The Trouble with ‘Ulysses’

If you have ever recorded normal daily life and then tried to watch it or listen to it, you know it’s almost unbearable.

Real life isn’t a series of practiced scenes tuned perfectly for external consumption. It’s full of awkward pauses, interior monologues running silently, extraneous noises and nonsense. Living doesn’t present itself in an especially engaging way for outside viewers.

Sometimes art arranges and sequences bits of life in order to hold our attention, making connections more explicit, creating through lines that show endings flowing clearly out of beginnings. That’s what novels almost always did until James Joyce published Ulysses, one hundred years ago.

I’m not a Joyce scholar, not even close. I’ve read Ulysses twice, once with the help of a beloved professor, an Irishman named Frank Quinn. I’ve watched Joseph Strick’s film adaptation (1967) several times. I’ve read some of the books about the book and I’ve read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have not even attempted Finnegan’s Wake.

That’s my Joyce CV. Not particularly impressive. The main thing for me is how deeply I took it in my first time through and how Frank Quinn helped me see what Joyce was doing. Not so much the mythology and literary connections — but the way he was capturing life in writing.

Ulysses is made of all the different features of reality that are there when you just record it. The conversations that talk past each other and go nowhere. The unexpressed thoughts coming out indirectly. The rhythms and cadences of sound in different places. He weaves them together just-so and sets his story on June 16, 1904, a real place and a real time.

Joyce makes it work by paying attention to every letter in every syllable and if any teeny part isn’t quite right as usually spoken, he changes it, spells it differently, makes up a new word if he has to — to make it flow like life does.

He uses language like an instrument that can play all the notes we live in.

The Trouble with Ulysses

It’s too hard.

I could have read and finished Ulysses on my own but I would not have appreciated it the way I did without help.

Plus the book is 800 pages long. That’s 265,222 words or about 200 complete Tweet Threads.

I have no interest in making Ulysses less hard but I do like the idea of presenting it in different ways, in different media. In fact, Ulysses has been broken down into Tweets, more than once and there is an on-going Ulysses Reader on Twitter.

Like Ulysses, Twitter has fundamentally altered the way we express ourselves, which in turn fundamentally alters the way we think. Twitter doesn’t make Ulysses less difficult, but presenting the novel in a different medium, something other than printed pages, might make its meaning more available to more people.

Bloomsday in VR

Bloomsday isn’t Ulysses. It celebrates Ulysses.

I will celebrate Ulysses in VR on the 100th Bloomsday, not by telling Joyce’s story but by trying to do in VR what he did on the printed page. I will weave together different stuff about that day in Dublin in a way that could only be done in VR.

No one owns VR Storytelling yet. Chances are a mainstream will emerge featuring the same high production value Hero Stories we’ve been fed for decades, only this time with immersion!

I think VR Storytelling can be something different, where experiences are presented without an obvious through line so any story is what people make of it — and even reflect on together as part of the event.

Context: Ireland

People enter the Bloomsday VR event above a large map bordered by a few iconic images and a time line at the bottom. As host and narrator, I use mega-props to help people feel how Ireland is separate but connected, Celtic but Christian.

The story I tell has four main characters, three people and the city of Dublin.

One of the people, a young man named Stephen, speaks of serving three masters, one English, one Italian, and one (Ireland) that ‘just wants me for odd jobs.’ He’s Irish. That’s his home he’s talking about, offering him nothing but shit work.

Stephen and James Joyce both left Ireland and like many exiles, thought of nothing else. The map and the big evocative pics help me present Ireland all at once from outside, the way it might have felt to an exile.

Unlike someone on the outside, in Paris or Trieste as Stephen Daedalus and James Joyce were — in VR we can select the Dublin area on the giant Ireland map and be there, or a reasonable facsimile, in seconds.

Dublin: Stephen

One of VR’s several Super Powers is the ability to Take You There — better yet, Take You There with other people, buying into it together, everyone feeling even more There.

The feeling of being there in Dublin on June 16, 1904 is a big part of Ulysses. It was the day James Joyce met his future wife, Nora, so there’s that.

We can’t recreate past times and places at will, yet. But with Google Street View, we can suggest them, which is what Joyce did by using absolutely everything the print medium possibly has to offer.

VR has other tricks to draw on.

Martello Tower, Sandy Cove, Dublin, Ireland, wikimedia

In the VR storytelling event, we emerge from the map into a place on the beach next to Martello Tower, an abandoned military structure outside of Dublin, where Ulysses begins. The tower is still there.

I describe the location back in 1904 as a fringe-y refuge for students and struggling artists. It doesn’t feel all that different now and the audience can easily imagine living out there on the edge of things, inside the Streetview image.

I make another, smaller, map appear out over the ocean, showing where we are in Dublin. I place a famous quote from the text of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man next to it in the sky. I read it out loud:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — -silence, exile and cunning.”

Ulysses introduces Stephen by showing us how he is with a friend, first thing in the morning. I ask the audience to imagine some guy, the friend, shaving over there at the top of the tower as I play the opening minutes of Ulysses, (using the Internet Archive recordings).

Our first impression of Stephen is the way his friend sees him, grumpy and brooding.

I hang a few more Large-Sized Stephen Quotes over the water.

I don’t talk about all the mythological parallels in the text. I just try to help people get a feel for this young man who, we learn right away, is in an extended grieving over his mother’s death.

I play a segment of his friend exhorting him to get over it.

Our location switches to Sandymount Strand, a long flat stretch of beach where Stephen walks and ruminates later in the morning.

Nothing much happens. Everything he encounters he turns into an abstraction. All he can do is follow trains of thought back to himself.

I tell the audience Stephen has a lot going for him, he’s a really bright guy — but he also has a lot of heavy baggage. His father had fourteen kids and didn’t take care of any of them. He is overwhelmed by his mother’s miserable life and wretched death.

I tell them he’s the type of guy you wish would change his attitude because it creates problems for him, even though you see what he’s dealing with. You still wish he’d just get over it. It’s easy to care about him, not easy to like him.

Lots of us know that person.

Dublin: Bloom

We are lucky if we know someone like Bloom.

His qualities are easy to overlook. I think James Joyce wrote Ulysses to show us an excellent human, the way one would really be if we saw everything, all the flaws and the wonderful parts and the hard stuff going on inside. The book is a Tribute to him, without having to die.

When you read these days about ‘Mind-Links’ or ‘Neuro-Decoding,’ of what you’re secretly thinking, how does it make you feel? What would we think of you if you were fully revealed?

That’s what Joyce does with Bloom: We are granted Full Admin Access to the man’s humanness, including, maybe especially, the parts people aren’t usually allowed to talk about, not in Ireland then or in anywhere I know of now.

Watkins Square, Dublin

7 Eccles Street in Dublin, where we first meet Bloom at home in his kitchen, isn’t a house now, but there are Google Street Viewed residential roads nearby that let us begin the VR tribute outside something like the place where performs his daily breakfast ritual.

First, an epitome statement. We can’t capture everything about someone we know well but we can usually complete the following statement: They’re kind of person who …

Bloom is the kind of person who never judges.

He is alert and engaged in life, constantly experiencing one thing after another, hard ones and easy ones. He does not act or feel the way most of the people around him do. He is not a perfect role model unless you like your role models flawed.

But his mind never skips from life to some abstract judgement, ever. One event leads to another. Oh well, then, Hello, what’s this?

A tribute needs little stories, vignettes, and I tell folks Bloom is in his house, like the ones on this street, making breakfast for his wife and serving it to her while she’s lolling around in bed. It’s what they do.

Because his inner thoughts are open to us we know he loves her and loves his breakfast making for her but at the same time he is troubled about his relationship. His wife is having an affair and he knows it. He doesn’t like it. It hurts him and makes him angry. It pops into his mind a lot, but it also pops back out or rather it gets replaced by something else since Bloom is not a brooder.

That’s one quick story.

