Today, June 16th, is known the world over as Bloomsday, in celebration of the day on which James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is set. Commemorating the day of Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, Ulysses tells the stories of three characters, Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, and primarily chronicles Bloom’s Odyssean journey around Dublin on June 16, 1904. Perhaps appropriately for a book born out of celebrating a day in the life of the author, Bloomsday has become an annual global festival in itself, one of the only (if not the only) worldwide commemorations of fictionalized events that occurred inside the pages of a novel.
If you needed any proof of Bloomsday’s global appeal, a simple glimpse across your favorite social media platform will immediately uncover thousands of tweets, pictures, and posts on Bloomsday celebrations simultaneously happening the world over. Dublin is currently swarmed by people eager to walk the steps of Ulysses‘s characters, visit the sites mentioned in the novel (such as Sweny’s Chemist and Davy Byrnes’ Pub), and consume copious amounts of Guinness, burgundy, and Gorgonzola. Bloomsday in Montreal has boasted an impressive week-long lineup of walking tours, lectures, and workshops all born out of a love for this famous novel. And the annual Bloomsday conference of the International James Joyce Foundation (which this year is occurring in London) has boasted a week of fantastic-sounding panels from many of the world’s leading Joyce scholars, which you can follow along through the helpful tweets of the conference’s enthusiastic live-tweeters at #IJJS16.
This year, I will be participating in … none of these events. I had desperately hoped to attend the London IJJS symposium, but was saddened to discover that plane tickets were about as expensive as a mortgage payment. That, combined with a summer teaching commitment, has kept me grounded in Eastern Iowa for Bloomsday 2K16. But does this mean that I will forgo the Joycean celebration this year, having no one to join in on the fun with me? Nope! I may be on my own, but I will still gladly carry my potato and lemon soap in my pockets, consume my Gorgonzola sandwich and pinot noir at lunch, and spend the day consuming Ulysses however I can, be it through film, the novel itself, or this blog post. Essentially, this blog is an invitation to Bloomsday Marion (Mrs Marion?): party of one.
Re-reading that last paragraph, I can’t help but be struck by how dorky that may sound. (It’s the potato and soap line, which absent context admittedly sounds insane.) Maybe it also has to do with the fact that I’m spending my entire day celebrating not just any book on my own, but that book. The one that’s gained the reputation of being immensely difficult, if not unreadable. The one that changes styles every chapter and is told through seemingly-impenetrable streams of consciousness. The one where there’s barely any punctuation in the last forty pages.
What does it say about me that I’m devoting my entire day to paying tribute to that book? That I’m one of the elitist devotees of Ulysses, eagerly showing off my knowledge of something I can’t possibly understand? That I’m celebrating style over substance, one of those Joyce acolytes that love a 600-page novel about walking that’s ultimately just the author showing off? That I’m just another professor that has been suckered in by a writer who “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what [he] meant”?
That’s sadly the reputation that Ulysses has gained in its almost one hundred years of publication, and from some pretty famous writers at that. Virginia Woolf famously had no patience for it, Paulo Coelho called the book “a twit” (whatever that means) and dismissed it as “pure style”, and Roddy Doyle went so far as to say, “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.” And so this has become a prevailing attitude to Ulysses and its lovers: the book itself is 600 pages of Joyce showing off everything he knows and the people who say they love it are trying to look smart, but are only fooling themselves.
I’ve always been struck by this reaction to Ulysses because it was never my experience with it. I was first introduced to the novel in 2001, during an undergraduate Joyce seminar at Wake Forest. In that class, my professor Scott Klein helped us find our way through the novel by using a quality of Ulysses that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should: its humor. That’s right, this tome that’s all style and no substance is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, with enough bathroom humor to satisfy the immature twelve-year-old in all of us, and Dr. Klein didn’t shy away from highlighting the choicest bits. This attitude was carried over in my graduate-level Joyce seminar at the University of Miami, where one of my mentors, the late Zack Bowen, explicitly framed Ulysses as what his landmark study called it: a comic novel. Every session was honed like a laser on the elements of hilarity in each chapter, with Dr. Bowen punctuating each Joycean dirty joke with the outburst “oops!” in case we missed the punchline. Maybe it was because I was blessed with great professors, but I’ve never actually thought of Ulysses as elitist or pretentious. I instead found it the funniest thing I ever read, and I became a Joycean primarily because I never wanted to stop laughing during my academic career.
