Every year we meet again, Bloomsday, but this time it's different. This time I've figured you out. On June 16, Dublin and the rest of the world celebrate James Joyce's most important work, Ulysses. Lovers of the book will host readings, bar crawls, Irish breakfasts, performances of favorite scenes and songs, the publication of long and short essays, and all manner of "re-Joyce-ing." In Spokane, there is even a run called Bloomsday, though it happens in May. Seven miles long, drawing over 40,000 participants from around the world, and won every year by a different East African, the event got its name, according to its founder Don Kardong, from "the premise of Joyce's novel, which is that ordinary people are involved in unassuming and yet heroic journeys every day of their lives." This is one way to read the novel, as the deification of the diurnal. In Ulysses, ordinary happenings in the age of man (if I may use the language of Giambattista Vico, a thinker who influenced Joyce) are coordinated with adventures from the age of heroes.
Set against the background of Homer's epic, the novel describes a day in the life of Leopold Bloom (a man who sells newspaper ads); his wife, Molly (who is cheating on him); and his figurative son (a young intellectual and reckless alcoholic named Stephen Dedalus). Bloom's character corresponds with Odysseus, Molly with Penelope, and Dedalus with Telemachus. Bloom is a hero in the sense that he is a modern man with modern problems and predilections. He is open-minded, cosmopolitan, a flaneur, and interested in science, progress, art, and good food. Though he has not had sex with his wife in over a decade, he enjoys masturbating in tubs and in public areas. Bloom's journey takes him to a newspaper office, restaurant, museum, bar, and whorehouse. Nothing much really happens.
Another way to read this novel is as a story about Dedalus searching for a father. Or as a story about Bloom searching for his home. But these readings, as with the one by the founder of the run Spokane, are in essence positive. Searching for the father, searching for home, finding mythic meaning in your ordinary life—not only are these the sorts of things you'd find in self-help books, they avoid the destructive and dark side of Ulysses, which happens not at the level of the story but at the level of words, sentences, syntax. It is here that Ulysses reveals what it is really about—a massive attack on an institution that oppressed the Irish for centuries: the English language.
And it is a strange attack indeed. Joyce does not battle English with the weapons of the Irish language, which was in a very weak state at the time the novel was set (the early 20th century), but with English itself. Joyce's extraordinary mastery (if not sorcery) over the colonizer's words mobilized a linguistic assault of unprecedented magnitude over a wide surface of the language's history and styles. There is nothing like this battle in any other book: Each sentence in Ulysses is packed with small or large explosives. Sometimes a sentence explodes into a brilliance of fireworks, other times into a spray of semen and salty water, other times into slime and shit, other times into blood and guts. This destruction radiates from a center, and that center is William Shakespeare, Joyce's ultimate target.
Operation Takedown begins in the first sentence of the book: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." That "stairhead" is in the Martello tower, a decommissioned fort the British built in the early part of the 19th century to repress the Irish. Mulligan, a cynical medical student, lives in this fort with Dedalus and Haines, an Englishman who has appropriated the very language his country has decimated, Irish. Joyce has begun his assault in the fortress, behind enemy lines.
The novel makes us aware that when a foreign language dominates a people, when it enters and shapes their thoughts, when being becomes being in English, there is no going back. This is why Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego) is opposed to the Irish literary revival (or Celtic twilight). Not only is it sentimental, but it also devalues the present as inauthentic. For Joyce, all that was left for the Irish was English, the stranger's words, and it is this that must be destroyed, not for the purpose of returning to the past, but to create a space for the emergence of something new.
In the library sequence, early in Ulysses, Dedalus strikes the center of the power of the English language: the Bard of Avon. He attacks not in the way Brutus attacked Caesar, but by shredding Shakespeare's aura, making him a human by prying into the "poet's drinking, the poet's debts." He mocks Shakespeare's sexuality and weak will:
Do you think the writer of Antony and Cleopatra, a passionate pilgrim, had his eyes in the back of his head that he chose the ugliest doxy in all Warwickshire to lie withal? Good: he left her and gained the world of men. But his boywomen are the women of a boy. Their life, thought, speech are lent them by males. He chose badly? He was chosen, it seems to me. If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame.
Dedalus further refers to Hamlet as the "absentminded beggar" and continues assaulting Shakespeare: "A deathsman of the soul Robert Greene called him... Not for nothing was he a butcher's son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm." Once the aura of power has been removed from Shakespeare, the oppressive structure of his language, English, crumbles into the terrific—and at times terrifying—chaos of Ulysses. Reading the scene in the national library (the moment Dedalus attacks the core of English power) is like the moment when the revolutionaries are on the road to Havana or Salisbury, Rhodesia: destruction all around but the light of hope ahead.
Ulysses's primary project is to break the ruling power of English and transform its energies into its opposite, a liberating power. This project, of course, has little to do with runs, pub-crawling, and all the other joyful festivities that dominate Bloomsday. The "re-Joyce-ers" do not realize they are toasting an attack on English—the very language they are using to celebrate.