I tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses
in school; I really did. My Bard College
class of nine spent weeks on the book (one of only three we read that semester) with the poet Robert Kelly
deftly leading the more dunder-headed of us to Joyce’s fabulous fountainhead patiently, again and again, all through that verdant Spring quarter. Which of us drank most deeply from Joyce’s refreshing draught of prose I cannot say. I can speak only for myself: I didn’t get it. Not really. Which is not to say that Kelly, one of my most favorite teachers ever, didn’t do his job.
He was an enormous man, physically and intellectually. I believe most of us were probably more awed with Robert Kelly—amply present before us in the considerable flesh, chain smoking one insight after another—than we were with James Joyce, thinly distant, the greatest prose stylist who ever lived, yes. But. Rock n Roll was king in those days. Who was Joyce, compared to Dylan? We were listeners, perhaps, more than watchers. Feeling things around us more than thinking about ideas beyond us.
We were young.
I was up late on the 15th of June, 1976, according to the marginalia in my copy of Ulysses. In fact, it was after three a.m. on the morning of the 16th—on Bloomsday, you see—when the epiphany arrived. I was reading Joyce’s favorite episode, according to Robert Kelly and others, since I’ve noted it in the margin of my Modern Library college text: Chapter 17. Ithaca. The Homecoming. The penultimate chapter of the novel and the one that asks: "WHAT PARALLEL COURSES DID BLOOM AND STEPHEN FOLLOW RETURNING?"
THIS IS THE EASIEST COMPLETE CHAPTER OF JAMES JOYCE’S ULYSSES TO READ.
You can get all the way through and understand everything. Because it’s a catechism, you see. A series of questions and answers about the book you’re supposed to have just read. You can go back through and find the answers.
What happened to me that night, as I was relaxed by the smoke and the cognac and the lateness of the hour, as my naturally critical faculties were...softened...was that James Joyce’s genius, as channeled to me by Robert Kelly, came up and knocked me right between the eyes. I went back the next day and read the book from cover to cover and understood it for the first time.
Call me sentimental or call me a Joycean, but I celebrate the enormously important existence of Joyce’s "blue book of Eccles," his "cracked lookinglass of a servant," by re-reading it on Bloomsday. (June 16th, 1904 was the Thursday that Joyce met his wife Nora. The hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, spends the day walking around Dublin and sorting out his life.) I also note in the margins, throughout the day, the things that I’m doing at the same hour Joyce’s characters are living their eternal lives.The idea is to carry the book everywhere all day long and read it at random. Breakfast at breakfast; lunch at lunch; sunset at sunset.
It’s the coolest diary I own:
- I was on a flight to Seattle from L.A. in '97.
- That was the same day I had endured a difficult telecine session on a film I edited, A Call to Remember.
- On Bloomsday in 1994 Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were buried. I went to a Paco de Lucia concert with a close friend and there was a famous "slow speed chase" on the L.A. Freeways.
- In 1989 there was NO MENTION of Joyce or Bloomsday in either the New York OR the Los Angeles Times.
- In '94, however, the L.A. Times had a good story about Joyce and "the Cybernet."
- In '88 I was editing Troop Beverly Hills in a high-rise on Hollywood Boulevard while the company shot the party scene at Immaculate Heart Convent. It was our 13th shooting day. Sunset was at 8:06.
- In '99 it was My Little Assassin in an editing room leased to a thief off Pacific Coast Highway.
- In '96 we noted Ella Fitzgerald’s passing while listening to Linda Ronstadt with our friend Marti, the blues singer.
- In '85 my great good friend, director Guy Hamilton and I mused over the question "Will the dogs that attack Remo Williams talk?" at the sound effects spotting session for our film. (Actually that happened on the 19th, but I noted—noded?--it because I was still reading the book and had come to "the lovely dog Garryowen that almost talked" in the "dirty chapter," chapter 13--"THE SUMMER EVENING HAD BEGUN TO FOLD THE WORLD IN ITS mysterious embrace.")
- In '94 my younger son, Michael, discovered Playdough.
- In '87, our little 3-legged cat, named Gerty after the girl in that same chapter 13, was hit by a car. My elder son, Stephen, was four months old and had a cold.
- Last year, that same young man and I went to an Eddie Izzard show with my wife and the boy’s teacher, who spent THIS YEAR teaching him The Odyssey.
And so it goes. A record of lives within a life within a book that celebrates life and means the world to me.
I write this a few days before Bloomsday this year, in the hope that, perhaps, on this Saturday--June 16, 2001--you’ll take the time to look for something that reflects and refracts the deepest part of your self in James Joyce’s masterpiece. And, should you be unlucky enough to not possess a copy of the novel, here’s something to think about, from Chapter 17, Ithaca, the catechism, from Ulysses, with love:
"What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?
"Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator's projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs, and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe) numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon."
Ahhhh.... Isn’t that good?
Ulysses, James Joyce, The Modern Library, New Edition, Corrected and Reset, 1961
(Pages 671 and 672 in the Hardcover Edition)
Shades of Joyce:
a nice cool glass of Joyce
Anna Livia Plurabelle
Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell
Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker
Issy the Teenage Rainbow
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
Shem the Penman
Ulysses is not pornography