Well, St. Patrick’s Day is fast approaching us. Finally, the one day of the year where we get to acknowledge all the loutish drunken potato-eating Micks in our lives! No; I kid. I love the Irish. I really do.
Ah, Ireland. Land of saints and of shamrocks. Land of Guinness and of “Lucky Charms.” But Ireland has given us so much more than that. And so, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, let’s take some time out to honor the Irish. And to honor the greatest Irish writer. And to honor the greatest book ever written by the greatest writer of all time. And this book is, of course… “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
And yes, we all hate being told what the best book ever is. And we all hate lists made by experts. But in this case, the experts actually happen to be right, for once. “Ulysses” actually is the best book ever written. And I’ll prove it to you, sort of. And so I present…
A QUICK GUIDE TO “ULYSSES” FOR THE BENEFIT OF YOU SEMI-ILLITERATE DUDES
…“Ulysses” was written by James Joyce in 1916, and takes place in Dublin, covering the single day of June 16th, 1904. What’s it about, you say? Um… Well. Basically. Um. What happens is, Stephen Dedalus, this over-educated, pretentious guy, gets kicked out of his house, and spends the day wandering around Dublin. Meanwhile, Leopold Bloom, an average-joe sort of guy, spends the whole day wandering around Dublin because his wife is fucking some other guy that day, and he’s trying to avoid going home.
But that’s not really what it’s about. Try this:
Stephen Dedalus, this guy whose mother has just died, is wearing all black and living in a tower. He thinks he’s Hamlet. (Because Hamlet wore all black and lived in a tower.) Leopold Bloom, this guy who’s been wounded in love, thinks that he’s Don Juan. But he’s not. And Stephen isn’t Hamlet either. Most of us spend our whole lives thinking that we’re someone that we’re not. Stephen and Bloom are trapped in their wrong roles, but then, after wandering all over Dublin for a day, they meet, and for a second they really realize who they really are. Bloom is Ulysses; a wise, crafty, heroic adventurer. Stephen is Telemachus, his noble son. Together, they are father and son. They meet, realize this for a second, and then they part and never see each other again.
But that’s not really what it’s about. Try this:
Books are bullshit. Did you ever read a book and think, “this is nothing like my life”? Movies too. Who ever runs down an alleyway, chased by thieves? Who, for that matter, ever has a perfect meaningful conversation with their wife or husband or kid or girlfriend that suddenly resolves all these issues that they’ve been having? Books are a load of crap. And here’s a book that isn’t like that. Nothing gets resolved. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on. Things only change very slightly. That’s what “Ulysses” is like — and, let’s face it — that’s what all of our lives are like too.
It’s the first book ever written where people masturbate, pee on walls, curse, take dumps, think about pussies and penises, and have normal human conversations. And it was written in 1916 and it’s still more modern than most of what is written today.
Here’s the book itself, talking about what it’s about:
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea,
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
He came forward a pace and stood by the table. His underjaw fell sideways open uncertainly. Is this old wisdom? He waits to hear from me.
“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
“The ways of the Creator are not our ways,” Mr. Deasy said. “All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.”
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
“That is God.”
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
“What?” Mr. Deasy asked.
“A shout in the street,” Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Hold to the here, the now, through which all future plunges into the past.
Chapter 9, again:
If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas goes forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, giants, ghosts, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.
“…Why did you leave your father’s house?”
“To seek misfortune,” Stephen said.
What did each do at the door of egress?
Bloom set the candlestick on the floor. Stephen put the hat on his head.
For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
For a cat.
What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rear of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.
Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?
Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.
Confused? Don’t worry about it! In order to get booze money, James Joyce taught Berlitz language classes. These are classes where you teach English to foreigners, while only ever speaking in English. You’re not allowed to speak to your students in their own language. It’s the “total immersion” theory of teaching, and it’s supposed to work better than other methods. …So when he was working, James Joyce spent eight hours a day having conversations like this:
–My name is Mr. Joyce. It is raining outside today. You are holding an umbrella.
–Today it is raining. You are holding an umbrella.
–In your hand. An umbrella.
So if you’re confused while reading the book, fuck it! Don’t worry about it! Just skip to a part where you’re not confused. Hell, I skipped most of chapter 14 myself. Joyce is writing in a new language; he starts off kind of easy, but then he gets harder and harder. And like a good foreign-language teacher, he’s trusting us to figure out things on our own. So don’t fret! The book is confusing, but so is fucking life, and we do that every day, not expecting to understand every single fucking thing that’s going on. So go forth, my winged monkey people, and read:
The book being read out loud. (Only thirty-two hours long!)
…So check out all of that shit and then get back to me.