- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

June 16, 1904, the single day on which occurs the action in that huge, sprawling, endlessly complex novel “Ulysses,” is perhaps the most famous date in fiction. Yet it was also a real date, a late spring Dublin Thursday when a young man, James Joyce, met his future wife, Nora, so we know why he chose to set the events of his magnum opus on that day.

One of many strengths of Joyce’s masterpiece is its solid anchorage in time as well as place. Its text is larded with references to particular events, most of them local but some, like the dreadful General Slocomb pleasure-boat disaster in New York City that took place the previous day, from the wider world.

As we approach June 16 (now also known as Bloomsday, after the hero of “Ulysses,” Leopold Bloom) 100 years on, it is fitting that we recognize the magnitude of Joyce’s achievement in packing so much for all of us into that one day of such private significance to him.

For apart from its groundbreaking formal and stylistic qualities, which probably took the novel form about as far as it can be successfully taken in terms of sheer innovation, “Ulysses” is also a penetrating snapshot of society as it existed in Ireland at that point in time.

A century may be the blink of an eye in geological terms, but a lot has happened both in literature (in part, at least, because of Joyce’s efforts) and in the world he portrayed. If history was the nightmare from which Joyce’s hero, Stephen Dedalus, was famously trying to awaken, its tentacles were nonetheless wrapped around Dublin and its inhabitants on June 16, 1904.

Joyce was never much of an Irish nationalist: After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, he refused to take Irish citizenship, preferring to retain his British nationality until his death in Switzerland in 1941. Some clue as to why he chose this course is to be found in his devastating comment late in life: “[T]he little bit of freedom we had under the British has been taken away from us.”

Joyce was a fiercely lapsed Roman Catholic and his antipathy to the Irish Free State was rooted in his distaste for its markedly theocratic nature and the feeling that the overseers in London had been replaced by those in Vatican City. One hundred years after the original Bloomsday, the skeptic in James Joyce might be troubled by the suspicion that it is now bureaucrats in Brussels who are pulling the strings of Dublin’s government.

But his cosmopolitanism and his own strong attraction to continental European life (soon after 1904, he left Ireland to spend the rest of his life in exile in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich) would, I feel sure, have made him delighted to see Ireland not merely an integral part of, but in this June actually the head of, the European Union.

The march of literary history would have given Joyce a great deal to deplore as well as to celebrate. A true master of innovative form, he may have realized that in “Finnegan’s Wake” he had reached beyond even his own formidable grasp.

Certainly, for all its endlessly complicated self-referential puzzles and mazes, that novel, which occupied most of the rest of his creative life after the completion of “Ulysses,” has added up to less than the sum of its admittedly brilliant parts for the few dedicated readers willing or able to plough through (to borrow a phrase from George Meredith’s novel “The Egoist”) the labyrinths of its penetralia.

On the one hand, Joyce might admire the ludic inventions of a Tom Stoppard or a Milan Kundera, but as one possessed of the highest standards, he would, I suspect, be dismissive of the many works of literature that seem to practice innovation merely for its own sake.

In Ireland itself, Joyce would probably be disappointed in those who have followed him. Coming as he did at the end of a parade of truly great Irish writers beginning with Jonathan Swift and continuing through Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats, his awareness of that great tradition and of his own unique position in that line would doubtless have left him unimpressed with the Irish writers of today.

Which makes it particularly ludicrous that it has become fashionable to disdain him in what now passes for Irish literary society. Recently, novelist Roddy Doyle, whose achievements as a writer hardly put him in a league anywhere near Joyce’s, was foolish enough to claim petulantly that in sum “Ulysses” was boring, unreadable — indeed unread by people who claim to admire it — and basically overrated.

Yeats, in a poem entitled “To a Poet, Who Would Have Me Praise Certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine,” grandly brushed aside the lese-majeste of some of his disciples with the line “Was there ever dog that praised its fleas?” The last best word on this season’s unworthy, petty little contretemps might best be achieved by reversing the nouns in Yeats’ withering dictum.

Not the least reason for Joyce to take satisfaction in Ireland’s secure position in Europe is the freedom of expression which the European courts have finally accorded Irish writers. Gone finally is the censorship and prudishness which so bedeviled Yeats and the Abbey Theatre and which more than anything else led Joyce to exile himself from his native land with its parochial and small-minded attitudes.

And in the wider world, where he saw “Ulysses” make the first significant breach in the legal ramparts which kept readers from art that was deemed too risque, there would be much reason for him to rejoice that literary works such as his are generally available to readers who want to experience them.

He would surely approve of the late Justice Potter Stewart’s much-mocked but eminently sensible pronouncement that it was hard to define pornography but that he knew it when he saw it. And I would strenuously argue that even the most explicit passages of “Ulysses” are by virtue of their higher artistic — and indeed philosophical and ethical — qualities far removed indeed from pornography or obscenity.

It must be said once and for all that “Ulysses” is one of the great humanistic achievements of European literature, affirming as it does the eternal virtues of love, tolerance, and devotion.

And how well it stacks up against the other totems of Modernism. Not for James Joyce the fascism of Ezra Pound, the anti-Semitism and gynophobia of T.S. Eliot, or the fanaticism of D.H. Lawrence. On the contrary, in making the hero of his great novel a Jew, Joyce is making a powerful statement against anti-Semitism, which is also specifically shown in the course of the novel to be a low, unworthy and poisonous thing.

Through its combination of classical Greek metaphors and everyday Dublin sayings and doings, “Ulysses” indeed contains multitudes, embracing a huge part of the human experience. One aspect of the human condition it does not really explore, however, is homosexuality, the relationship between Stephen and Bloom being firmly within the father-son paradigm and even Bloom’s “Nightown” fantasies being the product of a troubled, inadequate, but definitely heterosexual libido.

There are other spheres outside the purview of the novel — warfare, for instance — but on the whole “Ulysses” comes closer to encompassing the essences of human existence than any other novel I can think of.

Looking back on the many years in which I have been enriched by the splendors and insights of “Ulysses” — and yes, Roddy Doyle, I have read it, and more than once, and so have many of those who have praised it — I am moved by its insights into what it means to be a human being in all manner of ways.

There are other great novels — such as George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” — which can instruct the reader as to how beneficial certain feelings may be. But the singular achievement of “Ulysses” is that it actually makes you feel what the characters are experiencing.

And so on this 100th anniversary of Bloomsday (and I trust on its thousandth as well), let people all over the world rejoice that James Joyce fell in love on June 16, 1904, and that he gave them this wonderfully life-affirming gift for all the ages.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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