Ulysses and The Law

As I have stated, Ulysses is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider dirt for dirt’s sake.

Judge John M. Woolsey, US District Court

Ulysses changed not only the course of literature in the century that followed, but the very definition of literature in the eyes of the law.

Kevin Birmingham, Joyce biographer

Law is the contract that members of a society use to keep from hurting each other. Ideas and words can hurt, so sometimes The Law steps into their world to do some policing. From 1921 until 1933 copies of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses were routinely intercepted at ports around the world by government agents and destroyed before their words and ideas could enter the minds of the citizens under their rule.

Capturing the thoughts that pass through the minds of a handful of people in Dublin on June 16, 1904 seems like such a specific task that it would make for a relatively short novel but like so much in life once you peel off a layer you find a dozen more inside of it. For at least a dozen years some of those layers caused official disturbance to the appointed guardians of morality in the law. One of the uncovered layers was this one that stretched between the 18 year-old Gerty McDowell and Leopold Bloom, 20 years her senior, between the twilight and the fireworks over the beach:

The eyes that were fastened upon her set her pulses tingling. She looked at him a moment, meeting his glance, and a light broke in upon her. Whitehot passion was in that face, passion silent as the grave, and it had made her his. At last they were left alone without the others to pry and pass remarks and she knew he could be trusted to the death, steadfast, a sterling man, a man of inflexible honour to his fingertips. His hands and face were working and a tremor went over her. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing, because she knew about the passion of men like that, hot-blooded, because Bertha Supple told her once in dead secret and made her swear she’d never about the gentleman lodger that was staying with them out of the Congested Districts Board that had pictures cut out of papers of those skirtdancers and highkickers and she said he used to do something not very nice that you could imagine sometimes in bed. But this was altogether different from a thing like that because there was all the difference because she could almost feel him draw her face to his and the first quick hot touch of his handsome lips. Besides there was absolution so long as you didn’t do the other thing before being married and there ought to be women priests that would understand without your telling out and Cissy Caffrey too sometimes had that dreamy kind of dreamy look in her eyes so that she too, my dear, and Winny Rippinham so mad about actors’ photographs and besides it was on account of that other thing coming on the way it did.

And Jacky Caffrey shouted to look, there was another and she leaned back and the garters were blue to match on account of the transparent and they all saw it and shouted to look, look there it was and she leaned back ever so far to see the fireworks and something queer was flying about through the air, a soft thing to and fro, dark. And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her with brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

Than all melted away dewily in the grey air: all was silent. Ah! She glanced at him as she bent forward quickly, a pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach under which he coloured like a girl. He was leaning back against the rock behind. Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again? A fair unsullied soul had called to him and, wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad he had been. He of all men! But there was an infinite store of mercy in those eyes, for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered. Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.

It is the sex after all, more than the foul language and blasphemy, that drew the furious attention of the law. Before Ulysses there were only two ways to write about sex: as smut, or as allusion. Now, it could be given its proper place in the natural world. Or, as the judge who ruled that the book could not be banned put it:

In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Judge John M. Woolsey, US District Court
Nora Barnacle, the real-life Molly Bloom

For all the crudity of the book, centered as it is on the thoughts of Celtic men in Spring, there is a certain chivalry in giving the last word to the only prominent woman in the book. The final chapter belongs to Molly Bloom and it is the best one in the book. The fearless readers who hack their way through the tangled weeds of the first 700+ pages of Ulysses find themselves inside Molly’s quick-moving mind. Her train of thought, unchained from paragraphs and punctuation, pulls into the novel’s final stop with her memory of the day she agreed to marry Leopold:

and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I though well as well him as another and the I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. 

James and Nora

Ulysses and Art

“Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

There are as many types of art as there are artists. Each one, from a universe of her own construction, sends signals across unimaginable distances of space and time, to the receptors in her audience. The compositions of Mozart, written centuries ago, sound as fresh as any 21st Century artist still finding their voice. Paintings on the walls of caves, from tens of thousands of years ago, by artists lost to time, will communicate their messages to people who will be born thousands of years in the future.

Art can provoke or pacify, in the seasons for each. One piece of art can reach out a hand of hope to one of us while simultaneously slapping another in the face, and what shocks one generation will soothe another. Once the boundaries have been pushed, new beauty will be discovered in what had been unexplored territory.

Two thoughts struck me while reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. The first was amazement. The idea that any person could present such a manuscript to an agent or publisher with any hope of seeing it in print is still difficult to believe. And not just because of the time in which it was written. In fact, if anything, it would probably be even more unreasonable to expect its publication today.

