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Ulysses Unbound

Steve Cole uses the internet to liberate James Joyce’s masterpiece

Photo: Emily Flake, License: N/A

Emily Flake


Fuck. Fuck, I say. The word has appeared frequently in these pages—something that would not have been possible until 1933, when a district court judge named John Woolsey declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses, previously banned in the United States, was not obscene—despite “the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters” and the use of “words which are criticized as dirty” as the judge put it—because it did not “tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts.” This case was one of the first allowing old Anglo-Saxon words like “fuck” and “cunt” to be legally published in the United States.

Originally published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses, at nearly 800 pages, takes place in the city of Dublin on June 16, 1904. It details the thoughts and actions of Leopold Bloom, a newspaper advertising salesman, as he walks around the city, cooks breakfast for his wife, takes a shit, goes to a funeral, stops by the newspaper, has some drinks, gets in a bar fight, wanders around with a younger arty kid he meets, and finally returns home.

Based on Homer’s Odyssey and full of puzzles, Ulysses has a high-end reputation. But it is about as low-down as you can get. When Bloom takes his morning dump—perhaps the first literary character since Sancho Panza to do so—he is reading a column in what may have been turn-of-the-century Dublin’s equivalent of City Paper. He rips out the page and wipes his ass with it. Simultaneously superrealist and “almost magically realist, or hallucinatory,” as Mark Osteen, a Joyce scholar at Loyola University Maryland puts it, Ulysses is in some sense a precursor to both David Simon and John Waters.

The book is so big and rich—each chapter is written in a different style—that, despite its difficulty, it is not confined to university seminars. In cities all over the world people celebrate June 16 as Bloomsday. Public readings and re-enactments of various scenes from the book take place, and hard-core Joyceheads make pilgrimages to Dublin to walk in the steps of Bloom—though, as Osteen says, “A lot of Joyceans are against Bloomsday because people just use it to get drunk.”

But you don’t have to drink or eat kidneys for breakfast, as Bloom does in the book, to get into the spirit of Bloomsday. You could just order turkey sausage and toast at Spoons in Federal Hill, as Steve Cole did one recent morning. Cole was in the middle of packing up to go to Dublin for the city’s Bloomsday festivities and the International James Joyce Symposium, an academic conference.

Cole is not an academic, but he read Ulysses in college and got hooked. “It shows the multidimensionality of humans,” Cole says of the book. “It’s a good appreciation of what being human is about. More and more we are consumers, but Ulysses is about being a person. It requires the kind of attention span that can be lost in today’s world.”

A balding, gray-haired, middle-aged man with wire glasses and a mustache—he looks a bit like Joyce, in fact—Cole started to think about the fragmentation of attention in the modern world when he began working with social media for NASA. It was new to him (he still does not own a smart phone), and he thought, There has to be a better use of this technology than what I did today.

When Woolsey legalized Ulysses, he described Joyce’s technique in terms of the new media of the day, saying it was like “multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.” Cole had a similar revelation last year about the fragmented nature of Twitter. He decided to see what would happen when “Ulysses Meets Twitter,” as the international effort to Tweet scenes from Ulysses during the entire 24 hours of last year’s Bloomsday was called. His account (now updated to @2lysses) gained around 5,000 followers and the effort was covered by The New York Times and National Public Radio.

Though Cole and his accomplices started at the beginning and ended with Molly Bloom’s famous final line, “Yes I said yes I will Yes,” they did not faithfully reproduce the entire book. Instead, they condensed and curated it, adapting the book to Twitter. “I tried to make my parts have the cadence of a poem and bring out the shining bit,” Cole says, “a little epic poem showing Bloom walking around the city.”

Despite the 43 other people who worked with him, Cole began to feel it was an isolated way to celebrate such a gregarious book. That feeling of isolation is what is sending him off to Dublin. “I didn’t want to do that again,” he says. But he was not ready to abandon his digital adaptations of Ulysses altogether, so this year he created a more open-ended project called “Liberate Ulysses.” His web site, liberateulysses.com, calls for the creation of “Ulysses Dialogues.” It reads, “Bloomsday readings are all fine and good, but they rarely give us the opportunity to express our own thoughts on Ulysses and hear from others about how Joyce’s juggernaut has made them groan and grow. So let a thousand Ulysses Dialogues bloom this Bloomsday! Make them local in pubs, living rooms, and parks. Make them global through the expansive cyberverse of Google+, blogs, and vimeo. There’s no shortage of ways to connect. Let’s use them!” So far, in addition to the continued Twitter feed and a plan to live blog from the conference in Dublin, there are seven major projects on the site, including two short films, some letterpress designs, and a “steampunk bejeweled Ulysses.

While he is anxious to talk to other people who are “obsessed with Ulysses,” he has some misgivings about the touristy aspect of his Dublin trip. “It’s weird that Dublin makes such a big deal about Joyce,” Cole says. “He left and never wanted to go back. This book was considered pornographic and now it’s celebrated like a period piece.”

And that, perhaps, is the ultimate goal of “Liberate Ulysses”—to put this great, dirty book back on the streets, on the web (where we get the rest of our porn), and in all the corners of our modern world. Whether or not one uses Bloomsday as an excuse to get drunk, the thoughts and impressions of an ordinary guy, his wife, and a college kid he befriends, with all the random encounters of a single day, have the capacity to make everyone take their lives both more seriously and more lightly.

But however you celebrate Bloomsday, please, don’t wipe your ass with our paper. The ink is not good for you.

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