Thursday, June 16, 2005
Well, it's Bloomsday again, and the weather in NY has finally broken (meaning: the horrible heat has been replaced by a refreshingly Irish drizzle). We'll be having a couple of friends over to drink Burgundy, Jamesons and Guinness, eat gorgonzola and mustard sandwiches, and read selections from the holy text. (If you want to read my thoughts on the book from a year ago, check here.)
What is it about Joyce? I can't think of another writer who so divides intelligent readers. Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot come close; each has highly intelligent partisans and equally intelligent (and vehement) detractors. But I still think Joyce takes the palm, for three reasons.
First, because both Woolf and Eliot earn praise and suffer its opposite for ideological reasons. Feminists are partisans of Woolf, and anti-feminists her opponents; meanwhile, a certain kind of conservative reader with a fondness for Eliotic New Criticism or traditional Catholicism will go to bat for Eliot the poet out of general ideological affinity. Joyce stands on his own: his idolators worship the work for itself, and the idol-smashers abominate it for itself (and what it has done to writing, rather than to "society").
Second, because Joyce is just plain harder than Eliot or Woolf. This allows highly intelligent readers to piss on his detractors as simply not being up to snuff, while putting detractors - who, if they are highly intelligent, are frequently cultural conservatives - in the odd position of attacking a canonical work for being inaccessible. (You will not, for example, find Joyce detractors lining up to badmouth Gerard Manley Hopkins, who can be frighteningly hard to figure out but in an utterly different way.) Neither Woolf nor Eliot is nearly so hard to make sense of, and so their opponents can be bolder in asserting that the Emperor is, if not altogether in the altogether, at least not so splendidly attired as one has been led to believe.
Third, because of the three Joyce is the only comic writer, and exuberantly so, and there is always something peevish (as well as pointless) in disputing someone else's sense of humor - yet nonetheless one feels the right, I think, to judge someone morally aberrant merely because that someone's sense of humor seems so.
I love Joyce, and specifically I love Ulysses. Leopold Bloom is one of the most splendidly realized human beings in fiction, as alive as Hector or Falstaff or King David. He is, ultimately, a fairly pedestrian fellow, and yet one does not tire of his mind. He is who Sancho Panza would be if he had eaten the books himself instead of feeding them to the Don (debt to Kafka acknowledged). He is the only character Joyce created who does not seem a surrogate and yet whose interiority is complete, fully-realized. Ulysses is stuffed with glorious miniature portraits, but they are as embroidery on a coat for Bloom to wear.
The formal experiments have mostly not worn well, or were not done as well as Joyce thought the first time around. Flann O'Brien was a better satirist. And Molly's monologue is one of the more over-rated pieces of the Joyce oeuvre. (Forgive me if I prefer Gretta to Molly.) But Bloom, and his Dublin, remain incandescent.
There is a word for people who don't like Ulysses.