t understand a lot.
Although admittedly I get frustrated a lot. Some parts of the book and playful and fun and fascinating and others are hard and I don’t really get them. Maybe someday I will.
When people talk about Ulysses and how there are these long sentences, they’re talking about the last chapter. I believe it’s eight sentences long. This is an experimental novel, but there’s a reason for it. The last chapter is from the point of view of Molly Bloom, the wife we’ve been hearing about for the whole book and met briefly. It’s a stream of consciousness as she lies in bed, awake, after midnight, next to her husband. She’s remembering childhood and her friend and this suitor and her singing career and she’s thinking about her husband and she’s thinking I have to get up and pee. And so if you read the chapter like a story, you’re not going to like it. But if you take it as this poetic monologue of what goes on in your head after midnight, lying in bed, it makes perfect sense. You get a sense of her, but through fragments and stories.
And then at the end she turns to her husband, asleep beside her, and she remembers when he proposed. The chapter begins with the word “Yes” and she talks about the surprise of him going out to bring her breakfast while she was still in bed.
Ulysses is a hard book. It’s a long book. And no one writes an epic to tell you a story that is nothing but smiles and laughter. Comedy tends to be brief. Sitcoms are half an hour. You tell the joke and leave the audience wanting more. An epic has a much darker view of the world. Joyce wasn’t a great optimist. He wrote this book before, during and after World War I, remember.
Joyce was not an optimist. He’d seen what civilization and certainty led to. It led to people like him, ordinary people mostly, being slaughtered by the thousands in the trenches of Europe. He’d seen what the church did to people’s lives. He was writing about an earlier time. 1904. And he wasn’t writing about a paradise. He wasn’t mythologizing anyone or anything. He told the story of ordinary people. Because he was living through a time when they wouldn’t survive. Millions were killed during that war and the way to remember them isn’t to turn them into heroes it’s not to lie about what they were or what life was like. But to tell the story of who they were. Ordinary people. Ordinary lives.
And so when Molly Bloom ends her monologue, and ends this book, this vast epic. It ends with them in bed and they haven’t broken apart but they haven’t regained the passion they had, they haven’t restarted their lives. But they are together. They care about each other. No great drama. Just an ordinary day in an ordinary life. She ends with yes.
Joyce found the world a dark and mysterious place. We are alive, but we won’t always be. We live with the ghosts of those we’ve known. His great work The Dead ends with this vision of the snow falling “upon the living and the dead alike.” Life is bleak and there is no god, and it has no meaning. We walk with ghosts and echoes of everyone that has ever lived, of all the stories that we know and don’t know. Joyce would have disagreed but that Christian idea of how each of contains part of divine within each of us, Joyce would have understood. We live both physical and spiritual lives.
If you want a heroic tale of how good always wins and everything works out just fine, then this isn’t the book for you. But you probably knew that.
My grandmother died recently. We were very close. Or at least before she slid into dementia, we were. I was with her the day before she passed away. So often when the people close to you die, what we’re left with are not these grand narratives, these dramatic moments, but ordinary ones. We remember the way they spoke, their turns of phrase. The recipes they made, the everyday acts. Ordinary time in the Catholic Church is the part of the calendar that is not the high holidays. But I think those moments are when we are ourselves. Those are the moments that we remember. That’s what we hold dear. They have meaning not because they were part of some great story, but because of the weight and importance we give to them. At the time, they were just ordinary moments. I’m also someone who suffers from depression, like many people. And of course when depressed, our brain internalizes what the world says — that we don’t matter.
In life, the answer is yes. And in Ulysses, despite all this pain and death and uncertainty, the answer is yes. Despite the fact that he is writing not just about a city that no longer exists, but a world that no longer exists. A world destroyed by the first world war. Joyce believed that the only answer is yes. Not no. There is only Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s a message that’s even more important today. In the world, governments and businesses want us to be numbers and types and consumers and anything but human beings. Anything but individual people. And so we turn to literature to remember what is important. To remember that this is not new, that we are not new. But that we all have value, that our lives have meaning. That we matter. To remember what truly matters. The only thing that has ever truly mattered.
Yes. The answer is always Yes.
And that’s what Bloomsday is all about, Charlie Brown