The Croagh, ab initio

A Sobering Dose of What’s Necessary

A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.

James Joyce, Ulysses

There is a small gate that marks the official beginning of the traditional route for climbing Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland. It is a point of transition, just a few yards from the shamrock blessing of its most celebrated saint and the initial introduction of this unruly and rocky Reek (the Irish name for a “small hill” and the given name of this summit by the locals).

From the Parking Lot, you climb a wide staircase leading to the statue of St. Patrick, then a brief stony and bumpy incline, and next the gate. Taken together they offer a silent word of caution : “Be aware brave traveler, there is far more of this and worse beyond this entrance. Now, off you go, with a blessing and a little taste of what’s ahead.”

“I have done it a couple of times,” forewarned one of these locals, a woman I guessed to be near my age of 60 years gone. “It will be intense.” I expected her to say it would be “challenging,” “difficult,” or maybe, “extreme.” But she had chosen her word carefully and wisely. The exactitude of her on-point and clear description would return to me again and again in the hours spent beyond the gate.

The Reek will be intense and it has earned the right to be so. In 1994, Archeologist Gerry Walsh discovered glass beads dating from the 3rd Century B.C.E. and other pre-Christian evidences of the ancient and sacred significance of this holy mountain. Near the summit are indications of a Celtic hill fort, where settlers living in the Bronze and Iron Ages constructed thatched roof homes and carved-out ridges on elevated slopes as a means of protection and defense from outside threats.

St. Patrick at the base of the Croagh bearing his name

It was the fabled Maewyn Succat, a former slave living in the later 4th or early 5th Century who would make this mountain famous. Taken from Roman Britain by Irish pirates at the age of 16, Succat would eventually escape his captors after working 6 years on Irish farms. Newly liberated and upon returning to his native land, he devoted himself more deeply into his Catholic faith, taking on a new name for himself, perhaps as a means to acknowledge his hard-won and elevated status, once a despised slave to become a respectable, noble and virtuous contributor to society.

But you can never completely leave your past behind, even those parts that shame and trouble you. The newly-named Patrick would hear the voice of his former captors in Ireland pleading for his return as God’s own claim and call upon his life. As immortalized on the columned statue bearing his name in the lovely and nearby town of Westport, it was those who had once abused and exploited him now pleading out, “We ask you boy, come and walk once more among us.”

Though never officially canonized as a “Saint,” the reputation of St. Patrick would grow to legendary proportions. Credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish, he is also remembered for spending 40 days and nights in fasting and prayer at the peak of Croagh Patrick.

Christian pilgrims have been flocking to scale its heights ever since. Twice a year, there are walking pilgrimages from Ballinrobe, also in County Mayo. This 40 kilometers trek culminates by scaling the south-side of the Reek and finishes with a service at the small chapel on the summit. On the last Sunday of July, you’ll find 25,000 on “Reek Sunday,” commemorating their Saint and his blessed mountain. Some even prepared to made the arduous climb barefooted or face down on hands and knees.

Onward On the Reek

Christian now went to the spring, and drank thereof, to refresh himself
[Isa. 49:10], and then began to go up the hill, saying— “The hill, though high, I covet to ascend, The difficulty will not me offend.”

John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

My decision to climb Croagh Patrick was planned in order to culminate my Sabbatical trip to Ireland. I had been introduced to the great city of Dublin and much of Ireland through the reading and studying of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But it was this Saint and his sacred mountain where I heard my name being called.

Ulysses is a complicated journey of one day in the life of busy urbanites. Climbing the Reek, is a challenging, most of the day (at least for me– some elite athletes have been known to finish the round trip in under 40 minutes) kind of commitment. It would be a journey of heavy-breathing, heart-beating, and hair-raising exhilaration.

“Could I do it, with a bum knee promised for a replacement?” spoke the quiet voice of doubt within me. Just last summer, I was laid up for a week from nothing more severe than a walk around my mostly flat, well-groomed, comfortably-paved and sidewalk lined neighborhood?” For six – months, the Reek was patiently waiting my answer. “I will be here, when you are ready, if you are ready.”

The Day is Young and The Croagh Waits in the Distance

One faith is bondage. Two are free. In the trust of old love.

Wendel Berry, Homecoming

OFundamental to any success I have every achieved is attributed to the supportive people who have helped me meet a challenging endeavor. For this adventure, I credit my wife, Donna. The day we had chosen for the climb began with overcast skies but held no promise of rain, which would have been an absolutely game-ending hazard for our plans. Though fog had settled upon the summit, the day was young. Even more erratic than our home state of Kentucky, the weather in Ireland can change in an instance. Perhaps it will clear up by the time we arrive to offer the stunning views we have heard so much about? Donna and I set out filled with excitement, optimism and a healthy appreciation for going as far as our legs, backs and common sense would allow.

The walking sticks were as essential to our progress as our mutual encouragement to one another. Rented at the base of the climb (4 Euros each with 2 Euros back if returned), I chose my companion wisely and thought of Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant in Ulysses, and the spiritual and metaphorical significance it entails. I also wondered about my link with the shared partners, all strangers who had also depended upon its support in the past, as I was also certain to do in the long moments ahead. I would soon discover its necessity by providing a minimum of three points of contact to the steady incline at all times. I imagined the trinitarian-driven and committed St. Patrick would be pleased. Two is better than one. Three the perfect balance. Four, the absolute most before things become over-crowded.

After the first 30 minutes, things were pretty manageable. We were fresh upon our journey. Children skipped their way up with their siblings and parents. Older folks, like us, had pushed up, sometimes with our free hands upon hips and knees but moving steadily forward. Before the hour was out, we began to feel the strain to the thighs and calves as the temperatures begin to rise with the warming sun. While still overcast, we were amazed at the incredible scenery our measured pace of walking allowed us to relish.

Wild in that wilderness, we roam the distances of our faith, safe beyond the bounds of what we know.

Wendel Berry, A Homecoming

Climbing the Croagh Patrick is a metaphor for the pilgrimage of life. Sometimes the path is easy and we can breeze through it without many concerns. Sometimes the path is incredibly hard and can only be endured with careful steps, all planned out in un-hurried and manageable stages.

During these tough times, your focus is limited to your most immediate surroundings. On the Croagh, it was often no greater than the cautious planting of one foot in front of the other. For a while, you felt like a slug wobbling across a large pebble, inching your way along. Will this ever end? But after a while, if you take the time to stop and turn around, you are amazed at your actual progress. And by taking this little bit of time; and granting yourself some patience, some moments to sit and process, and rest rather than work, and breathe those desperate breaths of renewal, you can realize a few treasured seconds to finally look all around, and ponder the magnificence of your existence enveloped within the awesome beauty of life.

I could not be more appreciative of Donna. Not only had she endured an inexperienced driver (me) on the narrow and twisting roads of the Irish countryside, at times traveling with held-breath on the precarious passenger side of a car skimming within inches of the hedges and stone-walls that hugged the roads necessary to get there, but she had set off on this risky venture as well.

All of this in the context of the past three years of her managing chronic back pain, scoliosis, and degenerative disk disease. She had nearly reached the half way point, close to the 400 meter mark of the 763 meters required to reach the summit. It was time for clarity, for upon the Reek there is always a constant assessment being made.

We found a rock large enough for both of us to sit and deliberate. Once the decision was made to separate, we had been at it for an hour and a half and I had no idea of the difficulty ahead. As first-timers climbers to the Reek, our minds were always busy trying to guess beyond our limited horizon, working through each section bit by bit, and attempting to envision past the next ridge of what we were about to ask our bodies to do. I was going to try, at least, to make it to the level section between the two hills.

Donna also brought the mystery rosary. In 2001, she had run a marathon in Rome for the American Diabetics Association. On the way, she had taken four different rosaries from family and friends, each in their own individual plastic bags to be blessed by the Pope: John Paul II. Surprisingly, upon returning to the States there was an extra rosary in her baggage. None of her traveling companions had placed it there and its origin has remained a mystery ever since.

Leacht Beanain* facing East away from Croagh Patrick

This rosary, carried by Donna was given to me as I began to attempt the rest of the climb solo. After another 45 minutes, I had reached my goal. At 550 meters, the more leveled path is a most welcomed relief. And another area for some very serious evaluation. The hiker can look at the amazing views to the northeast and southeast of the ascent, before turning around to ponder the ominous and most arduous final section.

The calves were already on fire. I had moderated the knee pain with careful use of the walking stick. Breathing was being forced to the outside corners of the mouth. Watching my heart rate on the iWatch, I would rest whenever it peaked 160 bpm. I was alone. Cloud cover was still swirling around the summit. There was no promise of a more scenic view than the one I was now enjoying. What if I re-injured my leg or passed out or twisted an ankle or snapped my shin on the steep and rocky path going down? I was not coming off this mountain injured.

The View from Leacht Beanain*

I set the mystery rosary in front of me as I faced the summit and spent 15 precious minutes trying to make a crucial decision. Was this the end of my first and perhaps only experience upon the Croagh?

Read Part Two here.

*I believe this is Leacht Beanain (named after St. Patrick’s disciple, Benignus) and described in the Reek Sunday Station Guide as a small circular cairn of stones at the base of the cone.

A Land of Beauty, Diversity and Kindness

Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now.

James Joyce, Ulysses

I’ve played a little game while in Dublin on and off over the span of 10 days. Could I spot the same person in a different place separated by any small length of time? There was only one chap, a Dubliner whom I recognized from a neighborhood pub on Parnell Street walking through a different corner a few days later. He was described by the bartender as an “(adjective withheld) lunatic”.

Small Sample of the Books at the James Joyce Tower and Museum

In Ulysses, you are introduced to over 200 characters, many of them overlapping throughout the unfolding events of June 16, 1904. A principle theme driving the plot is wondering about the chance encounter between the two main characters: Steven Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Stephen, like Joyce is a sensitive and gifted young man who lacks an older mentor and guide. Leopold is an equally sensitive and reflective older man who carries the consequences of estrangement and grief from the loss of his own son due to a premature death.

Throughout the novel, the son in search of a father-figure and the forlorn father in search of a son provides the tension of several near-misses until at the exhausting day’s end, they meet and carry forward the culminating interaction the reader has been waiting to experience with them.

Grafton Street, Dublin
June 15, 2019

I suppose this Dublin is still around for those who travel in familiar circles. I’ve enjoyed meeting many locals who pride themselves on the importance of extending kindness and hospitality as cardinal virtues. Whether inside the busy metropolis of Ireland’s largest and most diverse city or out in the beautiful countryside, the people I’ve met are some of the friendliest ever encountered.

David, an 84 year-old Jungian psychoanalyst from London has been regularly coming to Dublin for over 50 years to celebrate Bloomsday. He spoke of the city’s familiarity, well-known buildings along recognizable streets. The celebrations of Ulysses are still on-going. The life-blood of River Liffey still pours essential vitality into the heart of Dublin and Ireland herself. There was a great deal of celebratory joy in his annual pilgrimage to this Irish capital.

A Hippocampus Light Post on Gratten Bridge, Dublin

But it is seldom you hear English spoken upon the streets or in the buses and trams of the busy city. It seems this development has been occurring over the past 20 years. Dublin is an incredibly diverse city, more so than any I can ever remember visiting. Such complexity is a powerful challenge for any city. Most I spoke with considers it valuable. “It makes us more tolerant,” reflected one Irishman in his mid-60s. Another, in high-government challenged me when I said I was adjusting to being in a foreign country. “No!” he gently chastised me, “You are in my country and I am not calling you a guest, but a friend. You are in another part of your home.”

The Daniel O’Connell statue during Pride Month, Dublin

Lookout for the Irish. They have been at the intersection of migration and hosptiality for thousands of years. They were the first city in Europe to affirm same-sex marriage. They are extremely kind to the millions of tourists who come their way from every corner of the globe. They are a shining model of what a world of welcome, freedom and inclusion might be.

Hold Fast

The Howth Peninsula

The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind.

James Joyce, Ulysses

This past week offered an incredibly wonderful unique occasion for myself and my two sons. As young adults with busy lives and often thousands of miles between us, we were together sharing Ireland memories for almost four days. Our trip included the Guinness Storehouse, the amazing 9th Century Book of Kells under the Long Room at Trinity College, enjoying the food and people throughout Dublin’s busy streets and sidewalks and taking quite a dubious, anxious and all-around thrilling adventure driving through the Wicklow mountains.

Every moment is unique, fewer still those we might call special.

Joyce’s Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904, but was written throughout the First World War and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. Looking back through the benefits of history, we read about the ordinary lives of over 200 Dublin characters and how radically their lives are certain to change in the 10 – 15 years coming.

The same can be said for us. The winds of history and circumstance can turn in a moment. The slow, steady and relentless march of time waits for no one. It just keeps moving and we are constantly left wondering how to find ourselves at peace within it.

“The Linesman” by Dony MacManus on the banks of River Liffey, Dublin

It’s time for some new definitions. Every moment might be unique, but any day there is shelter, food, companionship, and a meaning we can gather from the seemingly capriciousness of life is, indeed, very special.

I will treasure the time I shared with my sons in Ireland. It was exceptional. And so too, this moment of reflection, memory and gratitude.

For Fergus Rules the Brazen Cars

Sunrise in Jessamine County, Kentucky – May 18, 2019

Every sentence in ‘Ulysses’ has more than one meaning and sometimes many meanings.

Frank Delaney

And a great burden was upon his back.

Pilgrim’s Progress (p. 1)

It was early in the reading of Ulysses, barely through the first 10 pages, when I stumbled upon the Fergus’ poem referenced in the last blog. Only three lines from the poem would be included when it was sung by Mulligan descending the Martello stairwell midway through the first chapter. I was hooked. I wanted to know more.

The first bit of help came from Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. There I learned about the poem’s inclusion in the play the Countess Cathleen, and became acquainted with its actual short length, only two short stanzas in a simple ABC rhythmic progression. I also discovered its author was the legendary Irish poet, and 1923 recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature, W.B. Yeats.

My journey with Joyce had barely begun and I was on the short end of the knowledge I craved. It would begin by scrambling to figure out who exactly is Fergus? And what is a “brazen car?” And what event or lesson is being referenced for our consideration?

And like the many paths you are lead to follow while reading Ulysses, it’s easy to burn through several afternoons trying to run down all the leads. Allow me save you some time on this one. If you try to google “brazen cars,”on Youtube, you’ll end up with an assortment of videos showing “brazen car thieves” (This one may have been my favorite waste of time).

If you have kids or grandkids, you may recognize the name Fergus, as in Fergus the traction train from the popular Thomas and Friends children’s stories. For those trying to remember, he’s the one who speaks with a persistent cough because of his dusty work upon the rails. These stories have been around a long time, since 1945. Yet, they are at least 50 years too late for my interests. Another dead-end.

But my Youtube search was not totally worthless. I did unearth a few excellent resources on The History of the Celts from Archeologist Barry Cunliffe. Who knew they may have originated from middle Europe, rather than Ireland?

Next, I turned to the online digital library known as JTSOR (I was still able to access it through my old Lexington Theological Library ID card, score!) and found a couple of very interesting articles on Yeats and The Countess Cathleen (I’ve updated the bibliography posted on May 13, 2019).

If you’re curious, I also consulted Wikipedia. But at first, I found some of their material more confusing than straightforward and wondered in the back of my mind if there needed to be a little more confirmation from at least one or two other sources.

I had more luck tracking down Fergus by turning to Irish mythology. Once you wade through the nearly ridiculous and stereotypical renditions from Disney Studios’ production of Brave, you’ll learn how he was a great mythical King with a collection of grand sagas and a host of (what we call today) “complicated” relationships.

But there’s more than one Fergus. Which one was right? Wikipedia helped me identify a spurious series of anywhere from 37 to 45 different Scottish Kings who supposedly linked a Fergus I with a Fergus II, separated by a span of 700 years and ending in the 6th Century. Believed authentic throughout the 12-18th Centuries, this “genealogical myth” proudly boasted the Fergus name.

But, it was all later proved to be counterfeit. Nothing more than a perpetuated lie designed for bragging rights of the supremacy of the Scottish over their English and Irish neighbors.

The New Day Begins with Summer Around the Corner
Jessamine County, Kentucky, May 18, 2019

At this point, the best I can gather is how Yeats was referring to Fergus mac Roich or mac Roig, or mac Rossa, or maybe Mor mac Eirc, son of Erc the legendary king of Dal Riata, linked to the Fergus II from the 6th Century referenced above (yes, it all gets rather confusing).

This Fergus, according to legend, was part of the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology featuring stories of murder, betrayal, family in-fighting, regional wars, greed, brutality, sexual prowess, and other hijinks to rival your favorite episode of Game of Thrones. They are also stories of courage, conquest, daring and honor.

