One dubiously sunny Irish summer day in Dublin I was walking along the city’s eastern beach-rim when my friend told me that this wasn’t just any eastern beach-rim—the kind of place in, say, Barcelona or Sydney where you might casually toss Frisbees—but in fact literary holy ground: Sandymount strand. A sophisticated modernist shiver, dressed in a bow tie and a bowler hat, with a pince-nez and a small mustache, sauntered up and down my spine.
We had been reenacting, accidentally, the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus’s morning beachwalk: probably the most famous moodybrooding in world literature since Hamlet’s soliloquies. The episode’s opening phrase, “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” is one of the best-known moments in the world’s least-read best-known novel—most likely because it’s the last thing most people see before giving up on Ulysses forever, the point at which the balance between the accessible and the arcane tips decisively in the wrong direction. Stephen’s memories are treated as immediate experience; dialogue is ambiguously imagined; obscure medieval philosophy shares the stage with a urinating dog; language becomes a hash of morphemes flipped vigorously with a spatula (“contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality”). Books of annotations—those finely printed, pragmatically bound, vaguely shameful volumes of academic pornography—become necessary.
Reading Ulysses at home, from the geographical irrelevance of a desk in New York, I could never quite picture Sandymount strand. On the question of landscape, Joyce is particularly (maybe uniquely) unhelpful: in place of the nineteenth-century novelist’s orienting panoramic, he gives us only highly stylized microdescriptions filtered through the overlapping cheesecloths of Stephen’s consciousness. Even the name Sandymount strand—lilting, alliterative—suggests a fantasy world somewhere in the vicinity of Brobdingnag or Narnia. Between the novel and its annotations, I had managed to conclude with some confidence that it was a beach bordered by rocks, but in my imagination it was only a theo-philosophical Baywatch set, as blank as the margins of the perpetually open dictionary from which I learned that a strand is just a beach and that modality means “of or relating to structure as opposed to substance.”
As either luck or the omniscient narrator of my life would have it, I had choked “Proteus” down again only a few days before that beachwalk (it was step three in my eighteen-step program to read the entire novel over the summer), so I was primed to soak in the magic of the actual place. My soul trembled with soul-trembling tremble-touches. On first glance, however, there was nothing to get excited about; the beach dutifully fulfilled all my generic expectations of beach-experience. The salt-sticky seawind was indistinguishable from domestic American seawind. The customary range of seaside particles percussed solidly under my tennis shoes. Families flew kites. A man surfed on a board attached to a parachute. I should have expected this—the elevation of the trivial (cat meow, cheese sandwich, bowel movement) to aggressively difficult High Art was step one on Joyce’s famous aesthetic agenda. But I had always thought of Dublin trivia as inherently exotic. It wasn’t. And yet, post-Joyce, it was. As I stood there watching scruffy independent off-leash Irish dogs enthusiastically chase sticks, I had a muted little epiphany—an epiphany. I saw that the families, the dogs, and the parachute surfer, who had all seemed at first like casual, free beings moving according to whim, were actually only tracing out pre-authorized shapes on a permanent grid of Joyce-defined meaning. Sandymount strand was a fictional stage that just happened, secondarily, to be a real place: lifesized, three-dimensional, antique and yet updated every second with modern touches—bird nests, neon signs, garbage. It had been infused with trivnificance, the paradoxical colonization of trivia by art: trivia significantly fictionalized for its very triviality, and hence no longer trivial. And once you saw that, it was everywhere.
In “Proteus” Stephen thinks, iambically, “These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here,” and to the Joyceconscious modern walker, Sandymount strand is language. Every sensation trickles down through fourteen dense pages of print: the “lacefringe of the tide,” the “whitemaned seahorses” of the waves farther out, the “fourworded wavespeech”: “seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos.” As I walked, the events of “Proteus” played out for me in vivid imaginary realtime. I watched Stephen Dedalus, slim and hunched over the end of a cane, dressed in black for his beastly dead mother, slumping lazily toward the rocks. I didn’t see him, of course, the way I saw the flock of sailboats clustered near the horizon—he was superimposed by some automatic supplementary organ of vision I didn’t even know I had, the human equivalent of the translucent third eyelid a sea lion uses to swim underwater. I watched him flinch from a barking dog. He sat on some boulders (in Ulysses, “piled stone mammoth skulls”) and wrote on a scrap of paper. Then he picked his nose and laid the dry snot on a ledge of rock. I stared, for a very long time, at the actual rock.
