Bloomsday, Spanish Lovers and Christopher Hitchens

In honor of Bloomsday, I will share a funny story about Ulysses. This is something that happened to me in real life. Some time ago I happened to take an English Literature course. I was an exchange student in a non-English-speaking country, needed some extra credit and this was one of the few English-taught courses available. So I took it and had the time of my life rediscovering my love for literature. Truth be told, I would have been thrilled just to discuss my favorite writers with someone, anyone (Bueller?), but the fact that the professor was adorable didn't hurt at all. He was this old feminist guy with the loveliest of British accents (he wasn't British) and I was in awe of him up to the very end of that course. 

One of the last classes was on Ulysses. The Adorable Prof started by reading aloud the first chapter and singing "Introibo ad altare Dei" (as an aside, I can't read that phrase anymore without singing it to myself). He ended the class by reading from the last chapter. Considering his feminism, I suspect he didn't want to shy away from giving us the female perspective after he had interpreted Stephen and Mulligan, so he went all out with Molly's soliloquy. Which meant that (a) he tried to change his voice to sound like a woman and (b) he mimicked that orgasm right along with Molly. (a) was a cringe-worthy failure, (b) was a hilarious cringe-worthy failure. Our class ended with Adorable Prof™ shouting "YES, I WILL, YESSS!!". If you think you've never experienced mocking so far in your life, try being an old man faking a female orgasm in front of a class of undergrads. It was not pretty.

He could just show us this. Molly's soliloquy as a stichgasm. Source..

But then something else happened, which added to both the failure and the hilarity of the entire situation. The Adorable Prof explained what he thought was reading. He said that the book ends with Molly, the unfaithful wife, fantasizing about her Spanish lover. (He even extolled the talents of Spanish men in this respect, but the less said about that, the better.) Now, as far as I remembered, the whole point of it was that Molly, unfaithful though she is, thinks back at the moment her (future) husband proposed to her and they had sex for the first time. (A moment Leopold himself remembers earlier in the book.) 

I fretted a lot whether to tell the Adorable Prof™ that he was wrong, that Molly was thinking of Leopold at the end, not of a Latino lover. But how can you tell your prof, as an undergrad, "I read Ulysses and you are wrong!" without sounding ΓΌber-snotty? Hint: you can't. (I suspect I sound snotty even writing this. Don't tell me if I'm right, illusions are all I have.) So I just kept quiet and wondered how this awesome person missed something I thought was very important in the book. It was a weird mistake.

I was reminded of this mistake recently, by reading an article of Christopher Hitchens': Joyce in Bloom. It is a nice and definitely entertaining piece. But, throughout it, Hitchens stresses Joyce's "infantilism and arrested development," as exhibited in the dirty jokes that abound in Ulysses. As exhibited in the reason Joyce chose June 16, 1904 to set his book. You see, we think it was Joyce's first proper date with Nora, his future wife. But in thinking that we ignore Joyce's dirty mind. Hitch does not and highlights the 'real' reason for Joyce's choice: "A century later, the literary world will celebrate the hundredth 'Bloomsday,' in honor of the very first time the great James Joyce received a handjob from a woman who was not a prostitute." [i.e. from Nora]

Joyce in his university days. Yeah, I can see the dirty mind vibe. Source: My Daguerreotype Boyfriend

Why did this catch my attention and what does it have to do with the Adorable Prof™ and his gaffe? I think Hitchens' idea about Bloomsday and the prof's idea about the last part of Molly's soliloquy come from the same place. And that place is called "ignoring that sex and mush sentimental value can co-exist and that they in fact do for Joyce." See, we are not celebrating a handjob on Bloomsday any more than we are celebrating Joyce's first date with a woman he loved. And Molly's soliloquy is an exploration of feelings just as much as it is an exploration of female sexuality. Which is why she doesn't need to think of a Spanish lover at the very end. Which is why the ending is bittersweet, if we consider Leopold and Molly's relationship as depicted in the rest of the book. 

And to me that is why Joyce rocks. Because he showed us that deep feelings and ideas can, and do, co-exist with sex and sexual images (and with other normal functions of the human body too). What's striking about Ulysses is that it shows how putting these things together doesn't take away from their value and function on their own. Dirty jokes can still be dirty. Touching feelings can still touch us. 

And with this bit of pontification, I'm off to read the book. If you want, you can keep up with my progress here :)

1 comment:

  1. "A century later, the literary world will celebrate the hundredth 'Bloomsday,' in honor of the very first time the great James Joyce received a handjob from a woman who was not a prostitute."

    HAHA Love it!