I’m one of those old fashioned readers. I literally still turn pages. That’s not to say that I don’t read a lot on my computer. On most days I do catch up with the news, sports and weather, read articles and emails online. But when it comes to reading books I like to, well, read books. You know, the ones made with paper bounded together. ones with words printed with ink on their pages. I like to turn pages and like to gradually see the bookmark move along the spine. With all the people that I see now hunched over and intently looking at their tablets, their I phones and their Kindels, I gladly accept myself as one of the old archaic holdouts who still read books that aren’t internally illuminated. I check books out from the library. I check them out for my grand kids too. I’ve noticed that the people who still check books out from the library are either mothers with young children or old people like me. You’ll see us shuffling in and out of the library door carrying a heavy canvas bag in one hand and often times ushering a toddler or two through the doors with the other hand.
I used to buy most of the books that I’d read. At times I will still buy an occasional book. Wandering through a bookstore, especially a used bookstore or an independent book store is truly a pleasant and stimulating experience for me. It takes a fair amount of will power to walk out of one empty handed. After a while though I just had too many books taking up valuable space in my little home. I had old science fiction novels stashed in boxes in my closet, shelves full of dusty and damaged paperbacks, adventure and mystery novels, literature, hiking guides, text books, books about art, religion and science. After decades of all of this accumulated paper I accepted the fact that most of the books that I had read I would never reread, and the few that I hadn’t read yet I most likely never would read.
There came a day when I decided that I had to start sorting, discriminating and valuing. The process went fast. All that it took was a few cardboard boxes and a determination to make room. If I had a doubt about whether a certain book would go or stay it would inevitably go into a box, a box that would leave my life. Most of the paperbacks, the outdated science and hiking books, the forgettable novels and the text books went bye-bye. I gave them to a local used book store that had just opened in town, (unfortunately the store closed it’s doors not much later). Most of the classic literature stayed on my shelves, be them hardback or yellowed stained paperbacks. For instance I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of Melville’s Moby Dick, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Dostoevsky’s The Brother Karamazov or Thoreau’s, Walden. I had read all each these books already more than one time. holding them in my hands brought to me a feeling of comforting and stimulating nostalgia. Who was I to say that I wouldn’t want to revisit them again someday?
Among these classic novels were two famous books written by James Joyce. They were ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘Ulysses’. ‘A Portrait’, in paperback, I had purchased decades before from a used bookstore. Now it’s cover was ripped off and it’s pages yellowed and frayed. ‘Ulysses’, also in paperback, was in better shape, but still its more than 800 pages were tattered. It took not just a little bit of scotch tape to keep it from splitting open at the seam.
I had read each of these books two times already but still could not find it in me to put them in one of the bye-bye-book-boxes. I had a feeling that I may want to invest time into them someday. I drummed through the pages of ‘The Portrait…”. The gentle wispy sound of the pages going over my thumb sounded as a distant challenge to my ears. Maybe they might still have something to teach me. I’d have to be in the right frame of mind to start reading just one of these books and I knew that if I read one I would surly read the other immediately after. I stood them upright on the shelf. Someday? Who knows? Maybe I’ll accept the challenge again one of these days.
Fast-forward years, to about a month ago, I find myself with, yet again, having to decide what book I should read next. I just got done with reading a few non-fiction books, all of them good. One was a book about the history of religious conversions, one about a family from LA, California relocating to a poor neighborhood in Ho-Chi-Min city, Vietnam, one was about public shaming in the age of social media, one about parks and playgrounds in Tokyo, Japan. I fed them through the drop-slot by the locked door of the tiny library, in my tiny town, as tiny droplets of water misted down from a saturated sky on an early Sunday morning. I wouldn’t be able to get to the library in a couple days and it’s hard for me to got more than a day or two without turning pages. So that night before laying down I sifted through my book shelves and rummaged again through the piles of once again dusty books. It was there, together leaning against each other on the bottom shelf I come across James Joyce again.