This was my first Joycexperience: imagining snot on a rock. It immediately restructured my experience of the book. Ulysses became not exactly a novel but something else, either the 783-page footnote to a city or a book that had subsumed that city as a footnote to itself. They’re like opposite ends of a telescope: look through Dublin and see a giant Ulysses, through Ulysses a tiny Dublin. It’s impossible to tell which generated the other or which requires the other more urgently as explanation.
My Joyceconsciousness radiated out from the beach and spread, block by block, until it covered the entire city. It settled over the tourist-crammed hallways of the commercial center: Dame Street, Grafton Street, Bachelor’s Walk. It was bought and sold, secondhand, in the boutiques on George’s Arcade and out of the gritty horsecarts north of Henry Street. It clattered on the DART train from the cliffs at Howth all the way out to the Joyce Tower at Sandycove. It was woven into magpie nests at Trinity College. It drifted over Mountjoy Square, over Rathmines; it sloshed along the quays. Finally it spread, at bus-speed, lengthwise across the island, over the dark mutinous Shannon waves, to the country’s western edge in Galway. Yes, the professors were right: Joyce was general all over Ireland.
This summer will see the densest concentration of Joyceans in the history of the world, the pure ground-stomping statistical apotheosis of the herd. The species has evolved, under extreme environmental conditions, to produce the most distinctive and advanced creature in all the great wilderness of lexical worship; it is pure, focused, and polyglot, driven by terrier-like dedication to its subject, able to thrive with equal vigor in dusty academic corners and in the arid gaps between computer programming jobs. One prominent Joycean has written that being in Dublin on Bloomsday is “like being in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday.” This summer, for the Bloomsday Centenary, Dublin will be more like Easter Sunday featuring the first-ever reunion of the twelve apostles at a weeklong conference on How to Go to Heaven for Sure, with Jesus returning to give the keynote speech. On June 16, 2004, the faithful will arrive in costumed clans, dressed as Molly or Leopold or even as one of the iconic versions of Joyce himself: Young Joyce (yachter’s cap, ashplant cane, self-satisfied look of imminent dominance of the Western canon); Middle-Aged Joyce (bowler hat, oval glasses, bow tie, owl-wing mustache spread neatly over treehole of mouth); Elder Joyce (pirate eyepatch, rough goatee). They will read famous passages aloud in exotic accents, pause to argue over references in languages so obscure that Joyce may have had only partial command of them. Organizers have planned a breakfast in O’Connell Street for ten thousand. Faced with this density, these numbers, it’s hard not to think apocalyptically. If a plague of locusts devoured all of Dublin’s visitors this Bloomsday—or if a predatory competing literary herd, say the still-jealous Woolfians or the Hemingway thugs, ambushed them—our literary-critical future would inevitably shift: we’d be plunged back into Joycedarkness, illiteracy, dearth of annotation, un-ironic consumption of reality television. Should we keep a set of Joyceans in a secret location in reserve? Send body doubles of the eminent, the irreplaceable?
They’ll be celebrating the crossover into triple digits—100 years since the day Ulysses took place. We should remember, however, that Ulysses didn’t actually take place; in spite of all that’s been said about it, it’s a novel. In fact, the layers of commemoration run so deep now that it’s a little unclear what we’re celebrating. Joyce chose that ordinary Thursday in 1904 as an act of commemoration in itself: it was the day, in what we sometimes call real life, that he took his future wife, Nora Barnacle, on their first date, a walk near Sandymount strand. So our commemoration rests not on the firm ground of actual experience (we’re not celebrating that walk) but on a textual celebration of that experience, which we honor by reenacting, in the world, events that were never enacted in the first place except abstractly, through tricks of ink and paper. Difficult things happen to the calendar here: the square in the middle of June begins to glow, to take on a different ontological status from that of its neighbors. Joycexperience extends from space to time. Ulysses wasn’t published until 1922, eighteen years after the so-called first Bloomsday it describes, which prompts an obvious question: What happened to the first eighteen Bloomsdays? The book hadn’t been written yet to alert people that they should be celebrating and so, quite logically, even though “Bloomsday” was passing every year—the fifth anniversary in 1909, the tenth in 1914—no one celebrated anything (except for those who happened to have June 16 birthdays, like the American comedian Stan Laurel). Can a holiday begin to accumulate anniversaries before it has been created as a holiday?
Bloomsday celebrations started small and got progressively smaller. The first recorded gesture of homage didn’t occur until Bloomsday 20, two years after the book’s publication, when Joyce was in the hospital recovering from his fifth eye operation. Though he was blinded (as biographer Richard Ellmann describes it) by “dressings as big as small pillows,” he took a moment to write in a notebook, “Today 16 of June 1924 twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date.” For a while the answer seemed to be a resounding “sort of.” That day, for instance, his friends sent him flowers. For Bloomsday 25 they took him to lunch (Samuel Beckett got so drunk he had to be “ingloriously abandoned,” as Joyce put it, on the way home). The first recognizable prototype of the modern Bloomsday—a group imitation, in Dublin itself, of the novel’s events—didn’t take place until twenty-five years after that lunch, on the almost totally overlooked occasion of Bloomsday 50. Six Dubliners, five of them frustrated post-Joycean writers, met in a spirit of irreverent reverence at the Martello Tower in Sandycove, the squat monolith where Ulysses begins and in which Joyce lived for exactly six days. They planned to retrace (some in solemn tribute, others in drunken revenge) the route of the novel in horse-drawn coaches. It turned into a pub crawl. The two most famous celebrants, Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, got into a wrestling match on their way up to the tower. Kavanagh later called it “the first and last time a piece of native propaganda for the Joyce thing happened.” This was thirty-two years after publication, thirty-six years after serialization, forty years after the beginning of composition, seventy-two years after the author’s birth, and thirteen years after his death. It was thirty years after the flowers and twenty-five years after the lunch. And yet the event is sometimes referred to as Bloomsday 1. Ulysses has become as difficult to celebrate as it is to read.
Dublin officials and businesses are understandably content with 100. In the multi-billion-dollar industry of Irish tourism, Bloomsday is slowly climbing closer to St. Patrick’s Day as a signature national event. Although Dublin traditionally treats its major tourist attractions with amateur carelessness (see the handwritten “Book of Kells” sign taped to a wall at Trinity College), preparations for the Centenary look like the major renovations that precede an Olympics: a National Coordinator has been appointed to choreograph the festivities, and Santiago Calatrava, one of the world’s leading architects (he was recently chosen to design the new train station at the World Trade Center), has built a stylish, four-lane James Joyce bridge over the Liffey. The so-called Joyce Industry, a thriving, hybrid weed-flower whose first shoots emerged tentatively forty years ago, will bloom this summer in full technicolor glory. The novel’s pubs (from which the young Joyce and his siblings would routinely try to extract their father before he drank away the rest of their furniture) are now pretty much literary theme parks. At the Ormond Hotel, which Joyce used as the setting of the “Sirens” episode, modern patrons can drink in the Sirens Bar and eat lunch in the Sirens Lounge before heading up to Joyce-themed (“Leopold,” “Mulligan,” “Barnacle”) rooms.
They’re calling this year’s celebration “ReJoyce,” a pun that is excessively easy, overplayed (it’s in the title of at least two critical books and surely no fewer than 100,000 college papers), and misleading. There is no direct discourse re: Joyce and probably never was. We could find a better title—a better description of the actual nature of the celebration—in the subject line of any web-based literary discussion: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Joyce. This has the Joycean virtues of typographical oddity and potentially infinite expansion.
After breakfast, after the tower, the Centenary herd will pour through the narrow streets of Dublin like a liquid, squirting from Joyceplace to Joyceplace. Trickles will detach from the main flow on side trips. Ineluctably, some will head to Sandymount strand to read aloud from “Proteus.” I’ll bet my copy of Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated that a significant number of these, dressed in mourning and carried away by a spirit of mass high-Modernist reverence, will pick their noses and wipe the incrustations ceremonially on a ledge of rock. The most devoted might walk farther out and pretend to meet pederasts, fall drunk down pub stairways, propose to each other at Howth, masturbate on the strand, urinate in chamber pots. The menu of reenactable Joyce-described behaviors is almost infinite. Then, like Bloom, everyone will break for lunch to eat Gorgonzola sandwiches.
