A Bloomsday note from Willson Center Director Nicholas Allen
A note from our director Nicholas Allen, Baldwin Professor in Humanities
Happy Bloomsday! Today is celebrated around the world as the occasion of the fictional Leopold Bloom’s experience of the 16th of June 1904 in Dublin, as immortalized in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Once a subject of scandal, Ulysses was never banned in Ireland, even as it was censored in the United States after its serial publication in the Little Review. It took a court ruling in late 1933 to allow its publication here, after a Judge Woolsey found that while “in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”
Today the book is considered a classic of modern literature, and has become so widely read as to have created history from the basis of fiction. The first Bloomsday celebration was led by a tipsy cadre who included the writers Patrick Kavanagh and Brian O’Nolan (better known now by one of his many pseudonyms, Flann O’Brien) and the history of Bloomsday is fascinating in itself. You can join in this year by listening to readings hosted by Stephen Colbert or on Irish radio, which is broadcasting the whole book at just under thirty hours in length. And you can hear Joyce himself reading from Ulysses, and from Finnegans Wake, in these recordings from the 1920s. And you may enjoy this film from the Museum of Literature Ireland, “a personal response to – and cinematic ‘reading’ of – Joyce’s iconic novel.”
Ulysses is a strange and beautiful book. Threaded through it are meditations on love, belonging and loss that are as profound now as they were a century ago. One of my favorite passages is Bloom’s dispute in the pub with a motley crew of Irish nationalists, who question him mockingly on his own ideas of attachment, to people and places. His defenses are deceptively simple, and all the more powerful for that. That life is love, and love life is a truth we might all observe.
“Bloom was talking and talking with John Wyse and he quite excited with his dunducketymudcoloured mug on him and his old plumeyes rolling about.
—Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
—But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
—Yes, says Bloom.
—What is it? says John Wyse.
—A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
—By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
—Or also living in different places.
—That covers my case, says Joe.
—What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
—Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.
—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred…”