Thursday, December 11, 2008

75 years of Ulysses (and beer)

This week (or perhaps last week; different sources say either 6 or 11 December) marks the 75th anniversary of the trial that eventually allowed Ulysses to be imported into the United States.  The trial, a landmark of sorts, judged that since the book had no pornographic intent (i.e. it did not intentionally "stir the sex impulses") it was not obscene.  This trial was also interesting in that it gave clearer guidelines on a legal definition of "obscene".  

Coincidentally, this week was also the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.

As Morris Ernst, one of the lawyers involved in the case, said:
"The first week of December 1933 will go down in history for two repeals, that of Prohibition and that of the legal compulsion for squeamishness in literature... We may now imbibe freely of the contents of bottles and forthright books."

On that note, I will now open a beer and continue reading Ulysses (as soon as I can find the #$^*&#^ bottle opener).

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Catty Observation

I thought it was interesting (and not altogether surprising) that Joyce doesn't use the traditional spelling of "meow" (or "miaow") to indicate Leopold Bloom's cat is making a noise. Instead, he uses such spellings as "Mkgnao!" and "Mrkgnao!" to make the noise.

I'd thought that perhaps "meow" hadn't been standardized yet, but in fact the spelling has been around since the early 17th century. So Joyce's use of his alternate spellings is a deliberate choice, not an invention of a sound before convention standardized it.

With that in mind, Joyce's spelling accomplishes three things. First, it gives the cat a little more personality than the average literary feline. Second (hand in hand with the first), it allows some more variation in the noises it makes. When sounded out, the noises actually sound fairly realistic. And third... makes the reader scratch his head and think, "what the hell?"

I can't help but wonder which of these effects was most important to Joyce.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Flooding the Stream of Consciousness

Is it just me, or is the third chapter of Ulysses nigh-incomprehensible? Maybe it's just that the mind tends to wander when reading about someone as his mind wanders. Or heck, maybe Joyce intended it to be read four times before its secrets begin to become clear. Because I have to admit, three times isn't quite cutting it.

So here's what I think happens in this segment: Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach. At first he thinks about going to his Aunt Sara's house, but he gets lost in thought and wonders past it. Then he thinks about his lunch appointment, and how headmaster Deasy warned him not to spend all of his money. He doesn't seem to be happy with that option, either, although I can't quite be sure. But he isn't looking forward to going home to his tower apartment tonight.

He gets lost in thought about his time in France, hanging out with his friend Kevin Egan and drinking absinthe. The green fairy had its fangs in him, yes it did. But his stay was cut short by a telegram telling him to come home, because his mother was dying. He probably bears some guilt over that--both for not being there for his mother and for resenting her for cutting his trip short. Either way he turns, guilt. Ah, the Irish.

Along the way, Stephen discovers a dead dog's carcass, and later a live dog comes down the beach and inspects the dead one. As Stephen muses on this, it made me recall lyrics from Dan Bern's song, "Rolling Away":

I wish that I could be a dog for a day
To know what he thinks and what he feels
Does he think about Life?
Does he think about God?
Or just about his next meal, like us?

Stephen seems to aspire to be live a fuller life than he is living, being more literary than he is. For a while, he was reading two pages of seven books every night. It was an ambitious plan to be well-read, but completely impatient.

(Is that any different that what I'm doing with this blog, struggling through this book? I'm not certain that the ability to say "I've read it" is a worthwhile pot o' gold at the end of the rainbow,* but expending effort to read something is flexing muscles I haven't used in a while, so I suppose that is its own kind of reward. But I've never been one for exercise for its own sake.)

As he walks, Stephen takes headmaster Deasy's letter and writes something on the bottom of it and stuffs it back into his pocket. Maybe we'll learn what he's written, or maybe we won't. And maybe we've already been told in such an oblique way that I haven't picked up on it after three readings.

I'm also curious as to whether the corpse of the drowned man is pulled onto a boat at the end of a chapter, or if Stephen is just imagining it happening.

And, at the end, the icing on the cake moment: Stephen picks his nose and leaves a booger on a rock. It's tough to read this passage without a profound sense of gratitude toward Mr. Joyce for letting us witness this moment. (He also takes a leak.)



Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Well I thought it was funny

I was actually reading the book Saturday afternoon. No, no, that isn't the funny part. Anyways, I like reading either with music playing the background or with the TV on. If I read in silence my mind tends to wander. Saturday I had the TV on in the background, and I wasn't really paying attention to what was on. Eventually I did notice, and it was...Cops. I don't know why but that made me laugh. Could there have been two more cultural opposites? Now don't get me wrong I will watch Cops if I happen to see it on. I think it is pretty damn funny show. So, yeah, that is what I thought was funny.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Don't do what I did

I basically hadn't picked up the book for about a month. When I did! I didn't know what the hell I was reading. It could have been written in Spanish and I would have understood just as much as I did. Once I turned it upside down I was better.

I did go back to what I remembered and restarted from there. I was just sitting there blinking at the pages for a while though.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Happy Bloomsday, everybody!

When I first conceived of this project, I planned to finish the book by today. Obviously, that hasn't happened. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't mark the occasion.

My schedule doesn't permit much tonight, but I certainly will be lifting a pint for Leopold, whom I don't really know yet, but will before his day is through.

Here's a link to a bunch of Bloomsday celebrations around the country and the world. And even better, here's frequent commenter (and soon-to-be-contributor) Figserello's account of his Bloomsday in Dublin, ten years ago.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Oh, Blerg.

Picking up the book, I realize I've put off writing about Episode 3 for so long after my re-reading of it that now I'll have to re-re-read it.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mornings at Home

Toward the beginning of Episode 4 (Calypso), James Joyce captures what life is like on the occasions when I wake up before my wife:
On quietly creaky boots he went up the staircase to the hall, paused by the bedroom door. She might like something tasty. Thin bread and butter she likes in the morning. Still perhaps: once in a way.
He said softly in the bare hall:
-- I am going round the corner. Be back in a minute.
And when he had heard his voice say it he added:
-- You don't want anything for breakfast?
A sleepy soft grunt answered:
-- Mn.
No. She did not want anything. He heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled.
This book can be so intimidating with its use of stream-of-consciousness and obscure references, that I think it's valuable to point out some of those moments that so sharply reflect human behavior in a way anyone can recognize. In other words, Man, do I not want to wake Kathy up when she's sleeping. But I'd hate to fix breakfast without her, too.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Three Jokes, One Punchline

I'm still rereading the first chunks of Ulysses; I finished the second chapter around a week ago, and haven't had too much to say about it. But here's a bit of a synopsis, I think.

Stephen Dedalus teaches rich schoolkids to make ends meet. He's kind of bored with the job, and a bit resentful of the kids. He mentions Pyrrhus, leading me to suppose he'll have his own Pyrrhic vicotory coming down the pike. Or the pier, as the kids' joke goes. Another allusion the the drowned man?

Stephen tells a nautical ghost story (of Lycidas, another death at sea) and then poses an unusual riddle that I can't make heads or tails of:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

He says the punchline/answer to this riddle is, "The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush." A real knee-slapper, that. I've got no clue what that's about. (Neither do the schoolkids, so there's that.)

Stephen sees himself in an awkward, weakling kid who has trouble with math and is about to be trounced on the sports field. Then he meets with Mr. Deasy.

Deasy gives him his pay, riding him about spending his money wisely and paying his own way through life. This leads Stephen to muse on his own debts.

Then Deasy lectures Stephen on Irish history, about which I'm woefully ignorant. Deasy's a pretty untrustworthy source, it seems to me, anyhow -- his antisemetism and conservative worldview surely color how he tells the history. At several points, he makes allusions to women in classical mythology -- Cassandra and Helen -- calling each a "woman who was no better than she should be." A curious statement, curiously repeated.

