James Joyce's 'Ulysses' and Bloomsday: In Search of Difficult Pleasures

June 16 each year is celebrated as Bloomsday in honour of James Joyce’s Irish literary masterpiece Ulysses.

It’s that time of the year again when Joyce aficionados in Dublin and the world over affectionately compare notes, filing cards, collector’s editions, photos, and other minutiae, in an attempt to take part in what has come to be known as Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a twentieth century work widely hailed as difficult, but which the novelist Anthony Burgess would easily qualify as one of the most entertaining of difficult books.  

Often as readers we read because texts offer us, among other things, practical opportunities for time travel. Bloomsday, celebrated in Dublin – the capital of Ireland and the centre of action in the novel – and the world over, is an attempt to travel back in time to relive and re-enact the events of Ulysses taking place over the course of a single day: Thursday, June 16, 1904. Bloomsday commemorates Joyce’s timeless characters as they navigate their ways, or rather, make their “rounds” (to borrow Declan Kiberd’s useful phrase from Ulysses and Us) through a single day in Edwardian Dublin.

Also known as ‘La Bloom’, Bloomsday derives its name in particular from the character Leopold Bloom, an Irish man of Jewish Hungarian descent working as an advertising canvasser, hailed by the literary critic Harold Bloom as one of the most “complete” figures in modernist texts. 

Bloomsday: then and Now

Coursing through the entry under the month of June under the 1904 head in the collected Letters of James Joyce (first version collected and edited by Stuart Gilbert) reveals to us that the date “June 16 1904” was special to the 22-year-old Joyce smitten by love: it was the day he would walk the town with the object of his affection, his muse, and later his wife, Nora Barnacle.

Surprisingly, as Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer (cue Hugh Kenner scoffing) reminds us, the phrase “Bloomsday” had already been popularised soon after the publication of Ulysses. In his letter to H.S. Weaver dated June 27, 1924, Joyce expresses his surprise, recuperating from an eye operation and already struggling, bandage over eye, for the light of day by which to pen the early drafts of the book of night (Finnegans Wake in 15 years’ time) at how he received “white and blue” hortensias from a group of people celebrating a phenomenon called “Bloom’s day”. 

Joyce is said to have lamented over Ulysses, pondering, sotto voce, to himself (in the same sing-song voice that would read and record the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” episode at Cambridge at C.K. Ogden’s bidding): “Will anybody remember this date”. We know now that Joyce need not have lamented: Dedalus, Bloom, and Molly, among other characters like Father Conmee, Mulligan, and Cranly from the Joycean oeuvre, enrapture, amuse, and offer sympathetic portraits of Dubliners to readers even today. 

Following the official 1954 Bloomsday celebration in Ireland, Bloomsday is now annually celebrated in the cultural capital, Dublin, with a host of activities organised and arranged by the James Joyce Centre. The centre also hosts walking tours, lectures, and sight-seeing of several of the iconic locations visited by the characters in the novel in the course of a single day, among them the James Joyce Tower and Museum at Sandycove (where the sombre-spirited Stephen Dedalus broods over the “panthersahib“), and Davy Byrne’s pub (where Leopold Bloom lunches on a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy), and Number 7 Eccles Street (canonised alongside other famous streets such as Conan Doyle’s Baker Street), to name a few.

Actors Mahon Kelly, Jim Corcoran and Shane Lillis perform a chapter form the book to celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin’s city centre in 2015. Credit: Reuters

It is also not unusual for independent groups and readers to engage in readings and performances of Ulysses. Over the years, Bloomsday has witnessed wide-ranging forms of celebration: from readers and enthusiasts dressing up in Edwardian costumes, to song and dance on public streets, to workshops hosting a taste-test of food in Ulysses, Bloomsday is definitely a day to rejoice in the feast of words and word-play, only to find out, upon arriving at the Ulysses-table laden with several compound words, misplaced punctuation, and quirky turns of phrases, that the feast is to be sumptuous yet. 

