Tag Archives: Bloomsday

Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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James Joyce: drinking wine, talking weather

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

If any one of the hundreds of Joyce fans who’ll flock to the Dublin’s streets for Bloomsday next week could have met the man himself what would they have encountered?

The dandyish, cane-leaning street-stroller immortalised in a statue on Talbot Street?

The aloof, slightly imperious scholar who wed Greek myth to modernism?

Or the earnest, lovestruck young man who was stood up on a Dublin street corner on his first date with his future wife?

Perhaps none of the above, if they were to meet the man Djuna Barnes did. The French-based American writer, no small modernist talent herself, profiled the Irish writer for the March 1922 issue of Vanity Fair.

The Joyce of Paris 1922 bore “an orderly distemper of red and black hair”, wore a blue coat “too young it seemed”, a waistcoat made by his grandmother and sat with his head “turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death”.

Djuna Barnes, 1905

Djuna Barnes, 1905

He drank a “thin, cool wine with lips almost hidden”, and smoked an “eternal cigar”.

What did the Joyce the exile, the master storyteller of Dubliners, the writer of the novel of his century – published only two months earlier – chat about?

“We have talked of rivers and religion,” Barnes writes. “The instinctive genius of the church…of women…we have talked of death, of rats, of horses, the sea; languages, climates and offerings,” Barnes writes.

No mention of boater hats, gorgonzola sandwiches or bicycles with baskets, mind you.

Most surprisingly of all, for a man who propelled the novel into the twentieth century, the Dubliner wished to talk of “anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new””.

Were today’s Joyceans to meet the man himself then, they would likely encounter a “heavy man yet thin”, reading a book of saints (“he is never without it”) and “muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for stroll””.

Let’s hope the weather holds for on Tuesday then.

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954 Pic: National Library of Ireland

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954
Pic: National Library of Ireland

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