June 16, 2004

Happy Bloomsday!

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM in Literature, Words of Wisdom | TrackBack

Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses supposedly took place. Celebrations are no doubt already underway in Dublin; as my own small tribute, I reproduce here a few Joyce quotations that seem tangentially relevant to the usual stuff I write about. These are not necessarily my favorite examples of Joyce’s writing, since most of those are pretty much meaningless without context (for example, this brought a huge smile of appreciation to my face when I first read it, but is almost meaningless in its own right: “Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping cane came taptaptapping by Daly’s window where a mermaid hair all streaming (but he couldn’t see) blew whiffs of a mermaid (blind couldn’t), mermaid, coolest whiff of all.”), but rather, I think, display something of his political and social criticism as well as his characteristic ambiguity:

The workmen’s discussions, he said, were too timorous; the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt that they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries.

She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?

— “A Painful Case”, Dubliners, pg. 111 in the Viking Critical Edition.

For a swift season of merrymaking the money of his prizes ran through Stephen’s fingers. Great parcels of groceries and delicacies and dried fruits arrived from the city. Every day he drew up a bill of fare for the family and every night led a party of three or four to the theatre to see Ingomar or The Lady of Lyons. In his coat pockets he carried squares of Vienna chocolate for his guests while his trousers’ pockets bulged with masses of silver and copper coins. He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, wrote out resolutions, marshalled his books up and down their shelves, pored upon all kinds of price lists, drew up a form of commonwealth for the household by which every member of it held some office, opened a loan bank for his family and pressed loans on willing borrowers so that he might have the pleasure of making out receipts and reckoning the interests on the sums lent. When he could do no more he drove up and down the city in trams. Then the season of pleasure came to an end. The pot of pink enamel paint gave out and the wainscot of his bedroom remained with its unfinished and illplastered coat.

HIs household returned to its usual way of life. HIs mother had no further occasion to upbraid him for squandering his money. He too returned to his old life at school and all his novel enterprises fell to pieces. The commonwealth fell, the loan bank closed its coffers and its books on a sensible loss, the rules of life which he had drawn about himself fell into desuetude.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbles mole.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pgs. 97-8 in the Viking Critical Edition.

It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong but room for improvement all round there certainly is though every country, they say, our own distressful included, has the government it deserves. But with a little goodwill all round. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan.

Ulysses, lines 16.1095-1101 in the Gabler Edition

Finally, on the jump, I’ll close with something I wrote last year when I was taking a class on Joyce. As you may know, each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, and the final project for the class was to retell a familiar story in two of those styles. I really enjoyed writing my version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the style of Chapter 17, “Ithaca” (the penultimate chapter in which Joyce brings tensions to a head in a pompously stylized cross-examination style which simultaneously frustrates the reader’s sensibilities and underscores the ambiguous nature of those tensions) and I think it even turned out half-decent, so I reproduce it here, in the hopes it will inspire some to try reading this difficult but ultimately rewarding book. If you do choose to do so, I highly recommend Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated for all your annotation needs.

Particularly, this pastiche is a re-telling the very end of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, of which I quote Edith Hamilton’s version:

Thisbe, although terrified of the lioness, was still more afraid to fail her lover. She ventured to go back to the tree of the tryst, the mulberry with the shining white fruit. She could not find it. A tree was there, but not one gleam of white was on the branches. As she stared at it, something moved on the ground beneath. She started back shuddering. But in a moment, peering through the shadows, she saw what was there. It was Pyramus, bathed in blood and dying. She flew to him and threw her arms around him. She kissed his cold lips and begged him to look at her. “It is I, your Thisbe, your dearest,” she cried to him. At the sound of her name he opened his heavy eyes for one look. Then death closed them.

She saw his sword fallen form his hand and beside it her cloak stained and torn. She understood all. “Your own hand killed you,” she said, “and your love for me. I too can be brave. I too can love. Only death would have had the power to separate us. It shall not have that power now.” She plunged into her heart the sword that was still wet with his life’s blood.

* What course did Thisbe take returning to the mulberry tree?

