Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Month: June, 2013

Observations & Ideas

A cliche is a truth so successfully distilled to its essence that no one wants to hear it anymore.

Fashion, trendiness, hipness . . . these are the artist’s equivalent of planned obsolescence.

The unique trick of advertising is to make you look at a piece of art and desire, not the piece itself, but some other item entirely.

Some day I want to write a story that is made up entirely of sentences taken from books and stories by my favorite writers.

The more grandiose our heroes the more we exaggerate our own mundane problems.

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Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a worldwide celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce’s epic novel of everyday life which takes place on a single day: June 16, 1904. The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution to the celebration: one chapter per year (I’m up to Chapter 8!) I post an excerpt prefaced by some commentary and observations in an attempt to share the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. A fuller explanation of Bloomsday and past Bloomsday messages can be found in the archives.

Every year Bloomsday seems to get bigger and better. When I was a kid, Bloomsday seemed to just be isolated Joyceans like my father reading Ulysses, eating grilled kidneys and gorgonzola and, perhaps, listening to the WBAI broadcast. Now there are Bloomsday events all over the world. On the web there are a nearly endless number of creative projects designed to spread the joy of Joyce: the Bloomsday Survival Kit, the Ulysses “Seen” graphic novel, a digital interactive mapblogs (some of which are highly creative), a free audiobook and on and on . . .

Some acknowledgments. This year Bloomsday falls on Father’s Day, which only seems appropriate as The Bloomsday Project has always been dedicated to my father—the true Joycean. Riverrun. June 16th is also my brother Davin’s birthday and I hope he’ll be around to scrupulously scrape the icing off birthday cakes for many Bloomsdays to come. Joyce is said to have done most of his thinking and talking (and drinking) about Ulysses in cafés. The last couple years I have followed suit while preparing these Bloomsday Project posts and while many cafés will allow a solitary customer to take up a table for longer than their purchase really warrants, none have made me feel as welcome as the staff of the Bipartisan Café and Monti’s. Special thanks and congratulations to Ashley, whose expression of enthusiasm for Joyce when she noticed me poring over Ulysses for last year’s post prompted the first of many bookish chats — I wish her the best of luck with her new teaching job. Finally, thanks to all of you who take the time to read these posts (hi, mom!). Like most labors of love, my Bloomsday posts are undoubtedly longer than they need to be. So, truly: thank you.

Now, let’s get down to business. And this year’s business is pretty unsavory: cannibalism. Which, come to think of it, might be a savory business, too . . .

The Blooming Idiot

Chapter 8 (Lestrygonians)

It’s lunch time in Chapter 8 of Ulysses which, in Joyce’s game of Homeric correspondences, takes its theme from the Lestrygonians episode of The Odyssey in which Odysseus loses all but one of his ships (and most of his men) to a community of cannibals. Joyce repurposes Homer’s cannibalistic episode as a metaphor for unthinking consumption and the many ways people become mere meat.

A savvier, more publicity-minded, blogger than myself would connect the themes of Chapter 8 with some current trends and fads. Bloom’s preoccupation with recycling and minimizing waste is more relevant than ever and his musings on the unhealthy eating habits of his fellow Dubliners offer a great opportunity for a fad diet. There is even a whiff of zombie bloodlust in this year’s excerpt … and zombies are as trendy as you get. Still, I have my obscurity to maintain, so I’ll focus on a seemingly nonsensical seven-word sentence instead: “All up a plumtree Dignam’s potted meat.”

James Joyce has never been the most quotable of writers. Consult Bartlett’s Book of Familiar Quotations and you find less than one full page devoted to Joyce. (By comparison, Bartlett’s offers more than five pages of T.S. Eliot). I’m hoping to convince you that “All up a plumtree Dignam’s potted meat” is a brilliant sentence but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not the stuff of Quotable Quotes. Taken in isolation not only is it not pithy or witty, it doesn’t even make sense. As short-sighted naysayers are fond of pointing out, Ulysses is filled with such sentences. Joyce rewards patience and effort, however. Possibly more than any other writer, his writing builds on itself to such a degree that much of its brilliance is lost in quotations and excerpts.

So: some context. In Chapter 5, Bloom unrolls the newspaper he is carrying and “idly reads” an advertisement:

What is home without
Plumtree’s Potted Meat?
Incomplete.
And with it an abode of bliss.

Now, in Chapter 8, Bloom is hungry and enters Burton’s Restaurant to grab a bite but is disgusted by the orgy of animalistic consumption he witnesses there. He leaves and decides to eat a light meal at a “moral pub” — Davy Byrne’s. As he tries to decide what to eat he notes the canned (potted) meats on the shelves (sardines, etc) and recalls the advertisement. Since first seeing the ad, Bloom has not only witnessed the grisly meat-eating at Burton’s but he has also been to Paddy Dignam’s funeral (the reduction of a friend to mere meat) and dwelled on the adulterous tryst he believes his wife, Molly, has planned with a local cad called Blazes Boylan (the sex act reducing people to meat in another way). Joyce’s use of interior monologue allows us to observe Bloom’s thoughts as he makes all these connections: “Potted meats. What is home without Plumtree’s potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree Dignam’s potted meat.”

