Tuesday, June 16, 2015

For Bloomsday 2015

"I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me."
 - Ulysses

This year to celebrate Bloomsday (June 16th, the day on which James Joyce's novel Ulysses takes place, named for the book's everyman hero Leopold Bloom) I'll be participating in some festivities over at Malvern Books on West 29th St here in Austin, starting at 6:30 pm. There will be music, food, drinks, readings from the book and I'll be delivering an introductory talk.

Incredibly, the Day of Bloom will be celebrated in many locales across the globe, including and especially China as The Guardian details.

To commemorate the big day here I'd like to share something I've been intending to post for a long time.

Below you can listen to the only recording Joyce ever made of himself reciting from his most famous book. It's a selection from the "Aeolus" episode, recorded in 1924, featuring a character delivering a speech likening the plight of the Irish with that of the Biblical Hebrews, with lots of Egyptian imagery.

Here is the text (loosely) to follow along. Notice his tone switching between the narrator, the speech, and Stephen's inner monologue:
He began:
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: Great was my admiration in listening to the remarks addressed to the youth of Ireland a moment since by my learned friend. It seemed to me that I had been transported into a country far away from this country, into an age remote from this age, that I stood in ancient Egypt and that I was listening to the speech of some highpriest of that land addressed to the youthful Moses.
His listeners held their cigarettes poised to hear, their smoke ascending in frail stalks that flowered with his speech. And let our crooked smokes. Noble words coming. Look out. Could you try your hand at it yourself?
 — And it seemed to me that I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest raised in a tone of like haughtiness and like pride. I heard his words and their meaning was revealed to me. 
From the Fathers
It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted. Ah, curse you! That's saint Augustine. 
Why will you jews not accept our culture, our religion and our language? You are a tribe of nomad herdsmen; we are a mighty people. You have no cities nor no wealth: our cities are hives of humanity and our galleys, trireme and quadrireme, laden with all manner merchandise furrow the waters of the known globe. You have but emerged from primitive conditions: we have a literature, a priesthood, an agelong history and a polity. 
Child, man, effigy.
By the Nilebank the babemaries kneel, cradle of bulrushes: a man supple in combat: stonehorned, stonebearded, heart of stone.
You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name. A dumb belch of hunger cleft his speech. He lifted his voice above it boldly:
But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage nor followed the pillar of the cloud by day. He would never have spoken with the Eternal amid lightnings on Sinai's mountaintop nor ever have come down with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw.

The sound quality is poor but the powerful message still resonates.

There is great significance to this seemingly random passage from Joyce's giant book.

He insisted it was to be the only selection he would ever record. Even though Joyce told Sylvia Beach (the book's publisher and supporter) that he'd chosen this passage "because it was declamatory and therefore suitable for recital," Beach knew there was something else to it. "I believe that it expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice," she wrote.

Listen to those final words again:

"graven in the language of the outlaw."

Joycean scholar Sebastian Knowles wrote of this final line:
On the recording, you hear Joyce's relish of "outlaw," reinforcing his own role as an exile, as the writer in an outlaw language, and as a participant in the outlaw creation of a new Irish literature. But the central word is "graven," as an engraving, as a text that is both positive and negative, and as a voice that is in several senses coming from beyond the grave.
And I'd like to add: Joyce the outlaw was also being publicly excoriated and condemned for his "obscene" and "filthy" book. At this point, in 1924, he had equal fame and notoriety. The greatest novel in the English language was banned, confiscated, and burned in the US and the UK for over a decade after its publication in 1922.

That final line is Joyce's eloquent middle finger to the authorities, the phony arbiters of moral justice.

Happy Bloomsday!

(This post owes a great deal to an old James Joyce Quarterly article by Adrian Curtin entitled "Hearing Joyce Speak: The Phonograph Recordings of 'Aeolus' and 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' as Audiotexts.)"