Proceeding cautiously from the shrubs, she proceeded past elderberry, elm and birch in turn: then, relaxing a bit, circled towards the clearing by way of an old deer-track: then, at a slower pace, occasionally halting, bearing left over a tree stump, under low-lying fir branches, as far as the edge of the woods.

What did she ponder during this excursion?

Love, music, man, foolish romanticism, small springs, phase changes, the tensile strength of both skin and plaster, the more pertinent aspects of feline anatomy, adrenaline, chlorophyll factories, metabolism, torn tissue, prophylactics, the menstrual cycle, Pyramus’ tardiness.

Had she ever before engaged in similar ambulatory nocturnal thought?

Once, two years prior.

What further reflection did this connection inspire in her mind just before reaching the clearing?

She reflected that experience was an aid to learning only so long as emotional attachment did not interfere with rational discourse.

What act did Thisbe perform upon arriving at her destination?

Standing beneath three elms arranged in an equilateral triangle, head turned to look for pallid whitefruit of mulberry.

To what effect?

Little. Though smooth, rough, triangular, rectangular, circular, pyramidal, parabolic, elongated, shrunken and imaginary forms were visible, none below the tops of the trees were white.

Did the lack of white within the visual spectrum distress her?

It did.

Where was the mulberry tree?

Where it had been since proto-trunk exited seed and penetrated soil in search of light and warmth 8 years, 6 months and 13 days since: in the middle of the clearing.

Describe it.

Its roots (invisible) spread like tentacles throughout the surrounding ground, supporting a slender trunk, which, though light-brown in color, appeared black due to lack of sufficient candlepower, itself explained by the nocturnal hour and the shady circumference of branches, twigs, leaves and berries supported against the 32 f/s/s exerted upon all bodies native to the superficiality of the globe. Branches forked smaller recursively, the inductive result being rounded, pointed, serrated leaves and clustered, cylindrical, crimson fruit.

What drew Thisbe’s attention to the mulberry tree?

Slight movement near its base, accompanied by faint but distinctly human sounds, easily amenable to onomatopoeiatic treatment.

Produced by what?

Pyramus, expiring in stop-action.

What action did Thisbe’s apprehension of this fact provoke?

The placement of left foot forward, followed by right. This sequence of actions then re-iterated more times in rapid succession, resulting in arrival below the crimson mulberry fringe.

Producing what physiological manifestations?

Shortness of breath, increased pulse and blood pressure, heightened adrenaline and testosterone production, effusion of water saturated by sodium chloride over the expanse of the epidermal layer, displacement of various keratin strands.

Did this displacement evoke any involuntary action?

It did: the passage of right hand through hair, with the aim of removing visual obstruction.

What proclamations, following a kiss to cold lips, caused the recumbent figure to briefly part closed eyelids before expiring?

Of identity, of name, of affection, of possession.

What contrapositive fears succeeded in the feminine mind?

Of false accusations of manipulation, moral inferiority, covetousness, fornication and murder made by recumbent’s paternity; of parental disapproval and misunderstanding; of social ostracism; of economic independence and insufficiency; of miscalculation in assignation of amour.

What did Thisbe perceive next to the limp, bloodsoaked hand of Pyramus?

A sword, finely balanced, lacking the notched imperfections of regular use, with rounded pommel superceded by recently re-wrapped hilt, quillion reminiscent of demonic horns, artificial crimson rivulet progressing slowly down the fuller.

Perceived as a tool for what new aim by the imaginative mind?

Literary immortality spawned by perception of unswerving loyalty and love, transcending pervious paradigms of separation and death.

How achieved?

By passage of carbonized not-stainless steel between 4th and 5th ribs, slightly left of centerline defined by vaginal, umbilical and oral cavities, resulting in perforation of left ventricle.

In what position did dead and dying lie?

Dead: on back, legs extended, neck cocked, right arm bent at the elbow away from hips, left arm tracing straight line from armpit to thigh, stiff oratory posture. Dying: on sinister side, legs and arms curled toward torso, head resting on right knee of dead.


Of pot rot ought and not, of read head on the linen of fir and beech, nightcrawler.