- An Embarrassment of Joycean Riches
Morris Beja and Anne Fogarty, eds. Bloomsday 100: Essays on Ulysses. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. xii + 256 pp. $69.95
For the reviewer of this long-awaited collection, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that readers benefit from the erudition, elegance, humor, and originality of a wide variety of Joyce scholars. Herein there surely lies an embarrassment of riches. The bad news is that there is no way a reviewer can do justice to the individual essays. The brief synopses that follow are thus offered to whet the readers’ appetite for the extravagant feast the collection offers.
Bracketing for a moment David Spurr’s initiating essay on “Joyce’s Debris,” we find that, from the cat’s meow to the pussyfooting narrator, intriguing considerations of “Calypso” begin and end the collection. Such an arrangement is most appropriate for a volume intended to celebrate Bloomsday, a day beginning for Leopold Bloom in “Calypso”’s kitchen, and ending in the bed of Calypso’s avatar, Molly Bloom. Anne Fogarty’s introduction provides a fascinating and thorough history of Bloomsday (originally to be set on 8 October 1904), and sets out the common features of the fourteen essays to follow: attention to insufficiently explored aspects of Ulysses; the interweaving of theoretical discussions with their authors’ private engagements with the text; and, most important, a focus on the materialist aspects of the novel.
Divided into five sections, the collection opens with “That Other World: Material Dimensions of Ulysses,” the first dimension of which is the aforementioned tribute to “Joyce’s Debris” by David Spurr. Unlike predecessors such as Austen, Balzac, and Dickens, Spurr notes, Joyce forsakes the kind of plot that typically subordinates “character relations [End Page 125] and the world of objects” to a master narrative. Rather, Joyce’s artistic innovation is to incorporate the “fragmented character of modernity” into his work, creating a world “spilling over into an abundance of debris” and denying any illusory order to the objective world. One effect of representing such disorder is to invest the profane—debris—with an aura of the sacred. In one instance, to illustrate his thesis, Spurr traces the odyssey of “throwaway” in Ulysses, a journey ultimately associates the cast-off, nomadic bit of waste with the coming of the Messiah, transforming it into “sacred trash.” Spurr recognizes in this narrative agenda both a means of challenging the effects of late capitalist totality and an exposé of the “loose foundations” on which meaning is constructed.
John Gordon’s contribution to this opening section is a characteristically witty, yet absolutely convincing, take on “ ‘Mkgnao! Mrkgnao! Mrkgrnao!’ : The Pussens Perplex,” the cat’s meow in “Calypso.” Gordon detects in the progression of the Blooms’ cat’s calls a series of “just noticeable differences,” or jnd’s, which reveal, not simply evidence of the cat’s incrementally expressive vocabulary, but also the process whereby the hearer/listener (in this case Bloom) forms increasingly refined aural impressions. For Gordon, no other author has come close to Joyce’s success at representing the “dynamics of impression formation.” The effect of the virtuoso performance represented in the cat’s meow and Bloom’s consequently pricked-up ears is to make not only better listeners, but also better readers of us all.
Last in Section I is Austin Briggs’s explanation of “Why Leopold Bloom Menstruates.” (Talk about a material dimension.) Having drawn attention to suggestions of Bloom’s proclivity for the periodic flow within Ulysses itself, as well as to the critical attention it has received, Briggs proceeds to explicate “the myth of Jewish male menstruation,” and finally to argue that Joyce purposefully exploits that myth to distinguish the feminized Bloom from the ideal—current in his Ireland, and abhorrent to him—of the Irish man prepared to sacrifice his life’s blood for his country. Ulysses celebrates not masculine blood sacrifice, Briggs contends, but rather the life-affirming blood of the female “flower” epitomized in Molly Bloom.
Section II, “Agenbite: History in the Text,” begins with Richard P. Lynch’s “Mixing Memory and Desire: Narrative Strategies and the Past in Ulysses.” Lynch posits...