Bloomsday: Against Celebration

JoyceUlysses2Two years ago, Elaine Showalter suggested that we balance Bloomsday (June 16, the day whereon Joyce’s Ulysses is set) with Dallowayday:

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is set in a single city on a single day: London on 13 June 1923. But while Bloomsday on 16 June is the occasion of riotous celebrations in Dublin and around the world, the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party is ignored. I think Dallowday is a date worth celebrating – it should be the occasion of readings, exhibitions, performances and revelry. Why is Leopold Bloom more important than Clarissa Dalloway? How did Dublin get to own a single day in literary history, and London miss out?

Showalter’s brief essay is in fact a list of fairly good reasons for the predominance of Bloomsday over Dallowayday, reasons including Woolf’s characteristic vagueness as to the actual day her novel takes place and Dublin’s greater need than London for stimulants to the tourist trade. She does not neglect, either, the differing class character of the two novels:

Indeed, I suspect that the absence of a pub crawl has been the major drawback to the institution of Dallowday. Mrs Dalloway’s party in Westminster is a sedate and sober affair. It’s more about the guest list (the prime minister!), the decor (new chair covers!) and the Imperial Tokay, than the wild escapades of Nighttown. A feminine party, in short. I don’t think there’s a pub in the entire book. Women didn’t go to them in the 1920s; Woolf was not celebrated for her heroic drinking. Clarissa Dalloway and her friends do not slip off for nightcaps or dance on the tables like Zelda Fitzgerald.

Showalter is serious in condemning a gendered condescension toward Woolf as against Joyce. She quotes her own undergraduate lecture notes from the 1960s: “VW: more intellectually limited than James Joyce,” which is not only false but the direct opposite of the truth.

Joyce’s genius was for converting perceptions into unimprovable orders of words and then making larger symbolic and narrative patterns out of them, but he was not, that I can detect, interested in ideas at all, and some of his patterns are more technically or mechanically fascinating than they are in any way profound. Woolf, by contrast, and as shown by her vast achievement in the essay form as well as the novel, was an intellectual and woman of letters, discursively engaged in the literary and cultural debates of her time; she was, with Eliot, modernism’s greatest artist-critic.

I would advise against, though, pitting Bloomsday against Dallowayday merely on the grounds of identity politics: boys vs. girls. We are currently in the midst, not without reason, of a gender-first variant of identitarian cultural critique and political activism, the fourth wave reprising the second; “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” is the reductio ad absurdum, which the Washington Post inexplicably saw fit to publish. But my cynical (and no doubt toxically masculine) suspicion is that this is the expedient of a left-liberalism that is, throughout the West, electorally on the defensive, and women tout court are a larger constituency than those conceived in race or class terms. But when left-liberalism was more robust, only half a decade ago, the watchword was “intersectionality,” and an elite white woman with rather amoralist aesthetic and consumerist proclivities like Woolf would have found herself in the crosshairs of identitarian polemic. I myself wrote a doctoral dissertation partially on Woolf and Joyce supervised by a scholar who was arguing almost 15 years ago for a greater critical awareness of Woolf and her modernist cohort as “cultural capitalists” and enclosers of the artistic commons.

With a more intersectional approach, there is not even any guarantee that Woolf comes out ahead in this kind of victimological relay with Joyce anyway. Which identity is the more oppressed and thus more in need of redress, that of a male Catholic colonial of the downwardly-mobile lower middle class, prey to alcoholism and, albeit heterosexual, emancipatorily intrigued by polymorphous sexual expression; or that of the queer upper-class Englishwoman, subject to mental illness? An answer is not so readily forthcoming. Furthermore, the logic of displacement on the grounds of political redress would certainly not stop with Woolf’s ouster of Joyce. Why celebrate white, Anglophone authors at all? Or for that matter, why celebrate authors? Isn’t literacy the ultimate agent of civilizational exploitation, more potent than because the source of superior weaponry?

But Showalter’s own early work betrays just such an awareness of Woolf’s limitations from the point of view of the committed political imagination, so much so that I suspect her Dallowayday article is just in part, as they say across the pond, taking the piss. Here is Showalter’s verdict on Woolf from her pioneering feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own (1977), bringing to a close a chapter titled “The Flight into Androgyny”:

In George Lukacs’ formulation, the ethic of a novelist becomes an aesthetic problem in his writing. Thus it is not surprising to recognize in Virginia Woolf’s memorable definition of life: “a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” another metaphor of uterine withdrawal and containment. Woolf’s fictional record of the perceptions of this state describes consciousness as passive receptivity: “The mind receives a myriad impressions…an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” In one sense, Woolf’s female aesthetic is an extension of her view of women’s social role: receptivity to the point of self-destruction, creative synthesis to the point of exhaustion and sterility. […] Refined to its essences, abstracted from its physicality and anger, denied any action, Woolf’s vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one’s own is the grave.

“Receptivity to the point of self-destruction” is another word for modernism. Showalter, wishing in the ’70s to found her feminism on the revolutionary Marxist agency theorized by Lukács, rejects the “feminized” (or androgynous) role both male and female modernists since Pater sought for the artist as a receptacle of “sensations and ideas.” But in this, Woolf and Joyce are not at odds but are rather perfectly allied, and their day-in-the-life novels can be celebrated in tandem and without contradiction as epics of the everyday perceiving consciousness in its encounter with the modern cityscape.

But for all these qualifications, Dallowayday is a good idea on two grounds: 1. Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece; and 2. its celebration might serve as a corrective to some of the boozy sentimentality that has grown up around Bloomsday.

Bloom’s unquestioned heroism, for example. Joyce was an adept of Defoe, Flaubert, and Ibsen, three writers who, despite their differences of period, nation, language, and genre, insisted on the objective portrayal of everyday life without superimposed authorial moralism. Bloom is meant to be an outsider to the sickly self-enclosed world of Dublin’s moral, cultural, and political paralysis, and thus a challenge to that stasis. And some of his qualities are morally appealing ones, above all his liberalism, which is this novel’s commendation to the contemporary literati. But Bloom’s existing outside the bounds of conventional morality, whether those of Victorian domesticity or Irish Catholicism, perhaps transgresses boundaries we still recognize.


For instance: “Why is Milly in Mullingar?” to quote the title of a 1977 James Joyce Quarterly essay by Jane Ford (1977 is also the year of Showalter’s study, and this essay’s interest in father/daughter incest bespeaks the feminist priorities of the period). Ford speculates:

A “piecing together of hints” scattered throughout the novel seems to indicate that Milly is in exile in Mullingar due to three transgressions that have occurred with her father: “once by inadvertence, twice by design” (U 692). […] Notwithstanding Mark Shechner’s contention that “despite the ubiquity of confession in Ulysses and Joyce’s other books, that crime remains as mysterious as Earwicker’s crime in Phoenix Park,” my conviction is that there is sufficient textual support in the novel, not only for fantasies of father/daughter incest, but for the actual occurrence as well. Overwhelmed by guilt, Bloom might well succumb to the temptation to jump into the Liffey.

One doesn’t have to agree with the specifics of this argument, though I think I do, to perceive Bloom’s unseemly sexual interest in his daughter: “Sex breaking out even then.”

My larger point, though, is that celebration, at least in the modern sense of moral approval (as opposed to an ancient sense involving the worship and the propitiation of hungry gods), is the wrong approach to literary texts that make a priority of encompassing all that actually is, which includes so much not worth celebrating. The ludic qualities of Ulysses as well its cyclopedic Homeric vastness, tend to conceal this aspect of Joyce’s vision, however, while the briefer (and more violent) Mrs. Dalloway makes it obvious.