I can’t remember when I first heard the name James Joyce, It was probably in some boring high school class, or while watching some uninteresting TV show that my parents watched. Back them he was just one of those old dead writers who I did not care in the least about. Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Plato, Virginia Wolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorn, William freakin’ Shakespeare, Confucius, I lumped them all in the same category, the I-can’t-be-bothered-with-old-dead-writers category. It took me a while, and I can’t exactly remember when, but I finally realized that people, even the dead ones, mattered. It is when I started to read books that this realization struck me. Books written by people, words written long before I was even born still could resonate with me, still could entertain me. I realized that people, though long ago dead, could still speak directly to me. They had thoughts just like I had thoughts and as long as people could read their words, their thoughts were still alive, which meant that in a way they were still alive. Even more so than looking at a old photograph could. It was a form of immortality, time travel, the transmutation of soul, if there is such a thing. So I started to read books, be them books written by people whose hearts were still beating in their chests, or those written by people whose hearts had stopped pumping blood and whose bodies were now dust. Because in both cases, still alive and maybe living on the other side of the planet from me, or dead as a freakin’ door-nail, they could still speak directly to me. Fucking Amazing!
Though I had heard the name of James Joyce before I didn’t know anything about him, other than the fact that he was a writer and that he was dead. But soon after it was published, I read a book written by a University of Chicago historian by the name of Daniel Boorstin, who is in fact now dead himself. He died in 2004. The book was titled “The Creators”. It is a book about influential artists throughout western civilization. It chronicled the lives and the works of painters, sculptors, dancers, architects, musicians, and writers. The couple of people that I later lent this book too told me that it was just too dry for there tastes. I found their reviews baffling. To each his own. I ate up ‘The Creators’ like a big plate of mashed potatoes and roasted turkey on Thanksgiving Day at grandma’s house. The book opened up new paths for me. ‘The Creators’ was Boorstin’s second book of a large trilogy that was later dubbed, “The Knowledge Trilogy”. The first of the series was called “The Discoverers”, the last called “The Seekers”. I was engrossed in the first two and hope to someday read the last. Only after reading “the Creators”, and specifically Boorstin’s chapter on the James Joyce, is it when I began to appreciate the Irish writer. It gave me a nudge forward into wishing to one day read one of his books, particularly ‘Ulysses’…be careful what you wish for.
Reading Joyce is difficult to put it mildly. Most of the time while reading ‘Ulysses’ I was cast like a ping pong ball between states of awe and states of confusion. I was always trying to figure out what was happening in the narrative, wondering if there was even a semblance of a story at all. Then a beautiful or shocking passage would draw me back into the pages. The Irish slang, the truncated words, the unannounced jumping from one perspective to the next, the long meandering sentences and intricate tendrils of unfamiliar words all confused the shit out of me. But after delving into it a little further, seeking out secondary commentary, reading about Joyce’s life, I discovered that these words were not just to be read as a linear narrative but also like a pulsating labyrinth of moments in thought. Now reading ‘Ulysses’ again, I confess that I am still disoriented. But a few of the multitude of wormholes he created seem now to be a little more accessible. The vast number of words that I had never even heard of before didn’t intimidate me as they did in my prior readings. I’d stumble though the syllables in my head and though I may not know the exact definitions of a particular word I could appreciate the rhythm of the word as it danced between my ears. Like all great writing, and great art in general, Joyce’s work evoked in me a certain mysterious sense of emphatic power, wholeness and honesty, albeit one with so many flourishes and bizarre configurations that it seemed, at times, to reach the point of just being braggadociously pretentious. But, I think to my self, we are often times driven by bizarre feelings and thoughts. We can be driven to laugh uncontrollably, to cry in explicitly and to think things that we can’t pinpoint the cause of way we thought about them. I think maybe that reading Joyce’s writings has allowed me to be more aware of the way my own thoughts progress and to appreciate more the mysterious nature of conscience.
Before I continue I want to be honest with you gentle readers. I am not a scholar in any sense of the word. I’m not college educated, overly curious or emphatically hard working. I’m not an exceptional talent in any particular field. I know very little about pretty much everything, including literature. My ego takes solace in the belief that I am not alone on that count, also on the account that I am an appreciator and dabbler in art. I’m, like most, curious enough to want to learn more and sometimes I’m even motivated enough to try to produce something original. So as that is the case, and the subject of my nature, I will give my very amateurish understanding of Joyce, his life, more of what I get from his work and how I interpret the small fraction of what is there to get. I start with a short Joyce bio…
James Joyce (1882 to 1941) was one of the most, if not the most, influential novelist of the 20th century. He is almost universally regarded by scholars as a literary genius, high praise for a man who only had four books published in his 59 years of life on the planet. One could easily be convinced, after reading some of the commentary about his work, or by reading Joyce’s work directly, that the formal rules of language were an insufficient way for him to express his ideas about the nature of experiences and concepts of mind. His novels were not anything like what had come before. This was not the traditional way that people told stories, even though at their heart they told the ultimate traditional story, that being the story of the subjective nature of self. Joyce delved into the human conscience and the archetypal psychology of mythology. He didn’t shy away from writing about sexual taboos, religion, history, politics, the concepts of aesthetics and the definition of art. He pioneered the idea of writing the stream of conscience. He ventured to capture the avenues of thought as one would capture a particular city by the means of walking down every street and alley of that city, by going into every building of that city, by talking to and observing every person who lived in that city. The background city that Joyce chose for his literary travels into the conscience was his home town of Dublin, Ireland.
James Joyce was born into an moderately affluent family there, the eldest of ten children and the favorite of his father. Dad wanted to give James the best learning money could buy so he sent him to get his early education at Cloncowes College located in the nearby farmlands outside of Dublin, basically a boarding school run by the Jesuit Christian bothers. There among the other young boys, most all from wealthy Dublin families, he was recognized early as a standout student, one with a nimble and curious mind. But he suffered from bullying, from being deeply homesick and from the repressive discipline doled out by some of the priests there. These first experiences of being immersed into Catholicism left a lasting impression on Joyce and as he entered into and beyond the years of puberty he was racked periodically with feelings ranging from love, to guilt, to fear,to uncontrollable lust, glorious redemption, sublime grace and eventually an angry revolt against the Catholic faith. His short time at Cloncowes and the feelings of flux that the time there instilled in him are captured beautifully in his autobiographical novel ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.
Joyce tells his story through the novels main character, Stephen Dedalus. In Stephan’s story, as in Joyce’s story, his stay at Cloncowes was cut short because of family misfortune. His father’s bad business decisions and alcoholism sunk the family further and further into poverty. James’es tuition at Cloncowes could no longer be afforded. But because of Joyce’s high marks he was given a scholarship at the catholic Belvedare College in the heart of Dublin. Here again Joyce shined bright as a student all the while his family was forced to move repeatedly from one place to the next as their financial situation became worse and his father’s drinking became increasingly more destructive. During this time Joyce’s mother apparently turned deeper to the Catholic faith to get her and her family though the turmoil. When he entered his mid teens his strong sexual urges took hold. At night he started to wandering the streets in the seedy places of town. He drank, got into fights and had sex with prostitutes.
All the while he was listening to the sermons by the priests at Bellvadere tell him about the evils of sin and the nature of hell, a place he believed he would surly end up if he didn’t repent and change. He was tortured by guilt and even had what could be described as a born again experience. Joyce describes this in ‘the Portrait…’ when Steven has his moment of redemption. In one glorious moment he decides to give his entire being to God. He confesses in the nearest church he comes across. He decides to live a life of celibacy, to give up all comforts of the flesh. He is then determined to be holy in every sense of the word. He considers joining the priesthood and is tempted by one conversation he has with a persuasive priest. The Father entices him by telling him that he believes that Steven has what it takes to join the priesthood. He explains to Steven the awesome, mystical power and responsibility that comes with the entrance into the order, the ultimate surrendering of ones soul to Christ, to become a hand of God, to wash away sin and give the humble the possibility of an eternity with God, the power to give holy communion, to literally turn wine into blood and bread into the flesh of Christ. But in the end Stephen turns away from the church, from its hypocrisy and its hyperbole. In so doing he turns away from his own mother and his city. He chooses to not denigrate his bestial nature. He chooses his art. He chooses the artifice of self over the artifice of the institutionalized dogma of Catholicism.
In ‘The Portrait…’ we see Steven’s story being played out, moment to moment, through a personal progression, from young soul to adult. There are no definitive references to time, no preambles or back stories, just moments, feelings and descriptions of the now. Some are comical, some heart wrenching, some boring, some emotional, some filled with hyper-sexuality, some spiritually soaring. From the first sentence of the book to the last we get an intimate portrait and feel of the process of psychological growth. The first sentence reads, “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named tuckoo…” The last sentences of the novel;”Welcome, O’life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand by me now and ever in good stead. Dublin 1904 Trieste 1914.” I believe that the dates at the end represent the years which Joyce spent writing and where he wrote “A Portrait…”. 1904 was a beginning for Joyce more than and end.
It was the year that he met his life long partner and future wife. It was the time when he ventured away to discover his artistic voice. He felt he had to leave Dublin and his life there in order to fully write about the city and himself with honesty.He had made many enemies and had ruffled many feathers with his writings as a student at University College in Dublin. It is there he wrote charged essays about politics and the church. He wrote 2 plays that were since lost. He wrote pieces that ridiculed the Gaelic revival movement and the Irish national movements, both were popular at the time. He tried to get his compilation of short stories published, later titled ‘The Dubliners’. These stories were inspired and written about real people, some close friends, some with influence and power in Dublin. He even used their real names. He had no qualms about burning bridges and revealing secrets if it could advance his artistic goals and his personal success. He borrowed money that he couldn’t pay back and he left Dublin for Paris where he enrolled in the Sabon University, with the intent to study medicine, to write and to get his work published. The former goal was never accomplished, the latter was, but it took a long time. It may have never happened if not for the help from artist and financial supporters of the advant-garde’ movement, including poet Ezra Pound and book store owner/publisher, Sylvia Beach.
He returned to Ireland only two more times, the first, most important and his longest stay, was in response to his father’s urging him to return because James’es mother was diagnosed with cancer and was on her death bed. He made it back in time to be with his mother when she died but refused her desires for him to kneel before her bed and pray for her, an experience he revisits in the mind of Steven Dedalus who returns at the beginning of his next novel “Ulysess”. His second and last trip to Dublin was in 1912. There he again tried and failed to get his work published. He returned to the continent never to set foot in Ireland again. He left Dublin for good but Dublin never left him.
The city of his birth would continue to be the setting for his stories. He studied over maps of the city while writing. He stayed in contact with some of his still remaining friends who lived in Dublin. He pressed them for seemingly petty information, like the exact amount of time it took to walk from one intersection to another or the color of a certain storefront. He poured over info about the city trades and the addresses of Dublin businesses. He did all this while moving often through Europe. He taught school in Zurich, Switzerland, then moved to Trieste in northern Italy, then back to Paris. He still continued to waste money, drink heavily and sought out prostitutes in the most rundown neighborhoods in the cites where he found himself. His Irish lover and partner, a former chambermaid and his muse, was Nora Banacle. She remained with him though all the turmoil to the end of his life. They finally married each other in 1931. She bore him two children, a boy and a girl. Their daughter suffered with mental illness her whole life and was for a short while a patient of the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He diagnosed her as suffering from schizophrenia. Later after reading ‘Ulyesses’, Jung, who was surprisingly not a fan of Joyce’s work, from afar diagnosed him as also being a schizophrenic.
To add to all of the turmoil that Joyce seemed to cultivate in his life, he also suffered from poor and deteriorating vision. He had over a dozen surgeries on his eyes and was destined to wear glasses and often eye patches his whole adult life. In his latter years he was almost completely blind. He was forced to write parts of his final novel, ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, on over sized paper in bold red crayon in order to still see the strange words he produced. We know for a fact that James Joyce was nearly blind.
We don’t know if the ancient poet Homer was blind, though legend has it that he was. We don’t realy know if there was a poet named Homer who created those epic poems ‘the Iliad’ and ‘the Odyssey’. Perhaps these stories were created by many different people back in the beginning of civilization. Perhaps they changed, maybe just a little bit, with every retelling. We simply don’t know the origin of these myths. We do know that Joyce used the template of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ for his definitive modern day myth. ‘Ulyesses’. Homer’s tale was set on ships, on islands and on the rocky lands of the Mediterranean Sea. It encompassed years in the lives of the main characters in portrays. Joyces’s book in volume is many times longer than Homers epic poem. It is set in one city not around the lands of a vast ocean. It takes place in Dublin. Its actions and events are played out in the time span of single midsummer’s day. That day is Thursday, June 16th, 1904. Joyce chose this day because it was the day that he had his first sexual encounter with his muse, Nora. It is a day still celebrated in Dublin and around the world by Joyce admirers. It is called Bloomsday after Joyce’s every-man hero and main character Leopold Bloom. Today folks gather on June 16th in Dublin pubs and at the locations where the novel is set. They drink stout beer, listen to readings and reenactments. It is a celebration of Irish culture.
Joyce was not shy about how important he considered his work nor was he ignorant of his own genius. When describing his writings he said; “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant. and that’s the only way of insuring ones immortality.” ‘Enigmas and puzzles’ woven into the novel ‘Ulyesses’? On its most shallow of levels it is but a story about average people on a seemingly average summer day. It takes place in a city not too dissimilar from a thousand other cities. a city on our average sized planet that’s circling an average sized run-of-the-mill star. What I think Joyce says to us is that I am not average! There is no average! We are all myth makers and ours is the story of a hero!
Would it be wrong of me to speculate that Joyce really believed that he may have seen himself as a modern day Homer? His ego, his talent and his artistic fire maybe could take him into the realms of immortality. Maybe it was these delusions of god-like grandeur that spurred him so fervently and meticulously to create. Maybe this mystical, illusory groundwork is the platform on which all creative impulse originates. Maybe it is the human creative way, the way we stake our claim, in our own time, and on our own terms. Procreation and creation, the biological and the artistic, are intrinsic human meaning makers. We cannot help but to relate to the stories of the immortals and to stories of creation, because we ourselves are creations and it’s only with a defiant will of our very natures that we can conceive of ourselves as not being immortal. We long for answers be them physical or metaphysical answers. The stories that we are told and the stories that we tell parallel our desires to make sense of our existence. The mythological tale is like a map, as is the scientific tale a different map. When done with honesty either can resonate in our psyches as truth, even though either may defy our reasons or our intuitions.
I think that It’s hard to overemphasize just how connected we are to stories. We are drawn to representations of dramas, comedies, tragedies. They are part and parcel to how we create the story of self and our connection to others. Mythology, and art in general, is drawn from the residue of the subconscious mind. Disjointed parts seep out of the shadows and coagulate. They emerge through intuition, then they’er cognitively recorded and retold with a subjective spin. Telling stories through song, literature, poetry is the human way we can make sense of shadow substance and use them to our advantage. I think that Joyce understood this. He took Homer’s epic poem and said. ‘This is not just a tale about the brave, the clever, the misfortuned, the greedy, the humble, the lusty, the deceptive, the loving and the just. This is not just a story about the great Odysseus. This is the story of me, this is the story of you. Any story, whether it is presented from a podium at a lecture hall, from a book, from a bar chair or from a large screen in your local multiplex cinema represents an aspect of myth.
Joyce is quoted to have said; “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my books.” I could easily imagine these words coming from the mouth of a deluded cult leader, or a narcissistic prophet, or the god of the old testament, or maybe just from a cheeky, winking jester who nudges you in the ribs and smiles while he carries on, ‘You good ole’ dilapidated demi-god, You. Your the story teller my friend, don’t be afraid to expose yourself as the pitiable, pious, prosperous, irrepressible poet that you are. Open it up. Suck in existence. My book is your book. Enter the light of day, follow your thoughts, step out of the shadow and write my story as I have written yours!