It’s that time of year again. Ulysses awakens from its slumber to be read out loud by millions of people around the world. Sometimes, they even get through the entire novel.
Something by Joyce apropos of something:
Beauty, the splendour of truth, is a gracious presence when the imagination contemplates intensely the truth of its own being or the visible world, and the spirit which proceeds out of truth and beauty is the holy spirit of joy. These are realities and these alone give and sustain life.
— James Joyce
I think of Molly saying Yes, and Nietzsche saying Yes, and know they aren’t exactly talking about the same things. Though they might be. Molly (Nora Barnacle to a degree) says Yes to Leopold Bloom (Joyce to a far lesser degree), to sex, to sex with Bloom, to sex with Joyce, to a new life with him, or a return to an old one before she “stepped out” so often. The strange dynamic with Stephen Dedalus (Also Joyce, but moreso) throwing it all into disarray, introducing generational elements, making Joyce both father and son . . .
Nietzsche, after all of his pain, the endurance of that pain, said Yes to it happening all over again, to life, even to a life of endless pain, even after arriving at the apparition of the Eternal Return, which he either believed in, or wanted to believe in, or wanted to believe he was forced to believe in.
Saying Yes to life and everything therein (of course) depends upon circumstances before we applaud it or boo it or laugh along with the idea. Is it a sacrifice to embrace? Is it a sign of courage to do so? Art tells us that our decision has little weight or nobility if we don’t take long journeys first. That may or may not be the case in “real life.” Perhaps some are hit by lightning and reach At One Ment or their epiphanies before long journeys, rendering them unnecessary. But at least in Art they are. There’s generally no need for the rest of the story if the revelation occurs before Page One.
It’s that day again. And there have been so many since 1904. Well, that makes it, what? One hundred and eight years now? Molly and Leopold Bloom. Molly, Bloom and Stephen. Molly and Blazes Boylan. James and Nora. Sam and Diane.
Ulysses, the greatest novel in the English language, and perhaps the greatest novel of obsession ever written. The obsession was with the novel itself, with its possibilities, with the haunting, nagging, agonizing sense that Joyce could be at all places at one time, cubist, in his head and on the page. He could be back in the Ireland of 1904, with Nora Barnacle, and also all the days that led up to its publication in 1922, a year that saw one of the most amazing outpourings of literature, philosophy and Comparative Myth in the 20th century. Aside from Ulysses, that year brought us The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot; Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; César Vallejo’s Trilce; The Golden Bough, by James Fraser; Wittgenstein’s Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus; and T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
A bit before my time, but it must have been hell being a judge on the awards circuit that year.
Of course, the real obsession of Ulysses is with Molly, as in Nora. Did she or didn’t she? Was her endless Yes!! a final release and redemption for Joyce, or just an immortal yawp following in the footsteps of Whitman, setting up the drums of Ginsberg?
(I use too many names and not enough immortal yawps, to be sure. But there is a method to my name-dropping. A madness, too.)
Walking is key. And systems of difference. Language. Past and present. Dialects. Old and new tongues. Slang. Jargon. Lyric. Bodily functions and organs of the body. Types of food. Circulation within systems and their connections to other systems. Pubs. Everything must connect via pubs. And that, ultimately, brings us round and round.
Buy one for your friends, your lovers, and if you’ve been cuckholded, wear your horns with pride.
Great website for festivities this week. From the James Joyce Centre in Dublin.
Shows a listing for events all over the world. If you’re lucky enough to be in Ireland this week for the celebration, and would like your photography displayed on the web, please drop us a line, or two, or three.
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On a somewhat related note . . .
The Celtic Twilight
Was more than a dark ruse
More than a way
To craft an independence of mind
Free from English dominance
And Big Houses
And colonial rule
It was a way to remind the British
That their land had once been
A Celtic Twilight too
And that another imperial power
Had once done what it could to crush
The life out of druid and muse
In the land of Stonehenge
It was a way to remind
All imperial powers
That they once were
On the other end of the whip
And the sword and the gun
The Celtic Twilight was a time
For all times to come
And for that elusive
At the center of the Republic
For all of us
East West North and South
It’s that time of the year again. Toast one or two or three for old Jimmy and Nora. Toast one or two or three for the streets of Dublin he saw with uncanny focus from Trieste. And toast one or two or three for Blind Homer, who inspired him and gave the world of fiction its great and everlasting journey.
“As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies, Stephen said, from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image.”
— Ch. 9: Scylla and Charybdis
“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Nothing was as it seemed, when Van Gogh painted it. Roiling underneath the subject, flying above it, surrounding it, were his passions, his intensity, his flights into realms most of us could only guess at, if we can match him for moral imagination, or imagination period. With Van Gogh, a rose was not a rose was not a rose.
Ray Succre writes poetry along these same lines, or conjunctions, or coincidences, with a mask or two thrown in for good measure. Surreal, meant to be heard, meant to be spoken, they sing the uncanny.