Like Haines in Chapter 1, Deasy thinks "England is in the hands of the Jews." (33) He closes the chapter with an antisemetic joke about Ireland being the only country that never persecuted the Jews, since Ireland never let them in in the first place. Ha, ha. Go bury your grandmother under a hollybush, y'know? (Maybe that's the point -- everyone's jokes fall flat to other people in this chapter. There's some social disconnection there.)

There are some terms in Deasy's history lesson (31) that I didn't get right away. "Fenians" are irish nationalists, but who exactly is "O'Connell" that he refers to -- the surname is a little too common for me to wiki. Armagh is a city in Northern Ireland; the "lodge of the Diamond in Armagh" is a mystery. And I've got no idea what he means by "Croppies lie down." (UPDATE: Actually, that phrase googles just fine; it's part of a chorus to an anti-republican folksong. Deasy likes his fight songs.)

This segment is known as "Nestor," for an old warrior in the Trojan war -- he's too old to join in battle, but he gives plenty of advice. Hello, Headmaster Deasy.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Questions on Telemachus

I'll organize these by page number -- I'll use the page numbers in parentheses in the margins.

(6) Who is Algy? I notice he's mentioned on p. (37) as well.

(6) Does hyperborean mean "athiest"? Why?

(8) "I'll bring down Seymour and we'll give him a ragging worse than they gave Clive Kempthorpe." Who are Seymour and Clive Kempthorpe? Seymour shows up again on (22).

(8) What the heck is omphalos? (Okay, Wiki says omphalos stones (a religious artifact) were said to allow direct communication with the gods. There was one at Delphi.)

(10) Why does Buck call Haines "the Sassenach"?

(12) Stephen remembers how he carried the boat of incense at Clongowes. Was he an altar boy? Or is that where his mother's funeral was held?

(14) An unusual euphemism for God, I guess: "the collector of prepuces." (A prepuce is a foreskin or clitoral hood; since the foreskin is removed at a briss, God must have a collection. Naturally, this is Buck's joke.

(16) and (17) Okay, "Agenbite of inwit" has me baffled. Is he a character Stephen and Buck are creating to tell Haines about? Wiki says its a poorly translated piece of prose that gives clues to what 14th century Kentish dialect was like.

(18) They call their tower an omphalos. Interesting.

(18) Buck calls Stephen "Japhet in search of a father." Japhet was one of Noah's sons. This is also in the Hamlet discussion. (And come to think of it, this chapter is informally called "Telemachus," and Telemachus was Odysseu's son, who was searching for news of his father.)

(20) I like the wordplay in "Joking Jesus": "What's bread in the bone cannot fail me to fly." Jesus's bones (his body) were, after all, also Bread. (As would Jack of the Beanstalk's, had the giant his way. But that's probably neither here nor there.)

(20) I like that Haines isn't quite sure how to react to Buck's mocking of religion. Mustn't upset the natives. I also like that Stephen says he hears "Joking Jesus" three times a day, after meals... making it sort of an anti-prayer.

(20) I'm a little lost about Stephen's ashplant. Not sure what's going on there. (I think it's mentioned before this page, come to think of it.)

(21) Haines calls German Jews Britain's "national problem." Considering there's a lot of antisemetism coming from a character in the next chapter as well, I'm guessing this will be a recurring motif.

(22) "Says he found a sweet young thing down there. Photo girl he calls her." "Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure." How I love innuendo. I get the impression (from something I read online, can't remember where) that this is Leopold Bloom's daughter. I've only gotten to Chapter 4, so I haven't met her yet, but from what I recall she works in photography somehow.

"Brief exposure." Heh.

(24) The seal is a usurper? WTF?

So those are some questions I had while reading (and rereading) Chapter 1. If you've got answers, toss 'em in the comments (or if they're long, make a post of their own. I'll do some looking into this myself, too, and post what I find.