My second thought was, of course it was banned. This book was written in 1921 and contains scenes like this one, from a 200-page section of the book that is written as a play and in which the main character, Leopold Bloom, is transformed into a woman:

Bello (a pimp):

“my boys will be no end charmed to see you so ladylike, the colonel, above all. When they come here the night before the wedding to fondle my new attraction in gilded heels. First, I’ll have a go at you myself. A man I know on the turf named Charles Alberta Marsh (I was in bed with him just now and another gentleman out of the Hanaper and Petty Bag office) is on the lookout for a maid of all work at a short knock. Swell the bust. Smile. Droop shoulders. What offers? (He points.) For that lot trained by owner to fetch and carry, basket in mouth. (He bares his arm and plunges it elbowdeep in Bloom’s vulva.) There’s fine depth for you! What, boys? That give you a hardon? (He shoves his arm in a bidder’s face.) Here, wet the deck and wipe it round!

Even its greatest admirers will admit that Ulysses is a difficult book to read. Joyce does not offer a lot of assistance to his readers’ comprehension, preferring to keep an uninterrupted focus on his singular and groundbreaking interpretation of what is possible in a novel. But there are also moments of observation that would fit in a more conventional book, as in this excerpt from the question-and-answer portion of the book:

What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising, and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her powers to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.

Tomorrow: Ulysses and The Law

Plague Diary – Day 365

Total confirmed cases in US: 29,495,907

365 days ago when I wrote my first plague diary there were 3,774 confirmed cases in the US. Since then, the covid-19 pandemic cut a rough path through some unmapped territory in the human psyche. At first, it was terrifying but novel, then it became sorrowful and several new kinds of terrifying. After a year full of holes where people and events should have been, after watching our country sink in a cesspool of disease, conspiracy theories, and lies, a dim light is now perceptible at a great distance. Many things we lost are starting to come back while many others never will. It has been an informative, and formative, year. What the survivors carry with them when the pandemic ends will become part of their character.

Like war, or cancer, covid-19 brought death to the human family. We were distracted by other concerns while it crept into our homes to hurt or kill us. As often happens with a death in the family, we turned on each other, looking for someone to blame for our grief. As also happens, we mostly blamed the people we already disliked.

What we have become is unsustainable. Some economic engines need to be restarted while others need to be shut down for good. A new balance will emerge because that is the way nature works. We will be better in the long run for the knowledge we gained from this experience, especially after we remember how to communicate with each other.

Here’s hoping I can go out soon without looking like this


There are few things as exciting as dawn arriving in a home with new life in it. Every parent knows the sensation of waking up to the sound of a newborn’s cry, or a little before it in anticipation. It is a sunrise that shines through any storm. It is a song that plays through any silence. It is the feeling that every day is a holiday, like falling in love with someone new. Because that is exactly what is happening.


This is my roundabout way of saying I have a new cat. I woke up this morning with a song going through my head that was recorded by an artist who coincidentally has the name of my new cat: Oliver.

Gliddy glub gloopy

Pity The Nation

Lawrence Ferlinghetti 1919-2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was 101 years old when he died last Monday. He was born in Yonkers but is considered a San Franciscan since he made that city his home for the last 7 decades of his life.

His father died of a heart attack before he was born and his mother was committed to a mental hospital shortly after. He founded a bookstore called City Lights in his chosen hometown in 1953 and it soon became a magnet, and publishing company, for the Beats. He was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl when the mirror it held up to an obscene society was considered the obscenity.

van Gogh #2 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

In addition to his work at City Lights, Ferlinghetti made the most of his century of life by pursuing his muse across a host of creative outlets. He was a poet, playwright, novelist, and painter. I would not be surprised to find out he picked up a musical instrument or two at some point in his journey.

In 2007, Ferlinghetti wrote this poem: Pity the Nation (after Khalil Gibrand)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
   And whose shepherds mislead them
 Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
            Whose sages are silenced
  And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
 Pity the nation that raises not its voice
          Except  to praise conquerers
       And acclaim the bully as hero
          And aims to rule the world
              By force and by torture
          Pity the nation that knows
        No other language but its own
      And no other culture but its own
 Pity the nation whose breath is money
 And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
      Pity the nation oh pity the people
        who allow their rights to  erode
   and their freedoms to be washed away
               My country, tears of thee
                   Sweet land of liberty!