It’s Bloomsday and I just realized that my crumbling copy of Ulysses is packed away with the rest of my Joyce shelf in bed bug bags.
My first encounter with James Joyce’s work was not ideal. As a very young one I came across a thread about Bloomsday on a discussion forum, knowing next to nothing about Joyce, and I read post after post about what nonsense this “high” literature was. I didn’t have my own opinion, but I followed along until someone posted the first page or so of Portrait as an example of how nonsensical Joyce’s writing was. I read it ready for a laugh, but once I was done I closed the browser window and resolved to get a copy of the book as soon as I could.
The anti-Joyce sentiment that I saw bubbling up there is a part of a common strain of anti-elitism in the United States that rests on a gross misconception of what the elite that matters actually is. Although Joyce does demand quite a lot of the reader in terms of cultural knowledge (or, at least, willingness to look things up), the material involved – Romantic poetry, Greek mythology, the writing of centuries-old Catholic heretics – hardly correlates with status nowadays. The people with what it takes to read and enjoy Ulysses are not the social or economic upper crust. They’re middle-class nerds.
A few years ago I attended the Joyce Summer School, and I was surprised at how many non-academics were attending just for fun. There’s a significant body of such people out there with enough of a taste for Joyce to spend a week in Dublin immersed, and they’re not all just in it for the museums and tours. People with no stake in literature beyond liking it came to the seminars and even gave some of the lectures at the conference. There are undoubtedly those who read Ulysses just so that they can brag to their friends, but for a lot of people who really love it it’s a culturally-marginal interest, and it’s not necessarily easy to find someone to talk about it with. The culture that arises has much the same nerdy earnestness as sci-fi and fantasy fandoms.
Though I suggested that there’s something more to be valued in seminars than in pub crawls, I’m not opposed to the “fetishistic” character of Bloomsday or the “Joyce Industry” in general. One of the great purposes of literature is to add to the common store of ideas by which we can connect to others, even if only within a group of enthusiasts. It is a peculiarly Modern conception of the world that draws a clear line between myth and reality, and not one that jibes well with a novelist as deeply concerned with the realistic depiction of place as Joyce. To be sure, Joyce’s works follow the model that Deleuze & Guattari would call the radicle, maintaining the work as an artistic unity despite the fragmentation of the vision of reality in which it is rooted. But the roots are real, and Joyce gives us no reason to construct a distinction between, say, the St. Stephen’s Green of his novels and the one in Dublin. Actual Joyce fans see them as the same. And why not? Leopold Bloom may never have lived in 7 Eccles St, but the character is as much a part of our world as the house was, in its way.