February 12, 2016
What Would Leopold Bloom Do? Volume 5
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]!
Here are our next questions.
More important skill: perfect spelling or being able to knock out a horse with one punch? —Copy Editing on the Cattle Drive
Oxen in the Sun is Joyce’s history of English literature through a tour of the various styles that defined the English language novel. This has always been the most difficult episode for me because, unlike Proteus (which quickly announces its difference by settling into Stephens brain) or even Circe and Penelope (both of which announce their difference through their format) Oxen in the Sun initially looks familiar, but most of it is written in now obsolete grammar. (Or maybe it’s the most difficult because it’s a bunch of posturing medical students drinking in a HOSPITAL and have to be shushed by a nurse because someone is trying to HAVE A FUCKING BABY like two doors down.) The most important idea, I think, that Joyce displays in this episode is not something specific about the history of English grammar, but that grammar itself evolves and changes. Grammar is not, nor has it ever been, an absolute system of laws. Grammar is not physics. It is, always was, and ever shall be, a system of agreements that facilitates communication. Commas go where they go and clauses go where they go because everyone agreeing on comma placement makes it easier for everyone to communicate.
Spelling, just like grammar, is an agreement that helps us communicate. As with grammar, the value of consistent spelling is not the consistency itself, but the ease of communication it facilitates. The gole of spelling is to communikate. As long as yor idea is undrstod, the spelling ov it is secondary. Someone will still rescue you from the deserted island if, in your dehyrdated, sun-baked, addled state, you accidentally spell “Helf” in rocks on the beach. Perfect spelling is really only valuable at spelling bees and, unless things have really changed, there are very few spelling bee-based fatalities. (Or at least spelling-bee related fatalities that would have been averted by perfect spelling.)
But if you need to knock out a horse, you better not miss. I mean, punching a horse isn’t like throwing a hand grenade.
Should I get a well-paying but boring job or take off and explore the earth? —Indecisive in Indiana
Bloom is able to travel the world in his imagination, just looking through a shop window. He sees the foreign goods for sale and the orange groves and olive trees where they came from. The human imagination is capable of amazing feats of travel and exploration.
That said, the substance for that imagination has to come from somewhere. Bloom is mostly a stay-at-home, kind of guy, but we know lived in Gibraltar and we know he reads and we know he is curious and we know he respects and values those who are smarter than he is. (At one point, he even imagines some kind of mutual education arrangement with Stephen.)
The key to your question, I think, is how you plan to build that substance of imagination. Will you use the money from your boring job to read great books (like Ulysses), talk to interesting people, taste weird foods, travel on your vacations, and experience art? Or, will you be so worn down by its drudgery that all of your leisure time is spent binge-watching Netflix and promising yourself that next weekend, for sure, you’ll actually go to a museum? Promises to ourselves are the easiest to break.
It’s funny, how we decide what is easier and what is harder. With all the planning, all the risks, all the difficult decisions, all the different visa regulations in different countries, all the shots, all the languages, “take off and explore the world” always feels like the more difficult option. And it always feels like the riskier option. But humans, generally, aren’t very good at drudgery. We can do it, sure, but it takes its toll. Too often, all that money we make in those boring but well-paying jobs that we’re supposed to use for fun and enlightenment is eaten by damage control. Our weekends aren’t for leisure; they’re for repair. If your goal is to generate that substance of imagination, to live that full life, the boring well-paying job that pays enough for museum memberships and exotic vacations, might be the most difficult way to achieve it.
Actually, you know, what. Fuck all the nuance. Your mom is around to tell you to take the boring job and make money. I’m going to tell you to live the kind of life that makes for a bestselling memoir.
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.