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Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Bishop Plagiarizes

Yet another Irishman has had it with over-the-top, commercialized Bloomsday. I don't begrudge him, though I think he should give it a try next year.

He had something else to do that day anyway. He describes attending a wedding and finding that he couldn't escape Bloomsday even there:

Imagine then my surprise when the bishop who was officiating, the Right Reverend Simon Barrington-Ward, inquired at the beginning of his address whether we were all aware what day it was. He then proceeded to devote virtually the whole of his message to James Joyce and to Ulysses.

But the writer finds the sermon marvelous; the bishop returns the writer to a real understanding of the novel:

... [H]e went straight to the heart of the matter, which is love.

And the love he discovered in Joyce was entirely uplifting. I was inspired by the way he renewed the familiar story.

Despite the brothel scene, the infidelity of Molly, the sexuality of much of the stream of consciousness in the book, the reputation it has for what was thought of as 'filth' when it was first published in Paris and banned from entry into Britain, Joyce's message was about love in its fullest, richest and most life-enhancing sense.

I wanted Joycean academics -- they must be more numerous than those in any other discipline or studying any other writer -- to absorb the unexpected message from the bishop.

He had been travelling and reading and it was clear that he had absorbed the whole text sufficiently to preach from it, applying good sermon practice and describing himself as "being borne along not just by a stream, but by a positive River Liffey of consciousness, sweeping me off my mental feet until I was all but drowning."

But the bishop did not drown. He had his wits about him and travelled, first, into Stephen's mind when he is remembering the question he wanted to ask his mother, about "the Word known to all men", second to the National Library to hear the question, "What is the word known to all men?, thirdly, to Bloom's uncertain and gentle expression, in response to the appalling 'Citizen', of belief: "But it's no use. Force, hatred, history and all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life." Someone intervenes, "What?" "Love," Bloom blurts out. "I mean the opposite of hatred." Embarrassed by what he has tried to put into words, Bloom leaves the public house.

These are utterances of the word known to all men, the word known to all the book and throughout the whole book, "love in its various forms, sexual, parental, filial, brotherly, and by extension social."

And on that basis a nuptial message of great power and single-minded purpose was delivered.

I thought of it as an epiphany, a point of change, a watershed, persuading me to think again about Joyce's power and purpose as a writer and not to let tourism, academic jargon, soulless analysis interfere with a message from the heart.

The writer wants Joycean academics to learn from the bishop, but it looks as though the bishop learned all too closely from the academics.

Not only is the phrase from the bishop's sermon that the writer quotes -- "love in its various forms, sexual, parental, filial, brotherly, and by extension social" -- taken verbatim from the best-known Joyce scholar of them all, Richard Ellmann; the bishop's entire argument about the centrality of love in Ulysses derives from Ellmann.

UD would ask the writer to read the following, written in 1986, and then reconsider his dismissal of academics:

If we consider the book as a whole, the theme of love will be seen to pervade it. "Love's bitter mystery," quoted repeatedly from Yeats's poem "Who Goes With Fergus?," is something Stephen remembers having sung to his mother on her deathbed. It is something that Buck Mulligan, though he is the first to quote the poem, cannot understand, being himself the spirit that always denies. It is alien also to the experience of the womanizer Blazes Boylan. But Bloom does understand it, and so does Molly Bloom, and both cherish moments of affection from their lives together as crucial points from which to judge later events.

Joyce is of course wary of stating distinctly - as Virgil does to Dante in The Divine Comedy - his conception of love as the omnipresent force in the universe. As a young man he had the greatest difficulty in telling Nora Barnacle that he loved her, and Molly Bloom, on the subject of Bloom's declaration of love during their courtship, remembers, "I had the devils own job to get it out of him." But allowing for the obliquity necessary to preserve the novel from didacticism or sentimentality, we perceive that the word known to the whole book is love in its various forms, sexual, parental, filial, brotherly and, by extension, social.

It is so glossed by Stephen, Bloom and Molly. At the end the characters, discombobulated in the brothel, return to their habitual identities. Ulysses revolts against history as hatred and violence, and speaks in its most intense moments of their opposite. It does so with the keenest sense of how love can degenerate into creamy dreaminess or into brutishness, can claim to be all soul or all body, when only in the union of both can it truly exist.

Like other comedies, Ulysses ends in a vision of reconciliation rather than of sundering. Affection between human beings, however transitory, however qualified, is the closest we can come to paradise. That it loses its force does not invalidate it. Dante says that Adam and Eve's paradise lasted only six hours, and Proust reminds us that the only true paradise is the one we have lost. But the word known to all men has been defined and affirmed, regardless of whether or not it is subject to diminution.