Later in the morning Bloom attends the funeral of a friend, Paddy Dignam. I place a high-resolution 360 degree image of Glasneven Cemetery over us and we’re there, along with Michael Collins, Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon de Valera and approximately 800,000 Dubliners who died in the 1840s famine.

Bloom thinks about his friend’s death, his own death, and death in many varieties. Funerals are unsettling. As Bloom rides into the cemetery in a carriage, one of his companions starts a conversation:

— He had a sudden death, poor fellow, he said.

— The best death, Mr Bloom said.

Their wide open eyes looked at him.

— No suffering, he said. A moment and all is over. Like dying in sleep.

No-one spoke.

No one spoke because in Catholic Ireland you’re supposed to have time at the end to repent, even though most people probably don’t. Paddy Dignam died in an alcoholic stupor, which everyone knows but no one mentions.

— But the worst of all, Mr Power said, is the man who takes his own life.

Martin Cunningham drew out his watch briskly, coughed and put it back.

— The greatest disgrace to have in the family, Mr Power added.

— Temporary insanity, of course, Martin Cunningham said decisively. We must take a charitable view of it.

— They say a man who does it is a coward, Mr Dedalus said.

— It is not for us to judge, Martin Cunningham said.

Mr Bloom, about to speak, closed his lips again. Martin Cunningham’s large eyes. Looking away now. Sympathetic human man he is.

We already know that Bloom’s father committed suicide, so did Martin Cunningham but not the other two. Instead of speaking and making an awkward situation worse, Bloom’s inner attention turns to how sympathetically Cunningham handled it.

His brain never stops processing whatever he notices throughout the funeral.

The gravediggers took up their spades and flung heavy clods of clay in on the coffin. Mr Bloom turned away his face.

And if he was alive all the time? Whew! By jingo, that would be awful! No, no: he is dead, of course. Of course he is dead. Monday he died. They ought to have some law to pierce the heart and make sure or an electric clock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of a canvas airhole. Flag of distress. Three days.

On his way out, he puts a very generous five shillings into the fund for Paddy Dignam’s widow.

That’s my second quick little story about Bloom.

The most scandalous story, the quick little story that was most responsible for the book’s censorship and prohibition from the English-speaking world for over a decade, also takes place on Sandymount Strand, where Stephen ruminated earlier.

When you hear the phrase, ‘dirty-old man,’ do you hear a judgment about an older male thinking or doing something sexual that he shouldn’t, according to what you or maybe mainstream culture believes is appropriate? Bloom masturbates, fully clothed, hands in his pocket, watching and fantasizing about a young woman, not a child, sitting by herself on the beach. It is not a public display and it is over pretty quickly. No one knows except Bloom and everyone who has ever read Ulysses.

And that’s not all. He is mildly obsessed with the shapes and curves of women’s bodies, which we know only because of our privileged access. Even the word, ‘obsessed’ carries a judgmental tone. Bloom notices women’s bodies and just about anything with the right shape will send him into erotic speculation.

Erotic speculation is exactly what he does in a secret correspondence he maintains with a certain Martha Clifford. He does not imagine himself actually meeting her, or having sex with her and, in fact, we learn that he hasn’t had sex, not with his wife and not with anyone except himself in all the years since their son Rudy died.

That was my third little story and I’m telling tales out of order, but it’s my tribute to Joyce and Ulysses, not Joyce’s, and I feel like now’s the time to get into an Irish Pub, where Bloom hangs out more than once during the day and evening.

He’s alone at Davey Bryne’s Pub and we see more sides of him very clearly. First we hear a bunch of guys talking about him, a bunch of guys who aren’t inclined toward the positive in general and who also see Bloom as not quite like the rest of them, because he’s a Jew.

When guys talk about other guys who aren’t there it usually isn’t pretty. Here’s what they say about Bloom:

Decent quiet man he is. I often saw him in here and I never once saw him — you know, over the line.

— God Almighty couldn’t make him drunk, Nosey Flynn said firmly. Slips off when the fun gets too hot. Didn’t you see him look at his watch? Ah, you weren’t there. If you ask him to have a drink first thing he does he outs with the watch to see what he ought to imbibe. Declare to God he does.