In honor of Bloomsday, I wanted to point you in the direction of a fine little essay about the people, real people, and their descendants, who found their way into Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s by Bridget Hourican for the Irish Times. Click on the title for the link. An excerpt follows:
IN THE 1940s, after Joyce’s death, BBC researchers arrived in Dublin to find people to interview for a radio programme. They approached Richard Irvine Best, the recently retired director of the National Library, and a gregarious man, well known on the literary social circuit. He wasn’t gregarious on this occasion: “What makes you think I have any connection with this man, Joyce?” The researchers pointed out that he was, after all, a character in Ulysses. Best drew himself up: “I am not a character in fiction. I am a living being.”
Fifty years later, when a friend of mine was asked in Germany what he thought of Ulysses – as all Irish abroad are asked at some point – he admitted that he hadn’t read it yet, but saved his reputation and astounded his questioner by adding that his great-uncle was in it. This great-uncle was Hugh MacNeill (the more disreputable brother of the revolutionary Eoin MacNeill) who appears, with his name cannibalised, as professor McHugh, murmuring “biscuitfully”. In 2004, an online comment, from John Kavanagh in Billericay, to a BBC News piece for Bloomsday bragged that “My great-grandad appears as a character in the book – old Troy of the Dublin Metropolitan Police”.
What was degrading for Richard Best – his appearance in Ulysses – has become a source of pride to future generations. The range of “real-life” historical characters in Ulysses is vast, so the world is full of unsuspecting “descendants” of these characters. Anyone who lives in Dublin gets used to name-checking places in Ulysses , such as the Martello tower, Sandymount Strand, Eccles Street and Davy Byrne’s pub, and Joyce’s boast – “If Dublin were destroyed, it could be reconstructed from my book” – is cited frequently by architects and planners, but Joyce was speaking more than architecturally. The whole cast of Edwardian Dublin, from prostitutes to priests to MPs, can be reassembled from his pages.
Another year past, and we’re here again. June 16th. Bloomsday. The day to celebrate James Joyce’s book about a day in the life in 1904 that was kinda important to him.
It points back in time to Homer, back in time to various modes of English, back in time to that day in 1904, and ahead in time for thousands of scholars who have labored to understand it and its myriad sources.
Ulysses was meant to be read aloud, so we can chew on each word. It was meant to be heard, so we can sing with each paragraph. Listen to each sentence, carefully, so we can dance inside our ears. May your celebration be cerebral, merry, filled with joy and song, and may it involve a little reading, here and there, too.
(A great site for Bloomsday activities, and Joyce in general, can be found by clicking here)
Here’s an excerpt from Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis:
URBANE, TO COMFORT THEM, THE QUAKER LIBRARIAN PURRED:
— And we have, have we not, those priceless pages of Wilhelm Meister? A great poet on a great brother poet. A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts, as one sees in real life.
He came a step a sinkapace forward on neatsleather creaking and a step backward a sinkapace on the solemn floor.
A noiseless attendant, setting open the door but slightly, made him a noiseless beck.
— Directly, said he, creaking to go, albeit lingering. The beautiful ineffectual dreamer who comes to grief against hard facts. One always feels that Goethe’s judgments are so true. True in the larger analysis.
Twicreakingly analysis he corantoed off. Bald, most zealous by the door he gave his large ear all to the attendant’s words: heard them: and was gone.
— Monsieur de la Palisse, Stephen sneered, was alive fifteen minutes before his death.
— Have you found those six brave medicals, John Eglinton asked with elder’s gall, to write Paradise Lost at your dictation? The Sorrows of Satan he calls it.
Smile. Smile Cranly’s smile.
First he tickled her Then he patted her Then he passed the female catheter. For he was a medical jolly old medi.
— I feel you would need one more for Hamlet. Seven is dear to the mystic mind. The shining seven W. B. calls them.
Glittereyed, his rufous skull close to his greencapped desklamp sought the face, bearded amid darkgreener shadow, an ollav, holyeyed. He laughed low: a sizar’s laugh of Trinity: unanswered.
Orchestral Satan, weeping many a rood Tears such as angels weep. Ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta.
He holds my follies hostage.
Cranly’s eleven true Wicklowmen to free their sireland. Gaptoothed Kathleen, her four beautiful green fields, the stranger in her house. And one more to hail him: ave, rabbi. The Tinahely twelve. In the shadow of the glen he cooees for them. My soul’s youth I gave him, night by night. Godspeed. Good hunting.
Mulligan has my telegram.
— Our young Irish bards, John Eglinton censured, have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet though I admire him, as old Ben did, on this side idolatry.
— All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.
A. E. has been telling some yankee interviewer. Wall, tarnation strike me!
— The schoolmen were schoolboys first, Stephen said superpolitely. Aristotle was once Plato’s schoolboy.
— And has remained so, one should hope, John Eglinton sedately said. One can see him, a model schoolboy with his diploma under his arm.
He laughed again at the now smiling bearded face.
