On the essays shelf:
Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays
Hitchens’ article, “Joyce in Bloom,” appeared in the June, 2004 issue of Vanity Fair. June, of course, is Bloomsday Month, an event I celebrate every year on my site (and out in the real world, too). 2004 was the centennial of Bloomsday.
To put the Bloomsday story as succinctly as I can: James Joyce met his future wife Nora Barnacle (her name is symbolic on many levels, a fact Joyce – the word-lover – thrilled to immediately) on the streets of Dublin in early June, 1904. A chance encounter which ended up changing the entire face of 20th century literature. The two clearly set up a “date” to go walking together. Joyce sat in the park waiting for her. Nora stood him up. On June 15, 1904, he sent her a note:
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me — if you have not forgotten me!
James A. Joyce 15 June 1904
Clearly, Nora responded. They met up on June 16, 1904, the day that is now known as Bloomsday. James Joyce set the entirety of his novel Ulysses on June 16, 1904, just one tiny indication of how momentous the meeting was for him. It was a tribute to the woman who had helped release him from the chains that bound him, chains of culture and repression and isolation. Four months later, the two ran away together to the “continent”, without getting married, leaving a wake of scandal behind them. The two would not get married officially until 1930, but that was a technicality. They had two children. They lived together. Except for a couple of months of separation (where they spent most of their time writing dirty letters to each other, masturbating in separate countries while reading the letters, the early 20th century version of phone sex), James Joyce and Nora Barnacle were never apart.
Hitchens’ “way in” to this story is typically Hitchens-esque, as well as reflecting the underlying energy of much of Joyce’s work: it’s irreverent (Joyce was the ultimate in irreverent; ironic, considering how REVERENTLY his work is treated!), dirty-minded (Joyce had a filthy mind), and funny (Ulysses is hilarious). Everyone knows the story of Bloomsday. The entirety of Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise takes place on June 16, a clear nod to the one-day structure of Ulysses, and the momentous date, June 16, that had such resonance for Joyce. It is a day when connections are made, when love is possible, when men and women actually have a chance to get together. Joyce had assumed he would be alone forever, having unsatisfying sex with prostitutes. Nora showed up. She ushered him into the world of intimacy and belonging.
All of this is quite romantic but the truth is dirtier, as it usually is with Joyce: On June 16, 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle took a walk around Dublin. You didn’t “date” in those days, and you certainly didn’t “date” in priest-ridden Catholic Ireland. Typically, there would be a formal courtship period, with parents sitting in as chaperones. So there wasn’t anywhere for James and Nora to go. Nowhere to hang out. So they walked. And on that walk, they probably talked, but maybe they didn’t. All we know is that at some point during that walk, Nora gave him a handjob. They both reference it in their later letters. So beautiful wild Nora, an uneducated woman from Galway, working as a waitress in a hotel, encountered the nearly-blind blue-eyed Irishman, an intellectual, struggling against the imprisonment of his culture (church/country/family), and she somehow understood that, understood him. And the way she handled it, was (sorry) to handle him. She put her hands down his pants, and remember, they’re out in public, hiding in an alley or something, and jerked him off.
Joyce fell in love. He saw it as an act of great generosity. The fact that they were never apart for the next almost-40 years shows the power of sex, kiddos, shows sex as redemptive, healing, and connecting. You work it out.
So Hitchens focuses on the handjob, basically. If I recall correctly he wrote a whole article about masturbation, although I’m not sure where I read it. So much of the focus on Ulysses is literary, and of course it is a great work of literature. It still stands alone. You still need to DEAL with it in order to write in its shadow. (Listen to current-day Irish authors speak. They are so conscious of Joyce that it’s almost like they have to forcibly kill him off in order to have the courage to write at all). But Hitchens?
He can’t get past Nora jerking Joyce off, and he doesn’t want to. As Hitchens writes:
“A century later, the literary world will celebrate the hundredth “Bloomsday,” in honor of the very first time the great James Joyce received a handjob from a woman who was not a prostitute.”
I also did not know (or if I did know, I had forgotten) that Joyce requested that the first edition of Ulysses be a very particular shade of blue, the color of the Greek sea over which Odysseus sailed, trying to find his way home, and back to Helen, back to belonging.
Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays, ‘Joyce in Bloom‘, by Christopher Hitchens
Many fine writers have sought to handle this delicate yet simple subject. One thinks of Mark Twain’s “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism,” or of Martin Amis, who did a good deal of hard and valuable reflection about handjobs in Money, and naturally of Philip Roth’s Portnoy (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!”) But, all too often, the subject matter here is the horrible, unassuming, solitary version, sometimes adopted for reasons of economy (“Overheads are generally low,” as Amis’s John Self ruefully reflects) as well as for reasons of, well, solitude. Though it may be possible to take pride in one’s work in this department, also. Joyce certainly did. When a stranger in a cafe in Zurich seized him by the mitt and exclaimed, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” Joyce responded, “No – it did lots of other things too.” But the greatest effusion ever unleashed by a single, properly managed, and expertly administered (and how often can you say that?) female-to-male handjob is beyond doubt the 735-page mastur-piece that was first published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris, in just 1,000 numbered editions, in February of 1922 – since which date, our concept of the novel has revolutionized itself.
I shall be returning to self-abuse as a theme (trust me), but I want to give just a slight indication of the influence the book has had. I knew that George Orwell, in his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, published in 1935, had borrowed from Joyce for his nighttime scene in Trafalgar Square, where Deafie and Charlie and Snouter and Mr. Tallboys and The Kike and Mrs. Bendigo and the rest of the bums and losers keep up a barrage of song snatches, fractured prayers, curses, and crackpot reminiscences. But only on my most recent reading of Ulysses did I discover, in the middle of the long and intricate mock-Shakespeare scene at the National Library, the line “Go to! You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson’s bed, clergyman’s daughter.” So now I think Orwell quarried his title from there, too.
Then take the vast, continuing controversy over the bigotry of T.S. Eliot. In a notorious lecture entitled “After Strange Gods,” delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933, Eliot had said that the presence of “too many free-thinking Jews” was “undesirable” in a well-ordered society. Seeking to define what was meant by a traditional community, he proposed that we call it “the same people, living in the same place.” And this deceptively simple formulation is taken word for word from Leopold Bloom, who offers it in Barney Kiernan’s pub when challenged, and then challenged again, by a violently anti-Jewish Irish nationalist. Nobody knows why Eliot chose to quote Bloom, without attribution, in a public address designed to attack Jewish influence. All we know is that he admired Joyce extravagantly, and that a novel mined by Orwell and Eliot within a year or so of each other, when Ulysses was still a banned book, is a considerable literary force.
In some intuitive manner, Joyce seems to have had the premonition that the Jewish question would be crucial to the twentieth century. (He was to die in 1941 while fleeing the German advance in Europe.) When not with Nora, or when not writing her frenziedly masturbatory letters, far, far fiercer than the mild incitements that Bloom sends to and receives from his mystery lady, he sought out Jewish girls (perhaps to be certain that they were not Catholics). One of Bloom’s first actions is to stop at a pork butcher’s and, in this improbable setting, to pick up a Zionist leaflet from an organization based in Berlin. Joyce admired the Jews because, like the Greeks, they lived in a diaspora and because, like Odysseus, they were wanderers. Furthermore, the Jews and Greeks proved that it was possible to worship higher goals without surrendering to the especial horror of Holy Mother Church – Joyce’s lifelong enemy. He unceasingly blamed the priesthood for, among other things, the betrayal and abandonment of Charles Stewart Parnell, the heroic Protestant nationalist leader who was taken in adultery.
Indeed, largely because of that church, Joyce himself was forced to live in exile from Ireland most of his life, and much of Ulysses is an attempt to reconstruct, from memory, the sight and sound and feel of his beloved Dublin. “Nostalgia” means literally a yearning for home, and Joyce pined for the banks and bridges of the River Liffey as Odysseus had for Ithaca. Furthermore – and like Homer himself – he suffered from blindness. Those with poor vision are often compensated with extra sensation in other faculties, and Joyce’s language pays minute attention to the sound and smell of everything, from food to horses to women. He loved strong color for the same reason, and insisted that the first edition of Ulysses be bound in a very specific shade of blue – the color of the Greek sea on which Odysseus had first sailed to recapture Helen, and then sailed again to escape from Troy. (Ask yourself, by the way, what part of Helen it was that Odysseus had failed to win. Her hand …)