Alain Delon: Eyes So Deep There’s No Bottom

Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge”

We discussed Le Cercle Rouge here the other day and I mentioned my love for it yet Yves Montand’s horrifying delirium tremens scene was so terrible (the wallpaper alone, never mind the “beasts”) that I always hesitate to pop it in again. (I have to close my eyes for that scene. I’m a wuss.) There are so many things I love about this movie: its deep dark colors, and velvety-black shadows, its sense of seriousness, its withholding (it does not fill us in on the heist plan. We just watch it unfold). Its nod to Rafifi, with its 30-minute wordless sequence of the heist. The same thing happens here. The three guys: Yves Montand, Alain Delon, and Gian Maria Volontè: competent, chilly, driven by forces within them not explained. Maybe it’s society. Maybe it’s prison time. Yves Montand’s “Jansen” is given the clearest example of what his life is like, and what drives him to do what he does. (The “beasts” and what they signify.) There are women but they are mainly irrelevant. The heist is magnificent. We are not allowed to witness the planning stages. We know they want to “hit” the jewelry store, and we watch Yves Montand stake it out, but we do not know what he sees. Later: we understand.

There is a pared-down deeply internal acting going on, un-self-congratulatory, un-interested in pleading for sympathy. And yet there is sympathy everywhere. The police chief with his three cats and his nightly routine of running a bath. Yves Montand with that horrible HORRIBLE wallpaper and delirium tremens. Alain Delon’s understanding that he has no life outside of crime. No escape. And, more complicatedly: the heist itself, which is so breathtaking, so elaborate, and takes up so much of the film that you are automatically on their side. You WANT these criminals to pull it off.

I am interested in Alain Delon and how he does what he does. I have been thinking about it for some time and have written a lot about him. There is something there about his insane beauty and his obvious (and yet cool, and yet not vain) awareness of it. His beauty is an accident of genetics. He somehow seems to feel that he has nothing to do with it. (As indeed he doesn’t.) He never ever preens. He doesn’t need to. He suns himself by the pool and people melt in the aisles. And so he is aware of what he looks like, and uses it as an actor, but without a hint of self-consciousness or manipulation. Maybe his strongest asset as an actor is that it’s immaterial to him whether or not you love him. He won’t work for your love. That’s not what acting is about for him.

Beneath the beauty you can sense a … pit of unknowability. He is almost entirely opaque. His eyes are light and icy-blue, and yet they give an impression of pitch-black-ness beneath. He communes with something inside of him: disappointment? Anger? Loss? The eyes tell no tales. Ever. The mystery remains intact. Always. (And that’s what makes him a great movie star. Like Dietrich. Or Cary Grant. Two other insanely gorgeous creatures who managed to be both transparent and entirely mysterious at the same time. A strip-tease. A slow reveal. But the reveal still – STILL – answers no questions.)


Everyone has an inner life. It shows on our faces, in our gestures, in our hesitations, in the thoughts that flicker through our eyes. Alain Delon’s characters clearly have inner lives. But the glimpses we get of it – in Le Cercle Rouge, in Purple Noon, in Le Samourai – makes us recoil, rather than draw nearer. What he shows us is never explicit. It’s never sentimental (“Here is the inner pain I am managing.”), it’s never offered by way of explanation (“See? This is what I am dealing with.”) It’s more a feeling, a sense.


There’s the beauty, right? Beauty seduces. Moths to flame. With someone like, say, Marilyn Monroe … the beauty is benign: it is a soft whispering entreaty to stay close, to admire, to love, to protect. Her beauty was very profound in that way (and rare). The same is true of Elvis, who was so intimidatingly gorgeous in person that people HAD to address it, sometimes blurting out, “My God, you are a good-looking man” right to his face. But, like Monroe, his beauty had a gleam to it, an inner spotlight, and people clustered around him hoping that light would shine on them. Maybe something of his confidence and charisma would rub off.


Alain Delon’s beauty is different. It is what made him the perfect Tom Ripley in Purple Noon. Alain Delon’s beauty is as startling as Monroe’s, or Dietrich’s, or Presley’s, or Bardot’s. It’s a natural beauty, and it’s undeniable, you just have to acknowledge it as a fact of life, like, “Oh, there’s the Grand Canyon.” It’s not up for debate. But there’s a chilliness there, a forbidding quality, something buried deep, that says “Stay away” at the same time it says, “Come near.” Like a star exploding light years away and we are just now receiving its messages. Messages we don’t really want to hear.

Delon did not always play chilly sociopaths (he was wonderful in Rocco and His Brothers, his first major role, where he was the warm heart of the thing), but once he started getting cast thus – by smart directors who understood that there was something forbidding about him, something … criminal … in a man who looked like that … he found his groove. In the amoral. In the flat-affect. In the “blank”-ness (which I have written about ad nauseum). In the hard-to-reach (as in: on the other side of the galaxy hard-to-reach).

purple noon 2

Delon’s beauty is not approachable. There’s a disconnect between the matinee-idol looks and the inner life that does not appear to be an acting choice, but an organic expression of natural personality. That’s why it’s so destabilizing. And pleasing too: it’s wonderful when things don’t add up. When you can’t get to the crux of something. When you can’t find the bottom.

Maybe there is no bottom.

And that’s why people who get too close take one deep look in his eyes, and draw back, alarmed. Not worth the risk. Nope. Nope.

Even though he comes off as remote and unreachable, it is not because he is focused on himself. You don’t know WHAT he’s focused on. Maybe it’s something existential and French and nihilistic like “who can love one another when we live in a world with the Bomb” or maybe it’s some deep psychic wound that happened before memory even exists.

Or maybe, and this is far more likely: he’s not “focused” on anything at all. Maybe the “blank”-ness goes all the way down to the bottom.

Maybe it’s nothing-ness so total that THAT’S what we see in his eyes.


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Lester Bangs on Fear, Ghosts, and Nico


There are times when his writing absolutely floors me.

Here is an excerpt from his essay “Your Shadow Is Scared of You: An Attempt Not to Be Frightened by Nico” (my essay ABOUT that essay here), included in the collection Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Oh, and speaking of Nico: everyone knows she had a baby with Alain Delon, who now graces the background of my site in all his icy-blue-eyed Renaissance-putti beauty. The thought of the two of them together is so intimidating it’s like looking at the sun.

In the essay Lester Bangs grapples openly with:

1. Nico’s album The Marble Index
2. His terror of Nico – her face, her music, everything
3. His fear of everything
4. Ghosts
5. The genius of one of his ex-girlfriends, whom he reached out to specifically for help in understanding Nico
6. Drugs, which he ingests in order to understand Nico
6. The rapture of death

In other words: Just another night at home for Lester.

But his PROSE.

There’s a ghost born every second, and if you let the ghosts take your guts by sheer force of numbers you haven’t got a chance though probably no one has a right to judge you either. (Besides which, the ghosts are probably as scared of you as you are of them.) Nico is so possessed by ghosts she seems like one, but there is rather the clear confrontation of the knowledge that she had to get that awfully far away from human socialization to be able to write so nakedly of her love for damn near anyone, and simultaneously and so crucially the impossibility of that love ever bearing fruit, not because we were born sterile but directly the opposite, that we come and grow ever fiercer into such pain that we could sooner eat the shards of a smashed cathedral than risk one more possibility of the physical, psychic, and emotional annihilations that love between two humans can cause, not even just cause but generally totally as a logical act of nature in its ripest bloom. Strange fruit, as it were. But only strange to those who would deny the true nature of their own flesh and spirit out of fear, which reminds me somehow that if you seek this album out you should know that this is a Catholic girl singing these songs, and perhaps her ultimate message to me was that the most paralyzing fear is not sin, not even the flight from the feared object/event/confrontation/who cares what – that the only sin is denial, you who would not only turn your eyes way from what you fear as I sometimes must turn my ears away from this album, but would then add injury to what may or may not be insult by asserting that it does not exist.