And, seriously, this book is hysterical. There’s humor here for everyone. You want dirty jokes? It has enough references to farting (poor Robert Emmet), excrement (poor Philip Beaufoy), and … other things (POOR Croppy Boy) to keep you satisfied. Woolf famously dismissed Ulysses as the work of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” and I’m still struggling to figure out why that’s an insult. Who wouldn’t want to read that book!?!
Bathroom humor not your style? You’ll be too busy laughing at Bloom’s eccentricities to notice. Indeed, Joyce has blessed us with a protagonist prone to the hariest of harebrained schemes (equipping caskets with telephones in case people are accidentally buried alive??) who cannot help but find himself in sticky situations. (Only Bloom would accidentally provoke a bar fight by loaning a newspaper to someone several hours earlier.) And it’s not just my professors who thought so: Ulysses has widely gained a reputation in the Joyce community as a novel that’s not just experimentally rewarding, but immensely humorous as well:
But it’s not just the humor that draws me to Ulysses: I genuinely love these characters. Bloom is not just a bumbling protagonist to laugh at, but one of the most human, empathetic, compassionate people ever created on paper. Practically every action he takes on June 16, 1904 is brought about by his desire to help others. It can be something as simple as helping a blind piano tuner cross the street or as large as helping to provide financial assistance to a deceased friend’s surviving family (an action that oddly places him in that bar to accidentally provoke that barfight; again, only Bloom…). And it’s not just his actions on Bloomsday that demonstrate his humanity, but his thoughts. Indeed, his numerous internal monologues (ironically one of the stylistic devices that has gotten Ulysses branded as elitist) show a person hellbent on seeing the world from other people’s perspectives and trying to understand others as best he can, even if he fails (which he does. Frequently. Hilariously). And it’s not just individual courtesy that guides Bloom, but a broader sense of compassion and nonviolence that our world could really use right now. Seriously, consider what he tells his rival The Citizen during that barfight:
But it’s no use, says he. 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 … Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred (U 12.1481-5; p. 273 in Gabler edition)
Tell me a certain oddly-coiffed presidential candidate couldn’t learn a thing or two from Bloom.
And “love” really is the crux of this novel. It may or may not be the “word known to all men” (depending on where you come down on the Gabler wars), but it guides practically every action of Ulysses. And that’s unsurprising given that this novel commemorates Joyce’s first date with the woman who would become his lifelong companion. What might be surprising is that this loving novel hinges on an adulterous affair, that Bloom takes his Odyssean walk around Dublin to avoid his wife cheating on him with her concert promoter Blazes Boylan (one of the most delightful scumbag names you’ll ever find). And Bloom himself is no innocent victim, as his letters to Martha Clifford and his … reaction? … to Gerty MacDowell in the novel demonstrate.
But even these adulterous elements is handled in a way that ultimately (to me at least) affirms love. Molly is certainly not a serial adulteress; her affair with Boylan is her first infidelity and it comes about after eleven years of a relatively sexless marriage to Bloom after the death of their son Rudy. Indeed, her thoughts about Bloom and Boylan (which deserve a post in their own right; I simply do not have enough space to go into how much I adore the badass that is Molly Bloom) leave little question as to who she prefers. And while Bloom has dabbled in adulterous opportunities throughout the day, you can argue (and people frequently do) that he doesn’t stop Molly’s affair precisely because he loves her and wants her to have what he cannot currently give her, even if it hurts him in the process. It’s not a universally satisfying answer (my students consistently hate it and mostly think Bloom’s a weakling), but every thought of Molly he entertains throughout June 16 demonstrates how intensely he still loves his wife, even upon returning home at the end of the novel and having the evidence of Molly’s affair right in front of him.
And that ending. Seriously, (spoiler alert?) the novel ends with Bloom and Molly sleeping head-t0-toe in bed (because, again, Bloom…) and thinking about their days before they go to sleep. To some, that might be anti-climactic. They don’t talk their thoughts over or resolve their relationship before going to bed, so we have no idea if a reconciliation is really coming on June 17. And once Joyce shifts the narrative perspective to Molly in the final chapter, her thoughts of Bloom (alternatively snarky and warm) are expressed to us via her internal monologue, so technically Bloom has no idea she thinks any of these things. But if we were ever able to predict future actions based on thoughts, Molly’s concluding memory of the day Bloom proposed to her would leave little doubt as to where their marriage is heading. This is not just one of the most famous passages in the novel, but for my money, it’s the most beautiful ending to a book I’ve ever read. I never fail to get goosebumps when I read (or hear, if I’m watching a film adaptation) Molly utter the phrase:
The sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes (U 18.1571-4; p. 643 in Gabler edition)
That line begins the warmest recollection of a proposal I can imagine, primarily because it is expressed through such beautiful language that you cannot help but be taken away by it. And once Molly has finished with her famous “yes I said yes I will yes,” you’ll not only feel that there’s hope for the Blooms yet, but you’ll be actively rooting for those crazy kids to work through their differences and reunite post Bloomsday.
