Bloomsday at the Lannan with Heff

It was a fairly quiet affair this time around. A bomb scare on the plaza turned out to be nothing more than an excuse to move Jim Heffernan’s annual Bloomsday lecture from the New Mexico History Museum to the Lannan Foundation HQ on Read Street. And yes, it does appear to be a “regular annual” now: I was there to overhear when Patrick Lannan invited him back for 2015. The boss had good reason: Even with all the confusion downtown, Jim’s lecture was packed, and the man delivered with one of the most beautifully ironic Bloomsday presentations you could imagine.

Ironic? Well, for one thing it wasn’t really Bloomsday. This happens every now and then; whenever June 16 falls on a Monday, everything gets pushed to the preceding weekend. So in a sense, it was a good thing, as it allowed for an extended Joycean celebration.

But the real irony of Jim’s lecture was its content. June 15th, the day of the lecture, was Father’s Day, and Leopold Bloom, hero of Ulysses, is rightly considered one of western literature’s great father figures. So what does Jim do? Answer:

Gender Flip!

For all of his fatherliness, everything Bloom does on June 16th, 1904 is indicative of a man with deep maternal instincts. He serves coffee and cocoa to Stephen Dedalus, whom he nurtures and encourages much like a mother would. This turns out to be very much the kind of thing Stephen is in need of. Unlike his Homeric counterpart Telemachus, Stephen is haunted by mother issues – the father doesn’t really enter into Stephen’s thoughts except in the most perfunctory and academic way.

But Stephen Dedalus was not the focus of Jim’s lecture, and this is the big surprise – I had already made the above observations in my own reading. What Jim brought to the mix that I hadn’t considered (and certainly should have) was that Bloom’s wife Molly also has deep mother issues, perhaps even more biting and painful than Stephen’s. The only thing she knows of her own biological mother is her name: Lunita Laredo, and it is Jim’s assertion that Molly’s vicious isolation from every other woman in the book (merciless attitudes are expressed even towards her own daughter), comes from a deep unspeakable resentment stemming from maternal abandonment. Molly’s ability to commune with her fellow women was stunted at birth, and so it is this very communion that she yearns for most. She gets along with men just fine, so what is her only hope? – a “new womanly man,” as the Circe chapter would have it. Leopold cooks for Molly, cleans up after Molly, and generally encourages Molly to be and do whatever she likes. And Joyce, never one to be subtle about anything, has Bloom give birth to eight offspring in an hallucination in the Circe chapter, crying as he does so, “O, I so want to be a mother.”

There is much more to say on this, but we can let Jim himself do the talking once posts his Father’s Day lecture. Know for now that, as always, Jim was rich in detail supporting his argument, and truly masterful in his reading. This is the mark of a true Wakean, by the way – a readiness to accept gender ambiguity as a norm, not an aberration. Jim doesn’t read Finnegans Wake; sadly he excused himself from our reading group on Saturday when it was time to move on to the Wake. But the man’s instincts are primed. He really should try it on.

That said, I’ll close this post with a final statement: Support the Wake – have a look at my Kickstarter page, and don’t be shy:

JoyceGeek on the Beach

Ultimately, the real pleasure of reading Joyce’s work comes from discovering its intricacies, its minutiae, its particulars. No writer in any language has been so scrupulous in their attention to detail; not even Melville with his whole whale-hunting geek-a-thon can really compare with Joyce’s descriptions of a single June day in 1904 (Ulysses), or of a single shady encounter in Dublin’s Phoenix park as filtered through the collective gossip of the city’s denizens (Finnegans Wake), or of the Catholic church’s definition of hell (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). These details are endless, and endlessly fascinating, unfolding like a lotus flower with each rereading. It is perhaps the single greatest advantage to reading Joyce: he never disappoints the microscope.

Of course, this also happens to be the great disadvantage to reading Joyce as well; readers pretty much have to keep their microscopes handy at all times. The sheer number of details inviting scrutiny can indeed be overwhelming. They’re as numerous as grains of sand on a beach, in fact.

So you may well ask: What kind of lunatic would go to the trouble of studying a beach one grain of sand at a time? Well, before I answer that question, please understand that it’s not just a beach – it’s also an ocean, plus the beach on the other side of that ocean, and even beyond that. It may not look like much more than, say, a sandcastle at any given moment, but study the sandcastle long enough, and the ocean from whence its material came will eventually come into view, as will even the opposite shore.

But enough of the beach metaphor. My point is that Joyce can really only be understood one detail at a time. For that, my primary recommendation for beginners is to grab the annotation volumes. Avoid the “how to” books, at least when you first start out. A lot of them are really good, but no matter how introductory they may claim to be, these books are for people who have already started exploring Joyce’s world from within.

So to the question, “What kind of lunatic?” etc, my answer is simple: JoyceGeek. We are legion, and we’ve been around for well over a century now, starting with, I suppose, Joyce’s own brother Stannie. The names you see on the bylines of the annotations – Gifford, Seidman, McHugh, Slepon, Jackson, McGinley, Scholes, Litz, Anderson, Thorton, Mamogonian, Turner, Smurthwaite – my God, that list alone is already getting massive – but readers should be aware that the notes and glosses contained in their compilations are the result of the work of literally hundreds – what am I saying – thousands of JoyceGeeks spanning five continents and a near century’s worth of geekery – enough to create our own little beach, in fact.

So if you don’t mind feeling mighty small, at least at first, James Joyce’s world awaits – it’s very much worth the effort.