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A Convergence of Irish Awesome down on Wall Street


Yesterday, at the rowdy Bloomsday celebration that I have attended since its inception, some dude walked by me wearing this Tshirt, and I saw him coming at me and snapped my phone – at the very same moment that 5 people, arms around each other (including Joe Hurley – who was such a memorable presence the second time I attended this particular Bloomsday – friends for life after a party like that, we still reference it – as well as my friend Therese and our wonderful emcee, author Colum McCann, who does such a great job keeping the ship of the lunatic event afloat) were on the little stage bellowing out “The Old Triangle”, with the whole audience singing along at top volume in the middle of Wall Street. I was singing as I took this picture.

And the old triangle
Went jingle-jangle
All along the banks
Of the Royal Canal!

It was almost too much awesome at one moment.

The Guinness coming at me.
The tough-guy with the “Yes I said yes I will” T-shirt.
The rowdy voices on the stage.
The crowds at the picnic tables in the alley singing along.
The fact that everyone there knew all the lyrics.
The soft grey Irish weather.

You know when you are with your tribe.

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Playing With a Full Deck


Headed off to the Bloomsday celebration yesterday – the one I go to every year – with my collectors-item James-Joyce-Ulysses-themed deck of cards. Because it’s important to be prepared.

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Rejoyce. It’s Bloomsday.

Some men send flowers to commemorate an anniversary. James Joyce wrote Ulysses. You know, whatever works.

James Joyce, Nora Barnacle

On June 15, 1904, young James Joyce sent a note to Nora Barnacle, who was a waitress at Finn’s Hotel. Barnacle (what an apt name) was a girl from Galway who had moved to Dublin. The two had had a chance encounter on the street, where she had wondered aloud if he was Swedish, because of his blue eyes. When she told him her name, he said something about Ibsen (his inspiration and guiding star as an artist). Nora did not know who Ibsen was but she knew she liked this Jimmy with the blue eyes. He had asked her “out” – which, in Dublin, in those days, meant going for a walk. But on the appointed day, she blew him off. He sat in the park waiting and she never showed up. So on June 15, 1904, he sent her this note:

60 Shelbourne Road
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

And apparently they went out the next night – June 16, 1904. They took a walk. It’s not 100% certain what happened on that walk, although from various comments both of them made, it is clear that something sexual occurred. James Joyce’s main experience with women at that point was with prostitutes. He told Nora later that on that day, June 16, 1904, he became a man. To him, this did not just mean sexual maturity, but losing his isolation, joining the world. A couple of months later, he got a job in Europe through the Berlitz School. By that point, their romance was pretty hot and heavy, and they fled Ireland together, an unmarried couple, leaving a wake of debt and scandal behind them.

You, strange sweet girl! And still you write to me to ask me if I’ve had enough of you! You’ll never tire me, darling…’ – James Joyce, letter to Nora, 1909.

She never did.

Over the years, they had two kids together – Giorgio and Lucia – and were not officially married until 1930. They lived abroad their entire lives together, and were rarely parted from one another, maybe a couple months in that entire time was spent outside of one another’s presence. She was the only woman for him. They were not a romantic pair, not sentimental – just read their “dirty letters” to one another! the early 20th century version of phone sex – but whatever it was between them was profound.


Nora was an uneducated wild girl from Galway, with a tragic failed romance in her past (which James Joyce would use to spectacular effect in ‘The Dead’ – excerpt here). He was a struggling writer, frustrated and claustrophobic in Ireland, a country he found provincial, prudish, and stifling.

Years later, Joyce would pay tribute to that first walk he took through the streets of Dublin with Nora, and what it meant to him, by setting the entire book of Ulysses on that one day: June 16 1904.

Ulysses was published in 1922. As was T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The fact that two works of literature that would change everything were published in the same year is evidence of the gigantic upheaval of that post-WWI world, all certainties lost, buried in the carnage of the trenches. A new language needed to be born.

First edition of “Ulysses”

The book was published by Shakespeare & Co., the bookstore in Paris owned by Sylvia Beach, she who is known as the “midwife of modernism.” Ulysses was extremely controversial, immediately.


So controversial that it was banned everywhere, and boxes of books were burned at customs offices, and there was a time where the only way you could actually get a copy of the book was to write for one via the Shakespeare & Co. shop in Paris. There are stories of people wrapping books up in sweaters and burying them at the bottom of suitcases in order to get them through customs. Ulysses was banned in the United States until the historic decision of Judge Woolsey in 1934. Ulysses was the first book Sylvia Beach took on publishing (nothing like starting at the top), and the controversy nearly ruined her. But she stood by her man.


So much of Ulysses is tied up, for me, in my father, who was my tutor and mentor when I first read the book. One of the things I got from my dad was to go easy with the book, don’t work too hard, and make sure you try to get into his mindset (which changes from chapter to chapter). My favorite example of my father helping me do this is when I was struggling, desperately, over the first pages of what I now know is the Cyclops episode. Every “episode” in the book has a different style – dictated by an internal list of cues in Joyce’s head which is what makes the book so fun – figuring out what the hell he is doing. The chapters are not helpfully labeled “This is the Cyclops episode”, “This is the Lestrygonians episode” and so on. It’s helpful to have a copy of Homer’s epic nearby. So this new chapter (which I did not know at the time was the Cyclops chapter) starts, and it’s a whole new voice: it’s a first person narration but it is obvious that it is not Leopold Bloom speaking. This new narrator is regaling his friends with a story of what happened earlier, an altercation in a pub between a man known as The Citizen and Leopold Bloom, also in the pub. The Citizen is a “patriot” which means he is xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic. He turns his sights on the Jewish-Irish Bloom. It’s not The Citizen who narrates, it’s some other guy. He tells his story of what he saw, and one of his verbal tics throughout the narration, where he plays all the parts, is: “says I”. Example:

There he is, says I, in his gloryhole, with his cruiskeen lawn and his load of papers, working for the cause.

Just one example of many. I could not make sense of the chapter and how it was written. I got caught up in looking for the meaning. The writing is not unclear, it’s totally obvious the event that took place, but I was trying to figure out Joyce’s motivations, and why he wrote this chapter in this particular way. Otherwise, I would never “get it”.

I said to my dad, “I have no idea what the hell is going on here.” I handed him the book. He glanced at the page. He didn’t read any of it, just looked at the page itself, and said instantly, handing the book back to me, “Oh, that’s the Cyclops episode.”

What?? He didn’t even READ any of it. I said (“says I”): “How can you tell that just by looking at the page?!”

Dad said, “Look at how many times the letter ‘I’ is on that page.”

I glanced down again, and his comment was the abracadabra. Instantly, like a veil being swept away, all of the “says I”s on the page re-arranged themselves until all I could see, spiking down the page was:


“I” meaning “eye” meaning “Cyclops”.

And so with that verbal clue, meaning followed. If you know the story of the Cyclops, then you know what Joyce was getting at, as well as why he chose the style.

The clue was right in front of me, I just needed a bit of a push to “see” it.

Ulysses is one of the few books that you can identify by the LOOK of the words on the page. And once you know the book, you can tell the episode you’re in by how the words LOOK on the page. The Molly episode, with its 40 page runon sentence, no paragraph breaks, doesn’t look like anything else. Instantly identifiable. The Sirens episode, with its choppy musical beats, its short phrasing, doesn’t look like anything else. It’s a musical score, on the page, appropriate to a siren-song chapter. And the Cyclops episode is slashed with the letter “I”. You can SEE it. It’s right there.

