Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Bloomsday Fuss

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. 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.

So, happy Bloomsday.  Those of us who were born later than Joyce, who haven't read much of the work that came before Joyce, probably aren't aware of what a radical experiment he presented.  A work that takes place in just one day?  Revolutionary!  I could argue that Virginia Woolf did it more artistically with Mrs. Dalloway, but before the Modernists, most people would have thought of just one day as not worthy of documenting.  And Joyce's interior monologues capture like no other work what it's like to be inside a brain, to listen to thoughts without the scaffolding of traditional narrative.

I have read Ulysses several times, and I confess, I likely will never read it again.  But I'm grateful to have done it, grateful that it exists, grateful that I had guides to show me of its mastery.

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