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BEWILDERING BLOOMSDAY
May 22, 2012 - 6:44pm

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Dante doesn't get one. There's no Hemingway holiday, no Emily Dickinson Day. Do people all over the world, once a year, all at the same moment, gather to read Othello? No. No writer gets a whole day of the whole world reciting, performing, singing and celebrating his or her work. No writer except James Augustine (James Disgustin' to his detractors) Joyce. 

Every June 16 (the date on which the events of his great novel, Ulysses, take place) people in many countries (more every year) mark Bloomsday (named after Leopold Bloom, hero of Ulysses) with readings and stagings and Edwardian costumings and Guinness. I take part in the Washington DC events.  This year, I'll be airing Molly Bloom's thoughts about the relationship between cock and nose size in front of the Irish ambassador, during a Bloomsday reception at the embassy.

And why, in God's name?  I mean, why is there a Bloomsday, a phenomenally successful, passion-inspiring Bloomsday, and no other writer's day?  How did this (to quote some words of Leopold Bloom's) queer suddenly thing pop out?  It's not as though anyone really gets James Joyce particularly; working backwards from Finnegans Wake, we discern a very gradual sense of what's going on in his work... His stories in Dubliners are accessible enough (though "The Dead" is no piece of cake); lots of people tell me they can't get anywhere with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical novel in which Joyce begins experimenting with stream of consciousness.  Ulysses is absurdly difficult, and the Wake is fuggedaboutit.

Maybe the bewildering success of Bloomsday is about showing off.  Maybe taking part in Bloomsday is the equivalent of what Paul Fussell notices in his book Class:
 

The T-shirts and carryalls stamped with the logo of The New York Times Review of Books, which convey the points 'I read hard books,' or printed with portraits of Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, which assure the world, 'I am civilized.'


Maybe Bloomsday is a class marker, a way of witnessing your own culturedness while getting wasted.  On Bloomsday, intelligentsia fumes mingle with the fumes of alcohol, and, since everything that rises must converge, the substance becomes a distillate of bohemian cool. 

Eventually, all hard books merge into one, and a river of Guinness runs through it.

But no.  The real reason people all over the world love Bloomsday does have to do with Joyce's difficulty, but not for purposes of conspicuous hyper-literate consumption.  When you've summited Ulysses... hell, even if you've only made base camp... you feel proud, excited.  You've been climbing through forbidding human minds, ascending without oxygen chill linguistic peaks.  Your reward has been access to the highest truths of our being, and few things are more bracing than that.  Is it possible that other people have crossed this terrain? 

Literature, wrote David Foster Wallace, "is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside."  When we've read the most human of novels - Ulysses - the novel that reveals us with the clarity of arctic air - we naturally want to revisit the redemptive less-aloneness, the fellow-humanness, the book made us feel.

That feeling emanates from Leopold Bloom, from our affiliation with a man some Ulysses readers will always consider a pathetic wimp, a ridiculous cuckold.  Yet who besides Leopold Bloom gets a global gala in his name?  We who love him know that he possesses the secret of joy, because, having seen and been wounded continually by our vileness, he somehow knows how to forgive.  James Joyce made the language that made that man.

 

 

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