What is Bloomsday, and why the big ruckus?
Last week, JoyceGeeks from around the world either traveled to Dublin or gathered in their various hometowns to read from and generally celebrate a true nerd’s holiday: Bloomsday – the anniversary of a bunch of fictional events depicted in a single 24 hour period: June 16, 1904. Readings from Ulysses, music from Ulysses, pints from Ulysses, and food from Ulysses. As to this last, Bloomsday cuisine often includes gorgonzola cheese sandwiches with mustard, half-masticated seedcake from the mouth of a better-half, and for the really bold: pork kidneys fried in butter, a little burnt on one side. Eccentric maybe, but we do it all with relish and absolutely no apology. Explaining why does take a bit of doing, though:
For one thing, literary events don’t generally get marked down on calendars for annual observance, let alone full-blown celebration. Really famous writers’ birthdays and publication dates are sometimes taken note of on NPR, but only if the anniversary happens to be a multiple of 50, or maybe 25 if the author is super-famous. The only birthday to be consistently rolled out every year for festivals and the like is Shakespeare’s. Ultimately, academic conferences are about as far as most celebrations go. This makes 16 June 1904 a real anomaly: it’s the only date in literature to be annually celebrated, and it’s not only celebrated, it’s HUGELY celebrated, not just in Dublin but world-wide – just about everywhere: New York, Sydney, Beijing, Zurich, Tokyo, Trieste, Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Santa Fe. And it doesn’t matter what year it is – newspapers run articles on Bloomsday every mid-June, every year. Why is this?
It can’t simply be because of the date’s biographical significance, which is of course no small matter; it is after all the day Joyce fell in love with his future wife Nora Barnacle – erotic details of which can be found in the famous 1909 letters. But countless other great works of literature are dedicated to better-halves: Zelda Fitzgerald, Carlotta Monterey, etc. Plus, autobiographical though it may be, Ulysses does not contain any account whatsoever of Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s self-portrait) meeting or even acknowledging the presence of a potential life partner. His interactions are nearly exclusively with men: Mulligan, Haines, Deasy, Crawford, McHugh, Russell, Eglinton, Lyster, Best, Artifoni, Lynch, Carr, finally Bloom. Stephen’s encounters with the feminine amount to barely a handful: the milkwoman, Dilly, the whores, the ghost of his dead mother. Molly Bloom, the character most strongly associated with Nora, barely even appears on his radar.
So if anything, the 6/16/04 of Ulysses is an anti-biographical date, a “what if” scenario in which Joyce has to navigate the day without the grace of budding love to see him through. In fact, Joyce swapped out his 16 June love-encounter with a much less pleasant one, the biographical counterpart of which actually took place six days later. It’s worth noting that on June 22, 1904, Joyce was punched in the face by an unknown Irish ruffian and was dusted off and tended to by one Alfred Hunter, a local Dubliner with a natural inclination towards kindness, and upon whom Joyce patterned some of the makeup for Leopold Bloom. It is this encounter, not the romantic tryst, that’s given extensive and expanded treatment in Ulysses.
Acts of kindness are certainly worth writing about, but again, why haul the date out to be annually celebrated with readings, music, Guinness, Edwardian dress et cetera over an event that actually happened six days afterward? If I were a world historian, I’d be tempted to say that nothing happened on June 16, 1904, and I think Joyce would have seconded my motion. Even the most dramatic details of Joyce’s own 1904 experience – his falling in love with Nora, his departure for Trieste, his estrangement from longtime friend Oliver St. John Gogarty because Gogarty fired gunshots over him while he was trying to sleep – all these would have made for spectacular fiction and could have easily been worked into the fabric of his book.
But no – they were all without exception deliberately left out of the June 16th of Ulysses. Gogarty and Nora appear in the novel as Buck Mulligan and Molly, of course, but Joyce’s explosive encounters with them are softened, even excised. What we’re left with are a series of utterly pedestrian events; nobody dies, nobody falls in love, no plots are hatched, no-one even so much as wins at the racetrack. It’s a day that shows no sign of changing to a better tomorrow nor even warning us to wake up to the changes that need to be made. It’s neither rewarding nor cathartic for anyone, really…
…unless of course you include that awkward, nearly failed attempt at kindness that Bloom offers Stephen near the end of the novel. There’s no indication that the event itself will be remembered by Stephen, who is out-of-his-mind-drunk by then, nor even by Bloom, who will eventually have to forget the day’s events in favor of more pressing matters: his shaky finances, his troubled marriage, his daughter’s potential teen-pregnancy. That Bloom should set these matters aside for a few hours in favor of bucking up Stephen Dedalus – a man he hardly knows – is not in itself particularly wise, but it is kind.
And without that kindness, I don’t think Joyce would have been able to endow his prose with the heroic qualities he did. Bloom’s taking a moment to masturbate on the beach in the ‘Nausicaa’ chapter would not have been treated by Joyce as a magnificent flourish of Don Giovannism were Bloom not kind-hearted, and his escape from a group of antisemitic rakes in the ‘Cyplops’ chapter could certainly not have been described as a rapturous ascent to heaven. In fact, I would say that none of Joyce’s grand prose experiments would have worked at all had he not placed a genuine, decent character at his novel’s epicenter.
At it’s core, Ulysses is one man’s at-times-feeble-but-never-wavering daylong attempt to positively contribute to the community upon which he depends. To allow us to witness and celebrate such effort as it would happen on an average – as opposed to extraordinary – day is perhaps Joyce’s greatest contribution to world literature. And lest we forget, the term “Bloomsday” is itself an inversion of cruelty, being a play on “Doomsday”, humankind’s great nightmare-slash-fantasy in which such concepts as kindness and community are rendered utterly moot. Well to that I say: Bloomsday is coming. Let it thrive.
Here’s to June 16, the great day on which a small but nevertheless global community gathers to read from the greatest novel of the 20th century and share in its truly magical prose. Actors and scholars are often called upon to do the heavy-lifting, but properly the day belongs to clergy and laity alike. Here in my beautiful hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, readers included actors, educators, writers, performance artists, filmmakers, painters, dancers, musicians, poets, journalists, iconoclasts of all ilk. I have them listed below by name with hyperlinks to each – some have their own websites, a couple even have their own Wikipedia pages, while still others have yet to build a web-profile – in which case a review or press release for some project they were part of is inserted. Without exception though, they are all of them ferocious participants in making their community a better place to live:
Acushla Bastible, Garrick Beck, Daniel Bohnhorst, Letitia Chambers, Melissa Chambers, Mary-Charlotte Domandi, Lisa Foster, Deco Bernadette Freeman, Charles Gamble, Michael Graves, Maureen Joyce(!) McKenna, Pen La Farge, Bruce C. Mckenna, Vanessa Rios Y Valles, Bird Thompson, Alice Van Buren, Max Walukas, Alaina Warren Zachary, Elizabeth West, and Mary Woods.
Big thanks to all who helped to make it real.
Each year since I first published this post, Bloomsday in Santa Fe (as we’ve come to call it) has continued to grow and flourish. Many additional readers and artists have contributed their energies to this event, including Gerry Carthy, Leslie Dillen, Sabina Dunn, John Flax, Grant Franks, Martha Franks, Larry Glaister, Lynn Goodwin, Rod Harrison, Scott Harrison, Glenna Hill, Tara Khozein, Kent Kirkpatrick, Dylan Marshall, Westin McDowell, Jono Manson, Scott Plunket, Kirste Plunket, Alexandra Renzo, and Karina Wilson.