III. Dear, Dirty
My visit to Ireland was tragically mistimed: two weeks after Bloomsday 99, a year before the Centenary. Bloomsday limbo. It was like missing a comet—even if mass literary celebration survives into the next century, I won’t. I had been sent on a mission loaded with trivnificance, as an RA, or graduate-school-educated camp counselor, on an American university’s Study Abroad program. I was paid to regulate the economically privileged and barely post-adolescent passions, the rising Ire and burning Dubloins, of twenty-six American college students. It seemed like the kind of punishment traditionally assigned by Greek gods: my subjects had been set loose in the pub capital of the world during a high-latitude summer in which twilight lingered until midnight and the streets were overrun with native and international gropers. I played their hermaphroditic overseas motherfather, leading them in apathetic staggering flocks to ancient monasteries, abandoned islands, hurling matches, plays; warning them with stern gravity against consorting afterhours with strange Irish men; cooing soothingly when they were ill. In the irregular gaps between official duties, I read Ulysses. My history of failure with the book had been, up to that point, completely ordinary. All previous attempts had been derailed by what Joyce once called (in a letter to a friend who’d threatened to throw his copy out the window) “Bloomitis”: an acute and sustained verbal overload that drives the reader back into the arms of simple worldly pleasures—sex, ice cream, television. My all-time most ambitious bookmark stood at page 219, where Stephen is discoursing opaquely on Hamlet. I decided to use Dublin as a self-imposed literary boot camp—to force myself, over my six Irish weeks, to crawl the linguistic no-man’s-land between the opposed trenches of “Stately, plump” and “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
The book and the city, I found, offer reciprocal orientations; they are similarly confusing, infuriating, and satisfying. Dublin everywhere shows a Joycean disregard for chronology, genre, order, and decorum. Streets change names spontaneously. On my first exploratory jog, the city forced me repeatedly into unplanned U-turns and over what seemed like eight different frothy, Guinness-colored canals. (I learned later that I had been crossing and recrossing the same canal.) Outside the city, road signs are notoriously blown over by storms or overgrown by bushes. To get to Trinity College’s laundry room you have to navigate a stone labyrinth formed by the narrow crevices between two eighteenth-century buildings, your only guiding landmarks an ATM on one side and the grave of an old college dean on the other. A series of optical illusions leads eventually to a security gate, which opens with an access card available only from an office outside the labyrinth. You enter through a hidden side door because the front one doesn’t work. There are no maps, signs, or booklets describing any of this. You have to figure it out empirically, through failure.
The entire island pulsed to an absurd sound track. Dublin radio relentlessly flattens music into a synthetic patty of the Top and Bottom 40, the classic and the disposable: a typical playlist juxtaposes Fleetwood Mac, Eminem, Bette Midler, Britney Spears. On my visit to Innis Mór, an ancient monkish island basically deserted for the past hundred years, an Italian tourist on the harbor was blasting, at landscape-permeating volume, an album by the 1980s rapper Ton-Loc. The teen-pop megahit “MMMBop” (c. 1997) filled the lobby of the Powerscourt Mansion (c. 1731). Beyonceé’s single “Crazy in Love” had overrun the country: convenience stores and repairmen’s vans in Dublin were crazy in love; the bus to Dingle was crazy in love, as was Dingle itself, and nearby Tralee; Monasterboice, the sacred ruined monastery, was crazy in love—with, perhaps, Newgrange, the five-thousand-year-old megalithic passage tomb, which returned the feeling.
