Aside from presuming to reference the Odyssey (which I’ve read only once in a Freshman philosophy course four years ago), I’m also presuming to write about Bloomsday, that is, Ulysses, by James Joyce.
Bloomsday, if you don’t know, is today: 16 June, 2014. It is a commemoration of the life and work of James Joyce, and it is based on his monstrous novel Ulysses which takes place on this day in 1904.
I’ll confess, I’m sort of jumping on the band wagon rather late: I only realized Bloomsday was a thing last month, when I visited the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. There I learned something about Joyce and his work, and today I’m just beginning to understand.
My understanding began when, in the spirit of the wagon, I wanted to know what people do on Bloomsday. Perhaps, consume a mutton kidney, or take a walk by the beach, or, in the evening- well, somethings are best left unsaid.
But it was this search for involvement that lead me to an article in Vanity Fair called “Bloomsday is a Travesty, but Not for the Reason You Think” (James S. Murphy). This article made me more aware of just how little I know about James Joyce and his work.
Murphy discusses the history of Ulysses as a vulgar, banned text, and how Joyce as a writer would probably be bothered by the holiness of the day.
“Bloomsday celebrations treat Joyce too much like a saint and his book too much like a gospel to be revered first and read later, if at all. By placing Ulysses on a pedestal, we lose sight of both its vulgar origins and its power to tell us deep truths about our world and ourselves precisely by keeping the earthy and obscene aspects of ourselves in view.”
So this makes me wonder about the text. I’ve started the text twice in the last three years, while attending college and taking classes, and both times I found that I could not immerse myself enough to get anything out it. Like a “gospel”, it is a text that requires a great deal of time and energy to read well, and a reader who isn’t prepared to immerse fully in the text will miss out.
But I’m presuming again, to talk about books I haven’t read as though I have some knowledge from my own understanding! What I’m writing here is still only a parrot of the mind of Murphy and, through Murphy, a man named Birmingham.
“Luckily,” wrote Murphy, “a new book by the literary scholar Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, can help us recall Ulysses for what it was and should still be, a shocking novel that tore at decency and tradition as it clawed its way into existence rather than a “classic” that sits happily on an educated person’s bookshelf for eternity, never to be pulled down.”
Here, like the sinner in the pews, I’m finding moral conviction from the words of this literary “preacher”. And I’m beginning to experience Joyce as a fellow writer and human being. I can’t say I know diddly about his work, but I can say that I’ve started a journey with an uncertain end. I’m parroting these writers now, but maybe we all need the crutches of another’s words as we learn to speak for ourselves.
So here is the beginning of my appreciation of Joyce and general literature: the affirmation that literature is seeping, and slow-working. Though I’ll parrot Murphy again, he expresses this with a paraphrase:
“Birmingham compared reading Ulysses to taking a slow-acting drug that gradually reshapes our understanding of ourselves, working its way into our consciousness as we read it, unsettling who we are.”
So, on this Bloomsday, read well and read carefully, but be warned: you may find your understanding altered.