Bloomsday at 100

Two reflections on James Joyce's legacy

Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, is the day anatomized, commemorated, and celebrated in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Striking testimony to the enduring power of Ulysses is that we mark not the birth of its author or the publication of the book but the imagined day of the fiction. Ulysses has inspired a holiday to rival St. Patrick’s Day. Joyce’s vision of Dublin on June 16, 1904, is so compelling that it has entered our consciousness, become part of what we feel and know, remember, and imagine.

Once banned, often excoriated, still dauntingly difficult, Ulysses has become the canonical twentieth-century novel. Readers continue to be exhilarated, nettled, and perplexed by it. Fundamentally paradoxical-a comic epic, antic and grave, mordant and heartbreaking-Ulysses is an encyclopedia of modernism and a gospel of postmodernism.

Yet Ulysses features the traditional qualities of fiction, intriguing characters confronting and creating their fates in a lifelike time and place. We come to know intimately Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, their thinking and feeling, suffering and longing.

Joyce’s characters live in a vividly rendered world. Dublin on June 16, 1904, pulses with life: the sights and sounds, the smells and textures of the city. Newspapers, horse races, trams, power outages, a procession, advertisements, songs, bric-a-brac-all vibrating. Ulysses depicts Dublin, street by street, shops and pubs, bridges, municipal buildings and statues, flotsam and jetsam.

While Joycean reconstruction of time and place is phenomenally accurate, other tidbits have metaphoric or symbolic implications. Woven into the dense fabric of Ulysses are correspondences that connect mundane matters and mythic models-particularly the Bible, Homer, Dante, Mozart, and Shakespeare. Joyce’s revision of Dublin in 1904 becomes a vision of world without end.

Joyce’s resourceful language, endlessly inventive, invites comparison with Shakespeare’s verbal virtuosity. Ulysses has the inclusive scope of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. Of its thirty-three thousand words, sixteen thousand are used only once. One notorious episode recapitulates the history of language from primitive utterances all the way on, or down, to contemporary slang and drunken babble. Joycean language reaches for the heavens and plunges to the lowest depths-from the paradisial “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” to this hellish vision of Stephen’s mother, dead of cancer: “Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes....A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.”

However frightening or disturbing its material, Ulysses revels in the felicitous possibilities of language. An extraordinary variety of tones and styles resound in Dublin on this day of days. Joyce regards his world variously, with rigorous irony, satiric austerity-yet with unflagging magnanimity and pervasive humor. Joyous delight and exuberant energy are sustained despite dismaying pain, suffering, and loss-gaiety (in Yeats’s phrase) “transfiguring all that dread.” Joyce’s coinage for his mixture of laughter and solemnity is “jocoserious.”

Joyce, like Shakespeare, is myriad-minded-providing and requiring multiple perspectives. His vision is ecumenical, encompassing many voices, and his writing is drenched in Catholicism, the faith and institution that shaped and provoked him. Passionate ambivalence to Catholicism pervades Ulysses. Like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce was a rebel, exile, and apostate, an avowed foe of what Stephen bitterly denounces as “the holy Roman Catholic and apostolic church.” Unforgettably (and melodramatically), Stephen taps his skull and proclaims, “in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.”

In 1904, at age twenty-two, Joyce left Ireland forever with his life-long companion, Nora Barnacle, and repudiated Catholicism forever, more or less. As he lay dying in Zurich in 1940, a priest asked Nora, still a Catholic, if he should administer last rites. “Oh, no,” she replied, “I could never do that to him.” Yet just as Joyce forsook but never forgot Dublin, he abandoned his faith but kept its categories (in Hugh Kenner’s formulation).

Designated by an interviewer a “Catholic writer,” Joyce mildly insisted that he was better understood as a “Jesuit writer.” Trained by Jesuits, Joyce admired their intellectual rigor and valued their lucid explication of complicated material. As a novelist, Joyce became a great arranger. He always insisted that however complicated his techniques, his meaning is clear.

An important part of Joyce’s spiritual legacy is his concept of the epiphany, adapted from the feast celebrating the revelation of Christ to the Magi. In Joyce’s secular redefinition, epiphanies “show forth” mysteries hidden behind or within something very ordinary. In these “sudden spiritual manifestations,” he perceived or discovered the miraculous meanings of mundane materials-commonplace gestures, everyday things, the vulgar speech of “Dear dirty Dublin.”