Lessons in reading

It was Hugh Kenner who, in The Pound Era, made bold to ask the self-reflexive reader his/her real motives in reading: “Why am I reading this?” (24). This is a question readers trudging/ploughing/labouring over the notorious 1922 text of Ulysses often ask themselves, myself included, and the reasons that we come up with do not seem to be very clear or, it would seem, very convincing. Harold Bloom, however, offers a different, and possibly more illuminating answer: one derives a certain kind of pleasure in pursuing a text that self-reflexively purports to be difficult. 

Reading Joyce, one soon comes to realise, is not only to read oneself in the ordinary lives of the Dubliners that congregate within the text, but also to assess oneself as a reader: the results of such introspection are often humbling as readers of Ulysses engage themselves in a dizzying conversation with a multiplicity of other texts, times, and styles – but not without lessons to take away from the reading exercise.  

The range of styles exploited in Ulysses – from the newspaper layout in the “Aeolus”chapter” to the nine-month gestation of the English language in the “Oxen of the Sun” and psychobabble of the “Circe” episode – vouchsafes the fact that there does not seem to be a single dull moment in Ulysses; or, on the contrary, as our oft ill-equipped classrooms seem to affirm: there are only dull moments in Ulysses. 

One of the reasons, then, for the significance of the Bloomsday festival, lies in its active championing of a return to the text: since the reputation of Joyce’s texts almost always precedes their reading  (owing in great part, however, to the fact that Joyce himself laboured to make a puzzle of his work), his texts are often sidelined on account of being too obscure or difficult, and they are left groaning under the weight of abandonment. The text, like the characters in the novel, often deserves a second (or a third, or fourth, as the case maybe) chance to redeem itself. 

Ulysses, then, at best, invokes a response from its readers. This response, both to the text and to the world, is perhaps best seen in the form of a self-reflexive reading that Bloomsday advocates. Ulysses nods in the direction of reading everything: objects, places, faces, directories, sights, sounds, thoughts, bodies, and even ghosts – everything leaves a “trace”.

For as Stephen Dedalus affirms in the chapter usually assigned “Proteus” in Ulysses,  around us are infinite, shapeshifting (“ineluctable”) texts (“modalities”): they are signatures” of “all things” that we are here to readTo read Joyce, then, is to affirm the spirit of reading; it is to signal the birth of a reader who will “remember” Joyce’s “epiphanies” and read them in newer, more interpretive lights. Bloomsday celebrates this reading, this feast of words and word-play; but it is only a matter of time till one finds out that Ulysses has much to offer, besides. 

Outcast from Life’s Feast

In Dubliners, we learn of Mr Duffy who, in an act of paralysis, is rendered incapacitated to love and to return love, and thus feels cut out from life’s great feast. Mr Duffy reads the past and his actions from the vantage point of the future, where loss and loneliness renew his ability to read events in a different light. In a moment of epiphany, he realises his act of having misread Mrs Sinico all along. By the time he comes to realise the gravity of his own loss, it is too late. Thus does Joyce offer us several vantage points — cracked mirrors, if you will – to see ourselves and the world around us. Mr.Duffy’s brooding and contemplative self finds parallel in the aloof Stephen Dedalus, who perhaps, although he would never have liked to admit it, would have gone through great trouble himself at the Cabman’s Shelter but for the presence of the bumbling but life-affirming force of Leopold Bloom, who takes Stephen back to Number 7 Eccles Street, back home to “Ithaca”. 

Bloomsday, then, is an attempt to reel in the outcasts, to show them peace not only in the noises of the quayside, but also in themselves. It is a festival that attempts to illustrate what constitutes life’s great feasts: “Signatures”, or readings and personal reflection, as Dedalus affirms in the Protean chapter three, and “Love”, or humanity, as Bloom gently reminds the violent and parochial Citizen at the end of chapter twelve — perhaps two of the most powerfully affirmative forces that signify some of the best that Ulysses has to offer. 

Ulysses, thenadvocates an inward journey, a return to the text as the “closest way home”. For as the great poet of love, Rumi, recites in his “A Pilgrimage to a Person”: “Be a pilgrim to the kaaba inside a human being,/ and Mecca will rise into view on its own”. No matter what part of the world each of us happens to be in, Dublin, then, will rise into its own, and the reading will have been well-worth the try.

Jinan Ashraf is a research scholar, Department of English, University of Hyderabad.