“We may now imbibe freely of the contents of bottles and forthright books“
Morris L. Ernst, Co-Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. December 11, 1933.
The same week this country ended Prohibition, America opened the doors to let people legally read James Joyce’s Ulysses. With St. Patrick’s Day once more at hand, the greatest of 20th Century novels and the author whose genius gave us at look into our own daily souls, deserves a brief remembrance.
Ulysses is the story of a working man named Leopold Bloom during a single day of his life. Making his way through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904, Bloom’s day is an adaptation of the story of Odysseus trying to get home, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.
I write this reflection sitting on a bar stool at Winston’s, where I often comeback when I feel the need to refresh old memories and clean my soul of the burdens of adulthood. I worked for Bill Winston during his fledgling campaign for Congress in 1992. Ocean Beach always reminds me of Joyce’s Dublin … the smallness of the physical space and the proximity to both ocean, small taverns and working-class angst is probably the reason. And Winston was a Joycean character if ever there was one … the sort of man who would have related to Ulysses (and no doubt banged Bloom‘s wife Molly, if Bill had been the sort to read, which sad to say he wasn‘t).
Today also would have been the 37th birthday of my dog Squirt. Mr. Squirt, as he was known about town, lived a long and mostly healthy life to the ripe old age of 18 before departing for better pubs. He was a canine of discerning tastes, preferring Guinness to any domestic brands of beer and never taking a drink until I’d thoroughly cleaned out his bowl.
I first read Ulysses in college when I lived in a house on Narragansett Avenue with three roommates and three dogs, one of whom was Mr. Squirt. Of course I had an awful time of it. The so-called stream of consciousness prose that I was being told by my Modern European Literature professor at SDSU represented a new English language, only drove me to wish Joyce had written his novel in the regular English.
I did not understand Ulysses though I would often pretend to be reading it with a Guinness next to me and Mr. Squirt’s bowl full … as a way of impressing my roommates (and any girls around) that I was in fact a bohemian intellectual in the making. Back in those days, I would go down to the Texas Teahouse off Voltaire on an early Thursday evening – and read Ulysses with several beers and smokes (as I thought Joyce wanted the book to be read) until the place filled up to hear Tomcat Courtney play his Blues and tell the world “right-on-with-your-right-on-baby!”
I would make attempt after pompous, poser-attempt to read Ulysses – often times reading words while lost in thought to the point that I could go through several pages and not have a clue as to what I’d just read. And while I did eventually finish the novel for that class, I knew I’d not really read it … which haunted me no end for years.
A well-read person should know Ulysses, I would say to myself.
Finally – for reasons pompous and serious both – on a St. Patrick’s Day three months before my 35th birthday, and Mr. Squirt now years into the next life, I decided to tackle my character anew. I decided to try once more to be the man who could sit at a pub, knock back a pint or ten, and discuss Ulysses with Guinness-inspired flare. I began the novel once more and it was on this attempt that I finally saw what I’d been missing. I saw what had eluded me. I saw the basic issue of Ulysses. I saw myself.
It is the simplest of novels to read once a person accepts that my old professor was wrong. It was not a new language at all, but the oldest of all human experiences possible – the things we all think and do during a day, and by the minute, while we go about our lives. Joyce being a master of human minutiae, recreated the inner workings of a normal man … what a man sees, thinks, feels, tastes … what goes through his head as he focuses on another objective. Joyce wrote about the process we are all experiencing at this very second we breathe.
I type words on a page trying to compose on essay on Ulysses, but in reality I am also noticing the color of the computer I write on and the yellow legal pad to my left and the picture of Joyce on the cover of my copy of his book. My mind is filled with memories of Mr. Squirt and his bowl of Guinness and my sacred friends from that time, talking baseball and Iran-Contra and Gary Hart blowing the chance to be president for a fling on “The Monkey Business.” The posters on our wall and the Replacements singing about “last call,” while the smell of closet-grown “sage” fills the room.
