Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ulysses Archaeology

June 16th is Bloomsday, a day in 1904 Dublin that forms the subject of Ulysses by James Joyce. Philadelphia's Rosenbach Library and Museum, home of a Ulysses manuscript, celebrates every year with a public reading. Nothing can be better than a Spring day in Center City listening to readers like Ken Kalfus and his wife Inga Saffron (architectural critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and bloger Skyline Online) reading from Ulysses. Even at the risks of sounding pompous, Ulysses is one of my favorite books. In its last issue, the rock magazine SPIN placed derision on "People who get excited for Bloomsday. [They] Are asking to be beaten up" (June 2009, p. 34). Ironically, SPIN magazine's feature article is on Jack White's new band, the Dead Weather. I cannot think of a more Joycean figure in contemporary music than Jack White. But that's another story. The editors of SPIN need to re-read rock historian Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces (1989), where James Joyce is no stranger.

This year, I celebrate Bloomsday through archaeology. I follow the footsteps of Hugh Kenner
, who first revealed how the archaeology of Greece deflated the fantasy that western culture had created from literary epics (The Pound Era, Berkeley, 1971, pp. 44-49). Archaeology turned attention to the quotidian banalities, trash, chaos, rubble walls. Both Ezra Pound and Joyce were followers of this discipline, which heavily contributed to their revolutionary vision. Ulysses is difficult to read because Joyce does not take for granted the subjective voice. Archaeology is similarly irrational because cultural authorship is not evident in material culture. Our data is the day-to-day, the stinking parts of life, the smell of liver cooked by Leopold Bloom.

This Bloomsday, I enjoyed Colum McCann's editorial describing his personal relationship to Ulysses, "But Always Meeting Ourselves," New York Times (June 16, 2009), p. A19.
He quotes Vladimir Nabokov on the purpose of writing: "to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might pu on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade."

If good writing elevates the stinking day-to-day, good archaeology discovers its fragrance. Ulysses should be mandatory archaeological reading. I celebrate this Bloomsbury by reading 2 pages of Ulysses every day for the rest of the year, until Bloomsday 2010.

1 comment:

Inga Saffron said...

Thanks for the nice shout out and the musings about Ulysses. I love this sentence: "Our data is the day-to-day, the stinking parts of life, the smell of liver cooked by Leopold Bloom."

Best wishes, Inga, one of the Jews who used to reside in Dublin

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States