Why does the ad bother him? Because the idea of “potted meat” reminds him of Dignam’s burial (“potting” or “planting” a body was common slang for burial) and it seems stupid to Bloom (an ad man himself) to further associate a food product with corpses by placing it under the obituaries. As is often the case in Joyce, another level is at work as well: to “pot one’s meat” is also slang for copulation. This advertisement (preying, as ads often do, on sexual insecurities) also reminds him that he has not had sex with his wife since the death of his infant son, Rudy, ten years before. If the ad is right, after all, this makes his home “incomplete” when it could be “an abode of bliss.” All these concerns coalesce in the quintessentially Joycean sentence “All up a plumtree Dignam’s potted meat” which captures, with remarkable economy, Bloom’s thoughts in the act of making playful, anxiety-driven, associations. “All up a plumtree” is another piece of slang roughly equivalent to “in a jam” or “in a tight spot” with the added implication of an unwanted pregnancy. Bloom was so heartbroken by the death that resulted from Molly’s last pregnancy that he has avoided both (another pregnancy and another death) by not potting his meat. Potting meat (sex) leads to potting meat (burial), so best to avoid the entire cycle. In a single sentence of seven words we see the tangled weave of Bloom’s anxieties about abstinence, sex, life, and death.

Now to this year’s excerpt, which begins as Bloom enters Burton’s Restaurant and includes some of the most stomach-churning descriptions of food this side of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As always, I have included a recording of the excerpt (from the full-cast performance originally aired by Raidió Teilifís Éireann in 1982) so you can read along. Bon appétit!

His heart astir he pushed in the door of the Burton restaurant. Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slop of greens. See the animals feed.

Men, men, men.

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser’s eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man. Working tooth and jaw. Don’t! O! A bone! That last pagan king of Ireland Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn’t swallow it all however.

— Roast beef and cabbage.

— One stew.

Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.

Couldn’t eat a morsel here. Fellow sharpening knife and fork, to eat all before him, old chap picking his tootles. Slight spasm, full, chewing the cud. Before and after. Grace after meals. Look on this picture then on that. Scoffing up stewgravy with sopping sippets of bread. Lick it off the plate, man! Get out of this.

He gazed round the stooled and tabled eaters, tightening the wings of his nose.

— Two stouts here.

— One corned and cabbage.

That fellow ramming a knifeful of cabbage down as if his life depended on it. Good stroke. Give me the fidgets to look. Safer to eat from his three hands. Tear it limb from limb. Second nature to him. Born with a silver knife in his mouth. That’s witty, I think. Or no. Silver means born rich. Born with a knife. But then the allusion is lost.

An illgirt server gathered sticky clattering plates. Rock, the bailiff, standing at the bar blew the foamy crown from his tankard. Well up: it splashed yellow near his boot. A diner, knife and fork upright, elbows on table, ready for a second helping stared towards the foodlift across his stained square of newspaper. Other chap telling him something with his mouth full. Sympathetic listener. Table talk. I munched hum un thu Unchster Bunk un Munchday. Ha? Did you, faith?

Mr Bloom raised two fingers doubtfully to his lips. His eyes said.

— Not here. Don’t see him.

Out. I hate dirty eaters.

He backed towards the door. Get a light snack in Davy Byrne’s. Stopgap. Keep me going. Had a good breakfast.

— Roast and mashed here.

— Pint of stout.

Every fellow for his own, tooth and nail. Gulp. Grub. Gulp. Gobstuff.

He came out into clearer air and turned back towards Grafton street. Eat or be eaten. Kill! Kill!

Suppose that communal kitchen years to come perhaps. All trotting down with porringers and tommycans to be filled. Devour contents in the street. John Howard Parnell example the provost of Trinity every mother’s son don’t talk of your provosts and provost of Trinity women and children, cabmen, priests, parsons, fieldmarshals, archbishops. From Ailesbury road, Clyde road, artisans’ dwellings, north Dublin union, lord ma in his gingerbread coach, old queen in a bathchair. My plate’s empty. After you with our incorporated drinkingcup. Like sir Philip Crampton’s fountain. Rub off the microbes with your handkerchief. Next chap rubs on a new batch with his. Father O’Flynn would make hares of them all. Have rows all the same. All for number one. Children fighting for the scrapings of the pot. Want a soup pot as big as the Phoenix Park. Harpooning flitches and hindquarters out of it. Hate people all round you. City Arms hotel table d’hôte she called it. Soup, joint and sweet. Never know whose thoughts you’re chewing. Then who’d wash up all the plates and forks? Might be all feeding on tabloids that time. Teeth getting worse and worse.

After all there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth garlic, of course, it stinks Italian organgrinders crisp of onions, mushrooms truffles. Pain to animal too. Pluck and draw fowl. Wretched brutes there at the cattlemarket waiting for the poleaxe to split their skulls open. Moo. Poor trembling calves. Meh. Staggering bob. Bubble and squeak. Butchers’ buckets wobble lights. Give us that brisket off the hook. Plup. Rawhead and bloody bones. Flayed glasseyed sheep hung from their haunches, sheepsnouts bloodypapered snivelling nosejam on sawdust. Top and lashers going out. Don’t maul them pieces, young one.

Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious. Lick it up, smoking hot, thick sugary. Famished ghosts.

Ah, I’m hungry.

Isolated Moments (2)

Over the phone she said, “I’ve got a gray hair because of you. I’m going to pluck it but I want you to see it first.” She came over and he followed her into the bathroom where she grasped a small gray air growing near her temple—shorter than the nail of her pinky finger—with a pair of needlenose tweezers. “That’s what these six months have done to me,” she said, then pulled it out with a quick tug. He had imagined a long, wavy, wiry, gray hair woven in with her bangs. He didn’t even understand how she had noticed this miniscule hair.

* * *

Her hair was newly cut so that it hung tightly against her chin and her eyes were newly blue (how had he never noticed?) and she was generous with her picolo laugh as she told him about the network of fault lines below the city that would one day send them all crashing into the sea.

* * *

The blind man ate his lemon meringue pie with deliberate intimacy, savoring each bite with both his mouth and his fingers.