Bloomsday 1904 – 2004

by John Boland

On the centenary of literature’s most famous day, why we should still rejoice (and read Joyce)

Today marks the centenary of a man who never existed, or at least who never existed outside the imagination of a writer and his readers.

Yet this non-existent man is perhaps more real to a lot of those readers — in Tinahely and Tokyo, Ballybrack and Belarus, Donnycarncy and Durban — than many people they’ve actually met and known, whether as acquaintances, colleagues, friends, lovers or family.

Such is the power of great fiction and of the psychological and dramatic mastery of the great fiction writer.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain Bloomsday or how it has insinuated itself into our lives as a quasi-official Irish feast day, June 16 by now taking second place only to March 17 in our calendar of celebration,
Assiduous, indeed aggressive, marketing by our tourism bodies and by the James Joyce industry has much to do with it, of course — it’s doubtful whether the citizens of this country, and especially the denizens of its capital city, would care about honouring Leopold Bloom and his maker if both of them hadn’t been hijacked by agencies with their own agendas and packaged into brands for our collective worship.

And it’s doubtful whether these same citizens care even now. We’ve always had a suspicious and often hostile attitude towards our eminent writers (the legacy of censorship, perhaps, when we were told that the makers of our literature were dirtyminded deviates and therefore doomed to damnation) and we still have it.

Just think of the unofficial titles we promptly give to the statues of our writers as soon as they’re erected — the languorous Wilde in Merrion Square immediately becoming The Fag on the Crag and the dandyish Joyce at the corner of Talbot Street acquiring the jeering, contemptuous moniker The Prick with the Stick.

Such derision is in our nature and so, too, are the anti-intellectualism and social insecurity that underlie it, and no doubt there’ll be much muttered mockery on this centenary day as the descendants of Joyce’s Dubliners contemplate the antics of the Joyce scholars and wannabe socialities swarming around this dirty old town on their pilgrimages of homage.

And yet, and yet, among these latter-day Dubliners there’s also an exasperated fondness that shades into a kind of pride at the fact that, solelv because of James Joyce, no city in the world has been so minutely and lovingly detailed and that no other fictional character has become so synonymous with a place as to be officially canonised for his association with it — Spain hasn’t got a Don Quixote day, France an Emma Bovary day or England an Elizabeth Bennett or David Copperfield day.

And only Bloom among Joyce’s characters will do for such festive celebration. Dedalus Day would have been a non-runner — young Stephen is too prissy, too much the aesthete, too rarefied, while Molly — well, Molly is simply her own woman, sleepy, sensual and sui generis.

It was typical of Joyce’s genius and of his all-embracing humanity that he chose for his Everyman that most marginalised of Dubliners, a lower-middle-class Jew.

In the opening pages of Ulysses, the detestable schoolmaster Mr Deasy tells Stephen Dedalus that Ireland “has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews”, and then he laughingly explains why: “Because she never let them in.” Well, Joyce let Bloom in and by his genius he made Bloom into all of us.

But can all of us read about him? Joyce is famous for the difficulty, or perceived difficulty, of much of his writing and generations of readers have been encouraged by the work of academic specialists to believe that he’s inaccessible to them.

Of course, another camp has encouraged them to believe that, on the contrary, lie’s entirely accessible, which is just as unhelpful and even more misleading.

The truth is that, even to a literate, intelligent and perceptive reader (the common reader, in Samuel Johnson’s approving view), he’s both – and often in the same work.

Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man present no problems to this intelligent and perceptive reader and are widely, and rightly, loved — the former for its extraordinary sense of particular people in a particular time and place and for (in Joyce’s own sardonic words) giving the Irish “one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass”; the latter for its chronicle of spiritual and artistic development and its rejection of old pietistic certainties. Non serviam.

But what of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, whose linguistic and narrative experiments have loomed so large over the world literature of the twentieth century?
Most readers who have attempted the latter have retreated in angry or despairing bafflement at its seeming impenetrability, and certainly any attempt to unlock its secrets would take more time and effort than most people could reasonably be expected to devote to it if they wished to do anything else with their cultural lives, or with their lives in general. Here comes everybody? Move a case of there goes everybody.

So Finnegans Wake will remain a book too far for most readers, while continuing to furnish academics with careers — the more difficult the work, the more explication of it that is required, the more theses that can be written on it and the more courses that can be taught about it, which is why you don’t find too much attention being paid to William Trevor or Patrick Kavanagh, the meaning of whose work is clear to every intelligent reader and thus renders such academic scrutiny redundant.

That leaves Ulysses, the book we’re constantly being told is the key fictional work of the age and, thus, key to our understanding of literary radicalism and influence in our time and of what constitutes modernism — much as we’re told that what Stravinsky created in The Rite of Spring is crucial to our awareness of how twentieth-century music broke with traditional conventions.
Ulysses is the book on which the Joyce legend ultimately rests — indeed, on which it has come to depend in the minds of most people. So is it also a book too far for Dr Johnson’s common reader? Are its more difficult sections — with all the mythological, scientific and cultural knowledge they expect from us — too much to be bothering with? Quite simply, have we the time for it? And if we have, will we be repaid for whatever extra concentration we bring to it?

That question must be answered individually by everyone who embarks on Ulysses, just as Beethoven’s late quartets, say, provoke a different response from each listener, whether that response be irritated bemusement or excited recognition. The point in both cases is that the effort must be made, that what you get out of thes£ masterpieces is directly related to what you put into them.
The Beethoven quartets, which seem so daunting, even alienating, on first hearing, reveal more and more of their beauties the more we listen to them and the more we bother to know about the form Beethoven inherited and changed.
So we probably need to know our Haydn and Mozart, too, if the experience is to be as thrilling and enriching as it can be.  The same is true of all branches of the arts and of their rules and conventions: the more you know about these rules and conventions, the more you’ll enjoy looking or listening or reading.

But the problem is that most people can’t understand why they should make that effort, especially in an age where everyone is conditioned to expect instant gratification — and if that gratification isn’t immediately available from a book or movie or piece of music we seek elsewhere for it. (Men do bother to learn all the intricate rules of their favourite sports, but men and spoils are a law unto themselves).

And so, if we pick up Ulysses and try to read it as we would read Maeve Binchy or even Maeve Brennan we’ll be bewildered by it. To begin with, it has no plot, no story in the way that we’ve come to expect such things from fiction — nothing happens in it, or at least nothing that traditional fiction has taught us to recognise.

And instead of the conventional narrative voice, there’s a myriad of voices, and in a myriad of stylistic, techniques, too, so that one minute we’re being enthralled by the earthy naturalism of the argument in Barney Kiernan’s pub and the next we’re being asked to decode philosophical, scientific and linguistic riddles. What’s the point? Only the individual reader can decide that, and there are thousands upon thousands of readers who’ve done everything possible to give Ulysses their best shot and still can’t hack it.

So be it, because, although it’s exhilarating in its exuberant detailing of Dublin and of Dublin people, it’s not an easy book to assimilate as a whole, despite what some of its apologists claim for it, and there’s no guarantee that those who persevere with it will find it rewarding, cither, in the way that the wonderful stories in Dubliners are endlessly rewarding.

But it’s there, a great, troubling monolith that looms over the literature of the last century and over our notion of ourselves in Ireland, and it can’t be ignored. Certainly there’s no ignoring it or its extraordinary creator on this day of days.

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