All this while I see my girlfriend on the phone on this particular late Winter’s day. The rain pelts the ground outside our window. I hear her talking to her sister even as I insist to myself I’m drowning-out her conversation. I think about the black turtleneck sweater she’s wearing with just a pair of lace panties. I’m remembering what she looks like naked and the lasagna she made last night and the story we watched on “60 Minutes” while I taste the coffee I sip now.
All simultaneous with the swirlings of this essay in my head. Joyce’s “language” and the thoughts he produced in Bloom …
“… the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn’t remember the face after fifteen years,” thinks Bloom as he walks into the cemetery during his sojourn through Dublin. “… Rtststr! A rattle of pebbles. Wait. Stop. An obese gray rat toddled along side of the crypt, moving the pebbles. “One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow … Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk? I read in that Voyages in China that the Chinese say a white man smells like a corpse. Cremation better. Priests dead against it…”
Sex, love, loss, bodily functions, fantasies, and realities of a man making his way through his city on one specific day. In Leopold Bloom we were looking at the stream of consciousness everyone engages in, yet within a beautifully crafted context of one man’s thoughts and the layers each person’s life entails.
It took Joyce seven years to finish Ulysses. His eye-sight deteriorated by glaucoma to such an extent that during his time creating Ulysses he nearly went blind The novel was not published until his 40th birthday in 1922. And for his efforts he was hounded by morality critics who decided that the inner workings of a man’s mind were too indecent for public consumption. In the United States – land of the Constitution and “freedom of speech” – Ulysses was banned entirely for it’s first eleven years of existence.
But finally – in the same year America elected Franklin Roosevelt and made drinking legal again – so too was Ulysses allowed to pour through the minds of American readers.
“The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women,” wrote Judge John Woolsey of the US Southern District Court of New York on December 6, 1933. “I have not found anything I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake.”
Woolsey went on to say that the novel did not meet the legal definition of “obscene” defined at the time as “tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts” and concluded that “nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”
“Ulysses may therefore be admitted into the United States,” concluded Woolsey.
And from that moment when an American judge made the United States practice what it preached, Joyce’s Ulysses altered American creativity. From the literature of William Faulkner and Henry Miller; to the art of Jackson Pollack; to the music of Miles Davis, Kirk Cobain, and the films of Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino, all can link their art to the enduring genius of Joyce‘s novel about a nobody named Bloom on an otherwise meaningless day.
Yet the legacy of Joyce’s Ulysses as too hard to read for anyone but the well-learned, unfortunately persists. Unfortunate because Joyce wanted it read in pubs. Wanted the normal working person to see himself in the art, and embrace the celebration of an average day.
“In recording the dailiest day possible, Joyce teaches us much about the world: how to cope with grief and loss; how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how to walk and think at the same time; how to purge sex of possessiveness; how the way people eat food can tell us who they really are,” notes University of Dublin professor Declan Kiberd.
Kiberd, who wrote the book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living expanded on the view that Joyce wanted the average person to see themselves in Ulysses and not leave it as a book for the ivory towers.
“Joyce offers the stream-of-consciousness of an ordinary citizen as prelude to nothing more portentous than the drinking of a cup of tea,” wrote Kiberd.
Joyce once said of Ulysses that he’d “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
And Kiberd wrote that Joyce never took his “extraordinary celebration of the ordinary over-seriously.”
“When a fan asked to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses, Joyce laughed and said ‘no – that hand has done a lot of other things as well‘,” wrote Kiberd.
So – as another St. Patrick’s Day is here, and the Guinness no-doubt flows, and the parades and leprechauns and people wearing green are everywhere having a grand time – I intend to think about Ulysses. I’ll recall my old pal Mr. Squirt and my college roomies. I’ll think of my girlfriend in her sweater. I’ll taste the whiskey and Guinness sliding down my throat and the smell of whatever Ocean Beach pub I happen to be sitting in (even if not in OB, that‘s where my head will exist). I’ll hear Tomcat calling out “right-on-with-your-right-on-baby!” … and I’ll feel the approaching Spring.
I’ll hear the voice of James Joyce and understand his salient point … that in fact there is no such thing as an “average day” or an “average life.” This is what Ulysses is about … and why everyone should read it … more than once.