Unusually for me, I’m starting this without any idea of what I’m going to write about. There are around half a dozen themes for posts rattling around in my head – all I have to do is just write them but, for some reason or another (perhaps just sheer intellectual laziness), I don’t seem to want to work on any of them right now. So I’m following the idea that, if you don’t know what you want to write about, just start writing and the theme will come.
Stream of consciousness? I’m not sure. I have the suspicion that much of what passes for stream of consciousness in literature is in fact carefully crafted artefact, particularly if it’s any good. And following that line of thinking I arrive, perhaps inevitably, at the master of stream of consciousness, James Joyce.
Not surprising really, for last Thursday, June 16, was Bloomsday, the day Joyce made immortal in his masterpiece, Ulysses. On June 16, 1904, he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. In the book, the doings, thoughts and interactions of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedelus, Bloom’s wife, Molly, and various others on that same day in
are described and the result is what is possibly the greatest book to be published in English in the 20th Century. Dublin
Shall I write of Joyce? I hesitate to; so much has been written about him by so many learned people, so many analyses, theories, controversies, paeans of richly deserved praise. Someone who could write so well that it leaves me literally speechless and at the same time makes me want to throw away my netbook in frustration.
Looking out the window I see that there’s a rain shower with a strong wind obscuring the view from my kitchen over Wuppertal to the north … there’s a memory tilt and …
Christ there’s nothing as miserable as a storm coming in from the Atlantic when you’re on the West Cork coast the wind trashing the waves of a sea not snotgreen but certainly scrotumtightening up on the hard fangy rocks and unforgiving cliffs this is the middle of June and there’s supposed to be sunshine and the desirable sights of bottoms bounding and breasts bobbing in bikinis and instead the wind whipping the cold cutting rain as stinging as the crack of a Christian Brother’s leather so that you run through a thousand shades of grey towards the redeeming promise of a pub door …
Finnegan’s Wake, to be frank, defeats me. It’s Joyce gone uberJoyce, hyperJoyce, possibly even completely fallen into the schizophrenic psychotic state Jung strongly suspected he was prone to; though Beckett and others believed in the project and hundreds of literary academics still earn their money by analysing and writing about it. Sometimes I think Joyce is sitting on a celestial cloud, getting royally pissed on some heavenly liquor and laughing his head off at all of them.
But Ulysses is a different matter; a declaration of frustrated, furious love for his native dear, dirty Dublin, a picture of Ireland and his own youthful life there over a hundred years ago which, in a marvellous, epic portrayal of all sorts of particular things, on all sorts of levels, knitted together with such profligate genius, becomes an incomparable hymn to the magnificence of the human condition in all its mundane weakness and soaring beauty. Leafing through Ulysses makes me drunk on language, intoxicated by words and the power they have.
… the fuggy muggy malty woolly welcoming smell of spilt beer and drying overcoats and whiskey and tobacco smoke encloses you like a warm blanket or a woman’s embrace as the door whacks shut behind you your gaze moving searching over the patrons clumping around the tables standing at the bar the buzz of conversations combining with the carrier-wave of traditional music tumbling from the sound-system and you see a face you recognise at a table under a window where the rain is pouring pearly down the panes and a hand rises inviting waving beckoning to you …
And there is a personal theme which I share with the master; for I too, through personal history and complex circumstance, am an Irishman living abroad, in
Europe. Joyce worked out his Irishness, his love of and frustration with that particular essential element of his identity, in his writing – perhaps never reaching any resolving catharsis but enriching the world of literature with his search for it. I have been more fortunate. I grew up in an Ireland (for all its limitations) more open, less asphyxiating than that which Joyce experienced, his feelings perhaps best described in the despairing, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I have found more personally satisfying exorcisms for my own particular demons and my Irishness sits lightly and, in the main, happily on me, both when I visit my native land and in my adopted German home.
I look at the pint of Guinness on the table in front of me. It stands there; patient, promising, prim as a pious priest in a freshly ironed soutane, his Roman collar gleaming white above his rounded black shoulders. When I touch it the glass is slightly slippery, my fingers leaving blacker ovals in the faint condensation mist the warmer moist air has frosted on the glass of cooler liquid. Grasping it again, I raise the glass to my companions, who have also raised theirs.
The word is murmured by all participating in the holy ritual; worshippers in the
. Church of Saint Arthur
Introibo ad altare Dei.
The sweet sour hoppy taste of the cool liquid spreads through my mouth flowing down my gullet cascading splashing into my stomach where it pools in that dark almost silent cave the juices mingling the alcohol moving into my bloodstream racing through my whole body heart feet balls brain joining the music and hum of conversation and conviviality and synaptic snapping at the release of necromantic neurotransmitters to make the magic of this epiphanous sacrament extend a golden glow over the afternoon …
“I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click.”
“When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran.
When all you have is a heap of debt
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan.
When hunger grows as your meals are rare
A pint of plain is your only man.”
The author of the poem, the writer Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien) – whose genius I have already celebrated here – was one of the initiators in 1954 (along with, among others, the poet, Patrick Kavanagh) of the practice of celebrating Bloomsday by repeating the “odyssey” of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedelus through Dublin. In true Joycean fashion and worthy of the best episodes of the novel, the pilgrimage ended well short of its planned conclusion in the Bailey pub in central
, dissolving in drink and dispute. Nowadays Dublin is full of guided tours of inebriated Americans, guide-book-toting Germans and picture-snapping Japanese all following sanitised versions of the route and events in the book. Inevitable, I suppose, in our culture. Dublin
…I can feel her knee and thigh against mine as we are pushed together by the crowd on the bank beneath the pub window where the drops are now sparkling in the light of the low evening sun come out finally from the retreating clouds glinting diamond in my fleeting eyes as I turn my head towards her again and again and our glances catch and there is a sense of promise in her eyes and her slightly open inviting lips and I know that she is feeling my body just as I am feeling hers and I hopefully imagine the spirit of Molly Bloom descending on her in tongues of flaming desire …
“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
Pictures retrieved from: