By Nature

I am overly optimistic by nature. I blame my mother. In addition to being a never-ending fountain of unconditional love, she has the unique ability to see the light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. And I see it too: a better world of peace and love and unity that is closer to our grasp than it has ever been. The fact that it is coming to us out of long tunnels of unconscionable inequality, horrific violence, and a global pandemic, makes its own kind of natural sense. Nature is always in balance.

The Wall

There is a wall between us. You didn’t build it and neither did I. The wall is ancient, embedded in a foundation of bedrock. Its age is a point of veneration to those who feel safest when they are hiding behind it but its age is also its greatest vulnerability.

I would take a sledgehammer to the wall and smash it to pieces if I could but that is not the way things work. Instead, I look for loose bricks and push and pull them until I create an opening to the other side. I see you in those places and you see me. We expand the holes more efficiently and effectively when we work at it from both sides.

Here is the dream: one day we will create enough holes to see each other clearly. Then, if we wield our greatest weapons – love and music – we might find that perfect note whose vibration will reduce this wall to ruins.

Words of Joyce Dancing

and with the fanciful
words of Joyce dancing
in my eyes and in my brain
only the sounds of
heartbeat and breathing
are left for attempting to keep myself sane

water inside and
water outside and
water that covers the earth
some made for swimming and
some made for drinking and
some made for drowning for all that I’m worth

silence that calls like
a lover at night
when I know there is no love around
water for drinking and
water for swimming and
water for washing up all who have drowned

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