In fact, I suspect one reason we celebrate Bloomsday over Dallowayday is the flagrant amoralism of Woolf’s novel. I don’t know that Woolf herself, an intellectual of the left, thought Clarissa Dalloway, society wife to a right-wing politician, particularly worth celebrating except as a specimen of humanity as such. Were Mrs. Dalloway written today, it would be a sympathetic treatment of Melania or Ivanka, and its irrecuperability to left activism, correctly perceived by Showalter, would be immediately evident. Moreover, the novel climaxes when this elite protagonist’s sensibility is energized by her aesthetic delectation in the death of a shell-shocked soldier of a lower class:

She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

Do you want to drink to that? Actually, in some moods, I do. This is what literature is fundamentally for: a confrontation with all that is repressed by those discourses and disciplines, from religion to philosophy to sociology to psychology, that have to put a brave face on things. But things are what they are; existence is hierarchy and death, the attractions of doom, the sublime beauties of terror, the appeal of power, the cruelty of consciousness, and the impersonal ecstasies of art. Because Mrs. Dalloway is the shorter and more obviously didactic book than Ulysses, it brings this all-too-human but anti-humane quality of literature to the fore, and is thus less the tourist trap than its Dublin counterpart.

(Speaking of psychology, I saw a comment to the effect that we might celebrate Dallowayday by calling for better mental health treatment in deference to the novel’s attack on the imperial psychologist Bradshaw. But on the evidence of the text, Woolf rejects the medical model of the psyche entirely, regarding it as a means of social control and the squelching of art, and she anticipates the anti-psychiatry of Foucault and Szasz. This is part of Mrs. Dalloway’s glorious if elite anarchism, its Nietzschean rather than Freudian modernism. As I said, celebration, as a social act, may not be appropriate to any of modernism’s wonderfully anti-social books.)

In conclusion, though, I would like to “celebrate” or at least to commend Mrs. Dalloway for its formal differences from Ulysses. I have never been good at reading Woolf’s diary (I don’t want to read strangers’ diaries; I want to read the diaries of my friends and family), but I am aware of some astute commentary there on Joyce’s opus. While Woolf is better known for her discreditably or even disgustingly haughty belittlement of Joyce (“the book of a self-taught working-man,” which he wasn’t, at least not in Woolf’s English caste-system sense of the relevant terms, not that it should matter anyway), there is also some acute criticism of Ulysses in the diary:

It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. […] I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face—as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy. (September 6, 1922)

Joyce might not have thought it was absurd: he thought “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” was the greatest story in the world. But, if we can forget “the obvious sense” (snobbery strikes again!) and focus on the literary one, doesn’t she have a point about the novel’s “underbreeding”? (Breeding is a trope in Joyce’s novel, by the way; contrary to his otherwise ultra-modernist attitudes and postmodern anticipations of third-wave feminism, the Jesuit-trained author stands up in the most old-fashioned Catholic or even Tolstoyan way for natural childbirth as his hero offers paeans to maternity.)

That is, Mrs. Dalloway‘s Shakespearean amplitude in brevity (as opposed to Ulysses‘s mock-Homeric exhaustiveness), its enlivening flood of earnest unbroken language (as opposed to Ulysses‘s fragmentary kaleidoscope of styles), its suggestiveness rather than precision (as opposed to Ulysses‘s heavily-researched commitment to the facticity of June 16, 1904), makes it the more affecting work, the Tolstoyan shot straight to the face.

We should not neglect the anti- and postcolonial importance of Joyce’s desire to put the whole of his colonized city onto the map of world literature, but even so, it is a bit of a relief not to know the precise date when the events of Mrs. Dalloway occur, and I doubt that Woolf gave it much thought. She did not consult newspapers and directories, just as I have not thoroughly read her diary.

joycewoolfThough Ulysses scrupulously if rather literally mimics the dream-state in “Circe,” which is a just a warm-up for Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway, with its transience of perception from character to character across expanses of consciousness as well as social space, is the more winningly dream-like achievement. It is Joyce’s formalist literalism, his resolute commitment to achieving every (sometimes inorganic) experiment, that Woolf lacks: this is what she means in her censure of the “tricky,” and I think she is more right than wrong.

But, pace Showalter, we do not have to be little Lukácses, would-be commissars of culture, judging [X] progressive and sending [Y] off to the gulag for reactionary tendencies. Both books sit comfortably on my shelf (two copies of each, in fact), and I love them both. It is only the zero-sum politics of celebration that make literature seem such a dreary attempt to effect political ends by aesthetic means. We can read both of these books, anti-social as they are, in the privacy of home and library, and take them for what they are worth to us: the unspeakable thoughts they so compellingly insist on whispering into our inner ear.


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