April 4, 2016
What Would Leopold Bloom Do? Volume 8
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’s our next question.
“How do I know I’m ready to move on from a city?” —Natalie, Who I’m Just Going to Assume is Talking about New York City
It’s not weird that a book as long as Ulysses touches on so many themes and topics. An entity composed of that many words is bound to wind its way through a fair portion of human life. But what makes Ulysses particularly impressive in the world of storytelling is how it’s able to glance at the topics it doesn’t directly approach. Leaving a city is one of those glanced at topics.
Over the course of the plot of Ulysses, no one ever leaves Dublin. But we know Verag, Leopold’s father left his home town to immigrate to Dublin. We know Bloom lived in Gibraltar for a time (as that is where he met Molly), though, since he returned, it can’t be said that he left Dublin. Milly also left Dublin, but her departure is more of a “leaving home to strike out on her own” than it is “moving on from a city.” She is essentially doing a paid internship at a photographer’s (and potentially one of Buck Mulligan’s friends as well.) store. Really the only character who comes close to “moving on,” is Stephen who leaves Dublin for Paris before Ulysses begins, and I think, leaves Dublin again some time after Ulysses ends.
Cities are more than just arrangements of streets festooned with collections of people and buildings. They embody, express, even radiate big cultural ideas. They exude their own history. They enforce their own mores through social entropy. The rituals, the celebrations, even the accents all speak to shared identities and histories. To some, those histories, identities, and ideas are invigorating and inspiring. Whether growing up with them or discovering them, something about what makes Dublin Dublin, Boston Boston and Paris Paris energizes some people.
But all cultures cast shadows. They have victims. They exclude. There are punishments for breaking those mores and forgetting those rituals. For Stephen’s Dublin, those shadows include the Catholic Church, English rule and the absorption of Irish heritage into British colonialism, and the fetishization of that heritage and assumed role of the family within it. Or, to put this another way, Dublin’s shadows were the exact concepts Stephen felt were holding him back artistically. One can cope with those ideas. One can hide from those ideas. One can cultivate their own community within the city opposed to those ideas. If the city is big enough, one can often find niches of difference, but one can never truly escape them.
For some, Bloom for example, those shadows aren’t much of a problem. As a Jew in Dublin with no real family to speak of, he is outside the ideas that so oppress Stephen. He is not burdened by hell fire Catholicism, or a family that doesn’t understand him, or, as the child of an immigrant, a few centuries of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
The challenge of extending this particular idea outward from Ulysses is that very few of us are as perfectly at odds with our city as Stephen (and likely Joyce himself) is with Dublin. Our relationships with cities tend to erode or develop slowly, like the building of stalagmites and the carving of rivers until we wake up one day and realize we should have left six months ago or we wake up one day and realize we are home.
How do you know the difference, especially when you are not at such violent odds as Stephen is? I retreat to one of the more general and more central ideas in Ulysses: listen to you own thoughts. What do you hear in your thoughts in the course of your daily life? Do you hear what makes you happy or do you hear what makes you sad? If you sometimes find yourself wishing for an escape, then I would say that’s just part of living in a city. If most of the time your thoughts drift to the worst of your city, if you think of mostly the shadows, if every time being grateful is followed being anxious, it is time to leave.
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.