Joyce’s phrase “Dear Dirty Dublin” still applies to the city, but with a shift of inflection. Dear should be read as a synonym for expensive. I paid $6 for a pint of fruity soda at a pub, $4 for a Coke, and $5 for half a drink of water in a fancy green bottle. Modern dirt is less often horse manure than gum; when the Liffey shrivels at low tide you can see old bikes, shopping carts, and wheelchairs embedded in the mud. The city landmarks have also changed. Nelson’s Pillar, where the “Aeolus” episode begins, and where Stephen Dedalus sets his strange “Parable of the Plums,” was blown up by nationalists in 1966 (presumably not in celebration of Bloomsday 62). In its place stands the city’s new tallest structure, the 393-foot gleaming silver needle-thin Dublin Spire—originally to be called the Millennium Spire but, because of red tape and high winds, unerected until 2003. Locals call it the Spike, the Syringe, or (in traditional Dublin rhyming style) the Stiletto in the Ghetto.
Eventually all of my Dublin experience became, through alchemical conversion, Joycexperience. Almost the entire novel takes place within the square mile of central Dublin, so whenever I left my apartment at Trinity College I was automatically on one of Joyce’s guided tours of the city. At first the Joycexperiences came to me on the Sandymount strand installment plan, as half-recognized accidents. I unwittingly retraced the “Circe” episode when I got lost looking for a train station. But soon I actively harvested Joycexperience, re-creating portions of the novel almost every day. One night, while retracing the “Lestrygonians” episode, I was ambiguously mugged in front of the National Library: two semithreatening youths tried either to steal my bag or to ask me a question in an unusually hands-on way; I ran home, in a panic, past the spot where Joyce met Nora. I simulated the viceregal cavalcade from “The Wandering Rocks” on top of a double-decker tour bus. At the Stag’s Head, Joyce’s favorite pub, I talked with an Indian businessman for an hour about giant South American spiders. I drank my expensive pint of fruity soda at Mulligan’s, scene of a climactic arm-wrestling match in the Dubliners story “Counterparts.” I went whale-watching at Howth, which appears in Ulysses only as a memory, the place where Bloom proposed to Molly. I walked several routes that are not actually in the novel, but which scholars contend the characters must have walked between episodes—thereby demonstrating, in both myself and the scholars, a particularly Joyce-inspired faith in the reality of literary characters. I visited Nora’s house in Galway, the self-described “smallest museum in Ireland.”
Meanwhile, I energetically failed at the novel day by day, line by line, page by page, episode by episode. While I savored its traditional literary payoffs—the rare aphorisms (“Thought is the thought of thought”) and semi-climactic plot points (when Bloom and Stephen finally meet), the elegant prose (“a ravenous terrier choked up a sick knuckly cud on the cobble stones and lapped it with new zest”) and intricate architecture—most of the book’s pleasure is deeply submerged, quiet to the point of silence. Several episodes are horrible to read. The common reader in me, the Dickens lover, revolted constantly. Why, I wondered, does Joyce write an entire chapter in clichés? Why does he write, in a work of fiction, a parody of the historical development of English prose style? What had I done to upset him? Part of the difficulty is that Joyce cultivated literary skills that were, by most standards, unliterary. My favorite line of Joycepraise is Hugh Kenner’s: “No one has ever surpassed James Joyce’s skill at contriving plausible limits for expressive competence.” To be fair, not many writers knew this competition was going on.
One great irony of Ulysses is that it raises a single day, with its mudslide of trivia, to the highest plane of human value—and yet reading it requires the sacrifice of an incredible number of days. I am a slow and promiscuous reader; like the adolescent Stephen I tend to read “two pages apiece of seven books every night.” All text, to me, is an anthology with an ingenious Earth-shaped binding. But Ulysses requires abject, self-annihilating devotion—textual monogamy. I must have looked like the most pretentious tourist in Dublin (a highly contested position in such a self-consciously literary city), because I carried the novel everywhere: on buses, at pubs, eating fish and chips. My hand grew accustomed to its brick-thick shape and solid weight. For some reason, my copy smells exactly like my old hedgehog’s cage—a strong bouquet of urine-dotted pine chips on newspaper—so I carried that association (quills, mealworms, premature death) everywhere I went. Marginal notes began to proliferate, with Coleridgean fecundity, on the pages. The book became an impromptu filing cabinet. As I acquired random slips of paper throughout the trip—train tickets, receipts, index cards— I tucked them in to mark the various sections: a Cracker Jack secret decoder square in the cryptic “Oxen of the Sun,” a ticket to a hurling match in “Cyclops” (a major character of which was modeled on the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association). Altogether these slips comprise my documentation, an index of my unchallengeably authentic Joycexperience. Toward the end of the summer, a dark, indelible stripe of thumb-dirt began to work its way across the page edges. The cover started to detach.
