by Rob Berry, Cartoonist on ULYSSES “SEEN”
“If you can put your finger through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.” – James Joyce
The quality of art; it really is just a matter of perception, after all. But perception should, I believe, be based on a personal experience of one’s own senses rather than upon the rumors handed down by another person’s tastes.
And there is a lot of rumor surrounding James Joyce’s ULYSSES, a lot of other people’s opinions swimming about that color any first-time reading of the novel. The book is so notoriously highbrow in fact that it’s really quite impossible for new readers not to feel constrained or daunted by its reputation. We wind up asking ourselves, “am I smart enough to understand ULYSSES?”
(I won’t speak for everyone here but the truthful answer for myself and most of us is likely, “no, of course I’m not.” There are allusions and enigmas in this work that are way beyond my meager understanding of literature, history and culture. But I’ve never let my own ignorance get in the way of enjoying any other art form so I see no reason to start doing so here.)
Put away the idea of this book as a caliper for measuring your own IQ and you’ll see how much there is to enjoy here. Joyce himself had great hope for this novel reaching ordinary readers and not just the literati. For every oblique reference to Milton or Blake you may find, I can point out a corresponding and excellent fartjoke or clownish encounter with everyday life. In this way, for those of us who enjoy reading it again and again, ULYSSES is much like the perfect detective novel. We keep finding new evidence, new things to learn about the life of Leopold Bloom “in the heart of the Hibernian metropolis” of Dublin on that one perfectly recorded day.
This year, Dublin is host to the International James Joyce Symposium and scholars from across the globe are on-hand to discuss and explain just what “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality” just might mean (I’m still wondering about that one myself).
This year, as in many past, hundreds of Dubliners and fans of the novel will crowd the streets and pubs in period costumes doing impromptu readings and recitations of bits of the novel that celebrate the city. As Declan Kiberd puts it, “… in Eccles Street, Ormond Quay and Sandycove’s Martello tower. It is quite impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city”. (True. One doesn’t hear of “cosplay” much in modernism. Imagine a flash mob of Piet Mondrian fans dressed in primary colors trying to re-enact Broadway Boogie Woogie and you’ll see the problem.)
Also this year, through the novel entering firmly into the public domain, artists of many varied and sometimes unexpected disciplines are offering up homages, riffs and adaptations of the novel in many new forms. ULYSSES, which has had such an effect on creative minds since its first publication 90 years ago, gets to openly meet its grandchildren and welcome them to the family reunion (something I’ve been looking forward to for a few years now).
And all of this is happening this week on my first visit to Dublin, a city I’ve been drawing for years.
It is true. This is a very large, very difficult book, full of very big ideas. Joyce expects quite a lot from readers. But I think if we look around Dublin, and around the world this Bloomsday we’ll see how many, many people can testify that it’s worth it.