Formless spiritual. Father, Word and Holy Breath. Allfather, the heavenly man. Hiesos Kristos, magician of the beautiful, the Logos who suffers in us at every moment. This verily is that. I am the fire upon the altar. I am the sacrificial butter.
The Third Policeman finds his way to At Swim-Two-Birds and lives to write about it, writes to live within it. Riding his bloody bike, he feels his molecules changing, becoming something other, something cyclical. Along the way, he meets Saint Augustine and James Joyce, both of whom are really dead, but only one of whom is an apparition.
The other is a bartender who doesn’t know about Finnegans Wake.
Well, actually, that’s only part of the story and the wrong part. The real Dalkey Archiveis nothing like the above. I like the novel, but it’s just not up to the same standard as O’Brien’s (or O’Nolan’s) best two works, The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, which just happen to be among the very best novels of the 20th century in English.
The novel does start out with great promise, and is funny, well-written and nicely paced. Its construction is solid and balanced. Something, though, is missing. It’s almost as if O’Brien didn’t quite have his heart in it, which is understandable, given the difficulty he had in publishing his earlier works. But any novel that brings back the great character De Selby and has him discussing religion with Saint Augustine can’t be all bad, and this one certainly isn’t. It just doesn’t quite live up to its own premise.
The main character is Mick, and he’s a young man in the state of flux. Not sure exactly what he wants to do with his life . . . and, because of that, he’s slightly susceptible to influences of other characters larger than life. Like De Selby. De Selby is a mad scientist of sorts, straight out of The Third Policeman (which O’Brien could not publish in his lifetime) by way of a sort of distorted self-quotation. He’s a mad scientist who has some rather apocalyptic thoughts regarding the human race, and may have discovered the substance to set that in motion. He also has found the ability to stop time, make wonderful whiskey in less than a month and have discussions with the old Church Fathers, like Augustine. Mick and his friend Hackett join De Selby and witness these dialogues. This is the part of the book that O’Brien should have expanded and expounded in greater detail. It was more than interesting, especially as it took place in an underwater cave.
Mick finds another project to keep him busy. He has heard from an acquaintance that James Joyce is not really dead, and is living in a town north of Dublin (The Dalkey Archive was published in 1964. James Joyce died in 1941). He searches for him and finds a man he thinks is Joyce. This Joyce thinks he’s Joyce, too, but is nothing like the great writer we know and love. And he doesn’t seem to be aware of his own classic works. The reader has to make up his or her own mind as to whether this is really James Joyce (even within the fictional framework) or just a delusional bartender with a desire to be a priest.
The two projects — Mick also tries to prevent De Selby from carrying out his apocalypse — dovetail and Mick’s girlfriend Mary gives him a third choice. The resolution is a bit of a surprise, but not by much. All in all, a pleasant read, well-crafted, well-written, but just not atomically gifted like the two novels mentioned above.
*For an excellent biography of Flann O’Brien, I heartily recommend Anthony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien.
One of my favorite novels of all time or any time is The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy. It’s the story of Sebastian Dangerfield and his wild days and ways in Dublin, taking classes at Trinity, whoring and drinking and pawning everything in sight to afford the drink and the whoring, avoiding his tenacious landlord and the authorities in general, in general putting the g in rogue and fighting all that is holy and stiflingly good. It’s easily one of the most unforgettable novels in the English language, with Dangerfield being one of its most memorable characters. The protagonist was based in part on a good friend of Donleavy’s, Gainor Stephen Crist, though it’s tempting to read into that character a bit of the author and his own biography as well.
The prose is magnificent. Almost immediately the reader senses he or she is in the presence of greatness. It is quite near the level of James Joyce, as far as the pure beauty and quality of the writing, and it’s more fun to read than Ulysses. Less work. More accessible. It was Donleavy’s first novel and he was able to finally publish it in 1955, after being turned down as often as Joyce was. The Ginger Man, like Ulysses, immediately ran afoul of the authorities and was thought of as pornography and published as such, much to the chagrin of its author. When I first read this masterpiece in the 1980s, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. Pornography? They have got to be kidding. Have read it three more times since then and still can’t believe it. As the young kids used to say, “Get a life!” That’s what those authorities back then needed to do.
Now, while we have grown up quite a bit since then when it comes to our handling of sex, “blasphemy” and “heretical” views in literature, we have lost our patience for other aspects of the past. Often rightfully so. Dangerfield will come across as a bit of a beast toward women, and that can’t be excused, but it should also be put into context. It’s a story, a fiction, and no endorsement by the author of Dangerfield’s boorish behavior. Donleavy presents a vivid tableau and allows the reader to be critical of the behavior — as they should — or ignore it. The world of the book is presented with high contrast, and that allows joy, pain, sorry, empathy and scorn to emerge. But it begins and ends with Dangerfield, with his larger than life presence, his legendary exploits, his Wildean wit. We can forgive much when we see the world through the eyes of the characters involved. The joy of reading the book is to take that wild ride with them.