On this day in 1904, nothing momentous actually happened in the real world. Alright, I may have written that out of ignorance, perhaps something did happen, but whatever it was, it is not the reason that this day has been immortalized for book geeks and literary aficionados. For us, today is remembered for what happened on the imaginary June 16th, 1904, in James Joyces’ Ulysses.
So what happened on that imaginary day? Well, not much, actually. Leopold Bloom gets up, thinks about his failing marriage, thinks about his friend who died, tries to place an ad in the paper, watches people eat, watches and girl on the beach and thinks she’s pretty. Stephen Daedalus, the proto-hipster, gets up, makes some snarky comments, goes for a walk, drinks too much, pees on a wall.
Just another day in Dublin in 1904.
For a book whose narrative structure is largely patterned after Homer’s Odyssey — a foundational work of Western literature — it seems a real scaling back of scope. Neither character is in a fantastic amount of danger. Neither is a plaything of jealous gods. Each man faces the kind of everyday challenges that each of us face, and if there’s an overall point then perhaps it’s this: Isn’t just facing your everyday challenges heroic enough? And to face them with a sense of perspective, through the prism of your own foibles and imperfections, yet still manage to treat others with love and respect — that really is heroic.
Having put it that simply, you’d think this would be one of the feel-good books of the century, read and beloved by all. That’s not quite the case. Joyce’s writing strives to exist on a different astral plane — he drove straight through Didacticism, Erudition and Polymathematical and ended up in some distant alterna-Dublin that is to actual Dublin what the Heavenly Jerusalem is to its earthly counterpart: strange, beautiful, composed of metaphor and foreshadow. To put it lightly, it’s a hard read, and it takes awhile to get the very simple message mentioned above out of it. But it’s an exciting process.
I first learned about the book’s riches when I was studying abroad in Bath, England. I took a course on Georgian architecture and Jane Austen, but my roommates were in a class about Ulysses and every evening they’d have their classmates over to our flat to talk about the book. Every now and then I feel left out when I can’t participate in a conversation about sports, but that could never compare to the sense of inadequacy and jealousy I experienced when I couldn’t take part in these talks about Ulysses. The topics and allusions were so wide-ranging, it seemed that if you could plumb the book’s depths you’d receive a four-year college education for the price of a single book. I had to study it.
So, next semester, back on Denison University’s campus, I approached our resident Joycean, Richard Hood, and asked him if he’d be willing to teach Ulysses the following semester. He sat there and thought about it, then said yes on the condition that we make it a high-level, invitation-only seminar. He envisioned a class where everyone would not only pull their weight, but would cherish having done so. We came up with a list of about twelve or fifteen such students and it was one of the best classes I have ever taken. Ulysses was the only book we read in the course, and it was the only class that came with this dictum: “You must read the book on your own over the summer. When I say read, I mean you must at the very least look at every word whether you understand what’s going on or not. And you’ll hate the experience. You’ll think it’s the worst piece of high-falutin’ crap ever. But. When we come back in the Fall, you’ll read it again, and we’ll take it apart piece by piece, and you’ll understand that it’s the most brilliant thing you’ve ever read.”
Dr. Hood was right. Ulysses is the richest, most frustratingly brillant and playful work I’ve ever read. It lived up to all the expectations set for me by those conversations back in England. But my advice to anyone who wishes to attempt it is this: find a group. Uncork a bottle of your favorite wine, and discuss no more than 2-5 pages in a given session. You’ll have a blast unpacking the puns, discovering wordtricks, the likes of which you’ve never seen, researching allusion after allusion after allusion. If you let yourself be open to it, you will laugh quite a bit, and you’ll love this book that at first seemed so difficult to love.
And by doing that, you will have done something heroic.