Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bloomsday Sermon, June 16th 2004

It was, I have to confess, somewhat surprising, to be invited as the Head of Synagogue to deliver a sermon in the school's Christian chapel, but then Clifton always was a radical institution, and a sermon by someone on the centenary of Bloomsday did make perfect educational sense. I would have preferred to keep it entirely secular, but Joyce’s own texts dis-enable that, and… but you can judge the final paragraph for yourself. This is what I read, and said (and then, if you want the source of the aesthetic theory, go to The Quidditas of Esthetics, elsewhere on this blog):

   STATELY, PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.
   He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
   “Introibo ad altare Dei.”   Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:
   “Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful Jesuit!”
   Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding country and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak. Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.
   “Back to barracks”, he said sternly.
   He added in a preacher’s tone:
   “For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine christine: body and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.” He peered sideways up and gave a long slow whistle of call, then paused awhile in rapt attention, his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. “Chrysostomos.”
   Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.
   “Thanks, old chap”, he cried briskly. “That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?”
   He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watcher, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips.
   “The mockery of it!” he said gaily. “Your absurd name, an ancient Greek!”

The opening fragment of James Joyce's novel "Ulysses", set in Dublin on a single day, June 16th 1904 – one hundred years ago today precisely. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, based somewhat on Joyce himself, a modern-day Telemachus searching for his father Ulysses, and finding him in Leopold Bloom, who is himself returning to his Penelope in Ithaca at the end of his personal quest. But the story of the novel is its least significant dimension…

Joyce used an immensely complex schema for the novel. First, he wished to parallel Homer's original, and so divided the novel into fragments that echoed the Homeric tales of Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus, Calypso and the rest. Each scene is fixed at a precise moment of the day, allowing Joyce to follow his characters on an epic journey that lasts precisely a single day, the day still known as Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904. Each scene carried an anatomical leitmotif: the kidney, the heart, the liver. Each scene also reflected an area of mental activity: theology, botany, art, mechanics. Each scene had an associated colour, and an associated symbol such as the horse for Nestor or the tide for Proteus. All of this established both the incidents in the scene, and the poetic language, often highly experimental, through which Joyce could explore the psychology of his characters, something that no one had ever done in literature before, though it had been explored in musical composition, by Bach in a number of his fugues for example, and by Robert Schumann in his F.A.E. Sonata, where the names of musical notes were also made to stand for letters of the alphabet. This complex schema makes the language of Ulysses so rich and multi-textured that at times it is hard to say that it is still prose and has not in fact become transmuted into poetry.

But far more significant than any of this was the variation scene by scene of the literary techniques employed. Like C├ęzanne's great paintings of Mont St Victoire, where the same scene is painted again and again on the same canvas, but a few hours or a few metres apart, in order to demonstrate the impact of minute changes of light or perspective, so Joyce approached his novel from a multitude of different points of view. What he understood, and he was probably the first serious writer to understand this, is that we use language very differently in very different contexts, and thereby shift our meanings. A third-person narrative recounts a story from the outside and can attempt to be objective; a first-person monologue recounts a story from the inside and must of necessity be subjective. A dialogue without narrative gives only the words spoken, devoid of authorial interjection. A comic scene epiphanises different aspects of the human character than does a dramatic one, though it may be the same scene that is epiphanised. So each episode is recounted in a different mode, or different voice, sometimes seen from Dedalus' perspective, sometimes from Poldy Bloom's, and in the famous final chapter through a stream of consciousness form that allows the private erotic thoughts of Bloom's wife Molly to achieve an extraordinarily lucid articulation.

There are those who would call Joyce's "Ulysses" the greatest novel in the English language. Others detest it, and with equal fervour. What I would say is that it is, without doubt, the second most challenging novel in the English language – Joyce's next work, "Finnegan’s Wake", taking first place on that list. As someone who loves books, and reads voraciously, I am deeply disappointed, again and again, to find so many of our writers turning out the same old anagrams of the same old plot and characters and themes, using the same old, boring, conventional narrative techniques. It seems to me that, if you want to be a great painter, you have to take on board what Picasso and Matisse have done to change that art, just as a great composer cannot ignore Mahler or Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Yet other than a very small band of disciples, Nabokov and Samuel Beckett in particular, to a lesser degree William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, all our contemporary writers wilfully ignore Joyce, preferring to act as though he simply never happened. Joyce is a huge challenge to any reader, and an even greater challenge to a writer. But culture becomes static and sterile if it does not grow, or if a growing stem is left un-nurtured. I would suggest that Joyce is the greatest flowering stem of modern English literature, and that it is our duty to nurture him. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath deliberately chose Bloomsday to get married. Fans of Joyce have celebrated Bloomsday for a hundred years, and in Dublin, the city which is really the central character of the novel Ulysses, this centenary year has been marked with a Joyce festival lasting no less than five whole months. Even if this is all we do at Clifton, there is no reason for any of you to miss out on Joyce and "Ulysses" in future, and you can tell your grand-children that you participated in the centenary celebrations of one of the world's great works of literature.

In the final chapter of a previous novel, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", Joyce involved Stephen Dedalus in a long debate about aesthetics. His tutor puts to him Aquinas' proposition that "pulchra sunt quae visa placent - beauty is in the eye of the beholder" - and says to him: "You are an artist, are you not, Mr Dedalus? The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is, is another question." Dedalus, or rather Joyce, replies that: "Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth. I don't think that it has a meaning, but the true and the beautiful are akin. Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible; beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible. The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection. The first step in the direction of beauty is to understand the frame and scope of the imagination, to comprehend the act itself of aesthetic apprehension."

It seems to me that this not only sums up the achievement of Joyc's "Ulysses", but also the whole purpose of education and of culture. It presents a challenge to every one of you gathered here today, and I wish you every success if you dare to take on that challenge.

Let us pray: If beauty is indeed the splendour of truth, may each of us receive a portion of that beauty, and that splendour, and that truth. May our imaginations and our intellects be nurtured until they are fully ripe, and may each of us understand the frame and scope of the intellect and the imagination, so that we may climb the ladder of the human soul, and reach its summit. Amen.

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