07 November 2010

Bloomsday: after midnight

The two protagonists of Ulysses come together in the final act. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus seek refuge from the cold, dark Dublin streets in the "cabmen's shelter" and engage in rambling and unsatisfactory conversations with each other and with an ancient mariner they meet. Bloom struggles to express his paternal affection for the drunk and ill-tempered Stephen, who seems unwilling to talk directly about anything, preferring to be obtuse and philosophical. Bloom persists in looking out for Stephen, and finally convinces him to come to his house and sleep off his binge. This part of the story is analogous to the "homecoming" portion of the Odyssey. A disguised Odysseus returns to Ithaca and hides out in his aged but loyal swineherd's hut. He meets his grown son, Telemachus, and ultimately they plot the rescue of Penelope and the destruction of the suitors. The two modern men do nothing so bold. Bloom delays his homecoming for fear of encountering his wife's lover, and Stephen is oblivious to the older man's ingratiating efforts. The episode is told in a labored, almost overbearing tone, what you might call high-falutin', once again showcasing Joyce's remarkable mastery of the language and love of good parody. Two things seem to be at work here. One is Joyce forcing you to examine your bias when you approach a work. We all come loaded with preconceptions when we examine art, and Joyce gathers them all up and tosses them back in your face as if to say (like Kool Mode Dee) "how ya like me now?" It makes for difficult and frustrating reading, but when it's all over it empowers you to strip away artifice and technique and look for the essence of things. The second is the elevation of the banal. The Odyssey is warriors and gods--Ulysses is everyday men and women. Joyce reveals the profundity of everyday encounters and throwaway thoughts, he elevates his "everymen" by making them the subject of his great artistic endeavor. The ordinary, quotidian travails of our fellow humans ought to be a source of the wisdom and inspiration we seek from myths and legends.

My long journey through Ulysses is nearing it's end. Only two more episodes--a little over a hundred pages--remain. Stay tuned.

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