My advice to those who want to take the book on and might feel intimidated: Just pick it up and start. Don’t look for meaning. The book is not about its meaning. It is about the WORDS. (It’s also filled with fart jokes, dick jokes, menstruation jokes, masturbation jokes, jokes about impotence and bodily functions – every bodily function, male or female, gets its day in the sun. None of it is “dirty.” It’s the human condition. We all do all of those things. Why be ashamed of it? Why not laugh at these things? Because they are funny, after all.) When you succumb to the sounds, Ulysses does not stand like an intimidating barrier written by a pretentious intellectual modernist. (See Joyce’s comment about Gertrude Stein below.) The book is a ridiculous romp through the streets of Dublin by human beings who worry, laugh, eat, fart, have fights, think about things, argue, masturbate, chat. The book has NO point. It is not meant to have a point, and that is the most modern thing about it.

As nerdy as I possibly can be. The eyepatch – given to me when I scratched my cornea once – that I have worn to a couple of Bloomsday celebrations. Along with other eyepatched nerds of my tribe. It doesn’t hurt that one of my ancestors was the pirate Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley). I’m following in her footsteps. Even though she didn’t wear an eyepatch.

Quotes on James Joyce and Ulysses

It took James Joyce seven years to write Ulysses. Later, he joked when faced with criticism that the book was too damn long:

“I spent seven years writing it. People could at least spend seven years reading it.”

James Joyce:

Ulysses is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book– blast it!

Nora Joyce:

Well, Jim I haven’t read any of your books but I’ll have to someday because they must be good considering how well they sell.

Nora exaggerated – she had read the books – and after his death, when every reporter was hounding her, asking her about Ulysses, she complained, with an insight that should be startling to anyone who underestimated her as some silly illiterate dumbbell:

“What’s all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book.”

Additionally, there is this comment from Nora (a most quotable woman). After her husband’s death, she was asked what current writers she liked. Nora’s reply was:

“Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

James Joyce: (essential to keep in mind)

“With me, the thought is always simple.”

Yeats (an early champion of Joyce) had this, as his first reaction to Ulysses:

“A mad book!”

It was not a compliment.

But Yeats let the book percolate, and a bit later, he corrected his initial impression as the magnitude of what Joyce had done began to dawn on him:

“I have made a terrible mistake. It is a work perhaps of genius. I now perceive its coherence … It is an entirely new thing — neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

Hart Crane shouted to the rooftops:

“I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”

1928, drawing done by F. Scott Fitzgerald. See if you can spot Joyce. It cracks me UP.

George Bernard Shaw was disturbed by Ulysses, he took it personally, he did not like what it revealed (he could be a great prude) and he grappled with the implications:

“If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”

The great Stefan Zweig on meeting Joyce, and the “meteor” of Ulysses:

“He was inclined to be testy, and I believe that just that irritation produced the power for his inner turmoil and productivity. His resentment against Dublin, against England, against particular persons became converted into dynamic energy and actually found release only in literary creation. But he seemed fond of his own asperity; I never saw him laugh or show high spirits. He always made the impression of a compact, somber force and when I saw him on the street, his thin lips pressed tightly together, always walking rapidly as if heading for a definite objective, I sensed the defensive, the inner isolation of his being even more positively than in our talks. It failed to astonish me when I later learned that just this man had written the most solitary, the least affined work — meteor-like in its introduction to the world of our time.”

T.S. Eliot was devastated by the book (many writers expressed similar sentiments: admiration that was no different than a swoon of despairing envy):

“How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?”

John Banville has written a lot about Joyce, and how Irish writers get fed up with trying to contend with his shadow:

Ulysses is not mainstream, nor was it ever meant to be. When people claim Joyce had his eye on posterity, that is true, but it was intellectual posterity he was after, not mass approval.

T.S. Eliot again:

“I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

Edmund Wilson wrote of it:

The more we read Ulysses, the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional and their emotional lives. To have traced all these interdependences, to have given each of these elements its value, yet never to have lost sight of the moral through preoccuptation with the physical, nor to have forgotten the general in the particular; to have exhibited ordinary humanity without either satirizing it or sentimentalizing it – this would already have been sufficiently remarkable; but to have subdued all this material to the uses of a supremely finished and disciplined work of art is a feat which has hardly been equalled in the literature of our time.

Carlos Fuentes wrote:

That James Joyce is indeed a black Irishman, wreaking a vengeance, even wilder than the I.R.A.’s, on the English language from within, invading the territory of its sanitary ego-presumptions with a flood of impure, dark languages flowing from the damned up sources of collective speech, savagely drowning the ego of the traditional speaker and depositing the property of words in everybody, in the total human community of those who speak and have spoken and shall speak.

Edmund Wilson also wrote:

Yet for all its appalling longeurs, Ulysses is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge — unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction — or in inventing new literary forms — Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old — as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. Ulysses has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy.”

Carl Jung read the book and wrote Joyce a rather extraordinary letter:

Dear Sir,
Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem, that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

Joyce was very proud of this letter and would read it out loud to guests in his house. Best of all though: Nora would snort when he finished reading: “Jimmy knows nothin’ about women!”

Friend Oliver St. John Gogarty wrote of Joyce’s earlier years:

Looking back, there was something uncanny in his certainty, which he had more than any other writer I have ever known, that he would one day be famous. It was more than mere wishful thinking. It gocerned all his attitudes to his compatriots and accounts for what many referred to as his arrogance. He was never really arrogant, but seemed to have a curious sense of his own powers and wouldn’t tolerate anyone who didn’t really appreciate his work.

Katherine Mansfield wrote a letter about having Joyce over to meet her and her usband:

“Joyce was rather … difficile. I had no idea until then of his view of Ulysses — no idea how closely it was modelled on the Greek story, how absolutely necessary it was to know the one through and through to be able to discuss the other. I’ve read the Odyssey and am more or less familiar with it but Murry [Mansfield’s husband] and Joyce simply sailed out of my depth. I felt almost stupefied. It’s absolutely impossible that other people should understand Ulysses as Joyce understands it. It’s almost revolting to hear him discuss its difficulties. It contains code words that must be picked up in each paragraph and so on. The Question and Answer part can be read astronomically or from the geologic standpoint or — oh, I don’t know!”

The most humorous part of this is that Joyce said, after meeting Katherine and her husband:

“Mrs. Murry understood the book better than her husband.”

James Joyce:

“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

Henry Miller wrote:

Endowed with a Rableaisian ability for word invention, embittered by the domination of a church for which his intellect had no use, harassed by the lack of understanding on the part of family and friends, obsessed by theparental image against which he vainly rebels, Joyce has been seeking escape in the erection of a fortress composed of meaningless verbiage. His language is a ferocious masturbation carried on in fourteen tongues.

Sylvia Beach:

“As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.”

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce

George Moore, bigwig Irish writer, wrote:

Ulysses is hopeless; it is absurd to imagine that any good end can be served by trying to record every single thought and sensation of any human being. That’s not art, it’s like trying to copy the London Directory.”

Hemingway wrote to Sherwood Anderson:

“Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other…”

Wyndham Lewis wrote:

But on the purely personal side, Joyce possesses a good deal of the intolerant arrogance of the dominie, veiled with an elaborate decency beneath the formal calm of the Jesuit, left over as a handy property from his early years of catholic romance — of that Irish variety that is so English that it seems stranger to a continental almost than its English protestant counterpart.

Gertrude Stein wrote:

“Joyce is good. He is a good writer. People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him. But who came first, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce? Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908. That was long before Ulysses. But Joyce has done something. His influence, however, is local. Like Synge, another Irish writer, he has had his day.”

Joyce heard what Stein said, and thought about it. Briefly. His comment:

“I hate intellectual women.”


George Bernard Shaw again, still upset, still worry-warting!:

“I have read several fragments of Ulysses … It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed foul minded derision and obscenity…It is, however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat cleanly by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr. Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject.”

Ezra Pound said:

“Joyce — pleasing; after the first shell of cantankerous Irishman, I got the impression that the real man is the author of Chamber Music, the sensitive. The rest is the genius; the registration of realities on the temperament, the delicate temperament of the early poems. A concentration and absorption passing Yeats’ — Yeats has never taken on anything requiring the condensation of Ulysses.”