In spite of my constant, double-pronged confusion (textual and urban), I had more success with Ulysses than I’d ever had before. Dublin made the book readable to me in a way no critical guide could. It’s the one indispensable supplement—a 3-D Cliffs Notes. Self-exiled at the southern end of Europe, Joyce co-opted his hometown. He wrote with a Dublin directory next to him that listed every building on every street. He sent his aunt on fact-finding missions: What species of trees are visible from the beach? Could a man climb over this building’s railing without hurting himself? He claimed that if the city ever burned down it could be rebuilt from his fiction. Unfortunately, he invokes all of this topographical data as casually as any lifelong Dubliner would have; fiction and reality hemorrhage into one another so severely they both seem to be in danger. For the non-Irish reader, the episodes’ physical settings are available only by plane or boat. Once you walk all over the actual streets, touch the actual monuments, the book’s real difficulties—its linguistic play and schizophrenic form—are easier to handle. I often wondered how best to spend my limited time for Joyceconsumption, reading the novel or wandering the city. I settled for an uneasy combination of both, worrying constantly that the answer was somewhere else.
I learned later, as I struggled to orient myself, that Sandymount strand is also the setting of the “Nausicaa” episode, in which Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell have a mutually delusional long-distance virtual sex encounter that climaxes during a fireworks display. Also, that the pin-striped chimney rising like an enormous barbershop pole at the end of the beach is the Pigeonhouse, an old power plant that the two boys in the Dubliners story “An Encounter” were walking to before they were harassed by a pederast. Also, that Joyce and Nora went on their original Bloomsday date, the evening stroll, between the Pigeonhouse and Sandymount strand. Although I wasn’t aware of any of these associations when I was there, visions of them are now grafted, along with Stephen Dedalus, onto my memory of the beach. The unreality accretes. To be honest, I have trouble remembering the details of my visit: after several months, memory has naturally bleached the color out of it, and frequent reminiscence (plus the new distortion of writing this essay) has stretched it into a caricature of actual experience. I have a better idea of what Stephen did there. This is the crisis of Joycexperience. Ulysses always intercedes. Then it replaces.
Body Corps Marine Division SA 25-08042003, dispatched to Duburbs(ss-hspp) 53N 6W. 1300. The forward scout of a naked toe, neatly appointed in peachcolored skin-uniform and brittle yellow nailhelmet, probed bravely the gelid salinity of a fringe of the cusp of the Irish Sea and immediately wired intel vertically via delicately spun nervographs up the major externally furred leg-chambers, through trunkorridor and neckshaft all the way to the graymatter cranial corporeal bunker of HQ: mistake temp threat ahead: which message HQ relayed armward, fingerbound, buttockshither and bellythither, off to the inner organs befouled, trailed by blares of hormoneurotransmiglandular alarms. The body a screaming newsroom of noise: TOE TELLS OF TEMP TRAUMA: FROSTY FOOT’S FRIGID FORECAST: “RE TREAT!” Then the forward scout, skiniform osmotically thickpuckered, ceased to warn. The newsroom silent: numb. Near nerdy Numblin.
(Is parody a legitimate Joycexperience? Does it scratch the itch? Having written it, I can say: not quite. It’s like scratching chicken pox with a mitten.)
One of the embarrassing things about the writing life post-Joyce is that so few of us have influential critic friends to write prompt exegeses of our work, as Joyce had Stuart Gilbert, who published a book-length study of Ulysses (for which Joyce supplied much of the critical information) in 1930. This is a serious handicap. I am forced into the indignity of playing my own critic, Sham Blanderson, and paraphrasing the paragraph above: I stepped into the Irish Sea, which quickly numbed my foot.
The end of the summer had arrived. Though I had nearly finished the book and collected copious Joycexperience, I felt a hysterical surge of illegitimacy, disconnection. I hadn’t gathered enough. My window of Joycecommunion was rapidly closing. I’d lose everything when I flew home. I decided to make one last grand gesture.
