Saturday, 2 February 2013

Happy Birthday, James Joyce!


"Do fish ever get seasick?"
―  Leo Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses

What's the deal with Ulysses?

Happy Birthday, James Joyce!

Joyce believed that birthdays were important.  To make this birthday joyful, I thought I'd write a short and sweet post focusing on humour in Ulysses.   

I've often compared Ulysses to Seinfeld.  When you peel back Ulysses's creative writing styles and analogies to Homer's Odyssey you won't find any hidden meaning -- it's a book about nothing.

Below are a few of the random musings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses...just imagine Seinfeld delivering these lines in a comedy bit about food and you'll get the picture.

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"Do fish ever get seasick?"

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"...why is it that saltwater fish are not salty? How is that?"

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"All the odd things people pick up for food....out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years."

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"That archduke Leopold ... used to eat the scruff off his own head? Cheapest lunch in town."

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"...what about oysters. Unsightly like a clot of phlegm.  Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out?"

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"Swans ... swim down here sometimes to preen themselves. No accounting for tastes. Wonder what kind is swanmeat. Robinson Crusoe had to live on them."

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Sound like Seinfeld?  It's not -- it's all Joyce's main character: Leo Bloom. Joyce created the observational humour routine decades before Seinfeld was born.

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And while we're on the subject of Seinfeld, at the outset of Ulysses, Joyce makes reference to the "scrotumtightening sea."  If you're a Seinfeld fan, you know what he's talking about: "shrinkage."  Here's some dialogue from the Seinfeld episode that, many believe, first exposed shrinkage:

"Do women know about shrinkage?"
"What do you mean, like laundry?"
"Like when a man goes swimming... Afterwards..."
"It shrinks?"
"Like a frightened turtle."
"Why does it shrink?"
"It just does."
"I don't know how you guys walk around with those things."

-- George, Elaine and Jerry, in "The Hamptons" episode, Seinfeld

James Joyce called it "The scrotumtightening sea"

Most everyone assumes Seinfeld broke new ground with the "shrinkage" episode.  But the truth is: Joyce had already been there -- done that. Generations ago.

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And to emphasize the point that Ulysses is about nothing, here's one of my favourite quotes from the book.  Bloom is in a brothel and starts fantasizing about giving a speech in Hebrew.  Yet he only knows a few odd Hebrew words, so he just says whatever comes to mind.  The result is this meaningless and hilarious melange:

"Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith."

-- Ulysses, James Joyce 

Believe it or not, it's an actual word-for-word quote right out of the pages of Ulysses. Go figure.

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And finally, if you're still not convinced that Ulysses is a book about nothing, check out this quote from Joyce:

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

-- James Joyce to Djuna Barnes, 
in an interview published in Vanity Fair (March 1922)

Cue the Seinfeld theme, and fade out. 

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