Frank McCourt wrote:

Look! Ulysses is more than a book. It’s an event — and that upsets purists, but who’s stopping them from retiring to quiet places for an orgy of textual analysis?… Joyce’s work has liberated many an artist while his life stands as a lesson for all of us. He suffered greatly: the growing failure of his eyes, the growing madness of his daughter. All his days he skirmished for pennies and fought pitched battles for his art. He was a family man, fiercely tribal, and we must not forget he was driven by love.

Did he love Ireland? As the squirrel loves the nut.

Did he love Catholicism? Imagine his work without it.

William Carlos Williams wrote (echoing what many of Joyce’s contemporaries felt):

“Joyce is too near for me to want to do less than he did in Ulysses, in looseness of spirit, and honesty of heart — at least.”

E.M. Forster wrote:

“Perhaps the most interesting literary experiment of our day.”

Dr. Joseph Collins reviewed “Ulysses” in The New York Times and wrote:

Ulysses will immortalize its author with the same certainty that Gargantua and Pantagruel immortalized Rabelais and The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky … It comes nearer to being the perfect revelation of a personality than any book in existence.

Hart Crane totally lost his head about the book (see his “Eureka” comment above):

“The sharp beauty and sensitivity of the thing! The matchless details! His book is steeped in the Elizabethans, his early love, and Latin Church, and some Greek … It is my opinion that some fanatic will kill Joyce sometime soon for the wonderful things said in Ulysses.”

Edna O’Brien wrote:

To call this man angry is too temperate a word, he was volcanic.

Ford Madox Ford wrote:

“For myself then, the pleasure — the very great pleasure — that I get from going through the sentences of Mr. Joyce is that given me simply by the cadence of his prose, and I fancy that the greatest and highest enjoyment that can be got from any writing is simply that given by the cadence of the prose.”

William Faulkner wrote (one of my favorites of the many many response quotes listed here):

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote:

Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn’t even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.

Guy Davenport, “Joyce Writing a Sentence”

James Joyce:

I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.

And lastly, Nora, Joyce’s lifetime companion and wife, said:

I don’t know whether or not my husband is a genius, but I’m sure of one thing, there is no one like him.

According to Eva Joyce, James Joyce’s sister:

His last words were, ‘Does nobody understand?’ — and I’m afraid that’s what none of us did — understand him.

Maybe we can try now.

Excerpts from Ulysses

p. 5

— God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.

p. 6

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
— It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.

p. 14

— Is it French you are talking, sir? the old woman said to Haines.
Haines spoke to her again a longer speech, confidently.
— Irish, Buck Mulligan said. Is there Gaelic on you?
— I thought it was Irish, she said, by the sound of it. Are you from west, sir?
— I am an Englishman, Haines answered.
— He’s English, Buck Mulligan said, and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland.
— Sure we ought to, the old woman said, and I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.

p. 20

— After all, Haines began …
Stephen turned and saw that the cold gaze which had measured him was not all unkind.
— After all, I should think you are able to free yourself. You are your own master, it seems to me.
— I am the servant of two masters, Stephen said, an English and an Italian.
— Italian? Haines said.
A crazy queen, old and jealous. Kneel down before me.
— And a third, Stephen said, there is who wants me for odd jobs.
— Italian? Haines said again. What do you mean?
— The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.
Haines detached from his underlip some fibres of tobacco before he spoke.
— I can quite understand that, he said calmly. An Irishman must think like that, I daresay. We feel in English that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.
The proud potent titles clanged over Stephen’s memory the triumph of their brazen bells: et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam: the slow growth and change of rite and dogma like his own rare thoughts, a chemistry of stars.

p. 28

My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.

p. 34

— History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

p. 37

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

p. 38

Jesus wept: and no wonder, by Christ.

p. 50

Five fathoms out there. Full fathom five thy father lies. At one he said. Found drowned. High water at Dublin bar. Driving before it a loose drift of rubble, fanshoals of fishes, silly shells. A corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow, bobbing landward, a pace a pace a porpoise. There he is. Hook it quick. Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor. We have him. Easy now.

p. 55

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

p. 61

A barren land, a bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world.

p. 99

The stonecutter’s yard on the right. Last lap. Crowded on the spit of land silent shapes appeared, white, sorrowful, holding out calm hands, knelt in grief, pointing. Fragments of shapes, hewn. In white silence: appealing. The best obtainable. Thos. A. Dennany, monumental builder and sculptor.

p. 102

— And how is Dick, the solid man?
— Nothing between himself and heaven, Ned Lambert answered.
— By the holy Paul! Mr Dedalus said in subdued wonder. Dick Tivy bald?
— Martin is going to get a whip up for the youngsters, Ned Lambert said, pointing ahead. A few bob a skull. Just to keep them going till the insurance is cleared up.
— Yes, yes, Mr Dedalus said dubiously. Is that the eldest boy in front?
— Yes, Ned Lambert said, with his wife’s brother. John Henry Menton is behind. He put down his name for a quid.
— I’ll engage he did, Mr Dedalus said. I often told poor Paddy he ought to mind that job. John Henry is not the worst in the world.
— How did he lose it? Ned Lambert asked. Liquor, what?
— Many a good man’s fault, Mr Dedalus said with a sigh.

p. 109

Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the mackintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know? Now, I’d give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life. Yes, he could. Still he’d have to get someone to sod him after he died though he could dig his own grave. We all do. Only man buries. No ants too. First thing strikes anybody. Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.

p. 112

— Let us go round by the chief’s grave, Hynes said. We have time.
— Let us, Mr Power said.
They turned to the right, following their slow thoughts. With awe Mr Power’s blank voice spoke:
— Some say he is not in that grave at all. That the coffin was filled with stones. That one day he will come again.
Hynes shook his head.
— Parnell will never come again, he said. He’s there, all that was mortal of him. Peace to his ashes.

p. 133

— We were always loyal to lost causes, the professor said. Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination. We were never loyal to the successful. We serve them. I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Dominus! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus! Lord Salisbury. A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek!

p. 156

— Watch him, Mr Bloom said. He always walks outside the lampposts. Watch!
— Who is he if it’s a fair question, Mrs Breen said. Is he dotty?
— His name is Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell, Mr Bloom said, smiling. Watch!
— He has enough of them, she said. Denis will be like that one of these days.
She broke off suddenly.
— There he is, she said. I must go after him. Goodbye. Remember me to Molly, won’t you?
— I will, Mr Bloom said.

p. 163

You must have a certain fascination: Parnell Arthur Griffith is a squareheaded fellow but he has no go in him for the mob. Want to gas about our lovely land. Gammon and spinach. Dublin Bakery Company’s tearoom. Debating societies. That republicanism is the best form of government. That the language question should take precedence of the economic question. Have your daughters inveigling them to your house. Stuff them up with meat and drink. Michaelmas goose. Here’s a good lump of thyme seasoning under the apron for you. Have another quart of goosegrease before it gets too cold. Halffed enthusiasts. Penny roll and a walk with the band. No grace for the carver. The thought that the other chap pays best sauce in the world. Make themselves thoroughly at home. Shove us over those apricots, meaning peaches. The not far distant day. Home Rule sun rising up in the northwest.

p. 167

Wait. The full moon was the night we were Sunday fortnight exactly there is a new moon. Walking down by the Tolka. Not bad for a Fairview moon. She was humming: The young May moon she’s beaming, love. He other side of her. Elbow, arm. He. Glowworm’s la-amp is gleaming, love. Touch. Fingers. Asking. Answer. Yes.

p. 175

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s het it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth. Below us bay sleeping sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion’s head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you’ll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her; eyes, her lips, her stretched neck, beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed her hair. Kissed, she kissed me.
Me. And me now.
Stuck, the flies buzzed.

p. 190

John Eglinton looked in the tangled glowworm of his lamp.
— The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best he could.
— Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. Her errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

p. 206

What do we care for his wife and father? I should say that only family poets have family lives. Falstaff was not a family man. I feel that the fat knight is his supreme creation.