— There are some like that, Davy Byrne said. He’s a safe man, I’d say.

— He’s not too bad, Nosey Flynn said, snuffling it up. He’s been known to put his hand down too to help a fellow. Give the devil his due. O, Bloom has his good points.

Folks, this is high praise among men at Davey Byrnes Pub.

When Bloom leaves and is preparing to cross the busy street, he notices a young man who is blind and offers to help. All the while thinking about what it must be like to be blind, wondering if he’s doing it right, imagining himself feeling colors instead of seeing them. And he actually does, mindfully we would say now, help him, carefully and respectfully.

Helping the ‘blind stripling’ as the young man is referred to is a beautiful scene but for the true romantics in the audience, let’s hear where his mind really goes when he’s thinking about love and intimacy:

High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

Me. And me now.

Me, remembering himself then. And me now, the relationship has declined

Wait’ll you hear his wife’s version.

I’ve described and to some extent localized four vignettes in VR paying tribute to Bloom in his fullness. Those were just the early innings. Something is brewing, people are unsettled. Stephen is stuck. Bloom longs for his wife.

Nothing comes to a head in some heroic fashion to change everyone forever. Students drink too much and carouse too late in the wrong parts of town every night of the week and twice on Sunday.

On this night, Stephen overdoes it, gets into mild trouble and retreats staggering to the street.

Bloom is there only because he’s having a weird day too and his immediate instinct is to help. Stephen is so out of it all he knows at first is someone’s helping him pull it together. They walk a little bit, it feels natural.

Bloom invites him to his home for a cup of cocoa. That’s pure Bloom. A lot of people wouldn’t take that next step but Bloom did — maybe because, like I said, he was having a weird day too.

Fathers and sons. Difficult relationship. Not too many great role models. Bloom lost his son after only a few days of life. It’s hard for Stephen to relate to Simon Daedalus as his father.

There is no epiphany. No heroic moment.

They do not embrace or even acknowledge anything special. They go out in the back yard and take pee. While Bloom of course holds forth about the stars and everything else.

So called fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity

That’s my favorite line from Ulysses, our allotted life as, ‘a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.’

Dublin: Molly

Molly is Home.

For Bloom, she is what ‘Home’ means. For herself, she always seems to be at home because she’s comfortable however things are, wherever she is and wherever she has been.

She isn’t into causes. She’s an artist, a operatic soprano, moderately well-known. Mostly she thinks about giving and taking pleasure. She’s lusty and not at all faithful. She doesn’t have to pretend in order to enjoy sex.

Her current lover, Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan, is also her professional manager, providing them plenty of opportunities. She doesn’t particularly like him, as she says in the long inner monologue that ends the book:

no that’s no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didn’t call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesn’t know poetry from a cabbage that’s what you get for not keeping them in their proper place

We are inside her thought-stream, just as we had been seeing inside Bloom’s all day long. We started with him preparing and serving her breakfast. Now he gets into bed, exhausted, and mentions something about her fixing him some breakfast later.

She caught that tiny change in routine, of course, him asking her, something she sensed in him. She thinks about it in her soliloquy, wonders about it.

This is how relationships go. No trumpets, but if you’re sensitive to each other you can pick up little shifts in perspective. Maybe Bloom doesn’t even know that his mortality salience was piqued, his self-image was roughed up, and his outreach to a semi-stranger worked out OK.

Molly will be keeping her eye on this development and meanwhile she’s in touch, as always, with why she loves him:

that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him

She also remembers their date at Howth Head, where, as she calmly explains, she got him to propose to her. She is passionate and matter of fact, beautiful and down-to-earth, with a long stream of lovers.

The book ends on a Yes of pleasure.

Reflection: Ireland

The VR storytelling event ends back where it started, with an opportunity for expressing what comes up and listening to what others have to say, how they react.

This is my plan for celebrating the 100th Bloomsday.

Image by David Denton

I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.

I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.



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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos