16 Years of JoyceGroup Geekery

JoyceGeeks at the Hotel St. Francis From left: Ned Sudborough, me, David Norris, Nancy Haydock, Bud Ryan, Joan Harvey, Elaine Mingus, Jim Paulsel, Bill Wible

JoyceGeeks outside the Hotel St. Francis, February 2003 From left: Ned Sudborough (d. 2009), me, David Norris (visiting dignitary – not a member), Nancy Haydock, Bud Ryan, Joan Harvey, Elaine Mingus (d. 2014), Jim Paulsel (d. 2008), and Bill Wible. Other 2003 JoyceGroup members not depicted: Tamar Stieber and Elizabeth West

JoyceGroup Santa Fe was founded in the late spring of 1998, when a 72-year old widow and retired astrologer named Elaine Mingus (shown above) papered the town with flyers for a Bloomsday celebration she was organizing. The soirée took place on Tuesday, June 16 at the Unitarian Church on Barcelona Road, where Elaine promptly distributed more paperwork, including a reading group sign-up sheet. Our first meeting took place on Friday the 19th at the home of retired teacher and Korean War Veteran Ned Sudborough (also shown above). There were a total of five of us in attendance, and we resolved to meet once every other week to discuss a new chapter of Ulysses.

That’s right: one two-hour meeting, one chapter – next meeting, another chapter, etc. It was very ‘book-of-the-monthish’ starting out. I personally wasn’t keen to move so quickly, but then again, I was under half the age of the next youngest member, and we had a goal in front of us: finish the damn thing so we could have bragging rights. Ulysses itself started dictating a more realistic pace, however, and it was nearly a year-and-a-half later that we actually reached the end of the book. By then we were taking turns reading out loud, and skipping passages was becoming less and less desirable. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion, and our next projects –  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Exiles – were more read-out-loud than discussed. It was all part of the timetable-for-bragging-rights issue. The price we paid for this haste was of course knowledge, but I suppose every reading group should want bragging rights, and we were fast reaching a place where we could make some pretty mighty claims.

You might imagine what happened next.

We took a vote (it was all very democratic in those days) and decided we were ready to move on to FInnegans Wake. Having studied the book a great deal for the past ten years, I knew that once we were in, there would be no getting out, so I suggested we spend only one hour per session on it and use the other hour to focus on another Joyce book. I suggested Stephen Hero (how cool would we be if we could say we’d done that?), and a new era of microscopic discussion was slouching towards Bethlehem.

Stephen Hero did go by quite quickly (the group wanted it back on the shelf as soon as possible), but there was no sense of deadline pressure with Finnegans Wake. So we started actually giving ourselves a chance to breathe a little and ponder things a bit before moving on. This marked a fairly important change in our tactics. After Stephen Hero, the next logical move was to return to Ulysses, and by then we were starting to enjoy the relaxed pace, so we launched our second read-through with no agenda except to understand what we were reading. Every Don Gifford note was read out loud, and people started actually talking about things they knew.

It took well over five years to complete this second run-through, and the pace was not for everyone. The first to bail was Ned, who threw us all out of his house one day during a particularly knotty passage in the Wake, and we never met there again. Dedicated members took turns hosting, and we even made occasional trips to Albuquerque, where Elaine had relocated to be with her daughter.

By 2008, Elaine’s health was such that she could no longer travel to Santa Fe, so she started her own reading groups in Albuquerque – one for Finnegans Wake, and one for Joyce’s other works. With our de facto leader now bowing out, the Santa Fe group underwent something of a schism – Tamar Stieber wanted to return to the round-robin-read-out-loud approach, and I wanted to slow the pace down even more. We agreed to split, and both reading groups are alive and well to this day. Tamar runs her group with a considerably more democratic approach than I do – she even allowed the majority to determine which author they would focus on. If I’m not mistaken, they’re presently working on Proust. Important to note, however, that they still consider themselves a Joyce reading group, and in my opinion, this is a completely valid claim. One must reach outside of Joyce’s literature in order to fully appreciate it.

I’m much more of a dictator. The rules I’ve established (and which I shamelessly enforce) are simple enough:

  1. We read James Joyce, and if something relevant to Joyce emerges (Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Flaubert, The Easter Rising, etc), we will of course take a brief excursion down that path in order to come to as full an understanding of the passage in front of us as we can. But yes, we are here to read Joyce.
  2. We read Finnegans Wake. Whatever else we may be reading, we always (or almost always) close out with as much as an hour’s worth of Finnegans Wake.
  3. Discussion is paramount, reading the text out loud is not. This is not a policy against the oral tradition or anything like that – I’m an actor, after all, and more than that, I am an actor who specializes in James Joyce. But my ability to perform the text is utterly bound by my understanding of its nuances, and these nuances can never come to light if we just blow through the text for the sake of being able to say that we covered it. Never more than a single page goes by without there being some point of interest worthy of discussion. This policy sometimes slows us to a snail’s pace (a full 90 minutes can go by without so much as a full sentence being covered), but knowledge and understanding are the real and lasting goals here, not coverage.

If you’d like an idea about how slow JoyceGroup Santa Fe can actually move, you can have a look at this chronology. I’ve learned from hard experience that this pace isn’t for everybody, and if there’s one thing Joyce has taught me, it’s that the world is big enough for everyone. Elaine had her way, Ned had his, Tamar has hers, I have mine.

But this is my blog, so I get the final word. Here it is:

Joyce’s genius is only accessible if you’re willing to examine the details, and details take time.

But that’s just one voice among many.

A Knotty Issue

Our reading group here in Santa Fe is lucky to have as a regular member one Bernadette Freeman, a graphic artist whose remarkable collage work can be seen at www.deco-collage.com, and this past Saturday, Bernadette had a fairly unique and I think accurate reading of the following paragraph from the Lestrygonians chapter in Ulysses:

     His downcast eyes followed the silent veining of the oaken slab. Beauty: it curves: curves are beauty. Shapely goddesses, Venus, Juno: curves the world admires. Can see them library museum standing in the round hall, naked goddesses. Aids to digestion. They don’t care what man looks. All to see. Never speaking. I mean to say to fellows like Flynn. Suppose she did Pygmalion and Galatea what would she say first? Mortal! Put you in your proper place. Quaffing nectar at mess with gods golden dishes, all ambrosial. Not like a tanner lunch we have, boiled mutton, carrots and turnips, bottle of Allsop. Nectar imagine it drinking electricity: gods’ food. Lovely forms of women sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something drop. See if she.

This is Leopold Bloom’s famous interior monologue riffing, as usual, on whatever visual input happens to be in front of him. In this case, it’s a hardwood counter-top where he has just eaten a cheese sandwich and is finishing off a glass of Burgundy wine. As usual, the paragraph’s journey takes us from the concrete to the abstract and then back to the concrete, but with a difference.

Bloom’s journey can be outlined as follows: He sees the curvature of the wood-grain and imagines in its patterns the fleshy curvature of an idealized female body. There are statues of nude goddesses outside the national library (where Bloom is headed) just around the corner from Davy Byrne’s pub (where Bloom is presently located), and Bloom speculates on the lifestyle, the behavior, and ultimately the physiognomy of these goddesses – the sentence fragments near the end of the paragraph can be completed like so:

They [the goddesses] have no [anuses]. [I’ve] Never looked [to see if they do, though]. I’ll look today [at the statues]. [I’ll take precautions to ensure that the] Keeper won’t see [me ogling them]. [I’ll] Bend down let something drop. [And then I’ll] See if she [has an anus].

The comedy here is obvious. Even by contemporary standards, statuary postures are almost never so shameless as to allow for such detailed examination, and considering the kind of statues that would have been on public display in 1904 Dublin – forget it. Besides, statues are pure externality; the best Bloom can hope for here is to enjoy the outer curves of the female form.

So while the oaken curves at the beginning of the paragraph may be seen as invoking for Bloom the curves of a thigh, a hip, a breast, a rump, etc. Bernadette Freeman pointed out what wood grain looks like when it makes way for a knot, like so:

OakPut the caption “vulva” or “anus” under this photograph and the image becomes pretty indelible. Bloom is definitely prone to what Dan Savage calls “kinks,” and when he does visit the statues, his present kinkiness is unfortunately discovered – and broadcast – by none other than Buck Mulligan, who rather inexplicably infers from this encounter that Bloom is a homosexual who lusts after Stephen Dedalus.

Leaving this business aside, however, the question of where Bloom’s meditation is located is still not completely clear. Does the wood-grain immediately and fixedly represent orifices? This is Bernadette’s contention, but I see it a little differently. We can assume that Bloom’s visuaI cortex is on the wood-grain the entire time, but since knots are fairly rare in oak, I think Bloom starts with the conventional imagery of hips, thighs, buttocks etc. and eventually arrives at orifices through his own gustatory experience. Having just swallowed the last of his meal, he is in the process of “moving things along,” as it were, and as he digests, the passage becomes increasingly borborygmous in its tone. Bloom then sees the knot and resolves to examine the statues. As if to confirm this reading, he then gets up to relieve himself:

     Dribbling a quiet message from his bladder came to go to do not to do there to do. A man and ready he drained his glass to the lees and walked, to men too they gave themselves, manly conscious, lay with men lovers, a youth enjoyed her, to the yard.

The erotic, the etheric and the gustatory have all blended into a morbid harmony for Bloom, who is now ready for the final leg of his Lestrygonians walk.

Anyway, that’s my interpretation of how the passage unfolds. What moved me to write this, however, was the suggestion by Bernadette that the wood-grain remains present during the entire meditation, not just the opening sentence. I’m reminded of John Gordon’s Finnegans Wake readings, in which he sees a straightforward sensory input informing every passage in the book, no matter how esoteric its prose may appear to be at first.

But that’s for another post

Why JoyceGeek?

You may well ask: Of all the things to geek out on, why James Joyce? Why not Proust? Why not Derrida? For that matter, why not something useful, like oral hygene? Good questions all; here are my answers, point by point:

1) Why not Proust?

Proust is good, but Joyce’s world encompasses a vastly larger field. If you geek out with Proust, you’ll certainly come to know quite a lot of ephemera applying to someone sealed inside his cork-padded study voyeuristically imagining other people’s lives, but Joyce brings the noise of the street with him, and makes it absolutely sing. Like Proust, he lived in obscene luxury at times, but just as often found himself in the direst poverty, and his literature never shied away from all aspects of the human condition. It’s true that Joyce could speak French as fluently as any native speaker, but he was also natively proficient in Italian, Triestino, Swiss-German, and Latin. Plus, he could get by in Dutch, Spanish, German, Greek, Hungarian, and countless bario-dialects, never settling for where he was – or who he was – always reaching. Oh yeah, he was also really good with English.

2) Why not Derrida?

Because Joyce is easier to read than Derrida. Plus, you’ll never understand the PoMos until after you’ve read some Joyce anyway.

3) Why not something useful, like oral hygene?

You may have me on this one. Joyce’s teeth rotted so badly that the infection spread into his sinuses and eventually caused terrible iritis. Twenty-plus eye operations later, Joyce may have been asking himself this same question.
But I digress. Joyce’s top order was to explore language and its potential for human expression, and he did it like no other author. This website’s primary purpose is to put forth the argument, in as many ways as it can, that Joyce was indeed onto something truly useful.


Scott Elliot, who occasionally joins us for reading group here in Santa Fe, gave me a copy of Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which pokes some pretty serious holes in my oral hygene/eye infection hypothesis. Birminghan apparently discovered fresh evidence that Joyce’s eye infections were caused primarily by syphilis.

Ouch. It was easy enough to dismiss Kathleen Ferris’s syphilis claim. Her book: James Joyce and the Burden of Disease had the nerve use Finnegans Wake as her primary “evidence,” suggesting that Joyce was a syphilitic madman when he wrote it. Birmingham, thank God, suggests no such idiocy. He simply reports his findings from the medical history he culled from reading Joyce’s various correspondence, and the conclusion you would draw from reading his book is the direct opposite of Ferris’s: Joyce didn’t write Finnegans Wake because he had syphilis, he wrote it despite that truly painful and debilitating disease.

Ultimately, we’ll never know for sure about the syphilis – it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if it were true. But brain damage was definitely not one of its symptoms – anyone who spends any time at all with Finnegans Wake can see that.