Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Bloomsday 100, part 2: the coverage

Before writing a little on Joyce's Ulysses myself, I wanted to do a coverage roundup. Here's it's facilitated by Arts & Letters Daily, which has already compiled one for me.

It's a mixed bag.

Start with Steven Schwartz, in The Weekly Standard. Most of his article is a cliff-notes summary of the novel; the interesting part is the opening, where he tries to make Joyce safe for today's conservatives! Sorry Schwartz: Joyce kicked himself out of his own country, out of his own church, even (in a way) out of his own language. Joyce disengaged himself from all group loyalties; he shouldn't be turned over to the kinds of critics who would make him loyal to God and country. (For good measure, leftists and progressive will have some trouble with him as well.)

This, for instance, is Stephen in the 'Telemachus' episode. He's being harassed by an Englishman named Haines, who is clueless as to the depth of Stephen's resentment of the British presence in Ireland:

-- After all, I should think you are able to free yourself. You are your own master, it seems to me.
-- I am the servant of two masters, Stephen said, an English and an Italian.
-- Italian? Haines said.
A crazy queen, old and jealous. Kneel down before me.
-- And a third, Stephen said, there is who wants me for odd jobs.
-- Italian? Haines said again. What do you mean?
-- The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.

Joyce was against organized religion, never legally married. And he walked a precarious and lonely line with his direct challenges to British Imperialism and simple Irish nationalism. I don't think conservatives should approve.

The reactions of cultural conservatives are more accurately represented in some quotes in Tim Cavanaugh's piece in Reason:

Ulysses recently has drawn the fire of literary iconoclasts. "I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce," writes the dyspeptic critic Dale Peck, who condemns the book’s "diarrheic flow of words" and applauds himself for having spoken "heresy" against a canonical work. "Ulysses could have done with a good editor," the acclaimed novelist Roddy Doyle recently told an audience of crestfallen Joyce fans. "You know, people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written, but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it." Concludes the writer Stefan Sullivan in a recent Washington Times appreciation: "Ulysses is a pretty awful novel."

Not that Dale Peck is necessarily a conservative. But don't be misled by these quotes; Cavanaugh's piece on Ulysses' ongoing popularity despite the difficulty actually warms towards its topic. In my view, the reason to go back to Ulysess isn't the fart jokes, and it isn't the 'mythic method'; it's the fact that Joyce writes some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language. I think Cavanaugh knows this, though it only really becomes apparent that he's a fan of Joyce at the end of the article.

This piece, by Jonathan Wilson in the New York Times, doesn't have much to say about Ulysses itself, though I did find it informative. It's actually on the history of Jews in Ireland. Most of the Jews who moved to Ireland in the earlier immigration came from Lithuania, in the late 19th century (Leopold Bloom, though Joyce places his ancestry in Hungary, resembles them). But the numbers of these 'old school' Irish Jews have declined, while a small burst of Israeli high tech people have started what might be a new wave of Jewish immigrants. One thing I didn't know about was the anti-Jewish pogrom which also occurred in 1904:

There are, of course, blemishes in Ireland's historical relationship with its Jewish population: there was an infamous pogrom in Limerick, 120 miles southwest of Dublin, in 1904, when members of the town, inflamed by an anti-Semitic priest, the Rev. John Creagh, smashed Jewish homes, beat Jews on the street and organized a boycott of Jewish shopkeepers. As has been frequently noted, it's no accident that in ''Ulysses,'' the citizen, who challenges Bloom in Barney Kiernan's pub with the question ''What is your nation?'' and later threatens to ''brain that Jewman,'' carries copies of the radical nationalist newspaper The United Irishman, which had printed its editor Arthur Griffith's approving reports of the pogrom.

Interesting. I don't recall seeing references to the pogrom in the novel, though Joyce certainly takes the side of Bloom (and Jews) against bigots and nativist Irishmen.