p. 212

— And what a character is Iago! undaunted John Eglinton exclaimed. When all is said Dumas fils (or is it Dumas pere) is right. After God Shakespeare has created most.

p. 229

Miss Dunne clicked on the keyboard:
— 16 June 1904.

p. 256

The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each and for other plash and silent roar.
Pearls: when she. Lizst’s rhapsodies. Hissss.
You don’t?
Did not: no, no: believe: Lidlyd. With a cock with a carra.
Despounding. Do, Ben, do.
Wait while you wait. Hee hee. Wait while you hee.
But wait!
Low in dark middle earth. Embedded ore.
Naminedamine. All gone. All fallen.
Tiny, her tremulous fernfoils of maidenhair.
Amen! He gnashed in fury.
Fro. To, fro. A baton cool protruding.
Bronzelydia by Minagold.
By bronze, by gold, in oceangreen of shadow. Bloom. Old Bloom.

p. 269

— What’s this her name was? A buxom lassy. Marion …
— Tweedy.
— Yes. Is she alive?
— And kicking.
— She was a daughter of …
— Daughter of the regiment.
— Yes, begad. I remember the old drummajor.
Mr Dedalus struck, whizzed, lit, puffed savoury puff after.
— Irish? I don’t know, faith. Is she, Simon?
Puff after stiff, a puff, strong, savoury, crackling.
— Buccinator muscle is … What? … Bit rusty … O, she is … My Irish Molly, O.
He puffed a pungent plumy blast.
— From the rock of Gibraltar … all the way.

p. 273

Braintipped, cheek touched with flame, they listened feeling that flow endearing flow over skin limbs human heart soul spine.

p. 287

By rose, by satiny bosom, by the fondling hand, by slops, by empties, by popped corks, greeting in going, past eyes and maidenhair, bronze and faint gold in deepseashadow, went Bloom, soft Bloom, I feel so lonely Bloom.
Tap. Tap. Tap.

p. 296 (people fight over reading the following section during Bloomsday celebrations – it’s a real crowd-pleaser)

From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the Ardri Malachi, Art McMurragh, Shane O’neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Roe, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O’Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joe M’Cracken, Goliath, Hoarce Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain, Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshall MacMahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, the Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn’t, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo, Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herodotus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare.

p. 306

— The memory of the dead, says the citizen taking up his pintglass and glaring at Bloom.
— Ay, ay, says Joe.
— You don’t grasp my point, says Bloom. What I mean is …
Sinn Fein! says the citizen. Sinn fein amhain! The friends we love are by our side and the foes we hate before us.

p. 317

Amongst the clergy present were the very rev. William Delany, S.J.L.L.D.; the rt rev. Gerald Molloy, D.D.; the rev. P.J. Kavanagh, C.S.Sp.; the rev. T. Waters, C.C.; the rev. John M. Ivers, P.P.; the rev. P.J. Cleary, O.S.F.; the rev. L.J. Hickey, O.P.; the very rev. Fr. Nicholas, O.S.F.C.; the very rev. B. Gorman, O.D.C.; the rev. T. Maher, S.J.; the very rev. James Murphy, S.J.; the rev. John Lavery, V.F.; the very rev. William Doherty, D.D.; the rev. Peter Fagan, O.M.; the rev. T. Brangan, O.S.A.; the rev. J. Flavin, C.C.; the rev. M.A. Jackett, C.C.; the rev. W. Hurley, C.C.; the rt rev. Mgr M’Manus, V.G.; the rev. B.R. Slattery, O.M.I.; the very rev. M.D. Scally, P.P.; the rev. F.T.Purcell, O.P.; the very rev. Timothy canon Gorman, P.P.; the rev. J. Flanagan, C.C. The laity included P. Fay, T. Quirke, etc. etc.


p. 331

— Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
— But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
— Yes, says Bloom.
— What is it? says John Wyse.
— A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
— By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for i’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
— Or also living in different places.
— That covers my case, says Joe.
— What is your nation if I may ask, says the citizen.
— Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.
The citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.

p. 367

Should a girl tell? No, a thousand times no. That was their secret, only theirs, alone in the hiding twilight and there was none to know or tell save the little bat that flew so softly through the evening to and fro and little bats don’t tell.

p. 374

Wait. Hm. Hm. Yes. That’s her perfume. Why she waved her hand. I leave you this to think of me when I’m far away on the pillow. What is it? Heliotrope? No, Hyacinth? Hm. Roses, I think. She’d like scent of that kind. Sweet and cheap: soon sour. Why Molly likes opoponax. Suits her with a little jessamine mixed. Her high notes and her low notes. At the dance night she met him, dance of the hours. Heat brought it out. She was wearing her black and it had the perfume of the time before. Good conductor, is it? Or bad? LIght too. Suppose there’s some connection. For instance if you go into a cellar where it’s dark. Mysterious thing too. Why did I smell it only now? Took its time in coming like herself, slow but sure. Suppose it’s ever so many millions of tiny grains blown across. Yes, it is. Because those spice islands, Cinghalese this morning, smell them leagues off. Tell you what it is. It’s like a fine veil or a web they have all over the skin, fine like what do you call it gossamer and they’re always spinning it out of them, fine as anything, rainbow colours without knowing it. Clings to everything she takes off. Vamp of her stockings. Warm shoe. Stays. Drawers: little kick, taking them off. Byby till next time. Also the cat likes to sniff in her shift on the bed. Know her smell in a thousand.

p. 414

The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence: silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived. A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars.

p. 419

An ingenious suggestion is that thrown out by Mr V. Lynch (Bacc. Arith.) that both natality and mortality, as well as all other phenomena of evolution, tidal movements, lunar phases, blood temperatures, diseases in general, everything, in fine, in nature’s vast workshop from the extinction of some remote sun to the blossoming of one of the countless flowers which beautify our public parks, is subject to a law of numeration as yet unascertained.

I know people like that.

p. 427

Crikey, I’m about sprung. Tarnally dog gone my shins if this beent the bestest puttiest longbreak yet. Item, curate, couple of cookies for this child. Cot’s blood and prandypalls, none! Not a pite of cheeses? Thrust syphilis down to hell and with him those other licensed spirits. Time. Who wander through the world. Health all. A la voter!

p. 447

Don’t attract attention. I hate stupid crowds. I am not on pleasure bent. I am in a grave predicament.

p. 509

I was just beautifying him, don’t you know. A thing of beauty, don’t you know. Yeats says, or I mean, Keats says.

p. 541

I wouldn’t hurt your feelings for the world but there’s a man of brawn in possession there. The tables are turned, my gay young fellow! He is something like a fullgrown outdoor man. Well for you, you muff, if you had that weapon with knobs and lumps and warts all over it. He shot his bolt, I can tell you! Foot to foot, knee to knee, belly to belly, bubs to breast! He’s no eunuch. A shock of red hair he has sticking out of him behind like a furze bush! Wait for nine months, my lad! Holy ginger, it’s kicking and coughing up and down in her guts already! That makes you wild, don’t it? Touches the spot?

p. 633

You, as a good catholic, he observed, talking of body and soul, believe in the soul. Or do you mean the intelligence, the brainpower as such, as distinct from any outside object, the table, let us say, that cup? I believe in that myself because it has been explained by competent men as the convolutions of the grey matter. Otherwise we would never have such inventions as X rays, for instance. Do you?
Thus cornered, Stephen had to make a superhuman effort of memory to try and concentrate and remember before he could say:
— They tell me on the best authority it is a simple substance and therefore incorruptible. It would be immortal, I understand, but for the possibility of its annihilation by its First Cause, Who, from all I can hear, is quite capable of adding that to the number of His other practical jokes, corruptio per se and corruptio per accidens both being excluded by court etiquette.

p. 636

And when all was said and done, the lies a fellow told about himself couldn’t possibly hold a proverbial candle to the wholesale whoppers other fellows coined about him.

p. 640

You could grow any mortal thing in Irish soil, he stated, and there was Colonel Everard down there in Cavan growing tobacco. Where would you find anywhere the like of Irish bacon> But a day of reckoning, he stated crescendo with no uncertain voice – thoroughly monopolising all the conversation – was in store for mighty England, despite her power of pelf on account of her crimes. There would be a fall and the greatest fall in history. The Germans and the Japs were going to have their little lookin, he affirmed. The Boers were the beginning of the end. Brummagem England was toppling already and her downfall would be Ireland, her Achilles heel, which he explained to them about the vulnerable point of Achilles, the Greek hero – a point his auditors at once seized as he completely gripped their attention by showing the tendon referred to on his boot. His advice to every Irishman was: stay in the land of your birth and work for Ireland and live for Ireland. Ireland, Parnell said, could not spare a single one of her sons.

p. 644

— I mean, of course, the other hastened to affirm, work in the widest possible sense. Also literary labour, not merely for the kudos of the thing. Writing for the newspapers, which is the readiest channel nowadays. That’s work too. Important work. After all, from the little I know of you, after all the money expended on your education, you are entitled to recoup yourself and command your price. You have every bit as much right to live by your pen in pursuit of your philosophy as the peasant has. What? You both belong to Ireland, the brain and the brawn. Each is equally important.
— You suspect, Stephen retorted with a sort of a half laugh, that I may be important because I belong to the faubourg Saint Patrice called Ireland for short.
— I would go a step farther, Mr Bloom insinuated.
— But I suspect, Stephen interrupted, that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.
— What belongs? queried Mr Bloom, bending, fancying he was perhaps under some misapprehension. Excuse me. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the latter portion. What was it you? …
Stephen, patently crosstempered, repeated and shoved aside his mug of coffee, or whatever you like to call it, none too politely, adding:
— We can’t change the country. Let us change the subject.

p. 656

Though they didn’t see eye to eye in everything, a certain analogy there somehow was, as if both their minds were travelling, so to speak, in the one train of thought.

p. 658

People could put up with being bitten by a wolf but what properly riled them was a bite from a sheep. The most vulnerable point too of tender Achilles, your God was a jew, because mostly they appeared to imagine he came from Carrick-on-Shannon or somewhere about in the county Sligo.

p. 676

His mood?
He had not risked, he did not expect, he had not been disappointed, he was satisfied.

What satisfied him?
To have sustained no positive loss. To have brought a positive gain to others. Light to the gentiles.

p. 698

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

p. 731

If he had smiled why would he have smiled?
To reflect that each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.

And, of course, the famous ending. Joyce said he had wanted to end the book with “the most positive word in the English language”. Not only that, but one of the most – if not THE most – purely positive experiences given to us as humans. Just read it aloud. You’ll see. That it is a woman speaking makes it even more radical.

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The following quote from James Joyce (taken with a grain of salt, of course) is something to keep in mind should you pick up Ulysses for the first time; it’s a clue in HOW to read it:

The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.

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“The Catechism of the Ithaca episode really helped me over there in Iraq.”

Marine and veteran of the war in Iraq reading from ULYSSES at Bloomsday celebration in downtown Manhattan, 2012. He said that while in Iraq he would read the Proteus episode over and over again. He said it helped give him a perspective on mind and body that he felt he needed while in the middle of a war zone. He also said he loved the “catechism of the Ithaca episode”: he found it comforting and meditative while over there. This guy shows up every year at the Bloomsday celebration I go to (the same one I’ve gone to since 2004. Best Bloomsday celebration ever). He reads very well, with conviction and heart. He obviously has a strong personal response to the book. I look forward to seeing him every June 16.

The Ithaca episode is one of my favorites in the book. A series of questions and then answers about Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus’ first real encounter. The voice is omniscient, as though God is looking down on this oh-so-everyday encounter (the two men walk to Bloom’s, Bloom puts the kettle on, they talk, they go outside and piss, they talk some more).

An excerpt:

What did Bloom do at the range?
He removed the saucepan to the left hob, rose and carried the iron kettle to the sink in order to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow.

Did it flow?
Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of #5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 1/2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C.E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee, had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the importable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its umplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: Its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including billions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents: gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs, and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe) numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.

Having set the halffilled kettle on the now burning coals, why did he return to the stillflowing tap?
To wash his soiled hands with a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for), in fresh cold neverchanging everchanging water and dry them, face and hands, in a long redbordered holland cloth passed over a wooden revolving roller.

What reason did Stephen give for declining Bloom’s offer?
That he was hydrophobe, hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water (his last bath having taken place in the month of October of the preceding year), disliking the aqueous substances of glass and crystal, distrusting aquacities of thought and language.

What impeded Bloom from giving Stephen counsels of hygiene and prophylactic to which should be added suggestions concerning a preliminary wetting of the head and contraction of the muscles with rapid splashing of the face and neck and thoracic and epigastric region in case of sea or river bathing, the parts of the human anatomy most sensitive to cold being the nape, stomach, and thenar or sole of foot?
The incompatibility of aquacity with the erratic originality of genius.

What additional didactic counsels did he similarly repress?
Dietary: concerning the respective percentage of protein and caloric energy in bacon, salt ling and butter, the absence of the former in the lastnamed and the abundance of the latter in the firstnamed.

Which seemed to the host to be the predominant qualities of his guest?
Confidence in himself, an equal and opposite power of abandonment and recuperation.

What concomitant phenomenon took place in the vessel of liquid by the agency of fire?
The phenomenon of ebullition. Fanned by a constant updraught of ventilation between the kitchen and the chimneyflue, ignition was communicated from the faggots of precombustible fuel to polyhedral masses of bituminous coal, containing in compressed mineral form the foliated fossilised decidua of primeval forests which had in turn derived their vegetative existence from the sun, primal source of heat (radiant), transmitted through omnipresent luminiferous diathermanous ether. Heat (convected), a mode of motion developed by such combustion, was constantly and increasingly conveyed from the source of calorification to the liquid contained in the vessel, being radiated through the uneven unpolished dark surface of the metal iron, in part reflected, in part absorbed, in part transmitted, gradually raising the temperature of the water from normal to boiling point, a rise in temperature expressible as the result of an expenditure of 72 thermal units needed to raise I pound of water from 50° to 212° Fahrenheit.

What announced the accomplishment of this rise in temperature?
A double falciform ejection of water vapour from under the kettlelid at both sides simultaneously.

For what personal purpose could Bloom have applied the water so boiled?
To shave himself.

What advantages attended shaving by night?
A softer beard: a softer brush if intentionally allowed to remain from shave to shave in its agglutinated lather: a softer skin if unexpectedly encountering female acquaintances in remote places at incustomary hours: quiet reflections upon the course of the day: a cleaner sensation when awaking after a fresher sleep since matutinal noises, premonitions and perturbations, a clattered milkcan, a postman’s double knock, a paper read, reread while lathering, relathering the same spot, a shock, a shoot, with thought of aught he sought though fraught with nought might cause a faster rate of shaving and a nick on which incision plaster with precision cut and humected and applied adhered which was to be done.

Why did absence of light disturb him less than presence of noises?
Because of the surety of the sense of touch in his firm full masculine feminine passive active hand.

What quality did it (his hand) possess but with what counteracting influence?
The operative surgical quality but that he was reluctant to shed human blood even when the end justified the means, preferring in their natural order, heliotherapy, psychophysicotherapeutics, osteopathic surgery.

