The Living and the Dead: Winter, New Jersey and Joyce

During a recent trip on a NJ Transit train somewhere outside of Hackensack, the train paused for five minutes alongside a cemetery.  James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” came to mind before I even took this picture:

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.

It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones,  on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.

From the end of “The Dead“:

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


This story has been on my mind ever since June 2014 when WNYC’s Greene Space (with the Irish Arts Center) in New York produced Arthur Yorinks‘ audio play Dubliners: A Quartet.  I had a small part in the chorus (thanks to the Chorale‘s Ed Barnes who arranged a number of Irish hymns and folk songs and directed the musicians), so for two nights at the end of June I spent four hours listening to (and singing for) four of the Dubliners tales brought to life for the radio recording.  No costumes, no sets, just the actors’ voices and Joyce’s words.  The poetry of Joyce’s prose is no secret to anyone who has read his work, and neither is the musicality of his phrasing.  The surprise for me was how these stories — “Araby,” “Eveline,” “Clay,” and “The Dead” — which had been familiar to me for twenty years took on a fresh new form, and all these months later I still hear the stories in my head. They’re nagging me to find a way to work them into my curriculum.


The students in my English class have just finished discussing Huxley’s Brave New World.  One of the major questions that book asks is whether it’s nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune if by doing so you’ll lead a rich, if emotionally turbulent, life; or, would it be better if we could all live an anaesthetized existence whereby everyone is content with their lot in society at the cost of the desires, dreams and emotions that make each of us individuals.  Through the character of John, the Shakespeare-quoting “Savage,” Huxley clearly argues for the former when he has John say, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”  My students almost unanimously agreed with him, as do I, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to John’s foil, Mustapha Mond, when he tells John that his choice to keep his humanity means accepting a world of pain: with our ability to love comes our ability to betray; with the freedom of expression comes the awkwardness of not knowing what to say; with the acceptance of heartache in theory comes the inability to know how to process heartache in reality.

So we’ll follow up thematically with two short stories that illustrate this tragic beauty of John’s (and our own) choice to be human: Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “A Temporary Matter” and — you guessed it — Joyce’s “The Dead.”  I’m looking forward to showing my students the video from the performance at the Greene Space.  I’m not going to tell them that I’m in it — let’s see if anyone notices… — but for those of you not in the class, you can spy me towards the end, around 1:10:35.

Bloomsday 2013

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.

Page selected at random from my copy of Ulysses

Page selected at random from my copy of 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.