Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bloomsday: James Joyce, Ulysses, And Leopold Bloom

Today is far from an ordinary day in the world of western literature.  It isn't that a number of significant events occurred or that any event occurred that day. Instead, June 16 (1904) is the setting for a several hundred page descriptive stream of happenings in the life of the fictional character, Leopold Bloom. The work is Ulysses, published in book form in 1922. The author is James Joyce. 

Ulysses is a shape shifting piece of art written out of the ashes of the Belle Epoque and the alienation of an increasingly existential world. If you accept that meanings are in people, this book assuredly means something different to every person who accepted the challenge to read it. Just can't get more existential than that.  The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, said this about it:

What is so staggering about Ulysses is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the drama of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.

A first edition copy describes as "unread except for the racy bits."

To say the least, Ulysses is an adventure. For some it may be merely pornographic or a huge word puzzle or a unique work of art in its truest form. However you chose to view the novel keep in mind that people are celebrating this work and its author across the world today on what has become known as Bloomsday. And even those who know nothing about Bloomsday, never read the book or know little about the author have likely encountered bits and pieces of Joyce's skill in school and through popular culture. This memorable paragraph ends the book:

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.

I came to appreciate that quote so much I used it for almost twenty years in a descriptive writing course. Other quotes could have been useful but their playfulness simply made them interesting, maybe even enjoyable if you had a reading guide - really an essential - at hand:

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

So there is word play at its best with lots of traditional arts and sciences, a dash of Dadaism, even a precursor or two of pataphysics. Rest assured there's more there than the racy bits. 

If you want to learn more about the day, the book, and the author, visit these sites: Bloomsday, Ulysses, and James Joyce


Photos and Illustrations:, June 4, 2009, photo by Martin Argles

Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s,  revised, Viking Press, 1964

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