Today is the centennial of Bloomsday, the 100th anniversary of Leopold Bloom's famous ramble through Dublin in the book that many would call the greatest work of 20th-century fiction: James Joyce's "Ulysses."
Yes, I can hear millions answering, but so what? Are we suddenly French that we make a fetish of a literary milestone? Indeed, most of us who've fallen into Bloom's company -- and that of his sidekick Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictive persona -- would confess that we first made their acquaintance because we were told it was important. I read the novel as a college sophomore of 19, understanding perhaps a quarter of it but sure that I was punching my ticket. But first-time readers are sure to be struck, as I was, by this epic's ordinariness. I knew Ulysses, one is tempted to say, and Leopold Bloom is no Ulysses.
From his early-morning visit to the water closet and greeting of his housecat to his weary retirement many hours later beside his faithless but poetic wife, Molly, it's a prosy story, insistent in its dailiness, of birth and death, eating and drinking, dream and frustration, faith and sacrilege -- of life, in short -- although it does include a lively discussion of the ghost of Hamlet's father.
It first saw light in 1922 thanks to the courage of a Paris bookseller, Sylvia Beach, and a printer in Dijon willing to defy lurking censors. Bluenoses everywhere decried Joyce and his book as if he had resurrected Sodom and Gomorrah between book covers. (Bennett Cerf managed to get it into print in the United States 12 years later thanks to a wise verdict from the federal bench by Judge John M. Woolsey.) Generally, it ran a close race against oblivion.
Five years ago I reread "Ulysses" for a spring college seminar I was to teach, and I've never worked harder. Few can hope to grasp Joyce's thousands of recherche allusions. But there is real joy in teasing those allusions out and so flushing from concealment the book's engaging naughtiness.
The students at Washington and Lee University who joined me in the long march that spring were urbane young people, unembarrassed by the book's "obscenity," which by current standards of vulgarity isn't all that obscene. We all had a good laugh, for instance, when one student asked a plausible question about a passage in the Aeolus (winds) episode, in which Stephen Dedalus and others are talking about the Nelson monument, "the statue of the one-handled adulterer." Is it, he asked, a veiled reference to masturbation? Certainly the many variations on human sexual pleasure were of consuming interest to Joyce, hence to his creatures. But knowing a smidgen of history, the instructor offered a better guess: Admiral Lord Nelson had his right arm shot off in a naval engagement at Vera Cruz, and he had conducted a notorious affair with Lady Hamilton, a woman not his wife. Hence the "one-handled adulterer." Who but Joyce would have described the great naval hero in just that way? "Ulysses" is a celebration of language, and a gleaming verbal mirror into which few will gaze without some shock of personal recognition, mild or major, as my own experience attests.
When I was a small boy in North Carolina, a tiny woman named Gussie Baynes worked for us and liked to tease me with polysyllabic words. "How's your corporosity segatuating?" she asked me nearly every morning. I never heard the question from anyone else, anywhere. But as I reread "Ulysses" this time, the question sprang out at me from the Oxen of the Sun episode: "Your corporosity sagaciating OK?" Friends better versed in Joyce than I failed to explain this uncanny verbal link between an 80-pound black woman in the 1940s South and the expatriate Irish genius, writing in Trieste, Paris and Zurich.
But why be surprised by such a link? It is said -- I haven't counted -- that the vocabulary of "Ulysses" ranks third only to those of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the Shakespeare Folio. Joyce was a verbal magpie, collecting specimens from every continent (a passion that was to reach its reductio ad absurdum in "Finnegans Wake").
So on this Bloomsday, forget "importance" for once and open your eyes and tune up your ears. If you're interested in human life you must be interested in Leopold Bloom and that epic ramble through the streets and alleys of Dublin a century ago.
The writer is a former editor and columnist. He was a professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University from 1991 to 2002. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.