What lay under exposure on the lower middle and upper shelves of the kitchen dresser opened by Bloom?
On the lower shelf five vertical breakfast plates, six horizontal breakfast saucers on which rested inverted breakfast cups, a moustachecup, uninverted, and saucer of Crown Derby, four white goldrimmed eggcups, and open shammy purse displaying coins, mostly copper, and a phial of aromatic violet comfits. On the middle shelf a chipped eggcup containing pepper, a drum of table salt, four conglomerated black olives in oleaginous paper, an empty pot of Plumtree’s potted meat, an oval wicker basket bedded with fibre and containing one Jersey pear, a halfempty bottle of William Gilbey and Co’s white invalid port, half disrobed of its swathe of coralpink tissue paper, a packet of Epps’s soluble cocoa, five ounces of Anne Lynch’s choice tea at 2/- per lb. in a crinkled leadpaper bag, a cylindrical canister containing the best crystallised lump sugar, two onions, one the larger, Spanish, entire, the other, smaller, Irish, bisected with augmented surface and more redolent, a jar of Irish Model Dairy’s cream, a jug of brown crockery containing a noggin and a quarter of soured adulterated milk, converted by heat into water, acidulous serum and semisolidified curds, which added to the quantity subtracted for Mr Bloom’s and Mrs Fleming’s breakfasts made one imperial pint, the total quantity originally delivered, two cloves, a halfpenny and a small dish containing a slice of fresh ribsteak. On the upper shelf a battery of jamjars of various sizes and proveniences.

What attracted his attention lying on the apron of the dresser?
Four polygonal fragments of two lacerated scarlet betting tickets, numbered 887, 886.

What reminiscences temporarily corrugated his brow?
Reminiscences of coincidences, truth stranger than fiction, preindicative of the result of the Gold Cup flat handicap, the official and definitive result of which he had read in the Evening Telegraph, late pink edition, in the cabman’s shelter, at Butt bridge.

Where had previous intimations of the result, effected or projected, been received by him?
In Bernard Kiernan’s licensed premises 8, 9 and 10 Little Britain street: in David Byrne’s licensed premises, 14 Duke street: in O’Connell street lower, outside Graham Lemon’s when a dark man had placed in his hand a throwaway (subsequently thrown away), advertising Elijah, restorer of the church in Zion: in Lincoln place outside the premises of F. W. Sweny and Co (Limited) dispensing chemists, when, when Frederick M. (Bantam) Lyons had rapidly and successively requested, perused and restituted the copy of the current issue of the Freeman’s Journal and National Press which he had been about to throw away (subsequently thrown away), he had proceeded towards the oriental edifice of the Turkish and Warm Baths, 11 Leinster street, with the light of inspiration shining in his countenance and bearing in his arms the secret of the race, graven in the language of prediction.

What qualifying considerations allayed his perturbations?
The difficulties of interpretation since the significance of any event followed its occurrence as variably as the acoustic report followed the electrical discharge and of counterestimating against an actual loss by failure to interpret the total sum of possible losses proceeding originally from a successful interpretation.

His mood?
He had not risked, he did not expect, he had not been disappointed, he was satisfied.

What satisfied him?
To have sustained no positive loss. To have brought a positive gain to others. Light to the gentiles.

I have always loved these ruminative bizarre and humorous passages, they’re hypnotic, a hypnotic call-and-response, and so ridiculously detailed and obsessive, but I love them even more picturing them being read by this guy above, on the base in Iraq, in his bunk at night with a helmet-light, on break in the afternoon, staying in the shade. Creating a small space of calm around him.

Ulysses, both Homer’s and Joyce’s, is the story of exile, homesickness, and war (external or internal). When this man needed inspiration and strength, he wasn’t messing around. He went to the best.

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Stuff I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been on the move. Out in LA for 6 days, staying first with Alex and Chrisanne, and then checking into the Hotel California with my mother and two sisters. There was no pink champagne on ice, and we were able to check out any time we liked, just FYI.


We were 4 blocks away from where the asshole with explosives in his car was arrested, so that was unnerving. I’m from New York. I saw a plane fly through the air and crash into a skyscraper. I don’t scare easily. Fuck those people.

I’m broke so the flights I took out and back were arduous and involved, like, a 3.5 hour layover in Detroit, and stuff like that. I read the entire way. I rarely get time to read anymore. Here are the books I’ve been juggling.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr. The long-awaited second volume of the biography published by Lyle Leverich 20 years ago. Leverich died before he could finish it, and bequeathed all of his research to John Lahr, who has also been writing about Tennessee Williams for the entirety of his career. Leverich is a better writer than John Lahr (I don’t care for Lahr’s writing, in general), but what is so awesome about this book is the sheer AMOUNT of quotation. It’s almost like the text skips and hops from one quote to the next. It’s beautiful. The story is heart-wrenching, though. As always, what I am left with with Williams is drop-dead admiration at how MUCH he could accomplish against such personal odds, including the vicious critical indifference he experienced from the 1960s on (indifference which is a DISGRACE to our culture.) His late plays are some of his best and most daring work. Time has given Tennessee have the last laugh. He was ahead of everybody else’s curve, and still is, in many ways. I finished this one. It made me cry on the plane.

Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, by Robert Kaplan. Kaplan is a favorite author of mine (I’ve written about him extensively), and I have all of his books but he’s so prolific it’s hard to keep up. I read Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond and this one is sort of the second part of his “investigation” into the US military and how it operates. He’s not an academic. He’s a journalist. He embeds with these men and women, seeing their tasks and talents, talking to them, riding in submarines and on camels, and etc. He doesn’t sit in a study in Boston, writing from afar. Anyway, his stuff is great, and his writing is wonderful. I highly recommend him, in general. An interesting perspective.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Stephen Booth. This is the edition to get. (I wrote about Stephen Booth and this edition here.) I read one sonnet a morning, and then read Stephen Booth’s extensive footnotes. Which are unlike any other footnotes I have ever seen in my life. He is not concerned with paraphrasing the sonnets, or what they MEAN. He is interested in each word, and its history, and how a Renaissance/Elizabethan reader would have understood it. The puns, and layers, and inferences. Meaning is up to the reader. And each sonnet doesn’t have just one meaning. You have to be open to fluidity and complexity. If you are in any way squeamish about the word “cunt,” (and I get it, although I don’t share the squeamish-ness – that doesn’t mean I want the word thrown my way in emails or on the street, as sometimes happens) then Booth’s footnotes (and the sonnets themselves) will cause a tailspin! But Shakespeare “cunt” puns so often that you get immune to hearing the word. It’s a sexual joke. Shakespeare puns “penis” too. It’s everywhere. Sex is everywhere. Nothing has changed. I find it humorous to hear academics try to be gentlemanly or polite about it. Booth doesn’t have that problem. He’s like: “This word has multiple meanings including the obvious, it sounds a lot like ‘cunt.'” Moving on. I’ve done this chronological sonnet-reading before and I find it very meditative. Just one a day.

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (finished last month) and The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest (reading now), by Mark Z. Danielewsk. Huge HUGE fan of his work. His House of Leaves is the only book that has actually given me nightmares. The Familiar is a three-volume multi-narrator story about … I can’t tell yet. SOMETHING IS HAPPENING AND I CAN’T STOP READING.

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Identity, Lies, Music, and Love: A Conversation about Running on Empty for Bright Wall Dark Room


Chad Perman and I recently had an in-depth discussion about Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (an all-time favorite of mine, perpetually hovering around the ever-shifting Top 5) for the new issue of Bright Wall Dark Room (the theme of the issue is Identity.)

Our conversation is behind a subscription wall at Bright Wall Dark Room but I know some of you out there are subscribers (and subscription is very cheap, FYI), so here’s a link:

“Why Do You Have to Carry the Burden of Someone Else’s Life?”

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R.I.P. Chips Moman

Elvis Presley and producer Chips Moman, American Sound Studio, Memphis, 1969

RIP to the great music producer, songwriter, and studio owner Chips Moman, who was an essential and crucial part of the thrilling warp-and-weft of the Memphis music scene in the 60s and 70s (and beyond), whose work at STAX resulted in hits for many of the artists (many of whom needed an injection of new energy into their careers – a Chips specialty). But the list goes on and on. He recorded and produced Dusty Springfield’s still-legendary album Dusty in Memphis. One of Moman’s gifts was to stroll into the career of an already-developed artist and help them revolutionize themselves, take risks, move into new and bold directions. I mean, come on, we have this song (and album) because of Chips Moman:

Chips Moman is probably most famous for his work with Elvis Presley in a marathon 12-day session in 1969 (the only time they worked together). In 12 days at Chips’ American Sound Studio, Elvis recorded 36 tracks. Yes, you heard right. These tracks are intricate and beautiful, diverse and complex, with amazing orchestration and arrangements. A revolution, especially coming at the tail-end of a decade where his music output was chaotic, random, and dominated by the soundtracks.

