Friday, June 17, 2005

For Blooms-Boxing-Day

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the day that people celebrate James Joyce generally and Ulysses specifically. I had planned to let it go by unmentioned, since I don't find much in either worthy of celebration.

I was reminded this morning, however, of a famous story (possibly apocryphal) about Joyce that always interests textual scholars:

"Once or twice Joyce dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Samuel Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn't hear. Joyce said, 'Come in,' and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, 'What's that "Come in"?' 'Yes, you said that,' said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said 'Let it stand.'" (James Joyce, Richard Ellmann)

So much for the romantic vision of the author as an individual, a great mind working in a high and lonely place. Once again, we see that writing as collaborative. Joyce is dictating, using Beckett as a sort of on-the-fly editor. An interruption creates an error, which Joyce then accepts as an "authorized" bit of the text. In other words, for one moment at least, we have no author, just the editorial collaboration between Joyce and Beckett.

Nonetheless, we still see the existence of "Bloomsday." OK, now I know that Bloomsday isn't so much a literary event as an excuse for a pub crawl (which explains why we don't see much in the way of pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral on the anniversary of Chaucer's death), but some people take this very seriously. Bloomsday is an odd anachronism, a celebration of an author and his text as such, during an era in which the very idea that author or text exists is out of vogue. How can this be?

I think it is because Joyce is not so much an author as a literary celebrity. Once Ulysses had been accurately described as "unreadable," simply running one's eyes across the page became an accomplishment. Anyone who can read English can participate -- no particular knowledge of Homer, or Dublin, or literature is necessary. If you can identify the major characters (Leopold Bloom) and the major plot points (stops in Dublin), you can be part of a literary in-crowd.

Art has always had this empathetic impulse, probably essential for catharsis, for the readers/audience to identify with the characters. On the pop culture level, Nancy Drew is for girls and the Hardy Boys for boys not because the mysteries and characters are in some way different, but because the point of gender similarity makes it easier for children to place themselves in the position of the character. Art does not mirror life; life tries to mirror art. We don't just want to read narratives, we want to be in them. The popularity of "reality TV" is contingent on believing that the people on the show are "like us," and that we could, at any moment, be absorbed into the story.

Bloomsday is not about the book, I think, but more about indulging our empathetic impulse. In this case, however, the empathy moves beyond the character. We understand that in some ways Bloom is another version of Joyce himself, even to the degree that June 16th was a day of some significance to Joyce. Participants get to use the transitive property of equality (if I recall my algebra):

If A=B
and B=C,
then A=C

In this case,

If I go on Bloom's journey,
and Bloom is based on Joyce,
then I am Joyce!

Bloomsday is not really a celebration of the text -- it is an attempt to identify AS (not with) the author. Given the proverbial "unreadability" of Joyce, he makes a good candidate for this treatment, since in the backs of their minds many readers must be thinking, "Pfft! I could write this," failing to realize how difficult producing such prose would be (including knowing which accidental come ins to retain, and which to omit). Bloomsday might be a bit more sophisticated, but it is the same as putting one's own face in a cardboard cutout of a famous figure. For one day, you too can be James Joyce.


  1. The only Joyce that I have ever read was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--that was enough to cure me of Joyce for the rest of my life.

  2. Ulysses, Schmulysses. As everyone knows, Finnegans Wake is the paragon of Joyce. There is no better exposition of the wonders of what Joyce calls "the jinglish Janglage."

    Good blog, Scott. I'm enjoying it.