|Mural of Joyce's everyman Leopold Bloom at Blooms Hotel Temple Bar in Dublin.
This year for Bloomsday I had the privilege of participating in an event at Austin's finest independent bookstore Malvern Books on 29th Street and Guadalupe. There was homemade genuine Irish food made by Irish people, a cluster of fellow humans who have read and loved Ulysses, some yapping by yours truly about the intricacies in James Joyce's most famous book, and passages introduced and read aloud by a half dozen different people including the store's owner Joe hilariously rendering the bizarre opening of the Oxen of the Sun episode. (Video below.)
2016 was my sixth Bloomsday while in Austin, the third Bloomsday in which I'd gotten to hang out and read Ulysses with other Joyceans, and the second year in which I graced the Malvern bookstore podium to deliver a talk on Joyce and Ulysses. It was also a Thursday Bloomsday, just like June 16th in the book. Five years ago, the previous Thursday Bloomsday, an unforgettable day for me in 2011 in which I delivered my thesis on Salvador Dali and Joyce at Caltech during a Joyce conference (that project currently being molded into a book).
While this year's talk was a four-page accounting of U's riddles and innumerable synchronicities, last year I wrote just a one-page speech attempting to give an introduction to why Ulysses is a big deal and Bloomsday is something to celebrate. Here is that talk:
"Rather than writing a novel for a million readers, Joyce said, he preferred to write novels that one person would read a million times."
- Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
"Ulysses made realism mystic."
- Richard Aldington
James Joyce sought to write the great epic of modern man. His great gift as an artist was that he could blend together mythology and everyday life.
So while channeling the spirit, structure, and themes of Homer's Odyssey (which was his favorite story as a child), he presents the story of a modern Odysseus, a new hero for our time.
This new hero is a devoted husband, a loving father, a loyal friend. He works in advertising. He's pretty much a regular guy in his late 30s. He is Leopold Bloom. And he is quite likely the most thoroughly depicted character in any book ever.
As Bloom goes about his day, wandering throughout the city of Dublin in 1904, we are privy to his innermost thoughts, memories, reflections. As we follow Bloom throughout the book, we see him eat, sleep, masturbate, defecate, fart, urinate, perambulate, imbibe and do everything else a human being does in the course of a regular day.
In stark contrast to Homer's warrior Odysseus, who slaughters and pillages throughout his 20-year odyssey, then returns home to find a host of suitors clamoring for his wife and murders all of them, and even cuts off their testicles to feed to his dogs, Bloom detests violence of any kind. He is a warm, kind, and compassionate soul.
In the moment at the end of Ulysses, when Bloom arrives home knowing this Penelope (his wife Molly) has actually cheated on him and slept with another man, he channels the Buddha. As John Bishop (my favorite Joyce scholar) describes it:
"Bloom sits still and, rather than wreaking havoc, uses the weapons of intelligence, sympathy, and fair judgment; arming a bow of reason with arrows of scruples."
Joyce penned his massive ode to Bloom over 7 years while bouncing from Trieste to Zurich to Paris, between 1914 and 1922. Before he'd even finished the book it was condemned as obscene and filthy. The literary magazines that were publishing excerpts were banned, confiscated and burned.
When it was published in 1922 by a small bookshop in Paris, it was almost instantaneously hailed by many critics as one of the greatest literary achievements ever. It was also derided for being dense, obscure, and of course filthy.
It was banned in English speaking countries for over a decade. Common sense and fair judgment eventually prevailed. Now the book is celebrated every year on June 16th for Bloomsday.
And here is a video of the 2016 Bloomsday event, with a very nervous version of me talking to a bookstore full of people about Ulysses at the beginning and end, with a handful of wonderful people in between introducing and reciting passages from the book: