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Bloomsday in bloom

June 16th is Bloomsday, the worldwide lit-nerd holiday celebrating the anniversary of the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses. All over the world, and all over the Internet, people are re-enacting the novel’s events, tracing its route through Dublin, and taking part in readings of selections from the book. This year is the 107th June 16th since 1904, when the novel takes place. It’s the 89th one since its 1922 publication. But it’s only the 57th celebration of Bloomsday as a public event.

The first Bloomsday was a walk through Dublin, stopping at the various landmarks visited by Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. It was organized by two men - John Ryan, a central figure in the Dublin literary scene as an organizer, booster, and tastemaker, and Brian O’Nolan, better known to history as Flann O’Brien.

John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Joyce. Image from Wikipedia.

Who is Flann O’Brien? Probably the greatest Irish writer almost entirely unknown outside of Ireland itself - an early postmodernist and a savage critic of Irish culture’s self-mythologizing tendencies. In the most straightforward of his books, the Irish-language The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht), no sacred cliche of the Gaelic Renaissance is left unskewered; in the protagonists’ hometown of Corkadoragha, the suffering of the Gaelic people is so wretched and unmitigated it drives even those searching for an authentic Gaelic experience away.  

O’Brien had a fraught relationship with Joyce and his long literary shadow, as anyone unlucky enough to be an experimental Irish novelist writing in the 1940s and ’50s would have to. On that same June day in 1954, O’Brien, who wrote a newspaper column under yet another pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen,
not until James Joyce came along has anybody so considerably evoked depravity to establish the unextinguishable goodness of what is good.
which is as apt a comment on the novel as you’ll find on this anniversary. But he also takes him to task: 
Joyce was in no way what he is internationally claimed to be—a Dubliner. In fact there has been no more spectacular non-Dubliner…. Joyce was a bad writer. He was too skilled in some departments of writing, and could not resist the tour de force. Parts of “Ulysses” are of unreadable boredom…. Joyce was illiterate. He had a fabulously developed jackdaw talent of picking up bits and pieces, but it seems his net was too wide to justify getting a few kids’ schoolbooks and learning the rudiments of a new language correctly.
In O’Brien’s last novel, The Hard Life, Joyce appears as a character - not as an internationally renowned avant-gardist, but as an assistant barman in Skerries, who has no idea that books called Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have been published under his name; as nice an example of anxiety-of-influence wish-fulfillment as you could hope for.


The Brooklyn Lyceum, June 10, 2011So there you have it: Bloomsday was invented by an inveterate marketer for the Dublin literary scene who rescued the door of 7 Eccles Street from destruction and put it on his own pub, and an alcoholic genius who both looked up to Joyce and distrusted his stardom. They set off on the 50th anniversary of the events of the book to retrace its steps in character, aided by the Registrar of Trinity College, one of Joyce’s cousins, and a few younger writers. They made it as far as Ryan’s pub before their alcohol consumption got the better of them, and the tour was left uncompleted.

Do you need to know any of this to enjoy the day? Not in the least. But it might help given the tendency among Joyce’s great admirers, myself included, to make a big fuss over it. I sometimes worry that the hullaballo over Joyce’s greatness makes his work seem even less accessible, more the specialized province of a literati clique, recognizing each other from their stooped shoulders and over-elaborate puns. If you feel intimidated by the cult of Joyce, it can a useful remedy to remember that from the beginning, the idea of a Bloomsday celebration was shaped by people who saw Joyce as fallible, even mockable, and who were skeptical of his fame. People who also saw it as much as an excuse to climb the Martello tower and drink and sing songs as to read the book — which I think Joyce himself, long dead by then, might have approved of.

O’Brien, in the piece quoted above, notes “the utterly ignored fact that Joyce was among the most comic writers who have ever lived.” It’s a fact still often ignored today; partially so that we can bask in the achievement of having conquered Ulysses like some lit-nerd Everest. Comedy doesn’t sit easily with reverence - if it did, perhaps we’d have an International Wodehouse day as well. But I’d encourage you all to remember to take your Bloomsdays unseriously, and skeptically, and possibly also with a pint of plain. Flann O’Brien would have wanted it that way.