On his quest for the abiding significance of everyday experience, Joyce became a “priest of the eternal imagination,” a potent rival to the priests he flamboyantly repudiated. “Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do,” he remarked, “...by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has permanent artistic life” for spiritual “uplift.” In a less pontifical mood, he agreed that his writing was “trivial.” “Also quadrivial,” he added. Having his portrait painted, he instructed the artist, “Never mind about my immortal soul. Just be sure to get my tie right.”

That incongruous, disconcerting mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, the spiritual and the secular, typifies Joyce and Ulysses. Conceiving a Jewish hero in Dublin, Joyce makes that anomaly as problematic as possible. Leopold Bloom is “Jewish” in a partial and elusive sense-like Woody Allen, “Jewish, with an explanation.”

By strict religious criteria, Bloom is hardly or barely Jewish. He is not observant; he loves pork; he knows only bits of Jewish theology, learning, lore, and tradition. He is not even circumcised. His grandfather was a Hungarian Jew named Virag Lipoti who emigrated and converted. Bloom himself converted twice, to Catholicism and to Protestantism. He married an Irish girl named Molly Tweedy and they “practice” no particular faith.

Yet Bloom is regarded as Jewish for several good reasons. There are hints that Bloom’s Irish-named mother was Jewish. Scores of references and allusions in Ulysses associate Bloom and Judaism. Most important, Bloom thinks of himself as Jewish. He identifies with Jewish history and tradition; he embodies and articulates traditional Jewish values and concerns. No wonder the great Judaica scholar Gerscholm Sholem concluded, “Well, the rabbis might not say that Bloom was a Jew, but I do.”

Joyce called his book an epic of two races, Irish and Israelite. Bloom’s Jewishness is central. The hero is an outsider, someone “other” in the predominantly Catholic society of Dublin in 1904. Bloom is an archetype of the modern protagonist, marginal, in a sense deracinated, tenuously connected to his culture. In his miniature odyssey, he is the Wandering Jew.

Bloom is also a deeply bourgeois, profoundly Irish, highly domestic character, steadfastly linked to his wife, parents, and children. While many of Bloom’s cohort waste their resources in pubs, Bloom rarely indulges and worries constantly about being a good provider, husband, and father. Joyce specified respect for family as a “Jewish” trait.

Bloom has other instincts and attributes Joyce regarded as “Jewish.” He is generous and compassionate, idealistic and public minded, charitable and tender. Bloom demonstrates a traditionally Jewish respect for learning. No intellectual, not always deeply informed, he is always curious and probing. Bloom’s values are broadly liberal and humane, yet characteristically Jewish in their emphasis upon this life and this world. He is a good man, arguably the “best Christian in Dublin.” He is certainly one of the most lovable characters in literature.

But Joyce is too many-minded, too complicated, too keen on ironies and competing possibilities, to create a simply admirable, lovably Jewish hero. Joyce also conceives Bloom with some stereotypical “Jewish” deficiencies, especially as remarked by his Irish companions. There is more than a bit of the schlemiel (to cite that useful Gaelic term) about Bloom. Though Bloom’s macho peers are fools to mock his tender-heartedness, and they stupidly misconstrue his loving kindness as effeminate, Bloom is maddeningly passive and objectionably flaccid. His masochistic fantasies remain disturbing. One suspects that Joyce associated these inclinations with “Jewishness.”

In a memorable scene at a Catholic funeral, Bloom feels estranged. Unimposing, incapable of the casual banter enjoyed by his companions, especially over drinks, he has little to say and what he says is rarely notable. But Bloom’s thoughts, his reflections, are unusual. While his life is dull, bland, his perceptions are vivid, robust.

“What price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies?” Bloom wonders in the cemetery. “No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up: and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.” Now his stubborn skepticism becomes openly satirical: “The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day!”

Bloom’s inner life abounds with vibrancy. He’s perceptive, wondering, commanding, and often amusing. Bloom views the world with sharp skepticism and persistent interest. The world he inhabits may be prosaic but his consciousness is bright, engaging.

Molly’s famous last words say yes to Bloom, and affirm the force of Joyce’s art, now and in time to be: “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.” Ulysses, this great bright book of life, will continue to thrill and woo us unto the crack of Bloom.

Published in the 2004-05-21 issue: 

Robert H. Bell is Kenan Professor of English and founding director of the Project for Effective Teaching at Williams College. He is the author of Jocoserious Joyce: The Fate of Folly in 'Ulysses' and, with William C. Dowling, A Reader's Companion to 'Infinite Jest'.

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