The Day Thread Celebrates Bloom (6/16)

Today is June 16th, which you already know, but what you might not know is that for some people today is celebrated as Bloomsday. What’s that, you ask? Well, June 16th, 1904, is when the events of James Joyce’s Ulysses are occurring, and because of this some people started referring to today as Bloomsday (named after Ulysses’s main character, Leopold Bloom) and using it as a day to celebrate all things Joyce. In countries all over the world Bloomsday celebrations take place with a variety of events, such as readings, costume contests, parades, reenactments, plays, song, dance, food, pub crawls, marathons, carnivals, etc. I’ve never attended a Bloomsday celebration, and that’s not really want to I want to use this header to discuss. Instead, I want to tell you why I love Leopold Bloom. To do that I’ll be sharing some bits and pieces from a dissertation that will never be turned into a book, article, or conference presentation ever again because I’ve recently decided that I’d really much rather share my work with cool people on the Internet (that’s you). So here goes!

First, you may be thinking that Ulysses is, you know, big and bloated and pretentious and uuuuuggggh. And, unfortunately, that’s kind of what we’ve made it into over the years. Here’s a secret though: there’s no wrong or right way to read Ulysses, and even not reading it is totally okay! It’s a long book, it meanders, it gets confusing, and it is full of outdated references, so I totally get why you wouldn’t be jumping to pick it up. But if you’re interested in it, here’s my advice: Just read it like you would any other book. Seriously. Just turn the pages and go. Don’t bother looking stuff up, don’t worry about the Odyssean-structure, don’t stop when you have literally no idea what’s happening. It will start to make sense again, I promise, and eventually you’ll be at the end, and you’ll have understood something. Hopefully, you’ll understand at least one of these things: Ulysses is funny (really, Joyce LOVED fart jokes in particular), vulgar, passionate, inspiring, heartfelt, and tender. But if not, that’s okay! You can toss the book into a donation box and move on with your life. If you want to dig deeper, read it again, look stuff up, figure shit out. The first time I read Ulysses, I just read it. I just kept turning those pages. And I really believe it’s a large part of why I enjoyed it. What captured me the most was Leopold Bloom. It took a few years of thinking and writing to really figure out what I loved about this character, but now I know, and I believe the answer I arrived at explains why Bloomsday is celebrated all over in Dublin, Bucharest, Croatia, Trieste, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, etc. every year: Leopold Bloom is captivating as heck!

bloomsketch
My favorite picture of Bloom. Drawn by Joyce.

Introduced to the world in 1922, Bloom has consistently captured the imagination of readers and scholars alike. Literary critics are absorbed by the difficult task of defining Bloom’s multifaceted character, and there are countless studies focused solely on dissecting every detail of Bloom’s behavior in Ulysses. But who cares about what those people think? The interesting thing, to me, is that he’s so difficult to define in just one way. Lenehan, a character in the novel, struggles to find the words to describe Bloom’s unique character and is only able to conclude, “He’s not one of your common or garden . . . you know . . . There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.” The closest thing I ever got to defining Bloom in an “academic way” was to call him an Irish revisionist anti-colonial culture hero. This is just a fancy way of saying he was created by revising/updating an existing myth (Homer’s Odyssey) to suit Joyce’s purpose and the current culture of Ireland when it was on the brink of achieving independence from British rule. The question then becomes, how is Bloom a hero, and why did Joyce decide to create his hero using Odysseus as a model? And, most importantly, why does this stranger on the Internet like him so much and when will this header end? [And now I’m going to start using spoiler tags to hide some of this so you don’t have to scroll through a wall of text.]

Why Odysseus?

Joyce chose Odysseus as his heroic model for Bloom because he believed he was the most complete man in literature. What Joyce meant was that Odysseus was a son, father, husband, lover, companion in arms, and leader who relies more on his mind than his physical might — what he called a “cultured allroundman.” Among Odysseus’s, and by extension Bloom’s, best qualities were his femininity, intelligence, kindness, and perseverance. The thing Joyce didn’t like about Odysseus was the fact that he killed the suitors at the end of his journey. Joyce hated violence, and so he made sure Bloom was a pacifist as well. He also made him a better husband and father than Odysseus. So, anyway, blah, blah, blah academic words…Joyce wanted to create a new culture hero for Ireland, and he wanted to make the hero relatable and real so that the everyday Irish citizen could actually feel like “hey, I could be like that! I’ll be like Bloom! Yeah! We can achieve independence from England without tearing each other down along the way. Let’s do it!” But even in the world of the novel Joyce admitted that was a hard sell.

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Full disclosure: Bloom’s personality and actions are, at times, difficult to reconcile with the image of an epic hero. One could argue that there is nothing particularly heroic about writing dirty letters to several women under a pen name for a bit of sexual excitement. Nor is there much heroism in masturbating on a beach. Bloom’s heroism stems from his domestic and intellectual victories rather than traditional physical feats. He is not particularly passionate about his job, he is not wealthy, he has no special powers or supernatural gifts of any kind, and he is not even popular. Instead, he is an outspoken pacifist, a socially-awkward outsider, and an emotional and sensitive husband and father. So, while he doesn’t carry a weapon or seem particularly brave, he does posses the qualities that Joyce believed were heroic (and I agree). But Bloom is ostracized because of these qualities, and many of the characters in the novel fail to appreciate his nuanced opinions on drinking, nationalism, and religion. In response to his abnormal behavior, Bloom experiences a variety of microaggressions throughout the day, but the “Cyclops” chapter contains the most blatant example of the isolation and ridicule that he is subjected to in Dublin. This is the moment when Bloom and the reader are forced to consider the dangers of being viewed as a foreigner in the world of the novel.

Bloom's Experiences with Xenophobia

While Bloom is a natural-born Irish citizen, his father was originally from Hungary, a fact that causes some Dubliners to label him for a foreigner, mostly because of his appearance. In addition to this, his father was Jewish, and although Bloom does not practice the religion he is still branded an outsider because of his ancestry. As Bloom has lived his whole life in Ireland he considers himself Irish and shares many of the same cultural habits as his peers in Dublin. But Bloom’s complex background confuses and frustrates others. One character angrily asks, “Is he a jew or a gentile or a holy Roman or a swaddler or what the hell is he?” Bloom’s fellow Dubliners distrust him because of his multicultural background. Because of their fixation on nationalism, the men in the bar during this chapter are distrustful of Bloom and see him only as a meddling outsider who has no place in Ireland. Bloom tries to join in their conversation, but they want nothing to do with him. Throughout this episode most of the men in the pub express deep distrust and animosity toward Bloom that slowly reveals itself to be largely based on a xenophobic attitude toward immigrants. After Bloom is “invited” into the pub, it is nearly impossible for him to get a word in among the men who have gathered to socialize.

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The “Cyclops” chapter takes place in a pub where a group of men are conversing about nationalism and other political issues. One character in particular, called the Citizen, the ringleader of the group, seems out to get Bloom from the moment he enters the pub. The Citizen continually calls attention to Bloom’s heritage as a way of insulting and ostracizing him. Just as Odysseus fights back against the Cyclops in the Odyssey, Bloom eventually stands up for himself against the Citizen’s repeated attacks. But, unlike Odysseus’s stabbing of the Cyclops, Bloom does not use violence to beat the Citizen. Although he is not heard, he express his beliefs as he abstains from drinking, promotes the values of love as opposed to hatred, and advocates for the importance of religious tolerance, all of which angers the men. His speech on peace and love is particularly upsetting to them. Bloom argues, “But it’s no use . . . . Force, hatred, history, 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.” When pressed to explain what life really is, he responds without hesitation: “Love . . . . I mean the opposite of hatred.”

I have this quote on my office door because I think it’s a solid representation of Bloom’s character. Love. The opposite of hatred. Bloom does not simply preach about compassion and understanding; he lives these virtues in every aspect of his life, as evidenced by his small acts of kindness throughout the novel. He goes out of his way to help a grieving family, he is polite to everyone he meets (even when he is not treated with the same courtesy), he is a caring husband, father, and cat owner, and the kindness he displays toward the young Stephen Dedalus goes above and beyond his personal desire to make a new friend. That desire partly stems from Bloom’s lack of a son, which leads me to the final point I want to make about Bloom: He is a good father who has experienced the loss of a child.

Bloom's Tragic Loss

Early in the novel, in the midst of Bloom’s recollection of his daughter’s birth (now a young woman), his mind wanders, very briefly, to the death of another child. This moment marks the first time that Bloom’s thoughts turn to the son who only lived for 11 days, Rudy. But this will be a subject that he often returns to throughout the day. Bloom frequently laments the loss of his son and wonders what his life would have been like if he had lived. He imagines Rudy going to school and walking happily with his wife, and he is heartbroken that he wasn’t given the chance to raise a son in his image.

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However, just as Bloom’s other heroic qualities are not always appreciated by all, his commitment to fatherhood is ridiculed as a feminine characteristic that makes him weak. Bloom briefly leaves the pub after making his declaration about the importance of love, and the men immediately begin talking badly about him. The focus of their vitriol on this occasion is Bloom’s manhood, or the lack thereof. They laugh at Bloom’s desire for a world built on love rather than hate, they question his ability to have children, and, holding nothing back, they make fun of the excitement he displayed before his son was born. The men have a good laugh thinking about Bloom’s heartbreak and loss: “…you should have seen Bloom before that son of his that died was born. I met him one day in the south city markets buying a tin of [baby food] six weeks before the wife was delivered. . . . Do you call that a man?” The men in the pub cannot understand Bloom’s enthusiasm as a parent, identifying it as a feminine quality. They can only see his kindness and love for his son as a sign that he is lacking the masculinity that they believe is necessary to be a real man. However, Joyce has established throughout the novel that Bloom’s ability to embrace his feelings and emotions is a heroic quality that allows him to show compassion for others and to grieve for those he has lost.

So, on this Bloomsday, which is also Father’s Day in some places, take a moment to think about the father, husband, pen pal, friend, cat owner, kind neighbor, philanthropist, and genuinely nice person Leopold Bloom. Consider picking up Ulysses if you’re in the mood. I hope you enjoyed reading this! Thank you for letting me write it. It’s basically impossible to just say “hey, here’s a thing I like” in the academic world, especially when it comes to topics like this, and so I’m grateful to have this community.