Wednesday, June 16, 2004
100 years is long enough to pass to gain perspective on a single day, even if that day never happened. Isn't it? Well, today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904, the day that Leopold Bloom stepped out of his (fictional) Dublin home and into the history of Western literature. And for what? For . . . well, not much of anything.
He picks up a pork kidney for breakfast. Goes to the can. Pays his respects at a funeral. Visits the offices of the newspaper for whom he solicits advertisements. Has lunch. Stops by the library (where Stephen Daedalus, Joyce's surrogate as a young man, is holding forth on Shakespeare - but Bloom does not join the conversation). Takes a walk. Overhears a bit of a concert from a bar. Has an argument with an aging Sinn Fein thug in a tavern, which ends in comic violence. Watches young girls playing on the beach, and gets so aroused he winds up abusing himself. Goes to a hospital where the wife of a friend is in labor, but never actually gets around to seeing her or saying a word to her, sitting instead in a nearby pub drinking with Stephen Daedalus and his pals. Heads off with Stephen to a brothel. Heads home with Stephen from the brothel, discussing this and that as they go. Goes to bed. And then, while he sleeps, his wife has her famous interior monologue. Yes.
And while he goes through this rather unremarkable day he . . . thinks. And this walking, thinking and drinking book where nothing much happens but it's hard to tell that nothing is happening what with so much language rushing by so confusingly, this is the acknowledged pinnacle of the novel as an artform.
Don't quibble with that judgement. To my own mind, the greatest novel ever written is Anna Karenina, but a case can be made for Don Quixote, or Pride and Prejudice, or Middlemarch, or Moby Dick, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Remembrance of Things Past, or the collected Dickens (how would you pick just one book?), and probably for other books that I'm not thinking of just now. That's not the point. Modernism understood itself to be the terminus in a stylistic and, really, epistemological progression in the arts, and Ulysses is the high-modernist novel par excellence. The novel as a form either builds to Ulysses or it doesn't build to anything at all (which, indeed, it does not). In that sense, Ulysses is the pinnacle of the form.
When I graduated from college, my ambition was to become a novelist (an ambition not yet entirely squelched) and by that I meant not an accomplished spinner of popular yarns, nor the mirror of the zeitgeist, nor even a Harold Bloomian demi-urge breathing life into men and women of ink and paper, but a worthy pupil of Joyce, follower in the footsteps of such "postmodern" and yet still plain old modern heirs as Thomas Pynchon and Vladimir Nabokov. I wanted to be a High Modernist, or as close to a high modernist as one could be in a post-modern world.
That is not my ambition now, nor is it anyone's, I think, apart from undergraduates. The formal experimentation that marks so much of Ulysses is no longer thrilling; is no longer, even, really possible. But neither is some kind of naive traditionalism, much less some kind of formalist classicism. We are left, really, with different levels of self-consciousness: a self-consciousness that is solopsistic, interested primarily in its own cleverness; and a self-consciousness that remembers its fundamental objective, aesthetic and humanist. Call the latter "eclectic traditionalism" - an approach that treats style as a *tool* rather than the object (modernism) or the subject (postmodernism).
If Ulysses isn't thrilling because of its innovation - if, indeed, many of its novel forms have proven sterile - does that mean Joyce was right when, on his deathbed, he declared that his art was a dead end, and that what best exemplified literature as it should be was Tolstoy's fable, How Much Land Does a Man Need?
No. I re-read Ulysses in preparation for today, and even as I concluded that many of his choices were dead-ends, the work as a whole is still a marvel, and still beautiful. And poor Poldy is still one of the great characters of all literature, and that rarest of beasts in fiction if not in life, a simple and basically good man who is nonetheless fascinating. And the formal experimentation, while it does not always work, is always in the service of the novel *as a novel* - it is not there for the sake of itself. Joyce was a horrible solopsist, in love with his own cleverness, but he was not *only* that. He was, as well, the only High Modernist who was not in love with an Idea, as Poldy is the only man in Joyce's Dublin who is not possessed of a Celt's "fanatic heart." For all this, Joyce, and Poldy, are not only still wonderful; they are still *useful.*
Joyce set out to write a kind of secular scripture, a book about goodness without God or theology or even an Idea, and Poldy is a kind of humdrum saint of the everyday, no better than you or I, but with no bad in him to speak of, the soul of gentleness. If that was Joyce's intention, he achieved more than he aimed; Bloomsday has become a kind of sacred secular festival, if a waning one in these illiterate days, a saint's day for those who have no religion. Eleven years ago, three years before we married, my now-wife and I travelled to Ireland, in part to participate in the Bloomsday festivities in Dublin on June 16th. It was enormously enjoyable, a trip we considered repeating this year, though we decided against to spare our young son. You tramp around Dublin in the steps of Poldy's via trivialis, eating what he ate in the pubs he stopped in (no, we did not end the night in a whorehouse) and strangely, the trivial is transcended precisely by not being transcended. A gorgonzola and mustard sandwich is just a gorgonzola and mustard sandwich; it doesn't *mean* anything, doesn't point to anything outside the universe or in the heroic past but only to the fact that one fictional man was endlessly fascinating to himself and to us as he ate a similar sandwich in a "moral pub" in a difficult book many decades ago, and we would like to be as interesting to ourselves and as blameless to others as he was. It's a good book that can achieve so much, and it deserves a pint. Slainthe!