Thursday, 16 June 2011

Celebrating Bloomsday

I always tell my students, in a bid to encourage them to read the book, that James Joyce’s Ulysses is simultaneously the most difficult, the most comic and the rudest novel in the English language. The book recounts in stupendous detail the events in Joyce’s imaginary Dublin of 16 June 1904; and this great modernist work is therefore now celebrated every year in that city on that day by a whole host of festive activities. It’s hard to imagine Londoners taking Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to heart in quite the same way.

What would a Morrisian analysis of Joyce’s great novel look like? Morris’s last public talk was given to the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising, so perhaps he wouldn’t have been wholly sympathetic to Joyce’s hero, the advertising canvasser Leopold Bloom. On the other hand he might have enjoyed the novel's utopian dimension, with its vision of the ‘new Bloomusalem’, and with his own ‘robust and daring parts’ (Burne-Jones’s neat phrase) he might have relished some of its earthy rudeness too.

But a Morrisian analysis is not the same as Morris’s personal literary tastes. The former would focus on that great structural split which tears Ulysses apart right down the middle. On the one hand, we have the uniquely encyclopaedic detail of that vigorous day in Dublin, as Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom and all the others go about their interlinked business. On the other hand, at some radically other level of textual and readerly attention, we have the great mythic underpinnings of the plot, the numinous archetypes embodied by it: Bloom = Odysseus; Stephen = Telemachus; Molly = Penelope.

There is no Hardyesque ‘convergence of the twain’ here. Colourful surface detail and its underlying mythic meaning, the sensory and the semantic, simply do not add up, do not in any way come together; they remain schizophrenically alternative reading modes. All the good work that Morris’s News from Nowhere did in unravelling the stark binary oppositions of capitalism – city vs country, work vs pleasure, gentleman vs artisan - is here undone. Binary opposition reasserts itself forcefully in a mode of modernism that articulates an opaque society whose immediate experience absolutely cannot grasp its underlying structural determinants.

Exuberant though it is in so many ways, Ulysses is tragic in this particular one; and its brand of structurally fissured modernism is, as it were, what you get when the Morrisian revolution does not take place. This, alas, must be the literary-critical ‘skull at the feast’ of today’s merry celebrations.

22 comments:

ianmac55 said...

Hi Tony,

A sobering blog to read on returning from our own local Bloomsday celebration in Northampton. [The cemetery at the bottom of my street contains the grave of Lucia Joyce, James' daughter, born Trieste 1907, died Northampton 1982. Every Bloomsday there is a small celebration at the graveside.]

Is there room in your analysis for Joyce as a "radical" writer?

Cheers,

Ian

Tony Pinkney said...

I'm amazed to learn of the Northampton/Joyce connection, Ian, many thanks for that! I knew a little bit about Lucia from the earlier years: mental illness, involvement with Beckett, treatment with Jung. But no idea that she'd ended her days in Northampton. Yes, 'Ulysses' surely does have its radical or (in my term) utopian dimension, as it tries to forge a relationship between Bloom and Stephen, father and son, 'l'homme moyen ordinaire' and the alienated elite intellectual, or between mass culture and modernism itself (if we interpret those two characters allegorically). Whether that unifying project can outweigh the kind of underlying split I was writing about is each reader's own judgement, I guess. Best, Tony

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