June 16, 2014

The greatest literary character of them all, Leo Bloom, a rather nondescript, middle-age man, wanders his city of Dublin on June 16, 1904. He confronts friends, enemies, shopkeepers and bartenders, vendors and grifters. He journeys from eight a.m. to two a.m. the next morning. Hard on his mind is the fact that his wife Molly is having an affair, his male sex drive, pending war and his own ordinariness. Every unconscious thought in his head is recorded in stream of consciousness soliloquy. Mr. Bloom is performing Irish jazz and his subconscious is his instrument, and the people he meets are a big band.

Three literary artifices dominate this simple plot: Modernism, in which writers across the globe are experimenting with stream of consciousness; mythic storytelling, in the guise of Homer’s “Ulysses;” and attention to the common man as a tragic figure, as in the works of playwrights Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller and novelist John Updike. 

110 years ago, the book named by the majority of publishers as the greatest literary work of the twentieth century was published. The author, James Joyce, told his wife Nora that the work would confound critics for a century. He was modest. “Ulysses” still confounds critics and is scarcely read by readers much less the general public who think that smart means “smart phone.”

James Augustine Joyce was born in Dublin Ireland to a hard drinking father and an enabling mother. It was apparent early on that young James was a genius. His father published his son’s first poem when the boy was ten. James Joyce possessed a serious eye for detail, so much so that it was said, after the publication of “Ulysses,” that if Dublin were bombed in a war (World War I is the looming backdrop for all of this), it could be rebuilt based on Joyce’s detailed descriptions of the city.

James Joyce was educated in a time when that word meant something, unlike our time when “well educated” means “well trained,” and graduate degrees come as prizes in cereal boxes. He spoke 17 languages, snatches of many of those appearing in “Ulysses,” one of many off-putting stylistic gifts, to the reading public of the time, to us. He was the beneficiary of a patron who for years paid his family’s living expenses. His subject was Dublin and the surrounding countryside. Said James Joyce, “In the particular is contained the universal.”

“Ulysses” was published serially in Europe. The first 1,000 copies of the novel were burned in—guess where—the United States, for obscenity. The precursors of the Tea Party, censors and quasi-religious, capitalist patriarchs, who knew what was right for all of us, sensed the danger in the book and sought to exterminate it.

I first read “Ulysses” when I was in my teens. Curiosity almost killed the cat. I had no study guide, so I passed over the parts written in other languages. I hadn’t yet read Homer’s “Ulysses,” so I missed the myth part. But still, the power, the raw power of the words, of the men speaking the words, of the artist who wrote the words, coursed through my veins. I started reading the chapters aloud, more easily making sense of the narrative. I had heard rumors of sexy parts, and I looked hard for the sexy parts and was rewarded.

Today, Bloomsday will be celebrated across the world, mostly by actors who will read the entire book in 18 hour marathons. And audiences will picnic and drink and laugh and reflect. There will be scholarly events—scholars come hard on after writers write, after all—but “Ulysses” belongs to us, working men and women, hard live-ers and drinkers and lapsed religionists and sinners and devout Catholics and cuckolds and quirky folk.

Happy Bloomsday to you, Ted Cruz. You, you “overeducated” twit, have one book of myths, ripped off from works which predate it by centuries. We the people have limitless books by We the People. Works by Woolf and Welty and Lessing and Cormac McCarthy and Hughes and Faulkner and Morrison and Whitman and Dostoyevsky and Eliot and Borges and Heller and Roth and the writing god Beckett.

Asterisk: James Joyce’s secretary, young Sam Beckett, read the tea leaves and realized that the Modernist movement had sailed; his mentor could not be topped. He built a new ship, and the scholars (of course!) dubbed it Absurdism. There isn’t a person in Alton, in Chicago, in Dallas, in L.A., in New York City, in Brazil at the World Cup, in London, in Moscow, in the Vatican, in outer space . . . who, consciously or unconsciously, isn’t waiting for Godot.

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