June 13, 2014 | by Jonathan Goldman
“Bloomsday,” the James Joyce scholar Robert Nicholson once quipped, “has as much to do with Joyce as Christmas has to do with Jesus.” The celebrations of Ulysses every June 16—the date on which the novel is set—attract extreme ends of the spectrum of literary enthusiasm. Academics and professionals mingle with obsessives and cranks, plus those simply along for the ride. The event can be stately and meticulous or raucous and chaotic—or, somehow, all of the above.
A telling instance came a few years ago, when the Irish Arts Center arranged a Bloomsday picnic in New York’s Bryant Park, under the rueful shadow of the Gertrude Stein statue. (Stein disliked Joyce.) Aspiring Broadway types were enlisted to circulate in period costume before bursting into popular songs from 1900-era Ireland. I spoke to one of the performers, a young Irish actor who had recently moved to New York. Had she read Ulysses? “I plan to,” she said, and in my memory, she adds, “I’m told it’s a grand book by them that knows.” The kicker was when the Irish finance minister, in town for summit meetings, got up to say that his government would take as inspiration the balanced daily budget that appears in Ulysses. The problem? Leopold Bloom’s spreadsheet in Ulysses works out only because he omits the money he’s paid to Bella Cohen’s brothel. No one pointed out the irony.
The admixture of expertise and fanboyism that marks Bloomsday, perhaps unique among literary gatherings, is remarkable—but no more so than Bloomsday’s emergence as a cultural event, one that attracts mainstream attention and participants from well outside the readership of Ulysses, by which I mean to include all those who profess to have read it. A novel written in 1922 and legally unavailable in the U.S. until 1934, a novel hailed to this day as the pinnacle of modernist obscurity and density, one that, as novelist Jacob M. Appel recently put it, “isn’t exactly hopping off the shelves in airports,” has earned an international holiday. Of all the literary celebrations that might blow up, why Joyce, why Ulysses, and why Bloomsday?
The answer lies in the celebrity and cultural capital of the Joyce brand, the result of Joyce’s machinations and the way he’s been taken up in mainstream U.S. culture. When Joyce started work on Ulysses a hundred years ago, he was a rather cultish figure, having recently published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, after many roadblocks for both. This limited but fervid devotion played into Joyce’s career: through the efforts of Ezra Pound, Ulysses and its author became something of a cause célèbre for modernist coteries. Pound secured Joyce patronage (largely from women—Joyce’s career is unthinkable without the interventions of Harriet Shaw Weaver, among others), enabling him to leave off teaching to write (the dream of many). A series of public legal incidents catapulted the novel into wider public consciousness: the seizure of copies of The Little Review that contained the “Nausikaaa” chapter, Joyce’s campaign to prevent Samuel Roth from selling a pirated edition, and the 1933 case “The United States of America v. One Book Called ‘Ulysses,’” in which Judge John Woolsey determined that Ulysses was art, not smut. In the 1930s, Joyce appeared on the cover of Time and Stalin’s list of banned authors, and generally became famous as the epitome of literary difficulty and elitism.
Joyce, of course, was adept at cultivating his own myth, whether developing an iconic image for photographs or talking about his technique. Simply consider his decision to base a novel on the episodes of the Odyssey; then consider his bruiting that about. What better way, asked the late Hugh Kenner, to get your book discussed? Though Joyce maintained (disingenuously, in my mind) that anyone could read and enjoy Ulysses, he also quite famously said, “It will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
Indeed, the very style of Ulysses—or rather, its myriad styles—serves as a constant reminder of its author’s genius, asking readers to think beyond the plot and consider the motivations for each stylistic change. For example, in the novel’s sixth chapter, readers suddenly encounter new typography: boldface headers for sections of text, untraceable to any character thought. Why? Because the setting is a newspaper office, so there are headlines, dummy. Chapter 12 starts off with a first-person narrative “I,” the only chapter featuring this technique. Why? Because it is the chapter based on Homer’s Cyclops episode, and the “I” represents the single Cyclopian eye (and the limited perspective it produces). (Dummy.) The experience of reading Ulysses is partly the experience of deciphering such logic. While usually we read novels and keep track of what motivates characters, for Ulysses we keep track of the tricks up the author’s sleeve; we’re thinking about a figure outside the narrative.
Joyce’s contemporaries in the cinema world were doing something similar. When Charlie Chaplin performs circus acrobatics to the delight of the big-top crowds, the joke is only partly that the circus audience mistakenly thinks the Little Tramp is part of the show, a virtuoso, when in fact he’s trying to survive the situation. The larger joke is that we understand that the on-screen audience has almost gotten it right; the Tramp of the story is no virtuoso, but the actor portraying him is. Like Ulysses, the movie requires us to think beyond the fictional realm being represented to the genius in the real world.
The protean techniques in Ulysses mimic the operations of film stardom. Stylistic innovation is the central facet of the modernist legacy, signaled by Pound’s exhortation to “make it new.” In Ulysses, narrative style turns out to reflect techniques of the most popular medium of the day. Modernism and celebrity culture emerge as two sides of the same cultural coin. The popularity and the populist tinge of Bloomsday events start to look less surprising against this context.
In the decade or so after Joyce’s death, in 1941, Bloomsday was instituted in Dublin; among the first participants were poet Patrick Kavanagh and novelist Flann O'Brien. The group role-played scenes of the novel. Around this time, references to Joyce began popping up in mainstream American culture, starting with Sunset Boulevard, with the novel usually deployed as a sign of elite literary culture and cachet. Perhaps the most famous sighting is the iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe brandishing Ulysses, attempting to shed her bombshell reputation. Of course, this image plays on our questions of whether the novel is readable and whether anyone, much less a Hollywood star, actually reads it. These questions permeate the Ulysses legacy, but the answers hardly matter to the culture at large. Yes, many people read Ulysses (as Monroe apparently did), but, as our Bloomsday celebrations show, one need not penetrate the mystery in order to recognize, and partake of, its prestige.
The highest-profile New York event on June 16 will be “Bloomsday on Broadway,” which is a hot ticket most years, simulcast on WNYC and heard around the world. At Symphony Space, actors, writers, and celebrities—Stephen Colbert and Alec Baldwin have appeared in recent years—will perform excerpts expertly. In between, commentators will celebrate Ulysses, but if this year is like years past, they will do so with testimonials and platitudes: elevation, not explication. If you have to ask, you’re missing the point, which is to recognize the stature of a book without necessarily comprehending it. All you need to understand is its un-understandability. This incomprehensibility, which everyone can understand (to paraphrase Stein) signals the way Joyce and his famous Ulysses mediate between literary modernism and modern celebrity culture and the attendant concerns of branding and iconicity. In this way, it turns out that Bloomsday has a great deal to do with Joyce; it may be that Santacon, not Christmas, is the most apt comparison.
Jonathan Goldman is an associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology, Manhattan. He is the author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity and coeditor of Modernist Star Maps: Celebrity, Modernity, Culture.