By Brittany Harwood
For six months of my life, James Joyce occupied my mind and turned me into a puppet on his tangled strings. With his obsession for the banal, the basic, the primitive pre-thought, how could his jumbled words and graceful hacking keep from my head? When I asked my English teacher last fall what class I should take, she responded, “You must take Ulysses.” She had been ruminating in the cave of her office for many weeks, poring over six-year-old folders from the last time she had taught the class, waiting for the day the teachers submitted their course requests for the following semester. When she brought it out the school released a general gasp; again? They seemed to say, eyeing her classroom as they walked by.
Only five students took the class, we lonely five who waited in fear through the first semester while our teacher distractedly taught her usual classes and pulled us aside for portentous talks. Finally second semester started and so did we; we stumbled down the beach with Stephen in “Telemachus,” groping words like blind men, pronouncing them out loud, coming to find them beautiful in their mutant forms. Joyce’s incomprehensible rhythm began to resonate in my speech, artifices so ugly and human. Bloom’s childlike inquiries into the lowest of human functions became contagious, until daily life inspired me to bouts of playful Joycean musing.
The sickness started to affect our class: Ulysses was everywhere. It turned every minute matter into a heroic quest. Our class argued over whether a pigeon was a grey dove, or a dove was too pure to be of the same race as a pigeon. We discussed sadomasochism as though it was classical music, which in our minds it was. We laughed spastically around non-Ulysses readers when situations reminded us of the text, which most did. One day, a classmate came into the room with a childhood book of his; “This book was my favorite,” he said woefully. “I had no idea I was influenced from such a young age. It’s called ‘Leo the Late Bloomer.’”
Our class planned to read “Penelope” on Bloom’s Day, to culminate our reading and celebrate the centennial of a famously uneventful day. I missed the conclusion, however, to leave for France, excited to calm my mind from the obsessive pitch it had taken because of Joyce. I picked up another book on the airplane and tried reading unsuccessfully as my mind drifted to the seagreen ocean beneath our plane, vomitous clouds hanging above. While in Paris I found myself reading Stein and Hemingway, wandering the streets like an expatriate looking for Eliot to congratulate and Pound to execrate. I filled journals with my manic observations of Roma Gypsies in the street grime, the smell of each fish on Rue Moufetard, and the deformities of men following prostitutes nightly in the recesses of Chatelet.
To save myself, I sought new texts, something strong and sentimental like Dickens, and instead watched the lines of prose swirl into a blur on the page in front of me and form themselves into broken words in my mind: Omphalos. Paris expat. No reason to. Unfinished naught naught woman in bed spoken hasn’t. Ulysses… Ulysses! The residue of Joyce was in my mind. Why was he hidden under every cover, waiting in every bathroom? Why couldn’t complete any daily ritual without chanting my own thoughts, rhythmic and intoxicating?
I had discovered the way in which Ulysses succeeded. Joyce wrote a modern epic, centered on a modern hero, the archetype of an average man. His work is monumental because it captures the heroism of the human, the banal. In that way, Ulysses applies to everything: every experience, common or uncommon, rings of the book, because universal humanity is at its core. I needed, it seemed, to accept the awareness Joyce had forced on me, the consciousness of my own shames and revels, and move on. But first, I needed the purgation of Molly’s flood of words. I found a bookstore and hid in the back, cradling an English copy of Ulysses cradled in my hands, and read “Penelope,” furiously. As I neared the last lines, a clerk discovered me and demanded that I buy the book. I looked up at her, with relief and gratitude. I replied “yes I said yes I will yes.”
By Brittany Harwood
The Roeper School