Andrew Martin's excellent piece in the Telegraph is a rough recreation of the travels of Bloom in Dublin, completed a few weeks ago. It's highly entertaining reading -- best for its one-liners expressing the glaring contrast between the romantic poverty of Bloom and Stephen's Dublin and the upwardly-mobile, multicultural Dublin of today:

If you wanted to unite two great clichés, you would say that Dublin was a city of literary alcoholics, but I've never been in a city more conducive to life on the wagon: you're not allowed to smoke in the bars any more, and a pint of Guinness costs the equivalent of at least three quid.

Three quid! Oy, vey. Another nice one:

I climbed out in O'Connell Street, where I found myself standing on a pavement plaque marking the site of Lemon's Sweet Shop, which is mentioned in chapter two of Ulysses: "Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling scoopfuls of cream for a Christian brother." Lemon's is now a sportswear shop, from which a man in a Nike cap frowned at me.

Michael Dirda's take on Bloomsday in the Washington Post is solid and businesslike. It's nice that he quotes the final soliloquy beyond just the final seven words; it reminds one that even this passage from Ulysses, considered the most quotable from Joyce's entire corpus, is in fact a wee bit scandalous:

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The scandal of the allusion to sex in a passage which also aims to transcend the drag of the everyday is that even this moment of transcendence is marked by the small kind of eroticism. Philosophical ideals (mind) and the physical experience of the world (body) are tied up in an intimate knot.

[UPDATE: A couple more...]

This short letter, in Slate, by novelist Jim Lewis, questions the place of Ulysses, and modernism more generally, as a source of inspiration for today's writers.

Another novelist, John Banville, writes on his attempts as an adolescent in rural Ireland to actually get ahold of Ulysses, which was viewed by many Irish Catholics as 'one of the dirtiest books ever written'. (Though the novel was banned in the U.S. and England for many years, it was never banned in Ireland.)

The original review of Ulysses, in the New York Times.

Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake, via MP3 (via Maud)

The BBC is having a contest for 80 word summaries of the novel. (via Maud)


Rob Breymaier said...

I found Jim Lewis's memo to be a bit of a whine. The longing for the Romantic is an ailment of the Postmodern condition. And, I think that Lewis shows his hand in that what he really wants to see end is postmodernism not modernism. Almost all of the techniques he cited (the footnoting might be excluded) seem postmodern to me. Certainly, playing with time sequences is postmodern.

And, I can guess that the footnote slam is directed at Wallace. I find DFW to be a wonderful read (except Infinite Jest - I just couldn't make it through that book). And, I enjoy the footnotes as DFW often soaks them in irony.

Anyway, on to Joyce (of whom I know almost nothing about). I wonder if Finnegan's Wake is actually postmodern as well. The structure being outside the norms of modenrism. An English instructor I once knew told me that "One doesn't read Finnegan's Wake. One re-reads Finnegan's Wake." How postmodern is that?!

This is all an attempt of mine to formulate a theory that postmodernism is not a product of flexible production or the end of history. Instead, it is an ever present moment that challenges dominant paradigms.

This should probably be a post on my blog instead of a comment but so be it.

1:02 PM  
Amardeep said...

Actually, while I value Joyce much more than he does as a source of inspiration for today's writers (see, for instance, the Banville essay), I think he has a point regarding modernism and romanticism.

You could reverse what he's saying: instead of saying that the philosophical underpinnings of modernism really started with the Romantic era (a common, and respectable, argument), you could say that modernism really started with the French Revolution!

The goal is to find a way to justify forward progress; the terms are debatable, but maybe they don't matter that much in the end.

6:10 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I have always felt that Modernism truly takes hold during the Enlightenment. The change from religious thought being the most privileged and influential to scientific thought claiming that mantle is what seems to mark the Modern era. I think people tend to long for the Romantic now because the Modern paradigms (i.e. capitalism, the scientific method, objectivity) are brutal. Some seemd to wish for a or flexible reality. Originally, it seems Postmodernism was an option (i.e. multiculturalism, anarchy, relativism). But, Postmodernism, while flexible doesn't offer any foundation (especially for those who are concerned with the slippery slope of relativism). So, some return to Romaticism for solace.

10:49 AM  

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