It is not only Fathers Day. Today is also Bloomsday, June 16, the day in 1904 on which James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses takes place. There is something fitting about the coincidence of the day with the more generally recognized American holiday celebrating paternity, because it is, in many ways, a book about fatherhood and the surrogates we find for fathers and for sons (Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, two of the primary characters come together after a long day of wandering, Daedalus playing the role of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in the Homer’s epic, upon which Joyce’s book was based).
Here at Baltimore’s most perambulatorily literary weekly, we like to celebrate Bloomsday with a long walk through town and a pint or two before returning home to read some favorite passages of the book (when I was a young man I identified with Daedalus and found Bloom old and boring; now that I am actually older than Bloom, I find him among the most sympathetic and fascinating characters in literature and find Daedalus, along with my own younger self, a pretentious twit). But this piece we published last year about a Baltimore man trying to tweet Ulysses, expresses the debt all alt-weeklies, and Baltimore’s arts, owe to Joyce’s masterpiece.
Fuck. Fuck, I say. The word has appeared frequently in these pages—something that would not have been possible until 1933, when a district court judge named John Woolsey declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses, previously banned in the United States, was not obscene—despite “the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters” and the use of “words which are criticized as dirty” as the judge put it—because it did not “tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts.” This case was one of the first allowing old Anglo-Saxon words like “fuck” and “cunt” to be legally published in the United States.
Originally published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses, at nearly 800 pages, takes place in the city of Dublin on June 16, 1904. It details the thoughts and actions of Leopold Bloom, a newspaper advertising salesman, as he walks around the city, cooks breakfast for his wife, takes a shit, goes to a funeral, stops by the newspaper, has some drinks, gets in a bar fight, wanders around with a younger arty kid he meets, and finally returns home.
Based on Homer’s Odyssey and full of puzzles, Ulysses has a high-end reputation. But it is about as low-down as you can get. When Bloom takes his morning dump—perhaps the first literary character since Sancho Panza to do so—he is reading a column in what may have been turn-of-the-century Dublin’s equivalent of City Paper. He rips out the page and wipes his ass with it. Simultaneously superrealist and “almost magically realist, or hallucinatory,” as Mark Osteen, a Joyce scholar at Loyola University Maryland puts it, Ulysses is in some sense a precursor to both David Simon and John Waters.
The book is so big and rich—each chapter is written in a different style—that, despite its difficulty, it is not confined to university seminars. In cities all over the world people celebrate June 16 as Bloomsday. Public readings and re-enactments of various scenes from the book take place, and hard-core Joyceheads make pilgrimages to Dublin to walk in the steps of Bloom—though, as Osteen says, “A lot of Joyceans are against Bloomsday because people just use it to get drunk.”
(Illustration: Emily Flake)