snotgreen and scrotumtightening These are the two words James Joyce uses to describe the sea in the beginning of "Ulysses." They are perhaps the most commonly quoted examples of his brilliance and use of inventive language. This is not because they are the best examples--it's just that they appear less than five pages into "Ulysses," and as people rarely get beyond page 30 (if they're very intrepid), but keep trying to read it repeatedly, and those two phrases will get lodged into your head rather soundly.
Yes, as an English major and all-around book geek, I must embarassingly confess that I have picked up "Ulysses" a half-dozen times on at least three different continents, and never have I made it much past page 30. In fact, I can usually identify the paragraph that finally makes me either put the book back on a high shelf, or throw it behind something heavy:
"Of Ireland, the Dalcassians, of hopes, conspiracies, of Arthur Griffith now, AE, pomander, good shepherd of me. To yoke me as his yokefellow, our crimes our common cause. You’re your father’s son. I know the voice. His fustian shirt, sanguineflowered, trembles its Spanish tassels at his secrets. M. Drumont, famous journalist, Drumont, know what he called queen Victoria? Old hag with yellow teeth. Vieille ogresse with the dents jaunes. Maud Gonne, beautiful woman, la Patrie, M. Millevoye, Félix Faure, know how he died? Licentious men. The froeken, bonne à tout faire, who rubs male nakedness in the bath at Upsala. Moi faire, she said, tous les messieurs. Not this monsieur, I said. Most licentious custom. Bath a most private thing. I wouldn’t let my brother, not even my own brother, most lascivious thing. Green eyes, I see you. Fang, I fell. Lascivious people. [Ulysses, Hans Walter Gabler, ed., Vintage Books, 1986, p. 36, lines 226-238.]"
Incomprehensible logorrhea like this makes me sick, and makes real "critics" believe this shit is brilliant.
If you couldn't already tell, I bloody well hate James Joyce: mostly because he distracts intelligent people from far better writers (I follow the dictum that mere inventiveness isn't enough--plot, coherence, character, and readability enter into a great novel as well. Which is why I'll rank something like comparatively simple but highly readable like Stephen King's The Stand above Ulysses any day of the week), and he convinces unintelligent people that great literature is something that has to be painful to read.
It's been worse in the last few weeks, with the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday falling on June 16--the fictional holiday of the day Ulysses took place, in reality commemorating the day James Joyce first met Nora, his wife to be. In honor of that day, I was going to assemble a guide to celebrating Bloomsday in New York City. Since I failed to actually read Ulysses, I was just going to make it up. D.H. Lawrence--referring to the idea that Ulysses was written under the influence of alcohol--described the state of mind as a level of "drunk you normally don't recover from." Which is something I can get behind.
With the idea that we would start off the day by getting drunk enough to mistake Manhattan for early 20th Century Dublin, ideally I thought, we could also get drunk enough to have to start this Bloomsday celebration repeatedly, only to get distracted and go off and do your own thing before trying to start it all over from the beginning. In that case, actual accuracy would hardly matter. A certain confusion over the meaning and precision of my plan would actually go in my favor.
Obviously, this entire plan failed about as completely and painfully as is humanly possible. Apathy, drunkenness, and Sissyphean effort do not go hand in hand, unfortunately.
This is probably why James Joyce appeared to me in a dream the other night to harass me. He appeared to me in glowing white like Hamlet's father and harassed me at great length, speaking quickly in his beautiful but incomprehensible Irish accent. I couldn't understand a word he said, so I kept asking him to start over.
It did not get clearer each time he started at the beginning, so quickly, I ceased caring. Yes, I admit it! The godfather of English language prose appeared to me in a dream intending to impart his wisdom upon me, and I stopped caring. Let he who is without apathy cast the first stone!
To complicate the "Hamlet's Father" aspect, Joyce was wearing an all-white Irish postman's uniform--which is historically accurate, apparently. An anecdote about Joyce is that, as his eyesight worsened, he took to wearing a white postman's uniform in the hopes that the pristine white uniform would reflect more light on the page and delay the onset of blindness.
It was obviously working well enough for the Dream Joyce to see me, as his eyes were locked on mine. He glared at me for failing to understand what he thought he was making so clear. It is a shocking thing to wake up from the disapproving gaze of one of the most acclaimed authors of all time.
I wasn't safe the next night, either, as T.S. Eliot appeared to harass me and try to walk me through "The Wasteland," another widely acclaimed masterpiece that I despise. To help out, he had an illustrated edition that at times went from being like an Illuminated Bible to being a comic strip. It is a deeply disconcerting thing to read "The Wasteland" illustrated by Garry Trudeau.
Even worse is that, as I've never actually read "The Wasteland," my brain substituted other bits of "poetry." I do distinctly remember "Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn." Why obtuse Bob Dylan lyrics were appearing in the place of T.S. Eliot, I'll never know. I think we're all better off if I not push it too much.
I must say, I'm sick of dead authors, especially ones I despise harassing me in my sleep. And I'm jealous of one of my good friends, who reports that--the same night as my Joyce dream--she was having a dream where Ambrose Bierce was shouting at her from her lawn. Apparently, the cool dead authors are passing me over to visit my friends. Being snubbed like that hurts.
Personally, if I'm going to be visited by dead authors I hate, I'm holding out for Sylvia Plath. At least then there's a possibility it'll be derailed into something more interesting.