How I Met Ulysses, Dublin 1969
In 1969, I made a research trip to Joyce's hometown to work on the Gifford/Seidman annotation of Ulysses. I stayed at the then stodgy Merrion Square Hotel, checked out the array of distinctive doors of the Square that are featured in countless visual come-ons extolling Ireland's tourist glories. Apparently, the town fathers—few mothers were in charge of public affairs then—dictated that all the townhouses that fronted on Merrion Square be brick and Georgian in style. To provide each brick façade with an individual identity, owners painted their front doors an array of rainbow colors, adding well-proportioned fanlights as well as ornate and, for the more flamboyant, bizarre doorknockers and baroque "mud chuckers," that is, boot scrapers. Over the next three days, I canvassed the city's literary landmarks, strolled the quays according to the dictates of Ulysses, visited designated churches and institutions, walked to where Wolfe Tone's statue was not, and gazed in mock awe at the site of Nelson's Pillar, blown sky high by the IRA on March 8, 1966, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the abortive Easter Rising against British rule. I made the requisite pilgrimage to the Blooms' house (alas, now sadly defunct) at 7 Eccles Street where I heeded the quarter-hour marking "heighho" (U 4.546–48) of the St. George's Church clock. Other key destinations in Joyce's recreated memory city included the National Museum and the National Library of Ireland where, in the latter, chip-on-his-shoulder Stephen spins his cockamamie theory about Hamlet before, complacent pillars of the Dublin literary establishment. I'd knocked off all of my assignments except for one frustratingly elusive line: In "Aeolus," in the Freeman's Journal newspaper office, Bloom thinks about the downwardly mobile J. J. O'Molloy, Esq.: "Reaping the whirlwind. Used to get good retainers from D. and T. Fitzgerald. Their wigs to show their grey matter. Brains on their sleeve like the statue in Glasnevin" (7.304–6). The cryptic [End Page 117] phrase "brains on their sleeve like the statue in Glasnevin" sent me on the quest for commemorative statues with brainy excrescences on their arms. A friend in London had given me a tab of mescaline, and I dropped it shortly before I ventured to the northern suburb where I'd find, as my guidebook touted, its "highly historical" cemetery. It was a typically frigid, wet Irish winter day, and I stopped for a pint in John Kavanagh's, an establishment that touted itself as "the oldest family pub" in Dublin. The intact time-warped Victorian décor suggested that the fourth- or fifth-generation owners were in no rush to change the venerable formula. Kavanagh's, aka "Grave Diggers," is propitiously located at 1 Prospect Square hard by the Catholic cemetery itself. At the bar at my left elbow was a tiny, leprechaun-like man, almost a dwarf. As he opened his mouth to drain his outsized pint of Guinness, the mescaline hit. I swear that his lower jaw came unhinged: It kept expanding and expanding, dropping open like one of those chinless Chinese figurines—"T'ao T'iehs"—that, according to the myth, are capable of devouring the entire universe. Despite the logic-waffling effects of the drug, I did manage one cogent question before I ventured forth again into the teary, drear day. Mr. Kavanagh had announced to the visiting Yank that two film teams, one American and one British, had recently filmed in his pub. I asked, "When they shoot, do they ever get any details wrong?" He smiled, offered me stout "on the house" and explained that, in his grandfather's and Joyce's time, any remaining brew in a customer's glass got dumped into the drain. (He pointed to the slotted metal drain.) Back in the good, if unhealthy, old days there were no sanitary officers to sneak up on a pub owner trying to stretch his profit margin a tad. The contraband liquid dropped into a cellar recycling vat where, by means of a tube, the precious brew—nectar of the gods?—was transported up, up and back into the tap itself. Joyce has Leopold Bloom refer to this skullduggery in "Calypso" as "the old man in the cellar" (4.127). A check of the Internet reveals that the Glasnevin watering hole, "Est. 1833," is still in the family, now owned by a sixth-generation Kavanagh. Oddly, the numbers don't work for me. Twenty years to a generation, right? Maybe a first cousin took over some time in the twentieth century.
Outside again, it was bitterly cold. Glasnevin Cemetery is surrounded by a towering wall that, Mr. Kavanagh informed me, was constructed to deter the body snatchers who plied their trade in the late eighteenth century. I walked against a strong headwind along the tall wall in the direction of the main gate. Ahead of me were three women, all in toneless [End Page 118] black—a bent old crone, a hefty middle-aged woman, and an insubstantial, reed thin teen. I tried to gain on my Dublin graces, but somehow—the stout, the drug, the wind, the cold—I could not. I was locked in an unyielding tableaux, incapable of even gaining a foot on the black-draped trio. So we proceeded in lockstep along that endless blank wall—me, ten paces behind; them, impressively keeping up their inexorable progress that seemed to get us nowhere at all. And so on finally to the gates of Glasnevin, which I entered teeth chattering, freezing. My first need was The Men's. I had to pee so badly I was afraid I wouldn't make it. Once I took my stance, I peed. And peed. And peed. The problem wasn't just the Guinness supersaturated bladder. It was as though, with the backlog of liquid, the opening in my cock wasn't wide enough to give me sufficient drainage. The pump couldn't void the reservoir fast enough. While this uncomfortable drama played out, I started to seep—my penis dribbled, my nose ran, my eyes teared, my asshole seemed to liquefy. I was oozing from every conceivable orifice—dick, butt, nose, eyes, even my ears. I gripped my sphincter muscle tighter and blotted up the snot with my white cotton handkerchief. The others, I just let go. A universal mindlessness gripped me—I was turned inside out, all body, no brain, viscera as on call as an insect's antennae. I'd never had a homosexual experience—Too bourgeois, perhaps? But I would've welcomed any contact then, male or female. The moment passed. I moved outside among the graves and stone markers, the towering mausoleums and rock solid monuments and adamantine family crypts. The absurd vanity of it all—winged angels, weeping heads, baroque stone crosses, etched names desperately bidding for ersatz immortality. There was even one simulated bleeding heart trying to look as though it deserved its place over its owner's corpse. Graphic enough for you? As to the outcome of my specific search: no sighting of brains on any statue's sleeve. Giff and I guessed that Joyce was referring to the wigs that lawyers wore in court and left the phrase un-annotated. If anybody out there has a more accurate answer, please get in touch.
Post cemetery, still freezing but with a reduced outflow of precious bodily fluids, I caught a bus that announced its destination as central Dublin. The bus cruised past row after row of artisans' houses, identically squat one-and-a-half story brick dwellings. Then, from my seat I spotted a striking redheaded colleen. I admit, Mr. Prosecutor, I was tripping. The slim tab of mescaline made me crazed, Sir. And there she was striding up the street, the Irish incarnation of Alighieri's Beatrizia. I stood up, weaved [End Page 119] to the front of the moving vehicle and pleaded, "Please, let me out." The driver obligingly halted mid-block. I staggered onto the pavement. And started after the young woman. This time I could've caught up to her, but impulse commanded, "Hang back." We walked for a block, then one half block more. She veered to her right, descended two or three steps, and without knocking entered a modest row house. And left the door open behind her.
I followed her into a grocery—maybe a shebeen—with semi-bare shelves. The stock: a few flaccid cheese wheels looking as though they'd been run over several times by a lorry; an open tin of colorless, fatigued biscuits, or "crackers" as we call them in the U.S.; lumpy Irish soda breads; perpetual milk, the kind that never sours; and a half-empty freezer of what the islanders call "ice cream" which I knew was made with lard, the dessert my wife Patti has dubbed "raspberry pig fat." The sparse sprinkling of cans looked like they had passed their expiration dates eons before. Illegal booze was nowhere visible, but I could smell liquor in the air. Behind the counter was the beautiful redhead's teenage sister. She wore a mini-skirt, and her leg was up on the counter, the bare thigh wantonly offered for my delectation. The pose called up prime masturbatory touchstones of adolescence, those lurid Mickey Spillaine paperback covers. The illustration invariably featured a blonde or brunette (very few redheads) who had fallen because of a ruffian's untoward advances, causing the skirt to ride up enough to reveal her luscious thigh. The cotton (rayon, nylon, Dacron) material of her skirt drew a beckoning, artist-induced arabesque over the flesh. Garters exposed, too, if you were in luck. Comic, yes, but, at least to the teenage imagination, hot too. Now my eyes ran up her fine real flesh as far as they could go; my eyes craved feelers, long distance touch. She shifted and exposed an inch or two more, more than enough more to incite this male—red flag to the want-to-be bull. The thick silence was interrupted by the younger sister's question: "What does he want?" The older one turned and asked softly, "What do you want?" Tongue-tied and unable to lift my eyes from the sister's magnetizing skin, I drew a blank. It seemed hours passed until, finally, I stuttered out the default request of the British Isles, "I'd like a cup of tea."
The siblings exchanged conspiratorial smiles. Perhaps I'd accidentally uttered the code words, the secret, fortunate "Open sesame!" that made these women understand I wanted to make love to both of them. (But, being desperately cold, I needed the tea first.) I'd just won the board game—the one where you spin the arrow with your index finger, round [End Page 120] and round it goes and, as if trained, it points back to you. No prize yet, yet the signs looked propitious. The miniscule tab of mescaline was working its magic. Just then I heard an offstage noise. More delights heading my way? Three? An almost invisible door opened in a wall behind the counter and she entered, a gorgeous middle-aged, full-breasted redhead. Thought came in bursts, like time-lapse still photos of a rose opening. "The mother," I silently announced to myself. The mature woman looked me over, then directed the question to the twenty-some-year-old. "What does he want?" The answer wafted back in the ambrosial brogue, "He wants a cup of tea." Six syllables, two beats each—Joyce's tripudium, an exultant dance.
