Happy Bloomsday!

To celebrate, let’s take a look at Joyce’s drawing of Leopold Bloom:

And here is 1955 photograph of Marilyn Monroe in a bathing suit reading Ulysses:

Does it get any better than that?  I think not. Here’s some background on the photo.


The New Yorker tells us why novels have bad endings (plus, the best ending ever!)

The last time we checked in on The New Yorker, someone was pontificating on why genre fiction by definition can’t be high art. Now someone else tells us why novels tend to have bad endings.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way and state that this basic premise is idiotic.  Some novels have great endings; some novels have lousy endings.  There is nothing inherent in the art form that makes it hard for Mark Twain, for example, to come up with a good ending for Huckleberry Finn (one of the article’s prime examples). Her basic explanation for this purported phenomenon has something to do with entropy and makes absolutely no sense to me.  But instead of analyzing it, let me offer my own theory of why some endings are better than others.

Writers don’t start with entire plots; they start with ideas or images from which the plot emerges (usually with a lot of hard work).  Sometimes the image has to do with the ending; sometimes it doesn’t.  And the image tends to be what’s most vital, most deeply imagined, about the novel.  I don’t know anything about the genesis of Huckleberry Finn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started with Twain imagining a white boy and a black man floating down the Mississippi on a raft.  This is worth a novel!  But then you have to get them onto the raft, and you have to explain what happens to them afterwards, and none of that other stuff is quite as interesting.  The image is the art; everything else is craft.

OK, enough of that.  Thinking about endings made me want to re-read the best ending ever, which is the final few paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead.  I can imagine Joyce constructing a story just to lead up to this moment, with Gabriel staring out the window at the snow, thinking of his wife’s lost lover.  It’s an ending that makes your soul swoon softly, as it should in the presence of great art.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

In which I contemplate my eternal damnation

During my early morning run the other day I was thinking about this post, where I suggested that, according to standard Catholic doctrine, a pretty large percentage of Americans over the past forty years were prime candidates for eternal damnation.  And it occurred to me that, according to the standard doctrine I learned growing up, I’m going to hell too, along with a large chunk of the people I know.  Not because of anything to do with abortion, but because I was given the gift of faith and rejected it, turning my back on God’s love.

Hell doesn’t come up much nowadays–I’m sure parts of the Church find the fire-and-brimstone stuff embarrassing.  This Times article (“Hell Is Getting a Makeover”) points out that the latest Catholic catechism contains only five paragraphs about hell in a 700-page book.  And the pain of hell, we now believe, is not physical but mental:

Hell is best understood as the condition of total alienation from all that is good, hopeful and loving in the world. What’s more, this condition is chosen by the damned themselves, the ultimate exercise of free will, not a punishment engineered by God.

Of course, to get to this spot, the theologians have to go the “Jesus’ words shouldn’t be taken literally” route, since Jesus had lots to say about unquenchable fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth and so on.  But that’s theology for you.

In any case, hell is still real, and apparently I’m going there.  Maybe I’ll contemplate Pascal’s wager on my deathbed–but I doubt it.

And I can’t help thinking that the sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far more interesting vision of hell than the etiolated modern view.  Here is just a taste.

The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.

That should’ve kept those Irish lads on the straight and narrow!

Happy Bloomsday

…celebrating the travels of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Bloomsday.  I didn’t know that the manuscript of Ulysses resided in Philadelphia. Here is a page from the Circe episode:

Speaking of revisions, Joyce did his share.  I remember seeing a page from the manuscript of Finnegan’s Wake at the British Library, and every single word on it was crossed out.

Here is a great reading of the final lines of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.  In it, Joyce probably breaks every rule of good writing.  And it doesn’t matter; fiction doesn’t get any better than this: