Bloomsday at 100

Two reflections

On June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, one of literature’s most unlikely and endearing couples, each journeyed through Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses. To Joyce enthusiasts all over the world, that day became known as “Bloomsday.” This year being the centenary, Ireland is holding a festival from April 1 to August 31. Although Joyce might have been pleased that his works are still being read, that his name is remembered with affection and festivity in his own country, where it was once condemned and reviled, the commemorative program outlined by the Irish Tourist Board would hardly have been to his taste. Joyce has become an Irish industry in some ways as trivial as leprechaun spotting and shamrockery.

But not entirely. Dubliners, Joyce’s seminal 1914 book of short stories, describes the paralysis of his native city. The twin forces of politics and religion had entrapped the Irish in alcoholism, sexual repression, and poverty. Frustrated by such oppression, Joyce himself left Dublin, not coincidentally, in 1904. He called his Dubliners a “chapter in the moral history of my country,” an attempt to galvanize the creative energy that would help his fellow citizens to “revolt against the dull inelegance” of the city. Dubliners refused to examine the darkness underpinning the veneer of their shabby respectability, Joyce thought. In contrast, he defended the freedom of humanity in opposition to all airless and merely logical orthodoxies.

Richard Ellmann begins his biography of Joyce-both the 1959 and 1982 editions: “We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter.” Maybe, at last, on the centenary of Bloomsday, we can celebrate something of the freedom that Joyce sensed as our destiny. The words with which he ends A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man may well be taking flesh three generations later: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Dublin or Duibh linn, as the name is written in the ancient annals, means a black pool. The name has a certain psychological resonance, for Joyce pioneered an artistic way into the underground darkness of the unconscious. In a 1906 letter to his brother Stanislaus he says:

if I put a bucket into my own soul’s well, sexual department, I draw up Griffith’s and Ibsen’s and Skeffington’s and Bernard Vaughan’s and St. Aloysius’s and Shelley’s and Renan’s water along with my own. And I am going to do that in my novel (inter alia) and plank the bucket down before the shades and substances above mentioned to see how they like it: and if they don’t like it I can’t help them. I am nauseated by their lying drivel about pure men and pure women and spiritual love for ever: blatant lying in the face of the truth.

As it happens, the city Joyce made famous has recently developed a number of features suggesting that its inhabitants are at last becoming aware of the human and artistic possibilities Joyce undertook to investigate. In 2003, the so-called Millennium Spire was finally completed and now stands 120 meters tall in the center of O’Connell Street. The architect, Ian Ritchie, says that this creation should be viewed as the spire of an underground cathedral encompassing the whole city of Dublin, and, perhaps, the whole country of Ireland. A new bridge across Dublin’s River Liffey was officially opened on Bloomsday 2003. This “James Joyce Bridge” links Ellis Quay on the north of the river to Ushers Island, the location of the actual house described in Joyce’s masterful story, “The Dead.” Costing †9 million, the bridge was designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls. It was one of the last works of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff, makers of the Titanic. The bridge itself took six months longer than anticipated to construct because of its unusual design. Finished in gleaming white, it provides not only a most elegant sculptured connection between the teeming city and the house of “The Dead,” but also twin pedestrian walkways and viewing areas on each side of a central four-lane section carrying road traffic. It allows for Bloomsday pilgrims to walk across the waters of what Joyce described as “anna livia plurabelle,” enacting perhaps their own odyssey from Irish paralysis to Joycean freedom.

The bridge’s engineers tell us that “the main arch steelwork was formed on a large hydraulic press (thought to be the largest horizontal open press in the world)...to produce complex multiaxis bends as specified for this uniquely designed structure.” The same might be said for the press on which the original works of Joyce were printed! You might even say that the purpose of Joyce’s works was similar to the goals of the bridge designers: “to develop bend geometry.” I like to think that the bridgebuilders’ vocabulary captures what Joyce was trying to do in his novels.

The two main parabolic arches of the bridge create two continuous, tilted, tied arches as the support spans for this unique steel structure. In a similar way, the two main parabolic arches of Ulysses are the journeys of Stephen and Bloom through the streets of Dublin. “In Ulysses, I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such saying, seeing and thinking does, to what you Freudians call the subconscious.”

If Milton felt called to explain the ways of God to humankind, Joyce felt obliged to explain the ways of humankind to God. Having rejected the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, he embraced with passion and rigor what could be called an orthodoxy of humanity. He realized that there was more to life than deductive Jesuit philosophy. In this sense he was a contemporary in spirit of the Surrealists, of Proust, of Freud, of Jung, of Rilke and all those who were embracing the new century’s awareness of human possibility. Not that Joyce was in any way appreciative of his contemporaries. He despised Freud and Jung, for example, referring to them as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. He felt that they were pillaging a reality that artists alone were capable of expressing.

The reason Joyce had to use such an esoteric and opaque style in his final masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, is that, as he explained, “one great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cut-and-dry grammar and go-ahead plot.”

Joyce described Finnegans Wake as written “to suit the esthetic of the dream, where the forms prolong and multiply themselves, where the visions pass from the trivial to the apocalyptic, where the brain uses the roots of vocables to make others from them which will be capable of naming its phantasms, its allergies, its illusions.” The “new conscience” that Joyce was forging in the smithy of his soul was not the Catholic rational ordering of life borrowed from Aristotelian or Thomistic principles. For him, the center of gravity was no longer reason or consciousness. Another axis had to be established between consciousness and the unconscious, bridges had to be designed which would allow access to this underground and unexplored world.

Joyce’s magisterial work is such a bridge. Ironically, it is a kind of cathedral as well, one that incorporates the whole of humanity, unconscious as well as conscious, nighttime as well as daytime, male as well as female. For Joyce, as for the second-century bishop and martyr St. Irenaeus, the glory of God cannot be other than man and woman fully alive. I said to the Judas Tree speak to me of God, and the Judas Tree burst into Bloom.

Published in the 2004-05-21 issue: 

Mark Patrick Hederman writes from Glenstal Abbey, Limerick, Ireland. He is the author of The Haunted Inkwell: Art and Our Future (Columba).

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