Next Thursday is Bloomsday. Joyce's Ulysses came out 100 years ago, and I wrote a piece about the need to and benefits of reading it now--even just dipping in--and why it's not this super difficult book that certain kinds of people want you to think it is. People are almost always up to something. Don't be intimidated by them. See through what they are up to. It's our own insecurities that usually keep us from doing so. Academics and so-called "intellectuals" are not smarter than you are. Usually the opposite. They have a need to pretend to be things, because they don't have anything else on which to build their self-esteem, so they build it on quicksand. Never let them keep you from having a life experience, especially a necessary life experience. One that can help you live better. Ulysses is like that, and becomes more and more so, the way the world is going. This piece will eventually be in a book called The Human Reader: Pain-Free Explorations of Life-Changing Literature. You can be as smart as anyone has ever been without being elitist. The smarter you are, the more you bring people in, not leave them out or behind. And I don't think there is another person alive who does that with literature. They either dumb everything down, or they try to say to other people that they're not smart enough, they're not good enough, as they send up the signal-flares to people who are just like them, and just as dead inside. I'm not here for that. That's the opposite of what I do.
Ulysses is intensely verbal, and we are not in this current age. We’ll default to images—memes, for example—to cover up our lack of word-based acumen. The words we do use tend to be plucked from the same pool. Then we get the stock, repeated phrases: “Now do so and so.” “Tell me you don’t watch football without telling me you don’t watch football.”
Individuality is stripped away. We can hug all we want, but ultimately, humans connect at their most profound levels via language. Take that away and our relationships fracture. Our would-be relationships never come to fruition. We’re cut off. When we’re cut off, we take the approach of pretending all is well on social media. Lies to self. And what adds up in this world like lies to self? And the truism always holds: Pretending that you are something you are not makes the absence of that thing more painful in your life.
Cue self-medication. Cue giving up early. Cue a fake interest in causes in which one has no real investment or good faith belief. The individual is no longer walking, Ulysses-style, but going in circles. But more than a book that is intensely verbal, Ulysses is a novel with a need to reach for that verbal quality of being, because that is our natural state of being.
That’s why Ulysses comes at us from all verbal angles. For a book so often regarded as difficult, it has a devotion to connecting with us, trying every last means of language. Van Gogh wrote his letters this way. He came to a point from the left, the right, the top, the bottom. You knew what he thought, but he wanted to make sure he was covering everything, lest he was wrong and would realize it in the act of communication itself.
This is Leopold Bloom. He’s not so much a pain in the royal Irish arse to “get” as he is human. We think like he does in the associative methodology of our thoughts. But unlike Bloom, we’re increasingly likely to tap out, and to acquiesce to cliché and stock image, in turn becoming a version of cliché and stock image incarnate. The brain is a muscle, the same as language is a skill we must work at. Make sure we drop and give ourselves twenty, to put it in push-up terms. Reading functions the same way. Read, think through what you’ve read, and you get sharper, you think better, you speak better, you connect more with everything with which there is to connect. Your daughter. Your friend. Nature. That Prince album you haven’t heard in a while. Your dog, for that matter. Birdsong. The predawn black coffee as it first goes under the tongue. Your mistakes. Your aspirations. You.