Happy Bloomsday!

Yes I said yes I will finish reading Ulysses, and celebrate a fictional date

I've been attending each June 16 for about 10 years, and it's one of my favorite things in the world. This year at Symphony Space, in a marathon presentation lasting from noon until after midnight, over 100 actors and authors—Frank and Malachy McCourt, Mary Beth Hurt, David Margulies, Marian Seldes, and Frances Sternhagen among them—will read excerpts from each of the book's 18 episodes, ending with Molly Bloom's interior monologue performed in its entirety by the extraordinary Fionnula Flanagan. (The performance will be broadcast live on WBAI, 99.5 FM.) Ulysses has long been considered the province of academics and specialists, entombed in a forbidding reputation of difficulty and obscurity. Don't be fooled. To hear passages of the book read aloud is to recognize how funny, emotional, and accessible a work Ulysses truly is.

A friend who saw a matinee of The Passion of the Christ reported that his fellow filmgoers hadn't come to see a movie; they were there to attend Mass. Though Ulysses begins with "stately, plump" Buck Mulligan parodying Catholic transubstantiation, and Joyce felt the need to exile himself from Ireland, "that scullery maid of Christendom," in order to write his "little epic of the Irish and Hebrew races," celebrating Bloomsday is a pagan rite replete with the deep feeling, props, costumes, and foods (the poppyseed cake and Gorgonzola sandwiches, Bloom's bowler hat and bar of lemon soap, Stephen's black cloak and ashplant), the embedded sense of ritual, of liturgy.

Joyce insisted he did not wish to become a "literary Jesus Christ," however, as Edna O'Brien suggests, his journey as a writer was one of martyrdom. Fitting then, that for those who love it and return to it over a lifetime of reading, Ulysses is more than the best of good books. Deeper in humanity, more lyrical in its music, screwier in logic, richer in melancholy and celebration, funnier, more forgiving, Ulysses supplants a thousand sacred texts. In its Shakespearean amplitude, its encyclopedic embrace, its catholic (lowercase) receptivity, Ulysses is a work of piety in the best, truest sense. Nothing less than an attempt to distill and describe what it means to be human, to crack this humanity business with a single thunderstroke, Ulysses is, in the perfect estimation awarded it by Ernest Hemingway, "a most goddamn wonderful book."

Epic proportions: James Joyce in 1904
photo: © University College Dublin Library
Epic proportions: James Joyce in 1904

Bloomsday is different from all others because it celebrates the writer who makes all things new. Rejoice.

Andrew Lewis Conn read Ulysses, then wrote the novel P (Soft Skull).

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