26 February 2016

On Odysseus, Bloom and the Republicans

I’ve been rereading Joyce’s Ulysses along with Robert and maybe Yonatan. I am not sure how the latter is doing but as for the former, well, I keep getting startled text messages concerning Joyce’s mental state during the composition of the book; and mystified puzzlements about what exactly is occurring to whom, when and where. Robert’s first language is not English and though he can read in Russian, Czech, German and English, working with Ulysses taxes all his capabilities.
     Well, I don’t always have an easy time of it myself, this reading counts as my fourth encounter with the book—and so I know somewhat where it is I tread. As Richard Elliman notes, “Since Ulysses is as difficult as it is entertaining, readers have often felt that it puts them on their mettle. The decipherment of obscurities has gone on apace.” Indeed.
     And alongside Ulysses the course assigned Homer’s The Odyssey. I had never before had the opportunity to read The Odyssey (though I had many decades ago been assigned and read The Iliad), and so I am engaged in simultaneous reading of the two books.
     Where is this going? Alas, I know.
     I have only known Odysseus by the stories throughout my studies I have heard told of his troubles and trials. And yes I know of Penelope, the eponymous weaver, who every day wove her fabric only to nightly pull out the weave so that she could deny access to her by the suitors who hoped to marry the beautiful queen in the absence of her husband, Ulysses. These suitors are spoken of with great disdain and contempt by the poet, Homer.  And I have known Odysseus through Tennyson’s poem, and the Ulysses who there urged his men to journey with him “to strive to seek and not to yield.” I have always adored that poem, and in my memory I attribute much of my adoration of that poem to what I think is Robert Kennedy’s quoting of those very lines.
     And reading these two books together and recognizing Leopold Bloom as the 20th century version of Odysseus offers remarkable insight into our contemporary world. Odysseus is the great hero of Greek history and myth—handsome, strong, adventurous, brave: a man known and respected by all, whose actions during the Trojan War led to the victory of the Greeks but whose journey home was troubled by the gods and men. He had been away from home for twenty years when the Odyssey begins: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story/of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end,/after he plundered the stronghold/on the proud height of Troy.” And then I turn to Joyce’s Ulysses and read of Leopold Bloom who leaves home at 8:00am and makes his way through Dublin encountering the modern version of Odysseus’ trials. Bloom is no legendary hero, no strong and brave warrior, no King possessing great wealth. Bloom is a 39-year-old lapsed Jew living in Catholic Dublin and the butt of too many harsh and cruel barbs. He wends his lonely way through the day (June 4, 1904) engaging in his meager business dealings, attending a funeral of a man who probably was anti-Semitic, having lunch alone, and running into familiars, all the while fearful of returning home because he suspects his wife Molly of having arranged a liason with Blazes Boylan. Ah, it is too complicated to try to account for Bloom’s day, but it is quite average as I think Joyce might say—though this Odysseus remains just like us, not even an attendant lord. But I might characterize Bloom as kind, thoughtful, empathetic. He is a very insignificant man making his way in a very difficult and hostile world.
     And then last night I watched a snippet –all I could stomach—of the Republican Presidential debate and was appalled at the character of the Republican candidates who aspire to be President of the United States. How much despicableness we seem willing to tolerate. I think there are men not unlike the suitors Odysseus would condemn and whom Bloom would attempt to avoid. These candidates are bad and hate-filled men, and their candidacies suggest to me how low our opinions we must have of  ourselves that we would tolerate such behaviors by those who would represent us in and to the world. The debate last night sent me back to The Odyssey and to Ulysses for some breath of decency and hope. I preferred to spend my time with Odysseus and Leopold Bloom: heroes both.


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