16 June 2017

What It's Really About

We've all seen the "On This Day In History" columns.  I like to look at them:  Sometimes I learn about people and events I never knew before.

For example, I didn't know that on this date in 1903, Ford Motor Company was incorporated, and in 1961, ballet star Rudolf Nureyev defected from his native Soviet Union.

I have long known, however, that quite possibly the most-commemorated events of this date never actually happened.  Yet they will be remembered long after most of the others are forgotten.

I am not talking about the fact that, one year ofter Henry Ford's motor company came to be, one of the most famous writers in history got married.  And he married the most unlikely of people:  someone who had no interest in literature and, when asked by a journalist what she thought of Andre Gide--on the occasion of his winning the Nobel Prize for literature, no less--said, "When you've been married to the greatest writer in the world, you tend to forget the little guys."

The literary spouse in question is Nora Joyce.  And, of course, she was defending the reputation of her beloved Jimmy.

And he wrote a book containing the people and events that are being commemorated today--far more than the founding of FoMoCo or the defection of a ballet dancer.  The events happened on this date in 1904 and, like the people involved in them, were creations of the man who set them down on paper.

Now, you all know no one ever called him "Jimmy".  (At least, I don't think anyone did!)  James Joyce wrote a book that did exactly what he said it would:  It's kept generations of professors, critics and scholars busy arguing over what it's "about".

The truth is (drumroll), his Ulysses is the Seinfeld of modern literature:  It's not about anything at all. At least, not really.  Sure, there are parallels between his characters and those of Greek mythology.  But the stories about the gods and demigods, like all tales embedded in systems of belief, are explicit attempts to explain the meaning and purpose of, if not life itself, then the world around us.  

I can find no such attempt in Joyce's book. When I say that, I don't mean it as a condemnation:  One could (and I have) argued that some of the great works of literature--including no less than Shakespeare's Hamlet-- really aren't "about" anything, except perhaps the foibles of the characters themselves.  

Now, of course, even with all of my erudition (ha!), you shouldn't take only my word.  I am even willing to consider (though not without a fight) that I could be wrong.  You see, the esteemed author of the "Cycling In The South Bay"--whose credentials are impeccable--claims that Ulysses is really a book about bicycling.

On what is this claim based?  CITSB's author offers the following evidence--13 mentions of bicycle or bicycling in the 782-page tome:

  1. “They passed from behind Mr Bloom along the curbstone. Beard and bicycle. Young woman.”
  2. “His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side.”
  3. “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.”
  4. “As per usual somebody’s nose was out of joint about the boy that had the bicycle off the London bridge road always riding up and down in front of her window.”
  5. “W. E. Wylie who was racing in the bicycle races in Trinity college university.”
  6. “But he was undeniably handsome with an exquisite nose and he was what he looked, every inch a gentleman, the shape of his head too at the back without his cap on that she would know anywhere something off the common and the way he turned the bicycle at the lamp with his hands off the bars and also the nice perfume of those good cigarettes and besides they were both of a size too he and she and that was why Edy Boardman thought she was so frightfully clever because he didn’t go and ride up and down in front of her bit of a garden.”
  7. “His right hand holds a bicycle pump.”
  8. “He smites with his bicycle pump the crayfish in his left hand.”
  9. “Love on hackney jaunt Blazes blind coddoubled bicyclers Dilly with snowcake no fancy clothes.”
  10. “He had sometimes propelled her on warm summer evenings, an infirm widow of independent, if limited, means, in her convalescent bathchair with slow revolutions of its wheels as far as the corner of the North Circular road opposite Mr Gavin Low’s place of business where she had remained for a certain time scanning through his onelensed binocular fieldglasses unrecognisable citizens on tramcars, roadster bicycles equipped with inflated pneumatic tyres, hackney carriages, tandems, private and hired landaus, dogcarts, ponytraps and brakes passing from the city to the Phoenix Park and vice versa.”
  11. “of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete”
  12. “pretending to read out the Hebrew on them I wanted to fire his pistol he said he hadnt one he didnt know what to make of me with his peak cap on that he always wore crooked as often as I settled it straight H M S Calypso swinging my hat that old Bishop that spoke off the altar his long preach about womans higher functions about girls now riding the bicycle and wearing peak caps and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money”
  13. “can Milly come out please shes in great demand to pick what they can out of her round in Nelson street riding Harry Devans bicycle at night”

Actually, I am rather willing (Is there such a thing?) to accept that writer's claim, especially after stumbling over this:

Jim Joyce, eh?  Well, even if he'd used a less-obvious pseudonym, all of those critics and professors and commentators he wanted to keep busy would have found him out sooner or later, don't you think?  ;-)


  1. A happy Bloomsday to you!

    And this from Tom Paxton: