Message in a Bottle


By a calendrical coincidence, this year’s Father’s Day is an especially literary one. It falls on June 16th, which is celebrated annually, at least by English majors, as Bloomsday. That’s the day on which Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, peregrinates around Dublin, and it’s the day on which Joyce’s ardent fans don period garb and recreate that journey by traipsing across the city in Bloom’s footsteps. On this side of the globe we just hoist a Guinness or two and affect an Irish accent for a few hours.

Ulysses has a lot to do with fatherhood, actually. Some representative quotes: 

  • A father, said Stephen, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.
  • Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?  
  • [A son’s] growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

Sheesh. No wonder people drink on Bloomsday. Lighten up, Mr. Joyce.

imageMaybe yours is the rare dad who enjoys massive modernist classics about the torments of fatherhood. Or like me, maybe you are that dad. If so, you can visit Seattle’s Town Hall for an afternoon of live performance. Professional actors will be reading selections from Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners along with some excerpts of Ulysses. It shouldn’t be all that depressing, in fact. Joyce was never afraid of confronting the harshness of life, but he’s also one of the most inquisitive and accepting authors of all time. Leopold Bloom shares the open nature of his creator, and Ulysses is famous for its triumphant conclusion, when Leopold’s wife Molly unfurls an all-embracing soliloquy like none other:

…and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the 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.

For Joyce, the final word of any philosophical argument was … well, you know.

One doesn’t usually think of a monumental writer in the context of domestic life, but Joyce was devoted to his children and indulgent of their whims. He had a close rapport with his artistic but troubled daughter, and at least one biography (Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake) claims her as a major inspiration for his work. Perhaps the best elucidation of their complex relationship can be found in a graphic novel by Bryan and Mary Talbot called Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is another famous figure of fiction who was familiar with family life. Given the times in which he lived, he wasn’t exactly a primary caregiver, but he did spend considerable quality time with the kids. When his wife and daughters traveled to visit relatives, Hawthorne was left alone for three weeks with his five-year-old son, and the experience resulted in a charming diary called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. This isn’t a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child narrative by a patriarch, but a story by a gentle, fun-loving parent that wouldn’t be out of place on a contemporary daddy blog.

An even briefer, yet equally profound depiction of a father and child can be found in a short story by Donald Barthelme that I’ve written about before. It’s called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong" and can be read in its entirety in about a minute. Its silliness only partly masks real feeling, and there’s a useful reminder in there too: "That is one of the satisfying things about being a parent—you’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold."

My move this Father’s Day will be to grab some books in one arm and my kids in the other. If there’s room in there somewhere for an Irish stout so I can toast Mr. Joyce, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Barthelme, and all the other dads out there, so much the better.


Legislators Are the Unacknowledged Poets of the World

On June 16th, while catching up with the news of the week, I read several articles about a not-so-minor political flap in Michigan. While the state legislature was debating a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life was in danger, two female representatives were chastised by the Speaker of the House for “failing to maintain…decorum” and had their speaking rights suspended for the following day. One of the women had pushed for an amendment requiring that men prove their lives were in danger before obtaining vasectomies, while the other had concluded her remarks by sarcastically saying she was “flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina.”

The idea that it was inappropriate to say “vagina” while discussing issues involving human reproduction struck many observers the wrong way, and an outcry was heard across the nation. Was this mere prudish neo-Victorianism or was it Orwellian political oppression? (Note to self: Is it sexist to cite Orwell instead of Atwood here?) Others insisted it was the legislator’s tone, not her use of the word, that was being censured. There’s surely some truth to that, but I’m just as sure that far less decorous comments have been made by other politicians without gags being applied.

The incident reminded me of the brouhaha over the book that won the 2007 Newbery Prize. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron stars a 10-year-old protagonist named Lucky Trimble, who on the first page of the novel overhears a conversation she doesn’t fully understand. A former ne’er-do-well is regaling his buddies with an anecdote about the moment his life hit rock bottom, and it involves his dog being bitten “on the scrotum” by a rattlesnake. Many people (few of whom had actually read the book) objected to the very specific anatomical reference and claimed that there was no place in children’s literature for such vocabulary. Those who did read it knew that Patron had more than shock value in mind when she chose to employ it; Lucky’s development as a character is closely tied to a search for a loving, trustworthy adult who can explain things she knows she’s not equipped to deal with on her own. The message sent by the book as a whole was not that the word or the subject was fit for casual preteen use, but that kids need guidance as they grow older and confront adult topics. Patron, a children’s librarian when not wearing her author’s cap, agreed that parents should make their own judgments about whether the story was suitable for their kids, and encouraged discussion about the topic. Seems to me that this was the right response in that situation, and that more discussion, not less, was what was needed in the Michigan case.

I found an irony in reading about that conflict when I did, because of a much earlier controversy over the appropriateness of various words. James Joyce’s encyclopedic masterpiece Ulysses was published in 1922, but wasn’t legal for sale in the US until a landmark ruling in 1933 that declared it a serious work of art despite its more than occasional crudeness. Its characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and many others—get up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the novel, and virtually all the proper (and improper) names for bodily parts and functions come into play at some point (“vagina” makes but a lone appearance, so far as I can tell). All the thoughts and actions in the book, base or exalted, famously take place on June 16th, a date that’s celebrated every year by Joyce fans who call it “Bloomsday.” It was on that date in 1904 that the fictional Buck Mulligan stood on the frigid Irish shore and violated taboo by referring to “[t]he snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” The Martello tower withstood the utterance of this vivid and accurate description, and so will our republic weather any storm of words from the pens of our authors or the mouths of our elected representatives.


Image of mute Justice by Miel Prudencio Ma.

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