Dreaming of a Joycean Summer

It’s only natural for a person stuck in a hazy shade of winter to daydream of the summer that follows it.  This year, it’s not even Christmas yet, and I’m ready for June 2017 to just get here already.  In large part, it’s because we’ve already had three shovel-worthy snowstorms in the first 20 days of December, which can’t be a good sign for what’s ahead.

Add to that a Christmas holiday full of administrative work and class prep and an early 2017 dominated by the largest enrollments I’ve ever had in every course I’m teaching, and you can see why I’m ready for summer six months in advance.

But there’s another reason why I’m excited for June 2017.  On June 21-25, the North American James Joyce Conference returns, this time taking place at Victoria College of the University of Toronto.  Now that my Fall semester is officially over, I can turn my attention towards writing my conference abstract that’s due in a few weeks.  So of course, on the morning of the day allotted to getting that done, I’m sitting at my computer, not yet writing the actual abstract, but writing about writing the abstract (meta-abstraction?).  This may seem like just a distraction technique to put off the hardest part of the conference paper writing process, but this post actually arises more out of excitement than procrastination.  Simply put, I’m really looking forward to this conference, and I just need an opportunity to get that excitement out before I take the first plunge towards preparing for it.

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Ulysses on Film

It is a truth universally acknowledged that James Joyce’s Ulysses is not read nearly as often as it should be.  In previous posts, I’ve talked about some of the reasons why people have shied away from Joyce’s notorious novel: its length, the seeming impenetrability of its language, and its tendency to abruptly change genres at a moment’s notice.  However, there’s another reason why Ulysses historically struggled to find a large audience: its tendency to be banned by governments that deem it obscene.

The tale is legend by this point.  Ulysses was initially published in serialized form in Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s literary journal The Little Review, starting in March 1918.  For roughly two years, Anderson and Heap would feature installments of what would become the first 13 episodes of Ulysses in The Little Review until the “Nausicaa” episode threw everything into disarray.  Beginning in the April 1920 volume and continuing for two additional issues, readers of The Little Review were treated to Leopold Bloom’s encounter with Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand, which features Gerty leaning back and revealing her undergarments to Bloom during a fireworks display while he gratifies himself.  As noted by both Paul Vanderham in James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses and Sean Latham in The Little Review UlyssesThe Little Review‘s serialization of Ulysses had already faced complaints about its allegedly obscene content and four issues featuring Ulysses excerpts had been seized during that 1918-20 run.

But “Episode XIII” effectively derailed the process.  Serialization of Ulysses was abruptly halted after the first installment of “Oxen of the Sun.”  Anderson and Heap were prosecuted  for publishing obscenity and were found guilty by the Court of Special Sessions in 1921. Publication of Ulysses in the U.S., England, and Ireland was banned for the next 12 years, until the seizure of an imported copy of Ulysses prompted “The United States of America v. One Book Entitled Ulysses” to be contested in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Here, Judge John M. Woolsey concluded that the author’s broader artistic aims to represent the human psyche realistically meant that the novel was not written “for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.”  In Woolsey’s words, “In ‘Ulysses’, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.and thus could not be considered pornographic.”  His decision effectively overturned the American ban on Ulysses in 1933.  Ireland would follow suit a year later, and England would reverse its ban on Joyce’s notorious novel in 1936.

A month ago, the United States celebrated Banned Books Week, an effort to raise awareness about the need for open access to literature in the face of censorship efforts.  Ulysses was definitely on my mind as I followed the coverage of Banned Books Week on social media, and I had hoped to write a post about the Ulysses trials during that week. (Sadly, Banned Books Week occurring at the beginning of my busiest grading period of the school year put a quick end to those plans.)  Ever since I became a Joycean, I’ve felt that Ulysses was an essential example of the problems of literary censorship, not just because it’s my favorite novel, but because it’s a perfect illustration of the “forest for the trees” limitations of such efforts to suppress literature.  Woolsey argues as much in his decision by noting that the broader merits of Ulysses cannot be subordinated to the shocking content of a few scenes.  As he puts it:

[A]lthough it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.

