On Bloomsday

Late in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, his heroine, Oedipa Maas, having stumbled upon the long transatlantic conspiracy of a Tory Anarchist underground postal service founded by a disinherited Spaniard and used by the plotters and by the dispossessed, wanders all night around San Francisco.  There she encounters evidence of the postal underground among outcasts and nonconformists.  Pynchon’s narrator introduces the episode in his perfect prose:

At some indefinite passage in night’s sonorous score, it also came to her that she would be safe, that something, perhaps only her linearly fading drunkenness, would protect her. The city was hers, as, made up and sleeked so with the customary words and images (cosmopolitan, culture, cable cars) it had not been before: she had safe-passage tonight to its far blood’s branchings, be they capillaries too small for more than peering into, or vessels mashed together in shameless municipal hickeys, out on the skin for all but tourists to see. Nothing of the night’s could touch her; nothing did. The repetition of symbols was to be enough, without trauma as well perhaps to attenuate it or even jar it altogether loose from her memory. She was meant to remember. She faced that possibility as she might the toy street from a high balcony, roller-coaster ride, feeding-time among the beasts in a zoo—any death-wish that can be consummated by some minimum gesture. She touched the edge of its voluptuous field, knowing it would be lovely beyond dreams simply to submit to it; that not gravity’s pull, laws of ballistics, feral ravening, promised more delight. She tested it, shivering: I am meant to remember. Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence. But then she wondered if the gemlike “clues” were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night.

Pynchon gets the word “gemlike” from Walter Pater’s Conclusion to The Renaissance (“To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”), which suggests that all plots and conspiracies are aesthetic productions, valuable for the intellectual, emotional, and sensual experiences they make available to the individual rather than for any truth they might possess, as Pater had argued about all phenomena in his art-for-its-own-sake manifesto.  For this reason, it hardly matters if Oedipa is, like her namesake Theban/Freudian king, encountering a real but heretofore-unseen destiny or if instead she is imagining it or is the victim of a hoax (all possibilities entertained by the novel).  The point is that the gemlike clues provide the service to Oedipa that Pater claims aesthetic experience always offers the human spirit: “to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation.”  The plot leads Oedipa to a nighttime fantasia of American alienation, from dreaming children in Golden Gate Park to a desperate old sailor whom she cradles in a doorway; it allows her, and us, to listen to the sonorous score of the dreaming city, gives us passage both to the symbol-system that the city is and to the inner lives of its inhabitants.  A Platonic suspicion lingers that the “direct, epileptic Word” lies behind it all, “the word known to all men,” but we will never really know it, and can only approach it indirectly through the skein of words and symbols that the world-city inspires and the bard sings.  And, of course, through other people, even or especially those we would normally ignore.

If this passage calls back to Pater’s Aestheticism, it is still more indebted to Joyce’s Ulysses, the finest fruit and flower of Aestheticism’s compensation of intense this-wordly affect and intellection for our loss of direct access to the Logos.  Ulysses also famously features a chapter in which its protagonists undergo all the transformations of a late-night urban phantasmagoria (in “Circe”) and less famously toys with conspiratorial thinking (just what is the nature of Leopold Bloom’s Freemason connections?) though usually dismissing it as the preserve of bigoted fools.

Ulysses is not the first epic or novel or prose-poem or satire about the circulation of symbols and sufferers in the abandoned cosmos of the cosmopolis, but it is the most comprehensive, the one that the others lead to and from, the Aleph of modern literature.  Not only The Crying of Lot 49, but also novels as staggeringly diverse as Mrs Dalloway, The Sound and the Fury, Nightwood, Invisible Man, Molloy, Lolita, A Single Man, and Underworld are difficult to imagine without Joyce’s example.  And not only novels, but poems (The Waste Land), films (Godard), comics (Alan Moore)—if all Russian literature came out of Gogol’s overcoat, then all modern art comes out from under the Blooms’ bed.  Thus, quoting Pynchon, or any of the figures named above, is as good a Bloomsday celebration as quoting Ulysses itself.  Though we should do that as well.

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