Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Reading is Resistance: Bloomsday

As Bloomsday approaches, and as our reality continues to resemble the first draft of a Pynchon novel, and as the torrent of events coming from the Trump administration establishes a permanent colony in my brain so that it's nearly impossible to go through a day without some half-yelling conversation with my partner about these fucking guys, I've started thinking about the nature of politics in Ulysses. Like just about every topic in Ulysses, the more one begins to think about it, the more one finds. There is, of course, The Citizen spouting off, and rumblings of potential city council or mayoral elections. Characters revisit one of the great political scandals in Irish history and the viceregal cavalcade winds through the streets of Dublin and through the events in the book as a reminder of the constant presence of a distant power. There's also plenty of identity politics as well, as Leopold Bloom, a non-practicing Jew, navigates his relationship with the Irish nation.

And, like all great books, if you put effort into the project you can find a way to make the politics in Ulysses relevant to our experience today. Though, there is no election or slide from democracy to fascism happening in the book, it is clear we are also watching a long standing (and undecided) conversation about what kind of nation Ireland should be, not just in terms of home rule or British rule, but also, like us, about what it means to be Irish, what it means to live in Ireland, and what it means to consider yourself a citizen of Ireland.

But when I think about politics and Ulysses through the lens of resistance and our personal relationship to resistance, I think less of the grander architectures and political landscapes of the book and more about one character: Leopold Bloom. Some of Bloom's political moments are overt, as when he debates The Citizen about what it means to be a member of a nation, while others are more policy specific as when he proposes a tram to move cattle so herds no longer disrupt traffic and when he recommends the government put a small amount of money in the bank for every child so that, as interest accrues on that deposit, every person has a financial safety net, while still others, like his acceptance and support of Molly's sexuality, we would see as overtly political even though Bloom (and perhaps Joyce) would not. Finally, other events and scenes in the book illuminate two other traits that seem to drive Bloom's political opinions; his curiosity and his imagination. Often, the reforms he offers in the course of his day start with him asking a question, and follow from him imagining an answer.

It isn't terribly original to describe Bloom as a reformer. Both the specific policies mentioned above Bloom offered in response to encountering a specific problem, I've talked about his drive to reform elsewhere and, though my memory is failing me at this point, he or another character might describe him as such. But our political moment is one of resistance, not reform. It is an existential struggle for a particular type of American nation, and it is a conflict with massive repercussions both in the short term and in the long term. But we can still draw from the core of Bloom's (and perhaps Joyce's) political beliefs and his motivations for reform.

Even in his wildest fantasies, in Circe, when he is able to enact a kind of hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, he doesn't imagine conquering other nations or accruing vast amounts of wealth or wielding god-like ultimately powers, but, essentially, of becoming a kind of uber-Robert Moses minus the malignant elitism that stained Moses' achievements, instituting vast social, technological, and economic reforms that would greatly improve the living conditions and lives of all those under his purview. Sure, it's foolish, filled with impossible technology, short on meaningful details, and, well, in a scene with gender swapping, S&M, and talking furniture, but ultimately it expresses a deep and profound desire, one that is (well I wanted to say “shockingly” but what shocks us anymore, so...) distressingly rejected by significant currents in our contemporary politics; to help every human being as much as possible. For Bloom, the goal of, well, everything, including government, isn't the preservation and elevation of a nation or nationality or even an ideal, but the preservation and elevation of people.

Furthermore, Bloom does two other things that illuminate his values. First, he checks on Mina Purefoy at the hospital because he heard she is going through a particularly difficult birth. Second, he follows Stephen, who is visibly drunk, into Night Town. These two big events, along with a series of smaller moments throughout the book, display Bloom's compassion. He is not a saint, he is not perfect, he has his flaws, and he makes his mistakes, but ultimately, Bloom is sensitive to the lives of those around him. He wants to ease the suffering of those who suffer and improve the lives of everyone.

What brings all of this together, what defines Bloom both as a human being and as a political actor, what makes him heroic and what makes him a role model for our own times and our own resistance, is the combination of three fundamental principles; curiosity, imagination, and compassion. For a famously difficult, confusing, and oblique book, Ulysses seems pretty direct in terms of how it thinks we should interact with our politics; a set of values that can easily be transferred from the politics of reform, to the politics of resistance. Perhaps that is universal and the distance between those two political acts is not nearly as far as I first thought. But it also could be specific to our political moment; there is a way to understand Bloom's values beyond politics, as core attitudes, or behaviors for being a decent human being and when the regime in power is so virulently anti-humanist, being a decent human being is an act of resistance in itself.

So, what does Bloom the reformer teach us in the resistance: Seek to know more than you know now, look beyond what has been done to discover what can be done, and do what you can to make the lives of others better.

Want to here me blathering some more about Ulysses? I'll be at Sherman's in Portland on Bloomsday.

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