On Sharing Words and My Love of James Joyce
How does one endure after they read emotions? Words that cease to be themselves- just compilations of letters, simple syntax, marks on paper trying to show what could never otherwise be shown in a physical way- cease to be words and become bearers of a higher plane, of indescribable feelings, illogical inward thoughts that are not thought but intuitively understood only as they flow from within the kidneys of the thinker, words that make your organs as light and delicate kindling and you catch your breathe in attempt to stifle the blaze climbing in your rib cage like the mountains of High Park? You have a choice. Should you open you mouth, allowing the words to spill out from you like cinders to ignite the others, or, alternatively, burn out quietly and unappreciated? Or do you hold them dearly inside to burn in your secret heart forever? This is the challenge that James Joyce continuously presents me with, as well as facing within my own consciousness as an author.
Ever since elementary school I’ve had an interest in reading Ulysses tumbling around in the back of my mind although I never made an effort to even see if the book was at the library. I’d never heard of James Joyce, but rather, my interest was peaked when we would sing the song Camp Granada, you know the one- “Hello muddah, hello faddah/ Here I am at Camp Granada/ Camp is very entertaining/And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining…” yeah.. so there’s a line in there toward the middle “And the head coach wants no sissies so he reads to us from something called Ulysses.” Being not a sissy myself, I figured I should probably give it go sometime.
My freshman year I took this literature class with Blair Oliver. It was like modern literature or something, I think it was from the 1800s on. We read English romantic verse, Madam Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, One Hundred Years of Solitude, something else I didn’t bother reading… AND we read Dubliners. If you don’t know who Blair Oliver is that is highly unfortunate. He talks and you know that he is telling what he believes is the truth, not teaching a curriculum, teaching what he has decided is important based on the impact it has made on his own person. The excitement and passion that emanates from him arrest you, you can’t move, you can’t even take notes because you don’t want to take your eyes off of him for a second. He draws all of your attention. To hear how this beautiful man with his dark curling hair and high Irish cheekbones first discovers Gabriel Garcia Marquez on an airplane, how he traveled to Dublin to arm wrestle at Mulligan’s just like Farrington in “Counterparts”, and how he believe words should be used to strike a cord and ignite emotion, going as far as to give people the exact wrong card for a given situation is unbelievably inspiring. It’s like a glowing, tangerine sun rising in your soul. He’s since publish a compilation of short stories into a book called Last Call, it’s as good as I had hoped coming from someone like him, it carries that same sense of importance that he showed us of the classics, and like the classics I don’t feel like I understand the full scope of it. I mean I understand the story, but there is more there, underneath, that I believe connects to the readers own emotions, memories, and experiences in a profound way, and yet I lack these things because of being a female I think. It’s still wonderful and I encourage anyone, but especially men, to read it.
But anyway, back to Dubliners. This is where I got introduced to James Joyce and came to believe that he must be the greatest author of all time. He was obsessed with words. Language is so inadequate to portray anything more than simple ideas but Joyce was committed to using it to the fullest extent, always choosing the exact right word and the exact right combination to express every facet of the meaning he wanted to present. Not just every idea but every individual word has layers of meaning and alludes to other facets of a broad, all encompassing idea that moves far beyond just what is happening in the actual story. In fact looking at the stories themselves, the plot and what not, they are actually quite dull, nothing really happens or maybe something happens be there is no resolution, no explanation. But digging deeper you see that the story is about something else entirely, something inside a person or a philosophical theme that has ran through human kind through all history, emotion, thought pattern, human nature, religion, morals, imperfection, character. He means every word he writes. A man dedicated to expressing everything we experience in life in a tangible way, not just a story for entertainment value. So, although I wasn’t exactly mad for Dubliners, a love for James Joyce and a deep appreciation of his purpose has lead me to hold him steadily in my heart for years to come. I bought Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, as I was already in the middle of another book, simply flipped through it quickly before adding it to my growing ‘wait-list’ pile, but not before being completely taken in by descriptions of girls on beaches and yellow boots running. I had to force myself to put it down before I began reading from the middle to the end and disregarding the beginning. I still have yet to read it.
When I read that my favorite bookstore was going out of business I ran over there in hurry, eager to see it one last time and also use up my whopping $90 in credit I had accumulated. Although I bought more books that I could carry the shining moment of the day was when I found a copy of Ulysses! My very own copy for what ended up being only $3.75! My heart leaped a little when I saw it and I had to look twice but yes there it was, the book I have been waiting for my whole life just sitting there on the shelf so I snatched it up with snatching hands faster than my great grandmothers, looking around wildly for any wily predators that may have the audacity to take it from top of the pile perched precariously in my arms. MINE. Also, I grabbed another copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you know, just to be on the safe side, and Finnegan’s Wake, which upon further inspection kind of scares the crap out of me.
And, again, I still have yet to read any of them.
But the other day while I was pursuing the vast wasteland of Facebook where language and thought goes to die I was suddenly bamboozled by the brilliance of James Joyce in butterfly form, an except from Ulysses that someone had formed into a lovely interpretive poster, and thus we get back to my original question. I mean, you can’t just hit the share button can you? That’s not good enough for those words. I can’t send it to someone in particular because it wouldn’t fit the situation. I can’t show it to my sister over my shoulder because she doesn’t love Joyce like I do, she doesn’t even know him. So what? I just keep it to myself, all the while realizing that this thing, this beautiful, profound, diamond of a thing is just floating around the internet for all to see? And it’s the same with my own writing. I feel like when I write something it is pure, it’s intentions are no more than to simply record my thoughts. Letting other people see is like a defilement, like its no longer clean and virginal. Now it’s intention is to impress, to teach another person what I see, to explain. If I write a story I cannot let someone else read it until it is all finished because then my focus goes from writing down the story like it happens to writing something that other people will like. And yet I wish to share my writing with people. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Nature from his second series that at once summarizes my feelings and exposes my fears-
The pages thus written are to him burning and fragrant; he reads them on his knees by midnight and by the morning star; he wets them with his tears; they are sacred; too good for the world, and hardly yet to be shown to the dearest friend. This is the man-child that is born to the soul, and her life still circulates in the babe. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. After some time elapses, he begins to wish to admit to his friend to this hallowed expiration, and with hesitation, yet with firmness, exposes the pages to his eye. Will they not burn his eyes? The friend coldly turns them over, and passes from the writing to conversation, with easy transition, which strikes the other party with astonishment and vexation.
Your writing is like a child born of your soul, so young and tender, closer to you than your own heart, a piece of your own body. Great care must be taken in choosing to let someone read it, they must be worthy of holding such a precious thing, able to understand and appreciate, loving enough to caress gently its baby skin lest they inadvertently hurt you, hurt your insides. And yet we must be humble enough to face the truth, to our own selves these words are burning and fragrant, “for no man can write anything who does not think that what he writes is for the time the history of the world”, and yet we can’t all be writing the deepest, most strikingly important words of all time. To other these may be nothing more than an interesting anecdote, and friendly favor to pass the time; but still, how vexing this would be.
So what is one to do when possessing the great beauty and power of words well chosen, whether they are ours or someone else’s? To share with another person would be such an experience, imagine having such emotions and feeling, such greatness holding you together like golden thread stitched between your hearts. And yet we cannot disgrace the words by spreading them around like mayonnaise, so white and mundane. To see it go unappreciated, under appreciated, or misunderstood would be such a pain to the soul. Should we risk such injury?