June 16, 2016
What Would Leopold Bloom Do? Volume 10: Bloomsday Edition
by Josh Cook
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!
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.
Ask your questions, pose your problems, present your challenges, and Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder and resident Joyce expert, 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. You can send your inquiries to Josh at [email protected]!
This week, in honor of WWLBD’s first birthday and the world’s 112th Bloomsday, Josh will be offering advice on How to be Friends with an Artist.
Happy Bloomsday! And happy birthday to this column! Since this marks the one-year anniversary of What Would Leopold Bloom Do? I’ve decided to celebrate by tackling an idea that’s been kicking around my head while I’ve been answering the various questions.
Stephen Dedalus is moody and arrogant, emotionally stunted by the hellfire Catholicism of his childhood, self-conscious, sensitive, impulsive. He’s bad with money, won’t play nice with people he doesn’t respect, and is afraid of women. He is going through an artistic adolescence that visits upon him most of the infuriating bullshit of regular adolescence, plus the level of arrogance needed to be an artist. And he is afraid of dogs.
But he’s also brilliant. He speaks about four languages. He absorbs the world and can reframe it as an image or a reference. His critical mind is agile and original. He understands music, art, Shakespeare, classical literature, and poetry. He’s ambitious and learning how to adapt his goals to his talent. Some of the literati already recognize his potential. He’s also kind and patient with a struggling student. He’ll throw back a few pints if he can scratch up the cash for it and stand a round even if he can’t. Stephen can be difficult to spend time with, but there’s a lot to be gained from time spent with him.
Unfortunately for Stephen, there really isn’t anybody who knows how to be his friend. Though Bloom could be a mentor, neither sees the other as friend material. There’s Cranly, but it’s hard to know how close he and Stephen were and whether their friendship extended beyond repressed sexual attraction, and, besides, he is only in Ulysses as an oblique reference. The closest thing to a real friend is Buck Mulligan, and somewhat surprisingly, the jesting doctor does a lot of things right.
So, through what Mulligan gets right, and drawn from Stephen, Bloom (who has a touch of the artist to him), Molly, Martin Cunningham, and the rest of Ulysses, this is: How to be Friends with an Artist.
1. Let Us Have Art Time
Everyone needs sweatpants time. Screwing around on the internet time, working out time, reading time. General alone time. Artists also need art time. So, when you invite us out and we say we can’t because we’re working, you say, “OK, call me later if you want.” Then, don’t be insulted if you get the “I’m working” answer a few times in a row. Easy.
Of course, art time isn’t as easy to schedule as sweatpants time. It encroaches. It insists. Deadlines are sprung. Neglected deadlines invade. Often, art time is most urgent after we’ve decided to try having a social life. We drop out of the conversation, leave early, bail on the party, and make ridiculous scenes trying to find a scrap of fucking paper to write on. Just let us. Let us drop out of the conversation, leave early, isolate ourselves, and cancel dates. Don’t drag us back into the conversation or harangue us for abandoning an event. Know that we don’t want to be socially unreliable, but that sometimes the mechanisms of art can’t be paused.
2. Be Patient with Our Nonsense
This one Buck Mulligan does well. Stephen manages to be insulted by an off-hand comment Mulligan made—one of the least offensive things he says in the whole fucking book. It is petty nonsense. But Mulligan just kind of rolls with it. He has every right to be furious with Stephen, but he just points out the nonsense and moves on.
When the bulk of your consciousness is invested in the right color blue, or the right chord, or the precise fraction of an inch of cardboard that needs to be shaved off, or when it feels like the single most important choice you will make in your life is between “very,” “really,” or “fucking,” the daily stresses of life can have weird, powerful, baffling expressions. There can be anger. There can be distance. There can be covering the walls of the apartment with print-outs because we know there’s a structural flaw in the book and we need to see the whole thing to find it. There can be insomnia. There can be reckless hedonism. Imagine if you spent most of your life hangry, except instead of being hangry in your stomach, you were hangry in your mind. Like Mulligan, when you’re faced with one of us in a situation like this, you don’t necessarily need to do anything. Just be patient. Let us work through our frustration. Maybe let us vent at you a bit or just give us some space. We’ll get over it and return to the world of reason and decency. Eventually.
Oh! And try to remember the relentless rejection that plagues any artist trying to make a living through art. That’ll fray the nerves a bit.
3. Be Up for Our Shenanigans
We’ve come a long way from the idea of mythical muses visiting artists with divine inspiration. As a culture, we are better at recognizing and valuing the hard work of art the craft of art, the tedium of art, the boring stuff that all artists need to do to make our works as perfect as possible. But there are still flashes of inspiration, there are still moments of artistic ecstasy, there are still episodes of manic energy. And sometimes those moments lead to or require shenanigans. Every now and again, be totally up them.
Sometimes that just means listening as we read a draft or somehow acting out a scene we’re trying to get right, or listening to us as we talk out an idea. But it can also mean getting in the car and driving to the closest K-mart in the name of research or traveling out of the light pollution of the city to really look at the stars or staying up all night going through endless permutations of dialog. Sometimes, “Can you help me with some research?” turns into a weekend adventure. Sometimes, “I just need you to hold this for a second” turns into you modeling for a reinterpretation of the “still life as life still.” Sometimes, “Can I run this by you?” turns into a nasty hangover at work the next day. We know sometimes, maybe even most of the time, you’ll have to decline our adventures, but every now and again, your being up for our shenanigans will do a great service to us and, probably, be a ton of fun for you.
4. Call Us on Our Bullshit
I do realize that I’ve just counseled patience, but the line between art and bullshit can be thin, and the line between artistically-driven nonsense and artistically-driven bullshit thinner still. And sometimes that bullshit is dangerous. Perhaps the greatest service you can provide artists as a friend is to call us on our bullshit.
But how do you tell the difference between the nonsense and the bullshit? Easy, nonsense can be fixed. If you come home to a kitchen full of dirty pots and pans because your artist roommate had to “cook out his feelings,” that can be fixed by cleaning the kitchen and apologizing for making a mess, and is, thus, nonsense. Sure, you might have to order take-out that night, but no permanent harm is done. Smashing all your plates against the floor in a fit of artistic rage leaving your apartment covered in shards of broken glass and ceramics—though compelling cinema—is bullshit.
You could also just ask. Questions with difficult answers are kinda what we’re into. “Is this nonsense or is this bullshit?” “How much of that bourbon is for a ‘fluid consciousness’ and how much is because you’re scared your novel won’t work?” “Can you make what you’re about to do right?”
You can still forgive us for our bullshit, still help us clean up all those broken dishes, still get us an Uber, still be our friends, but we’ll be better friends—and artists—when you call us on it before before forgiving us. And we’ll make sure only good things happen to the characters we base on you. (Or at least narratively compelling bad things. Sorry.)
5. Please Go to My Readings. Please.
Did I say calling out our bullshit is the greatest friendship service you can provide me as an artist? Because really, it’s going to my readings. Please.
I visited a friend’s high school classroom last year. In her debrief with her students, she asked them if there was anything surprising about the visit. One of her students said he was surprised my shoulders were so broad. (In his defense, I’m basically a cube with legs. Which are also basically cubes.) It’s clear in his mind a “writer” looks like Stephen Dedalus; thin, wan, a touch disheveled. It is amazing how entrenched some of our cultural images of “the artist” are, but I think that character is changing, mostly for the better. We’re moving away from the Wertherian tortured loner, the eccentric genius, the enfant terrible, toward something more humane and more realistic that recognizes both the hard, often tedious, work of making art and the mysterious moments of artistic creation that make art valuable to everyone.
Art is powerful in our lives and in our cultures because some people can make it in ways that speak to the broader population and some people can’t, just like how sports are powerful in our lives and in our cultures because some people can dunk and some people can’t. Of course, it’s good to have a lot in common with your friends, but difference, despite all the nonsense and bullshit streaming off us like comet tails, is an opportunity for everyone to grow.
One of Ulysses’s lingering questions is “Where does Stephen go when he leaves the Blooms’ house?” When I’m in a bad mood, I tell myself that he crashes out in a gutter before stumbling back to Martello Tower during the light of day and eventually either drifting back to his family or throwing himself into soulless academia. When I’m in a good mood, I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter where he goes that night, because he eventually writes Finnegans Wake. Regardless of my mood, the second possibility becomes much more likely if Stephen can find a real friend. Maybe, after this column, you’ll be that friend.
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.