Today is Bloomsday, the hundred and tenth anniversary of the events in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The weather in Dublin looks good; the sun won’t set tonight until just before ten. If you are a young tryster who happens to be in Dublin, why not take a walk through Ringsend Park, the way Joyce and his girl did that evening? Everybody else can commemorate the day by buying and reading Kevin Birmingham’s terrific new “biography” of Ulysses, “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.”
The hero—the Ulysses—of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is Leopold Bloom: a man, like Homer’s hero, skilled in all manner of contending, a wanderer, a strategist, a man of polytrypos—“many twists and turns.” For Joyce, Homer’s hero was the only complete person in literature. Hamlet was a human being, Joyce said, but he was “son only”:
Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness. He might never have taken up arms and gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him and, while he was ploughing the sands, placed young Telemachus in front of his plough. But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.
But Bloom was inadequate in at least one regard: he didn’t write “Ulysses.” Joyce did, and in doing so he rendered a picture of Dublin “so complete,” he wrote, that “if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth” the reader could reconstruct it from the pages of “Ulysses.” Dublin friends and contemporaries of Joyce who were left out of the book wondered if their very existence had somehow been redacted.
As anybody who has grappled with “Ulysses” knows, the ultimate contender, conniver, and man for every occasion is Joyce himself. He is its hero, and our sense of him is deepened immeasurably by Birmingham’s book. Joyce’s contrivance, the novel in our hands, ranks among the great human accomplishments, partly because its design protrudes beyond its covers into a social and political space unready for it, whose only word for it was “obscene.”
By setting the novel on the day his first inklings of it formed, Joyce ensured that the book would always be, whatever else it would be, a book about its own conception and growth. He had dreamed of writing “Ulysses” since at least 1904, the year two things happened: a Dublin Jew named Alfred Hunter dusted him off after a brawl and walked him all the way home; and a beautiful barmaid, Nora Barnacle, on their first date—the first Bloomsday—slid her hand “down down inside my trousers,” as Joyce reminded her, later, in a letter, “and pulled my shirt softly aside … and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and frigged me slowly till I came off through your fingers.”
Each of these courtesies was performed by a stranger for a stranger, though Nora would become Joyce’s lifelong companion and eventual wife. Neither one was an act of specific personal connection or love. Kindness, sexual willingness, patience, forbearance, and especially “equanimity”—that beautiful word that so comforts Bloom in the end, and perhaps the most important word in the novel—all exist quite independent of personal bonds and the private economies of friendship, family, and marriage. That these lovely traits exist outside of the exchange market of human frailties—that they exist at all, in fact—would have been news to Henry James or, for that matter, to Jane Austen; it is almost hard to conceive of the novel as a genre without the idea that human virtues are always tactical, and spent with the expectation of handsome returns. It may sound sappy, but for me “Ulysses” is chiefly valuable as the most moving tribute in literature to kindness.
The book is dirtier than people imagine or remember. If you know it only by reputation, you know, probably, that a guy jerks off on the beach, while, at home, his wife entertains her lover (the hilariously, humiliatingly named Blazes Boylan) in a bed whose brass quoits have been “loosed” by her infinite trysts. But sex, a pleasure more intense than others but not fundamentally distinct from them, is everything in “Ulysses.” There has never been a novel more sympathetic to every weird thing people do to make themselves happy, from preparing a mutton kidney to eating a gorgonzola sandwich, to singing aloud “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” to “worshiping at that altar where the back changes name,” one of many, many descriptions of backsides and things people do to other people while on all fours. You could watch porn for weeks and see the same repertoire of actions, the identical durations, the same outcomes, over and over; once in a while somebody mixes in a gourd or dresses as a nun, but the basic template is fixed. In Joyce, cheering on your wife as she fucks her boyfriend is a fantasy, a source of pleasure. (Joyce wanted Nora to cheat on him, so that he could feel for himself what a cuckold feels.) The pleasure Bloom takes in Molly’s backside, especially in its messes and smells, finds, in Joyce (like so many pleasures of its kind) an exact linguistic embodiment: “I do indeed explore the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.” Language is, of course, the real pleasure, the fundamental bawdiness.