However, whereas Woolsey focuses his argumentation on the novel’s artistic accomplishments, I feel the same is true if we evaluate it from an ethical standpoint.  At the end of my last post, I identified Ulysses and Les Miserables as “epics of compassion that use their heroes’ quests for redemption as springboards to highlight the need for empathy and kindness in a world defined by suffering and struggle.”  To me, Ulysses is not just a great novel, but a great ethical novel, and attempts to dismiss it as “the most damnable slush and filth that ever polluted paper and print” (as Vanderham quotes a common complaint to The Little Review) based on the explicit content of a few chapters is short-sighted to the extreme.  Bloom definitely engages in questionable behavior throughout his Dublin odyssey, but he also takes important stands against racism and demonstrates through both word and example the need for love and mercy to counteract the hatred and intolerance he faces throughout the novel.  Why would you ban that message?

And the sad double-whammy of Ulysses‘s struggles with censorship is how the problems the novel faced with government suppression spilled over into adaptations of Joyce’s compassionate epic.  In my last post, I considered the potential of film adaptations of literary texts to serve as vehicles for the ethical perspectives of challenging novels to reach contemporary audiences that might never read the source material.  In that consideration, I argued that Les Miserables has Ulysses severely outmatched due to the massive global popularity of the musical it spawned.  But there’s another reason why Hugo has bested Joyce in finding a larger modern audience for his message: just like the novel, film adaptations of Ulysses have struggled with censorship.  Most notably, the 1967 adaptation of Ulysses by Joseph Strick was denounced by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid as being “psychotic in its blasphemy and dirtiness.”  It was rated X in the United Kingdom and promptly banned in Ireland and Australia. (The Australia ban was shortly lifted, but the film wouldn’t be available in Ireland until 2000.)  Screenings of Ulysses at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival were censored without Strick’s knowledge or approval, and audiences in New Zealand had to be sex segregated in order to view it.  Even now, the most popular observation about Strick’s Ulysses may not be anything pertaining to the novel, but the fact that he created one of the first mainstream films where a character uttered the “F word.”  Thus, the biggest problem the film faced was not how you adapt what seems like an unfilmable novel, but how you get an audience to legally see it.

And Joseph Strick’s censorship struggles got me wondering: to what extent is the unfortunate “forest for the trees” irony of morally suppressing Joyce’s supremely ethical novel also present in the efforts to censor the film versions of it?  Were potential audiences for  Strick’s adaptation of Ulysses denied an important vehicle to consider the empathy and kindness of Leopold Bloom because film boards were too outraged by a few scandalous scenes?  And now that the ban has been lifted (and another Ulysses film has been released in its aftermath: Sean Walsh’s 2003 film Bloom), to what extent do the Ulysses films serve as effective vehicles for Joyce’s epic of compassion to reach a twenty-first-century audience that might run away from his 640-page novel?

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James Joyce: Master of the House

One of the many things that Ulysses teaches us is that the mind can be a crazy place, a non-linear labyrinth of seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions and unexpected epiphanies.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post re-evaluating my longstanding frustrations with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.  Towards the end of that post, I argued that while Stephen doesn’t necessarily treat the people who care about him in the best manner, it is understandable why he would be hesitant to trust them given the grief he’d received from people who supposedly had his best interests at heart in Portrait‘s early chapters.  It was with this understanding in mind that I typed the following pledge at the end of the post:

In honor of the centenary of the book that ignited my love of modernism and taught me the beauty of internal monologue, I pledge to heed Stephen’s thoughts as much as his actions and to take a walk in his shoes before I become quick to judge his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him.

And as I was typing that last sentence, it happened: one of those gleefully random moments when your brain instinctively shoves a seemingly irrelevant thought into the forefront of your consciousness and leaves you to make sense of the results.  My fingers typed “his rejection of a Dublin that has always rejected him,” and my mind instead projected this line:

For I had come to hate the world / This world that always hated me.

Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Stephen’s non serviam delivered in the weathered, husky tenor of Colm Wilkinson.