At that moment, I was the ever-so-fortunate Dick Whittington turning toward his particular Nirvana, though no mayoral office was on tap here. I was Leopold Bloom's stand-in, the latter-day Jew in Dublin at the instant when the gates of paradise were fated to open. Then, reverie interruptus: Offstage came a king-sized stomping, a grotesque, heavy tread pounding toward the four of us. The human tank shook the walls, set the floorboards quivering as though with trepidation. The secret door was flung open rudely and there he stood—an enormous red-haired man in a navy blue uniform—a soldier, cop, bus conductor? He was handsome but, even at my distance, I saw his Brobdingnagian pores. Spider veins were already weaving their broken webs across his cheeks. His nose seemed a web of blowholes. He spoke loudly, harshly, "What do you want?" Still too high to reply, I was verbally stranded. After all, I had placed myself in the hands of the enchanting Irish trinity. They would have to save me. After a pause, the wife replied musically, "He wants a cup of tea." I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd charged toward me uttering, "Fe, fi, fo, fum." Ripped me to shreds. Stomped me. Instead, he rasped out this: "We only give tea to our own."
Next thing I remember I heard the door shut behind with a barely audible click and I was out on the street. I looked back sheepishly, then, to lift the spell, I followed my handy map, hoofing it south in the direction of Merrion Square. Before I reached the hotel, the city offered me a consolation prize. As I tromped along struggling to make sense out of my afternoon, I glanced up and saw a huge ear poised next to a church steeple. Honest. In keeping with the Jack and the Beanstalk motif, I swear it was a giant ear. Turned out to be the broadcast dish of RTE, formerly Radio Eirean, the national radio network. The dish was poised against the belfry, as though Ireland's tone-deaf, intransigent, often abusive Roman [End Page 121] Catholic Church had finally resolved to listen to what its constituents had to say.
Throughout my stay, I had the feeling I'd been there before. In my mind's eye I had been—as I checked over the details of Thom's street-bystreet Directory to Dublin or window shopped on fashionable Kildare Street or ambled through Phoenix Park beside Joyce's fictional cast of characters. Which brings me to the final drug-induced gift. Shortly before I reached the hotel, it seemed I was walking on a page of Ulysses. I think it was "Lestrygonians," where Bloom strolls along the quay just before he spots the airborne circling pigeons and thinks, "Who will we do it on? I picked the fellow in black. Here goes." Or perhaps I was reliving Stephen's scintillating improvisation about Hamlet—that Shakespeare identified not with the young Prince, as most critics contend, but instead with his father, the cuckolded and murdered King Hamlet. According to Stephen's theory, Shakespeare had scores to settle with Anne Hathaway, his estranged and possibly adulterous wife. To whom the playwright in his will, as Stephen auspiciously commented, left "his secondbest bed."
I returned to London the next day.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Ulysses is an attempt to write a modern epic that captures the simultaneity, confusion, and layered nature of what it's like to live in a small, yet highly complex, early twentieth-century urban setting. Stephen Dedalus and Leopold and Molly Bloom, as well as scores of other fictional characters, play out their separate and linked fates in Dublin, Ireland (with a population of 400,000 in 1900), and, by extension, all cities of the period. After all, from the principals' point of view, this June 16, 1904 is just another day in their lives. As most readers know, Joyce purposefully exiled himself from his hometown, aware that neither his life nor work could flourish in the repressed and impoverished, guilt-ridden, Church-dominated world. Yet, mentally, he never absented himself from the city of his birth and set all his major works in the "dear dirty" (7.921) locale. James Joyce kept a remarkably accurate map of the city in his head, but he also needed to be bombarded with hundreds of specific details. His refresher course on the particulars of Irish life was aided by Josephine Murray, his mother's sister, only half-jokingly termed "the wise woman of Drumcondra" (an inner Dublin district). [End Page 122]
Ellmann notes that "he kept plaguing Aunt Josephine, his only regular Dublin correspondent, for copies of everything to do with Ireland, particularly newspapers but also magazines and books. … He wished he had a map of Dublin and [J. T.] Gilbert's history and some photographs of the country" (236). In Ulysses, Joyce creates, in terms dictated by Aristotle's Poetics, a novel with unity of place (Dublin), unity of time (a single if extended day), and a third category, something that approaches unity of class: Most of the characters whom we meet here are both down-on-theirluck and poor, not surprising in what was then the poorest city in Western Europe.
The cohesiveness of the Irish city itself allows for intriguing narrative and thematic patterns, providing the dabs of glue that hold the massive work together. Throughout the day, certain minor characters recycle themselves: the five down-and-out men carrying the sandwich boards that advertise the stationer's HELYS, including the errant Y who breaks off from the train to munch his lunch; the Vice-Regal parade that passes through the city, evoking anti-imperialist raspberries from Irish Home Rule partisans and frustrated servility from Tom Kernan, a pro-British Protestant; the horse-drawn funeral cortege in "Hades," moving from southeast to northwest across the city to Glasnevin Cemetery as Bloom interacts, for better and worse, with his contemporaries, currying favor, offering opinions, being victimized by anti-Semitism. Other characters resurface periodically within this self-contained ambulatory system. Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell, a testy lunatic who, in his endless perambulations through Dublin town insists on walking outside of every lamppost, recycles this path with a blast of venom at the passersby. And the blind stripling piano tuner taps his dark way, moving his cane back and forth as he navigates the city. After helping the stripling cross a busy street, Bloom thinks appositely, "Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones" (8.1110–11). By this point, we understand that the blind man resembles all of the novel's characters, each with only a partial understanding of his or her existence—like all of us.
The relatively small urban center is used to maximize the Blooms' personal drama. The claustrophobia induced by the centripetal city forces Leopold Bloom to be agonizingly aware of the presence of one Blazes Boylan, Molly's lover-elect. Throughout the day, Bloom is plagued by a number of near-collisions with the usurper of his wife's amorous favors. In a harrowing scene outside the National Library, Bloom races to avoid [End Page 123] being spotted by his rival, and that sprint leads to Leopold's out-of-breath, exquisitely wrenching utterance, "My heart!" (8.1179). It is breaking—as he counts down the hours to his wife's 4 p.m. assignation with the "worst man in Dublin" (6.202). To Bloom, the lover-designate seems to be everywhere: In the hearse, Simon Dedalus spots Boylan "the white disc of a straw hat flashed reply: spruce figure: passed." (6.198–99). In "Lestrygonians," Bloom starts a thought: "They are Boyl: McGlade's men" (8.130). He corrects himself, realizing that the poorly paid men schlepping the sandwich board ads around the city are McGlade's crew and are not in the employ his rival Blazes Boylan. Later, sitting in the restaurant of the Ormond Hotel in "Sirens," Bloom hears, but doesn't see, Boylan in the bar where he characteristically flirts with the bronze-haired bar maid, Lydia Douce, whom he manages to persuade to show off the garter embellishing her thigh. When she releases the garter, it goes "smack." Joyce writes, "She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smack-warm against her smackable woman's warmhosed thigh" (11.413–14).
Ulysses remained startlingly realistic for those who knew the setting intimately. In Paris in 1965, I met an older ex-pat Irish writer who provided me with his unexpected appraisal of the novel. One night in a bar, I innocently said to Brendan X., "You're Irish. You must love Ulysses." He spewed more of his Guinness than he wanted across the bar, spun in my direction and furiously barked, "Love it? I hate the fucking book." Crushed, I bumbled out, "How can you say that? It's maybe the greatest novel ever written. There's nothing like it in any language!" "I hate it," he continued, swigging the dregs of his brew, "because it's so goddamn real. I can't read more than two sentences before it takes me back to that poor, repressed, depressed, Church-ridden, one-pony town." This reminds me of Samuel Beckett's line to a friend during World War II: "I'd rather be in Paris at war than Dublin at peace." [End Page 124]
Robert J. Seidman is a novelist, Emmy-winning screenwriter, and literary critic. Moments Captured was published in the United States by the Overlook Press in fall 2012 and in England by Duckworth Press in spring 2014. The work is based loosely on the work and life of the pioneering nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Seidman's One Smart Indian, a novel about a Northern Cheyenne set in mid-nineteenthcentury America, was published by the Overlook Press in 1980. Seidman's screenwriting credits include the Emmy-nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, a 90-minute documentary. He cowrote Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed, a 90-minute docudrama about Mead's life, intellectual contributions, and the creation of her legend. Seidman also wrote In Our Time, the final program of a nine-part series ambitiously titled Art of the Western World. The hour-long film focuses on American and European art after World War II. Robert Seidman is co-writer of Waiting for Beckett, a documentary on the work and life of the Nobel Prize–winning author. Seidman wrote Wallace Stevens: Man Made Out of Words, an hour-long documentary about Stevens's poetry and life. Seidman was co-writer of Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life. This film won the Writers' Guild Award for Best Documentary, a George Foster Peabody Award, and the Emmy for Best Documentary in 2007. His latest documentary is Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, nationally broadcast on PBS in 2019. With Don Gifford, Robert Seidman is coauthor of Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses (University of California Press, 1988). The annotation was first published by E. P. Dutton in 1974.