Monday, June 16, 2014

Happy Bloomsday!

Today is June 16, and James Joyce fans around the world will be remembering this fateful day in fiction, the one single day on which all the action in the book Ulysses takes place.

Those of us on this side of Modernism forget about how revolutionary this technique was. We forget that many novels used to start on the day a character was born and trudge through a thousand pages depicting that character's life. We forget about how recently we first started using inner monologues as a narrative technique. We forget about how we've only recently begun to understand psychology and to use psychological elements to explore our characters.

Ulysses is a hard book, the hardest thing I've ever read, yes, harder than Shakespeare, harder than Tristram Shandy. Joyce did pure stream of consciousness, with no sort of architecture to help a reader. After all, if you just tuned into my thoughts, I wouldn't give you background on who these people are in my thoughts. I know, so I don't have to fill in those blanks.

I only care about Bloomsday as a sort of cosmic accident. When I got to grad school and pored over the list of classes I could take, I discovered that most of them were full. As a new grad student, I was last to register. And so I found myself in Tom Rice's class on James Joyce. What a life-changing experience that was.

I notice that several of the stories from Dubliners show up in anthologies, even first year literature anthologies. But would I have ever had the patience to wade through Ulysses all by myself? Absolutely not.

Bloomsday celebrates the day, June 16, on which all the action in Ulysses takes place, but it's also a tribute to the day on which James Joyce and Nora Barnacle (who would be his wife) had their first date. The book covers almost every kind of action that can take place in a human day: we see Leopold Bloom in the bathroom, we see Stephen Dedalus pick his nose, we see Leopold Bloom masturbate . . . and we finally get to the masterful final chapter, where Molly Bloom muses on the physicality of being a woman.

As with many books, whose scandalous reputations preceded them, I read and read and waited for the scandalous stuff. As a post-modern reader, I was most scandalized by how difficult it was. It's hard to imagine that such a book would be published today.

But what a glorious book it is. What fun Joyce has, as he writes in different styles and plays with words. What a treat for English majors like me, who delighted in chasing down all the allusions.

I went on to write my M.A. thesis on Joyce, trying to prove that he wasn't as anti-woman as his reputation painted him to be. Since then, other scholars have done a more thorough job than I did. But I'm still proud of that thesis. I learned a lot by writing it. At the time, it was the longest thing I had ever written--in the neighborhood of 50 pages. A few years later, I'd be writing 150 pages as I tackled my dissertation--on domestic violence in the Gothic. By the time I'd written my thesis, I had said all I had to say on Joyce.

The paper that I wrote, and then the resulting M.A. thesis, had some post-modern elements too.  It wasn't a work that relied on traditional literary scholarship.  I pulled resources from modern feminist theory, and I even quoted from the journals I kept as a younger woman to prove that Joyce captured a certain kind of female adolescent thought.  Looking back, I'm amazed that I was able to use my journals--but then again, my professor Tom Rice was a Joyce scholar, so perhaps it's not amazing that he'd let me use very post-modern sources--like myself, or a younger version of myself.  Very Joyceian, in many ways.

In those days of the late 80's, there weren't as many scholars doing multi-disciplinary types of analysis.  Now I imagine I'd be putting together some kind of project that would use film clips and other sources.  Of course, I'd probably need to be at a different kind of grad school.

But I digress.  How Joyceian of me!

My copy of Ulysses is at the office, so at some point today, I'll open to a random passage and see what's there.  How different it will be from that long-ago time in 1989, when I read Ulysses and Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Gallagher as I sunbathed by the pool.  I'd soak in the sun, and then go back and work on my thesis and then sunbathe some more.

I won't have time to make Irish food, as I race from the office to Vacation Bible School tonight, where I am the Arts and Crafts director.  That, too, feels Joyceian.  If you could follow my stream of consciousness thoughts today, I'm sure they'd be a jumble. 

1 comment:

Wendy said...

I tried to read it in a little reading group of High School English Teachers. Never made it through. Fully agree it's more difficult than Shakespeare. :-)