I went to the omphalos, the baptismal font, ofJ oycean homage: the Forty Foot, a swimming hole directly below the Joyce Tower (it takes its name from the Fortieth Foot, a British military regiment stationed at the tower in the nineteenth century). It’s a spectacular site: a dramatic cove of rocks with an unblocked view of the bay. The water is pure unheated Irish Sea, average temperature in the immediate neighborhood of freezing. The thrill of this, combined with the pool’s prominent role at the beginning of Ulysses, makes it a required year-round stop for pilgrims and something like a literary spawning run on Bloomsday.
A sign in front still says “Gentlemen’s Bathing Place,” though people of at least two genders were swimming that afternoon. Ireland had caught the temperate end of a nasty European heat wave (English temperatures reached record highs; thousands died in France) and was doing its best impression of California: total absence of mist, skies unpaved and turned solid blue. It was a bank holiday, so all of Dublin—pale, unmuscled—seemed to have wedged itself into Speedos and crowded onto the rocks to chat and laugh at the swimmers. Everyone who jumped in shouted some thing obscene.
I stood submerged to the ankles at the edge of the pool. Slowly, stingingly, it anesthetized my feet. My glasses were back on shore with my clothes, so like Stephen I was deeply considering the ineluctable modality of the visible. The harbor view was blurry and radically simplified: isosceles triangles of frosted glass slid toward an enormous meatloaf. A giant pair of pipe cleaners brushed the horizon. Blurry Jet Skis buzzed in the distance. I wondered what a blurry Jet Ski was a symbol of.
A man-shaped blur in front of me flopped suddenly into the water, surfaced, and groaned. His head, the size and color of a ham, swiveled in my direction.
-Is it cold? I asked him.
-Yeh, he said. Batonly far a second.
(Sham Blanderson: Ignoring altogether the large theoretical questions—the ethical imperatives of conscientious anthropolinguistic fieldwork, accurate phonetic transcription, sensitivity to deeply embedded historical stereotypes of Stage Irishness—the author’s rendering of Irish dialogue is, to adopt the kindest possible euphemism, problematic. He intends to mimic its exoticism but concocts instead something near a pidgin of Scottish and Jamaican.)
The man clung to a spur of rock near him and moved slowly frogwise his green legs in the deep jelly of the water. I stepped onto a lower, slicker rock. My calves burned, then went numb. Seaweed undulated according to obscure algorithms of wave physics.
The man plunged again and swam away. Then he popped up, farther out.
-Are yeh ginna doot? he shouted. Mon! Doot.
Two children came up behind me, touched the water, and ran away.
-Riddy, he shouted. One! Two!
Impelled by math, I kicked off the rock. The landscape juggled, flesh slapped: the snotgreen scrotumtightening Irish Sea seized me, wrapped every piece of my body with every part of itself. As I kicked around the shallows, I heard the Irishman give a celebratory hoot. My skin conducted experiments in sensation, passed through distinct phases of non-skin: it felt pepper-rubbed, then electric-shocked, then unresponsive—close-fitting but foreign, like a khaki wet suit. My instincts urged me to get out. But this was a major Joycexperience, maybe the last one, and I wasn’t going to cut it short. I forced myself to stay in, summoning the zealous sense of mission and laser-beam focus trademarked by Joyce himself, and swam even farther, past the Irishman, past the mouth of the cove, all the way to the swimmers wearing flippers and diving gear.
I floated there awkwardly, treading water and rolling with the waves. Occasionally a big plug of seawater would surge into my mouth and I’d cough and spit. Over a few terrible minutes my body conceded many degrees of heat. I felt decreasingly human. Then, all of a sudden, I reached a state of pure pleasure. I felt legitimate: central and superauthentic. Only one piece of me refused to play along: a patch of skin between my shoulder blades. It still burned with cold. I forced my mind back to Ulysses. I thought about seals: at the end of “Telemachus,” Steven thinks he hears someone shouting at him and waves hello—then, seeing that it was a barking seal, he dismisses it as a “usurper.” This started me on a dangerous chain of reasoning. I observed that there were no seals around today, which meant (in my cold-impaired, two-step syllogism) that there were probably sharks. I imagined them passing around my legs. Again I wanted to swim back. I thought about my vulnerable gym bag sitting on the public bench, covered conspicuously by my towel in a way that seemed to shout, Please don’t steal my easy-to-steal bag of somewhat valuable things. But I forced myself to stay in, rolled with the waves. Prayer, ecstasy, baptism, rebirth, baptism, ecstasy, prayer.