Then, because I had just finished writing about Stephen declining Bloom’s offer to stay the night in “Ithaca” (and because my brain can’t ever leave anything alone), I began to tease this comparison out further.  “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the song in Les Miserables where the quoted line comes from, occurs just after the hit musical’s protagonist has been saved by a tremendous act of mercy.  In both the musical and the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it, Jean Valjean has just ended a 19-year jail sentence for “stealing a mouthful of bread” and then trying to escape prison, and his paroled life is dominated by society’s rejection of a person forever branded as a convict.  Finally, a bishop kindly takes Valjean in and provides him food and a place to stay for the night.  Valjean, suspicious of friendly faces in a world that’s always left him for dead, steals the bishop’s silver and flees, only to be captured by the police and returned to the man he wronged.  However, instead of pressing charges, the bishop claims that he actually gave Valjean the silver, hands him two additional silver candlesticks, and saves him from going back to prison.  The bishop then tells Valjean that he has “bought [his] soul for God” and that Valjean must “use this precious silver to become an honest man.”  “Valjean’s Soliloquy” thus features Jean Valjean wrestling with this act of mercy, feeling shame over his previous crimes and the cynicism at their foundation, and resolving to move his life in a better direction.

And the more I continued to think about Les Mis while writing about Ulysses, the more I realized the extent to which this scene in the musical is the inverse of what happens between Stephen and Bloom in the progression from “Circe” to “Ithaca.”  Not only is the chronology of the scenes in reverse order (Bloom saves Stephen from the police before he takes him in and offers food and shelter), but Stephen refuses the offer that Valjean accepts.  To be sure, Valjean’s acceptance comes with a robbery attached, so Bloom being politely declined is clearly a better outcome than the bishop’s situation.  But it’s intriguing to consider the extent to which Valjean’s story begins by accepting redemption from the bishop, whereas Stephen’s story ends by declining such kindness from Bloom.  And this line of thought only provoked more questions: to what extent is Stephen an anti-Valjean? Is the Jewish Bloom Joyce’s version of Les Miserables‘s bishop?  And what do these issues say about the potential relationships between the ethical perspectives constructed by Joyce and Hugo in these seminal texts?

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One Hundred Years of Silence, Exile, and Cunning

I can’t help but notice the subtle smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name.  In many ways it comes with the territory.  When you choose to devote your professional life to one author, people are bound to view you as more than a student or a fan.  Case in point, ever since I decided I was going to focus my career on James Joyce, most people I’ve met have viewed me as the most rabid of Joyce fanboys, a person who loves his works more than anything and whose every decision is guided by that passion.

Never was this more apparent than when my wife and I were expecting our first child, and everyone was speculating on its name.  And everybody assumed that the name we settled on would be Joycean.  If I had a nickel for every person who joked that we should name our child James if it was a boy and Joyce if it was a girl, I’d be able to retire early.  And while we did not take that suggestion, the name we did use did nothing to dispel views of me as a Joyce fanatic.  Hence the smile that appears on people’s faces when I tell them my son’s name is Stephen.  And the quip that inevitably follows:

“Oh, I bet I know who he’s named after…”

To set the record straight, our son is not named after Stephen Dedalus.  He is named after the same Catholic saint for whom Joyce’s young artist also serves as a namesake, but common name origin doesn’t always equate to direct inspiration.  And in this case, there’s a clear reason why I never considered naming my son after young master Dedalus.

I’m not all that sure I really like Stephen Dedalus.

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Reading Finnegans Wake: the Closest I’ll Ever Get to Scaling Mount Everest

I’ll never forget the moment I knew I had to stop running.

It was in Pasadena, CA, in the summer of 2011.  That year’s North American James Joyce conference was winding down, and I was quickly checking my email after printing out my plane tickets home.  One of the emails I received was the good news I had been hoping to hear for months: someone wanted to publish my book!  I had submitted my proposal for my manuscript, a study of the love themes in Joyce’s works, to several publishers that spring, and had received several rejections in the process.  All were polite and complementary, and some offered extremely helpful advice on how to proceed, but the voices up to that point were all in unison: it was a good study, but not for them.  But finally, someone had said yes!

And the reader report was even more encouraging!  Critical yet effusive, its revision suggestions seemed more than reasonable and easily workable, which only added to the high the acceptance email initially put me on.  Until I got to the reviewer’s final question, and the record skipped.

Where was Finnegans Wake?

First we feel, then we fall indeed….

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Yes, I’m Celebrating Bloomsday Alone, and I Don’t Care How Dorky That Sounds…

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.

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