Why is today different from all other days? Who is this Bloom, and why does he—along with Lincoln and Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus, Valentine and Patrick—have his day?
For the uninitiated: Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, the day upon which all of the events of James Joyce’s wonderwork, Ulysses, take place. Bloomsday celebrates neither the year of the book’s publication (1922) nor that of Joyce’s birth (1882). Rather, as Isaiah Sheffer, host and director of “Bloomsday on Broadway XXIII” at Symphony Space (to which we’ll return), explains, June 16 is the world’s sole annual “commemoration of a fictional date, a date in which something happened in a book.”
What happens on this “allincluding” day? In Ulysses, Joyce reimagined The Odyssey, finding modern-day analogues for the characters and situations from Homer’s epic poem in turn-of-the-century Dublin: prudent, gentle Leopold Bloom for Odysseus; the young would-be writer Stephen Dedalus for Telemachus; earthy, adulterous Molly Bloom for faithful Penelope; a day in the life for Odysseus’s 20 years wandering.
Appropriating the outline of the ancient text, Joyce doesn’t simply build a bridge between antiquity and modernity: He crosses it, then blows it up. For just as Bloom’s peregrinations over this average day touch upon the full spectrum of human experience—eating, drinking, cooking, defecating, bathing; masturbation, sex, death, religion; athletics, politics, imagination; singing, sleeping, violence, drunkenness, childbirth (has ever a writer given a better sense of the clutter of life?)—over the course of Bloomsday, Joyce puts the English language through its paces as well. The most formally daring of books, Ulysses begins as a more or less well-behaved 19th-century-style novel and then passes, chapter by chapter, through every conceivable narrative mode (third- and first-person narration, newspaper headlines and articles, an entire full-length play-within-the-book, catechistic Q&A) until it arrives at Molly Bloom’s punctuationless interior monologue, which brings the book to a close with that simplest, most beautiful word of affirmation.
But back to Bloom. In his masterly biography, Richard Ellmann relates how Joyce chose to model his epic on Homer’s poem because he considered Odysseus the most “complete” character in world literature (son of Laertes, father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, king of Ithaca, companion in arms to the Greek warriors at Troy). Joyce longed to create a character of that magnitude—an epic hero and everyman—but how to do it given the mundane material of modern life?
Ulysses is vaunted for its extravagant use of stream of consciousness (though “stream” seems to me too diminutive a description for a work of such linguistic rapids), and the means by which Joyce captures his protagonist’s thoughts as they flit about the day—seemingly random, but accruing into a portrait not just of a single man, but of a city, a civilization—is an amazing achievement, one that brings Bloom achingly close. Equally extraordinary, however, is the physical Bloom: the Bloom who carries a bar of lemon soap in one trouser pocket, a lucky potato in the other; the Bloom who sleeps with his feet facing his wife’s head; the Bloom who, just pages after being introduced to the reader, is seen on the toilet having a bowel movement. Joyce wants to fashion an epic of modern life—of streets and pubs and brothels—and Bloom on the bowl counts as hero’s work.
For all the book’s myriad technical wonders, if Bloomsday has special significance it is because it’s Bloom’s day. This might seem self-evident, but it’s really not. Rather than give Ulysses over to the book’s other, major governing consciousness, the brilliant, astringent Stephen Dedalus—the surrogate figure high schoolers will be familiar with from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the prideful young man in black who, like his creator, refuses to kneel in prayer beside his dying mother—Joyce awards the book to Bloom.
There is volcanic anger in Ulysses, to be sure, against bigotry and philistinism, but also the warmth of a backward-looking exile’s embrace. Ulysses can be read, I think, as Joyce saying farewell to firebrand Stephen in favor of the more mature, married character. Advertising canvasser, Jewish outsider, cuckold, and all-round good-hearted schlemihl, Bloom has a greater sense of humanity than Stephen, and it is this—Joyce’s acknowledgment that the Bloom who embraces others is ultimately more in league with the angels than the Stephen who self-consciously sets himself apart—as much as anything else that makes the book great.
It is worth noting here that Joyce selected Bloomsday’s date to commemorate the day that he and his life companion, the fantastically named Nora Barnacle (“She’ll stick to him!” Joyce’s father said), began their courtship. If Bloom is his author’s richest creation—as well as the greatest Jewish character in world literature: more forgiving than Moses, funnier than Jesus, filthier than Portnoy—he is indicative of the Joyce who said of Nora, the wife who’d read exactly 27 pages of his book including the cover, “She saved my life.”
A spate of books surrounds Joyce and the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday: yes I said yes I will Yes., edited by Nola Tully; Carol Loeb Shloss’s biography of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia; Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Worlds, Modern Words; and James Joyce’s Dublin by Ian Dunn et al., which places significant and appropriate emphasis on the topography of the story’s city. And there’s the upcoming DVD release of Sean Walsh’s lovely debut film, Bloom, an imaginative adaptation with Stephen Rea as Leopold and Angeline Ball as Molly. All of them are worthy additions for Joyceans, but what I’m most looking forward to this centenary year is “Bloomsday on Broadway XXIII” at Symphony Space.
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.”
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).