Then I asked myself what I was doing. Whom was I paying homage to, whose actions was I imitating? I knew, by now, that you had to parse acts of Joycetribute as carefully as the texts themselves, so I considered the evidence. Stephen Dedalus walks to the Forty Foot, but he never actually swims there—only his comic frienemy Buck Mulligan does. Was my swim an homage, then, to Buck? Transposing these characters into real life (as Joyce makes it easy to do), I was imitating not Joyce himself, who probably never in fact swam here, but his great lifelong foil Oliver St. John Gogarty, the Dublin wit, surgeon, and writer who actually lived in the tower for years. My own swim was, by this logic, an homage to Gogarty—and therefore a rejection of Joyce, Ulysses, Modernism, and the entire tradition of serious twentieth-century literary art. Or perhaps it was a strange tribute to Yeats, who swam here once. Or it could have been more abstract, an homage not to any specific event or person or character but to the general spirit and setting of Ulysses. Or most likely it was just an obvious, typical, unliterary Dublin tourist experience, the kind of thing any foreigner with a guide book would have done that afternoon.
After a while my arms got tired and I swam back. I scrambled numbly up the stones, water glistening on my garland of brown hair, water rilling over my chest and paunch and spilling jets out of my green sagging basketball shorts. I put on my unstolen glasses and the landscape snapped back into focus—meatloaf turned into Howth Head, pipe cleaners into church steeples. I sat dripping on a warm rock and opened one of my Ulysses guides, looking for information on the Forty Foot. A Dubliner came up. He said he had noticed my book and wanted to know if I knew that Joyce’s tower was up there, right there behind me. He said he thought it was one hell of a coincidence.
(Sham Blanderson: The preceding passage was actually a rather transparent allegory of reading Ulysses. The Forty Foot was the novel itself: cold, forbidding, an irresistible test. The crowd of non-swimming Dubliners represented the plain people of Ireland, enjoying the spectacle of outsiders attracted to the novel but far from making the mistake of jumping in themselves. The man in the water was elite literary society, coaxing Anderson in by lying about the extent of his own suffering. Anderson’s body temperature was the Western Literary Canon, slowly and painfully altered through prolonged contact with Ulysses. The spot on his back was common sense, convinced that there was something wrong with the experience and urging him to abandon it for warmer diversions.)
I’m tempted, in the name of literary cyclicity, to call that swim my last Joycexperience—the intentional, aquatic echo of my accidental walk on Sandymount strand. But the signals kept coming, to the very end, even outside the country. Two weeks later, at Heathrow Airport, the woman at the check-in desk told me my luggage was too heavy to load. I removed two things: Ulysses and my supply of toiletries. She accepted the bag immediately. When I stopped over in Dublin to change flights, there were large signs in the airport warning of Foot and Mouth disease—Mr. Deasy’s preoccupation in “Nestor.” Another circle: the end of my trip, the beginning of Ulysses.
At home, back at my geographically irrelevant desk, I discovered that Sandymount strand has shifted. Though it bears enough geographical resemblance to keep the same name, the part that Stephen walked on is now either underwater or under expensive beach houses. My communion with Stephen took place at least a football field away from where it should have. The view was entirely wrong. The rocks I saw—the rocks Joyceans will enthusiastically wipe excavated nose-crusts on this Bloomsday—are not the ones Stephen Dedalus wiped his nose on. Time and the growth of Dublin are steadily revising the novel. It’s tempting to put a glass box over the city. Though I won’t be there for the real celebration this June, neither will anybody else. No I said no they won’t No. Bloomsday is over. Bloomsday never happened. It’s a quotation of a quotation of something that was never spoken. We’re always, as Stephen puts it, almosting it.