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Leopold Bloom, the anti-nationalist star of ‘Ulysses,’ is an ambassador for our day

I’ve used the novel as a tool of soft power in my diplomatic career. On its 100th anniversary, it’s particularly relevant.

The Irish novelist James Joyce, left, with the French poet Philippe Soupault in Paris in 1931. (AP)
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James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” among the 20th century’s most famous novels if not the most widely read, was published in Paris on Feb. 2, 1922 — 100 years ago tomorrow. Loosely inspired by Homer, the novel is an odyssey of dazzling language and densely imagined character across a sprawl of almost 800 pages. Readers who journey with Joyce’s Leopold Bloom as he navigates the shoals of everyday life on an unremarkable summer’s day in Dublin become deeply familiar with his inner world and the quirky crevices of his mind.

To those who value “Ulysses” as the quintessence of literary modernism, it may come as a surprise when I say that it now makes its most direct appeal to me as a novel of values with an enduring relevance. Joyce quietly imbued Bloom with attributes that addressed the turbulent world from which his novel emerged, but it is also a work of fiction highly attuned to the discordances of our own time.

My copy of “Ulysses,” acquired during a summer spent in Kansas City in 1974, has traveled the world with me during 40 years in diplomacy — the last four in Washington as the Irish ambassador to the United States — and I’ve always deployed it liberally as an instrument of soft power. This began when I became a head of mission and organized annual “Bloomsday” celebrations on June 16, the day of Bloom’s odyssey. For Irish diplomats, Bloomsday has become something of an ancillary to St. Patrick’s Day. In India in the 1980s, Joyce’s navigation of the “nets” of language, nationality and religion resonated locally. In Germany, interest in Joyce and other Irish writers helped broaden perceptions of Ireland at a time when our national reputation suffered from the fallout of the economic and financial crisis of 2009-2010. In 2012, I worked with two German radio stations who broadcast complete readings of “Ulysses” to coincide with the expiration of its copyright. Our literature draws people around the world to engage with Ireland who might otherwise have no affinity with our island nation.

But it is the novel’s contested world not unlike our own that resonates most with me now.

Although “Ulysses” is set in 1904, a calm before the storm in world history, by the time Joyce sat down to write in 1914, that storm, in the shape of World War I, was raging all around him. Wartime conditions forced him to flee with his family from the Austro-Hungarian city of Trieste, where he had spent more than a decade after leaving Ireland as a young man, to take refuge in neutral Zurich. He finished his creative marathon in the unsettled aftermath of the war and, as it happens, in the wake of a global flu pandemic. In Bloom, he created a settled, contented individual, “a good man,” as he once described him, a counterpoint to the noisiness of the world around him. In 1919, W.B. Yeats wrote apocalyptically that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” but Joyce, in the same period, pitched his antihero’s tent firmly on the center ground. Bloom is no intellectual but an earnest trier with a scientific temperament who takes things seriously, albeit with deliberately unspectacular results.

Once upon a time, I tended to view “Ulysses” as fundamentally an Irish novel, set in Ireland’s capital, with Irish characters and their native preoccupations. Then one afternoon at Georgetown University, after I had delivered a guest lecture on Joyce to a graduate seminar, a student’s unexpected question stopped me in my tracks: What, he asked, would Joyce have made of Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union? In reply, I made the point that the last words of “Ulysses” are not the famous “yes I said yes I will Yes” that end Molly Bloom’s rollicking, unpunctuated 60-page soliloquy, but “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921.” Joyce had gone out of his way to state where and when he had written his epic novel. This made me reflect on the European character of what Joyce wrote, and to conclude that “Ulysses” was, among many other things (for it is a big book), a response to the ethnic nationalism that welled around him in wartime Europe as he labored to universalize a single ordinary day. I like to think Joyce would be an admirer of the E.U., with its mission to bind Europeans around a set of shared values and interests instead of, as Bloom puts it, hating people because “they live around the corner and speak another vernacular.” At “Bloomsday” events in Washington, as a means of highlighting the novel’s European character, I have invited E.U. ambassadors to read passages in which their countries are referenced by Joyce, who spent most of his life on mainland Europe. Last year, E.U. Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis, in a tribute to Joyce, read from Homer’s “Odysseyin both English and his native Greek.

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For his three main characters, Joyce chose atypical Dubliners — Bloom with his Hungarian and Jewish background; his wife, Molly, half-Spanish and born in Gibraltar; and Stephen Dedalus, a young aesthete with an “absurd” Greek name. It’s as if he wanted to explore 20th-century experience through three individuals semidetached from the society around them. Throughout the novel, the Blooms are the butt of prejudice — misogyny in Molly’s case and anti-Semitism in Leopold’s. Molly, although we encounter her only at breakfast time and as she falls asleep that night, is presented as a gloriously feisty and instinctive individual, whereas her husband comes across as the soul of understated prudence and studied discretion. “Mr. Cautious Calmer” is how Bloom is described in one instance, “dissembling as was his wont.”

After keeping his views to himself for the first half of the novel, Bloom cuts loose in the “Cyclops” episode when he is goaded and his nationality is questioned. In response to “the Citizen,” Joyce’s personification of one-eyed nationalism, Bloom describes his nation in a straightforward way: “I was born here. Ireland.” In having Bloom take this stance, Joyce went against the grain in an era when national identity was seen primarily as a compound of homogeneities of race and creed, as many today continue to insist it ought to be. Joyce enjoyed the variegated character of early 20th-century Trieste and the “ramshackle empire” of which it was part. During assignments in Europe, I have repeatedly made the point that the horrors of the continent’s catastrophic 20th century might have been avoided had Bloom’s pragmatic definition of nationality prevailed.

Bloom fumes about persecution and those who perpetuate “national hatred.” In a passage at the heart of Joyce’s message to the troubled world around him, Bloom sets out his credo: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.” It is “love,” the opposite of hatred, he insists, “that is really life.” This was a bold statement considering the cauldron of national and class warfare that defined the 20th century’s tragic second decade. It’s not a bad motto for today, either.

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Later in the novel, we gain further insight into Bloom’s moderate mentality. He resents “violence or intolerance in any shape or form.” A revolution, he insists, “must come on the due installments plan.” Not many impatient seekers of change, then or now, would share such an ultra-patient view of the dynamics of history and politics, but incrementalism seems like a sound idea when divisions are rife and passions run high.

In the “Circe” episode, written in the form of a surrealistic play, Bloom appears as a political reformer with a charmingly idealistic manifesto: “The reform of municipal morals and the plain ten commandments. New worlds for old. Union of all, jew, moslem and gentile. Three acres and a cow for all children of nature.” Elsewhere, he is described as someone who “desired to amend many social conditions, the product of inequality and avarice and international animosity.” He backs the idea of everyone having “a comfortable tidysized income” — a Universal Basic Income, in today’s parlance. The concept, which has gained popularity recently, “would be provocative of friendlier relations between man and man.” That, he insists, is “patriotism,” a definition that is a far cry from the adamantine versions that spurred many of Joyce’s contemporaries as they sacrificed themselves for king or kaiser.

In a world shaped by the looming clash of empires, Bloom is a quiet-spoken, sober skeptic who, despite his fate as an unsuccessful advertising salesman with an unfaithful wife, derives a gentle satisfaction from his unheroic existence. At a time like ours, when narrow partisan opinions thrive in places and prejudice continues to flourish in plain sight, I see Bloom’s centrist appeal to transcend force, hatred and history as a powerful expression of his, and Joyce’s, humane worldview, and a sound bit of advice for 2022, a century after this fictional Everyman strolled Dublin’s busy streets.