June 16, 2015

What Would Leopold Bloom Do?



Joyce’s drawing of Leopold Bloom.

Complex and confusing, filled with words you don’t know and people you don’t understand, life is even more difficult to navigate than Ulysses, but luckily, we have Ulysses to help us. When we say that literature enriches our lives, we don’t think of that enrichment being as direct as an advice column, but why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t we be able to apply our reading efforts to our living efforts? Expansive, generous, humanist, funny, and, of course, difficult, Ulysses can provide answers to the questions kicked up like so much dust as we traverse our day. OK, so maybe that is a bit much but one could do worse than get advice drawn from one of literature’s greatest works and even if the answers may not help your life directly, they’ll certainly help you’re reading. Think of it as a very specific school of bibliotherapy. Ask your questions, pose your problems, present your challenges, and I will dispense advice drawn from Joyce’s masterpiece. Just like Ulysses the advice will be serious, silly, and, of course, dirty as required, but always thoughtful and honest.

Our guide is Leopold Bloom (also known as Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder). Here are our first few questions.

What can an early 20th-century novel about Dublin teach me, a modern Brooklyn resident, about how to live in today’s fast-paced urban environment?-Bookish in Brooklyn

Well, modern Brooklynite, I could point out how much of the book is spent coping with travel across a complex metropolis, going back and forth to the library, and hanging out in bars that don’t have signs above the doors, but, I think Leopold Bloom the reformer would want me to aim higher. What can Ulysses teach you? The exact same things an ancient Greek poem about a really terrible sailor can teach an early 20th century Irish intellectual about life in Dublin. When we describe a book as “timeless,” we’re saying that the story has a flexibility that grants it relevance to whoever reads it. There is something in the words that is always applicable. In terms of Ulysses and Brooklyn, the early 20th century had disruptive technologies, shifting social mores, volatile politics, a rapidly changing urban environment, and a heavily stratified and hierarchical economy. Also, reactionary politics, racism, and misogyny. For all our progress, and there has been progress, the early 21st century has plenty of similarities with the early 20th century.  And how did Bloom respond to all of that? Curiosity. Honesty. Empathy. Pretty sure the world would be a lot better place if people practiced more of those three things wherever and whenever they live. Even in Brooklyn today.

What’s better, reading it with the annotations or without?-Annotations or No Annotations in Atlanta 

The very first readers of Ulysses (the very first readers of anything) read it without annotations, so I think the first read is always best done without annotations. Yes, there will be tons of stuff you don’t get but that’s fine. As I’ve said many times before, unless you actually have a pop quiz the next day, you don’t have a pop quiz the next day, so there really is no downside to not getting the references. Even on subsequent reads, especially with such an allusive and referential book like Ulysses, annotations should only be used to supplement or deepen your reading. They are there to sate your curiosity, not give fundamental answers. Rather than having an annotated edition open alongside you, keep it handy for when you want to check on something specific.

Is there reason to be offended by the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality of the book or should it evoke synteresis? Short of that, where can I get some??–Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk in Ybor City

“Offended” is a very weird concept, especially in today’s hot take, social media, internet troll, don’t-read-the comments-world. One one hand, “offended” is an expression of moral limits, a drawing of lines in the sand between what can and cannot be said, while at other times, it’s a lot of sound and fury over nothing, so oddly, what does and does not offend you, or even what you do or do not think could be offensive to other people constitutes, like, 90% of your online identity. But it’s not like Reddit invented offensive comments. Despite a number of aspersions cast his way, Bloom is only truly offended once; by a racist, xenophobic, bigoted rant by a drunk, myopic, nationalist. The difference between the boys making fun of how he walks, the rolled eyes, the head nods and gestures, hell, even the fondling of his wife, that Bloom bore with quiet dignity and the rant of the Citizen is the distance to violence. Though lots of people make fun of Bloom, you can’t really connect their words and actions with actually hurting him, whereas it’s not a long drive from the The Citizen’s Ireland-for-the-Irish rant to, well, pretty much every great atrocity humanity has ever committed. So Bloom, in his way, stood up for himself. Since it’s a long walk from contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality to an act of violence (unless, of course, you are actually Jesus Christ or actually a piece of bread) then it’s the word you used that isn’t “offended.” As you to your second question: Now that Bloomsday is a big thing, obviously, you can get that shit all over Dublin, and, of course, you can order it online, but, weirdly, there’s a little shop in Carroll Gardens that sells it. Not Park Slope. I know, right..


Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.