ulysses

Seuss to Joyce: A Bloomsday Journey

Ulysses

As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.

Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.

Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.

As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.

“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.

Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.

(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)

Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.

(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)

The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”

Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.

Happy Bloomsday!

 

Getting The Words Right

Auto_For_The_People

Thank God for the Internet.

Not for enabling me to bank online or re-live Springsteen’s Darkness Tour or Google-map every house I’ve ever lived in. Those are all in a day’s work, but not the reason for my gratitude.

No, I’m thankful for the Internet because it made the impossible possible: getting the lyrics to R.E.M. songs right.

In the prehistoric pre-Internet days, a copywriter friend once said to me, “I’m sick of hearing about R.E.M.’s tone poems. The words are nonsense.” I got his point. The band’s first single “Radio Free Europe” had a great vibe, but what the hell were they saying? Even Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s front man and lyricist, referred to the song as “complete babbling.”

The words to R.E.M. songs could make parts of Ulysses read like Fun with Dick and Jane. 

*        *        *

But Automatic For The People was different. Thanks to a preponderance of ballads, the album’s lyrics were more intelligible, presenting a somber meditation on life and death and the passage of time. The songs resonated with me, and for good reason. At age 34, I found myself in the middle of the life-death continuum, with two young sons at one end and a recently deceased father at the other.

I was grateful for my boys. Amid my grief, there were meals to make, playgrounds to explore, bedtime stories to tell, foreheads to kiss. The boys kept pulling me back to the present.

Or, as Stipe sings in “Nightswimming“:

     These things they go away,

     Replaced by every day

I didn’t have to wait for the Internet to get those words right.

And I knew how true they were.

With thanks to Evan Walsh for singing two lines from his favorite R.E.M. song during our recent rendezvous.

Joyce, Bloomsday, And The Color Of Money

You can tell a lot about a nation by the people it puts on its money. In the United States, our legal tender celebrates our democracy and the leaders it has produced. A parade of presidents graces our dollar bills – Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50). Ben Franklin, a colonial triple-threat – diplomat, inventor, essayist – gazes at us from the $100 note. Franklin coined the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Save enough pennies and you can carry Benjamins in your wallet.

When I arrived in Ireland as a student in 1980, I was struck by the pre-euro pound notes that made up the Irish national currency. There were different colors for different denominations – green, orange, pink, blue. The notes were larger than American bills. And look who appeared on the notes – Jonathan Swift on the £10 bill and William Butler Yeats on the £20. Writers on money! As a student of literature, this was the country for me.

That semester, I fell under the spell of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. Considered by many to be the finest English-language novel published in the 20th centuryUlysses is a dazzling and difficult work, 783 pages of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, and comedic joy. It charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904. Why did Joyce choose this date? That’s when he took his “first walk” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

Bloom is Joyce’s everyman. By paralleling the events of Bloom’s day with those of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man – you and me and the rest of us – as a modern hero. The fact that Bloom is an ad canvasser endears him to me further.

Now known as Bloomsday, June 16th is the day when the world celebrates all things Joyce. In Dublin, literary pilgrims retrace the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen. In New York, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on Broadway. In France, the Paris Bloomsday Group presents songs and readings from Ulysses. Last year, even Twitter turned Joycean when @11lysses tweeted the novel 140 characters at a time.

When Ireland issued its new series of banknotes in 1993, Joyce appeared on the £10 note. The notoriously money-challenged author would have loved the irony.

Happy Bloomsday!

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