Chips Moman ushered (pushed, really) Elvis into a modern sound. An adult male sound. A guy with responsibilities, a daughter, a marriage, a social conscience, an awareness of the world, and relatable human problems – of which “Suspicious Minds” is probably the best example.

Elvis’ songs up until “Suspicious Minds” often existed in a generic world of love and puppy-love and horndog-lust. It was his performances that made them unique. “Suspicious Minds,” though … it’s complicated, it’s dark, it’s grown up in other words and – perhaps inadvertently – tapped into the anxiety and paranoia of the late 60s, which ended up have real resonance in the early 70s, with Watergate and all the rest. Suspicion everywhere.

But all of the tracks still shiver with relevance and freshness, as well as a sense of the risks being taken. Or, maybe you need to know about what a huge risk Elvis was taking putting himself into a newcomer’s hands … how “not done” that was, how much the Colonel hated/feared/resented what was happening, how DIFFERENT Chips was than all the “Yes Men” around Elvis … Once you know all that, the tracks sound even more revolutionary. Elvis taking off the chains that bind.

And so it is no surprise that some of Elvis’ greatest hits – ever – were recorded during those 12 days. Now, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and “My Baby Left Me” and “Baby, Let’s Play House” are in the history books as some of the most important rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded, due to how they cracked apart the culture’s complacency, letting in a tsunami of the New. But when you turn on the radio today, you’re far more likely to hear “Suspicious Minds” than “Hound Dog.”

In the late 60s, Elvis was perceived as a has-been. People had affection for him still, but The Beatles had arrived, the Stones were rising, the world was changing, and Elvis was trapped in his movie contract, not touring, and his songs – many of them excellent – were buried on a mishmash of albums. He was no longer an “event”. He put out a gospel album that sold a bazillion copies, but he wasn’t at the forefront anymore. It drove him crazy, although publicly he was a good sport about it, and did end up covering quite a few Beatles songs.


The 1968 “comeback special” was an important signifier of what was to come, and, in that particular situation, producer Steve Binder played a similar role that Chips Moman was to play a year later: making Elvis really GET how much of a “has-been” he really was – or, at least, that that was the perception, and perception is reality. Steve Binder made Elvis go stand outside with him on Sunset Boulevard. People walked by and nobody mobbed Elvis. They didn’t even turn and look at him and it freaked Elvis OUT. As Dave Marsh said so beautifully in his book (which I talked about at length here), if there was one thing that Elvis wanted, more than anything else, from the very beginning, it was to be “an unignorable man.” After the Sunset Boulevard debacle, Elvis was like, “Oh hell to the NO” and proceeded to blow the roof off with his performance in that special. elvis presley comeback special
Elvis Presley during what is now known as the “comeback special,” 1968.

Chips Moman barged into Elvis’ own complacency, already shattered by the comeback special, during the recording sessions at American Sound only a couple of months later. He wanted Elvis to move on into the modern world, with new tracks, new songwriters, a new sound, a sound that MOMAN would choose, not Elvis, not the Colonel, not movie people who were financially invested in Elvis doing “same ol’ same ol.” Moman was a producer, damned proud of it, and he was not about to be bossed around. HE was in charge of the sessions, not Elvis, not the Colonel, and definitely not Elvis’ entourage. This took some balls, Moman was up against an entire Elvis industry, a rigid monolith at that point, as well as the way Elvis normally worked. Elvis was so talented he took it easy. Even when “taking it easy” he was better than most. But when he was pushed? Like Sam Phillips did at Sun? Like Steve Binder did with the television special? Like Chips Moman did in 1969? He moved MOUNTAINS.

The list of songs Elvis recorded at American Sound, under the guidance of Chips Moman, is, frankly, astonishing. Those 12 days resulted in two full albums, the main one being From Elvis in Memphis (voted #190 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time) with tracks to spare.


A short list of tracks on these albums:

“Long Black Limousine”
“Kentucky Rain”
“Power of My Love”
“True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”
“Any Day Now”
“Stranger In My Hometown”
“From a Jack to a King”
“You’ll Think Of Me”
“The Fair’s Moving On”
“Without Love (I Have Nothing)”
“Suspicious Minds”
“In the Ghetto”

12 days. Remember that.

There have been reams of commentary about those sessions. How Chips worked. How he helped Elvis to focus. How he banished the “entourage” from the room. How he got push-back and how he then insisted: this was not the way HE worked, with all of Elvis’ friends on the periphery. And Elvis – interestingly enough – was not one of the ones who pushed back. Elvis was an Alpha Dog, all right? He was the #1 Guy in any room he walked into. The musicians at American Sound felt it, and all testify that that was the case. These guys played for everybody and even they were blown away by what Elvis brought, just by walking into a room. But what comes along with true Alpha Dog status (and not the more toxic wanna-be version, where throwing your weight around comes out of insecurity) is that you RECOGNIZE other true Alpha Dogs. And Elvis recognized Chips Moman as the Leader. It took about 20 minutes for Elvis to get it, to realize: “Oh. Okay. This guy is a little different. This guy is the Alpha in this particular situation. Sure, I’ll go Beta for him, and save the Alpha Dog stuff for my performances.” Elvis did just that, and – in collaboration with Chips Moman – ushered in yet ANOTHER revolution in Elvis’ revolutionary career.

A small sample of what happened in those twelve days:

Elvis, performing “Suspicious Minds” a year later, in Las Vegas

One of Elvis’ sexiest and dirtiest tracks. And that’s saying something.

I have written about this track before and how moving I find it, how essential this track is to understanding Elvis and what he “brought.” In Gillian Welch’s song “Elvis Presley Blues,” she writes that when Elvis went onstage his “soul was at stake.” That’s true in the grinding-sex songs, it’s true in the gospel, and it’s also true in the ballads, like this one. Stunning performance.

Magnificent. Coming a year after Martin Luther King’s assassination – in Memphis, an event which devastated Elvis – it still carries such depth, such eerie depth

A huge and eternal hit. Elvis rarely addressed politics or controversial issues. Not because he didn’t have political convictions and opinions – he did – but because he didn’t see that as his role in the world. At a press conference before his Madison Square Garden performances, he was asked by a female journalist about his attitude towards “women’s lib” and Elvis replied, simply but firmly, “Honey, I’m an entertainer.” That answer, including the “Honey”, cannot be improved upon. He was asked about the Vietnam War and his answer was the same. “I’m not going to talk about that.” He was asked about the controversial situation in the songwriter community, with songwriters pulling their songs out of the publishing companies – a development that hamstrung people like Elvis who didn’t write his own stuff. In answer to that question, Elvis lied smoothly, like a superstar, saying he hadn’t heard about it – when he most certainly had, and he was extremely concerned about it. But his answer was classic: “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve been in Hawaii workin’ on my suntan.” Oh, Elvis. THAT’S a rock star. But here in “In the Ghetto”: he addressed cyclical poverty and racism. Maybe the lyrics are naive. And wouldn’t “pass muster” today. Irrelevant. Having someone like Elvis sing a song about such a topic was radical then and it’s radical now. This was Chips Moman’s influence.

RIP to Chips Moman. Without him, we wouldn’t have so much, SO MUCH. His impact has been incalculable.

Posted in Music, RIP | Tagged | 21 Comments

Puerto Ricans in Paris (2016)


It’s worth it for Luis Guzman alone. But then, isn’t everything?

My review of Puerto Ricans in Paris is up at

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