Is that reunion guaranteed? Nope. Is their relationship perfect or ideal? Of course not. Is Boylan completely out of the picture? Not entirely, depending on how you interpret some of Molly’s thoughts in that last chapter. Is “well as well him as another”the most romantic acceptance of a proposal you’ve ever heard? Probably not. But does any of that really matter? Not to me, at least.
The ending definitely shows a relationship that still has possible problems and potential red flags, but what relationship doesn’t? What Joyce has accomplished through the Blooms’ narrative is to celebrate a love with flaws, but that is still loving all the same. And that’s the only love Joyce would ever celebrate; his famous statement in a November 13, 1906 letter to his brother Stanislaus that “I am nauseated by their lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love and love for ever” would put an end to Ulysses ending like a fairy tale (Letters II 191-2). What emerges instead is an aspect of the text that’s present through its numerous threads: its humanity. The Blooms’ marriage is flawed, sure, but it’s human. Maybe the specific problems the Blooms struggle through aren’t universally experienced (or at least I hope they aren’t), but the feelings about each other that are expressed in the Bloom and Molly chapters (both harsh and fond) are realistic and demonstrate both characters seeing their spouses for who they really are, warts and all, and ultimately affirming them for the whole lot. If that’s not an affirming ending, then what is? (The novel famously ends with “yes,” the most affirmative word in the English language.) It’s why when I first visited Dublin in 2012, I had to make a trek to Howth Head to see the site where my favorite ending of all time took place.
That’s what I take away from Ulysses, not that it’s a hard text (though it is) or that it’s a experimental text (though it is), but that it’s a novel about humanity and love. It’s about seeing people for who they are and trying to take a walk in their shoes (which is ultimately what Bloomsday celebrations accomplish). It’s about working through problems with equanimity and love rather than force and hatred. It’s a novel about human beings going through the everyday minutiae of their lives, and it’s a celebration of both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of their daily events. Ultimately, Ulysses is about us.
Do I understand everything in the novel? Of course not. I’m always learning something new about the novel every time I read or study it. (Joycean Humiliation admission: I only recently learned that Stephen broke his glasses before June 16 and thus spends yet another novel with damaged specs. How am I just now finding this out?) But why should that matter? Why should the fact that a lover of Ulysses doesn’t understand everything they’ve read somehow taint or disqualify their love for the novel? Why does lack of complete mastery mean a fan of Ulysses is really a poser?
Sweny’s (the chemist shop where Bloom bought his lemon soap in Ulysses) put it best in a tweet this morning:
It’s indeed a masterful accomplishment for a novel that seems so daunting and exclusionary to actually be so big and broad that there’s something for everyone even if they don’t get everything. You don’t have to be an academic or scholar of Joyce to love Ulysses as passionately as they do. And I have never seen a more open, welcoming community of readers than the Joyce community, both at conferences and on social media. If you’re in any way interested in what Joyce has written, they want to join you along the journey, even if you don’t get everything. Because they haven’t either. Joyceans are some of the most enthusiastic lifelong learners you’ll ever find because they relish the only request Joyce made of them. And there are few more enjoyable settings than being at a table of Joyceans chatting and laughing with each other as they work their way through the Dublin Joyce has created.
So (for those of you actually still reading, in which case I admire and appreciate your patience), why do I insist on still celebrating Bloomsday and Ulysses even though I’m flying solo this June 16th?
Because spending one day in Joyce’s Dublin has made me want to spend many more.
Because I ship the Blooms harder than probably any other couple in literature, film, or television.
Because I’m a sucker for fart jokes, and Joyce tells some of the best of them. (Seriously, I knew Bloom farted over Emmet’s speech before I really understood what Emmet’s speech was, which is likely how Joyce would have it.)
Because despite its reputation and its difficulty, I love this novel more than any other book I have ever read. I love these three characters (even though Stephen’s whiny narcissism sometimes grates), and I love the quirky supporting cast that Joyce has peopled around them. I love the fact that a novel about walking around a city can tell me more about life and love than most other conventionally-plotted books. And I love being able to reengage with my favorite book every June 16th, perhaps learn something new about it, but always be reminded of how rewarding my experience with it has been.
(And apparently I love this novel so much that I’m willing to devote the entire morning to writing this blog post and almost miss lunch. Whoops.)
Now off to go open that bottle of burgundy.