Fergus is tricked out of his kingship by his wife, Ness and her son, Conchobar who was a small child at the time of the deception. In the capable hands of his maneuvering Mother, Conchobar wins the support of the Ulster elite ousting Fergus who eventually forms an alliance (romantic and political) with their rival adversary, the married Queen Madh. The “bad blood” continues when Conchobar, now all grow-up tricks Fergus again and an epic battle ensues involving Fergus against his nephew, the esteemed Cuchulainn, an Irish version of the great Hercules.

But where are the “brazen cars” in this folklore? Again, I don’t know exactly but remember this clue. Fergus took refuge in the woods during the times he was shunned or banished. Looking again at the poem might suggest how he made the best of his situation and took as much authority within the “shadow of the wood” as the mastery he had when in command of his own chariot. The question is sharpened. “Who Goes with Fergus?” Anyone willing to come face to face with their displacement in order to find a deeper sense of purpose and self-identity.

This is the truth that eludes Buck Mulligan, but will direct both Stephen Dedalus, and his eventual friend and surrogate father-figure, Leopold Bloom.

Which leads us around the long way to the true point of describing my search for Fergus. Reading Ulysses, the epic account of the thoughts, experiences and ramblings from one single day, is in itself, an elaborate journey offering multiple layers of perpetual discovery. It’s possible to go off in hundreds of different directions, just from the wealth found on one page, or in this case, from one single line.

In my searching, I did find an incredible online project that was began in 1990, just after the introduction of HTML script. The Joyce Project features every word of Ulysses in an online format. Compiled by a team of 14 different contributors it offers a color-coded guide of the many reference points available on the 750 plus pages within this incredibly dense book. In order to give you a sense of the depth you are invited to dive into and the paths you can travel with Ulysses, here’s a copy of their expansive categories.

Green links (Ireland) refer to Irish history, politics, customs, language, humor, religion, mythology, economics, industry, geography, modes of transportation, flora, fauna, and weather. 

Orange links (Literature) signal allusions to published texts including poetry, fiction, drama, critical essays, history, philosophy, scripture, theology, science, biography, hagiography, travelogues, and newspapers.

Brown links (Dublin) point to landforms like the river and bay, the built environment such as streets, canals, buildings, bridges, trams, and statues, cultural ephemera such as money, and civic institutions. 

Purple links (Performances) indicate notes about songs, operas, oratorios, stage plays, nursery rhymes, speeches, recitations, advertising pitches, prayers, liturgical rites, performative social gestures, and impromptu clowning.

Red links (The Body) encompass anatomy, sexuality, childbirth, eating, drinking, excretion, clothes, personal accessories, disease, death, medicines, poisons, the physiology of emotion, the vagaries of memory, mental illness, and dreams.

Blue links (The Writer) address narrative styles, techniques, revisions, and effects, as well as textual variants, aesthetic theories, and the shaping of real lives into fictional ones.

http://m.joyceproject.com/info/colorcoding.html

Like my journey with Fergus, Joyce’s Ulysses opens up strange, perplexing and occasional directions of clarity and eventual insight. And there are more helps available, like here with images associated from the book and this news of other projects from an article in the New York Times. Again, quoting from the Joyce Project:

Nearly every detail in Ulysses has relevance, not only to details immediately before and after it in the order of the narrative, but also to ones that may lie hundreds of pages off. The notes supply threads to begin navigating the textual labyrinth that Joyce built—whether to find the way toward perfect comprehension, or to become happily lost, or simply to seek the nearest exit, will be up the individual.

Fergus rules the brazen cars? He had better! I obviously have my hands full.

All Disheveled Wandering Stars

Full Moon, Lexington, Kentucky – May 17, 2019

Be content to bear your burden, yet a little while

Pilgrim’s Progress (p. 14)

Countess Cathleen is the name of a play (1898) written by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and loosely based upon a legendary figure in Irish folklore. In Yeats’ treatment, the Countess is faced with an impossible choice. In order to feed her people during a time of famine, she can sell her soul for their relief. There is much to contemplate as Yeats uses his art to offer a subtle rebuke aimed at the Protestant ascendancy of 19th Century Ireland, the Catholic complicity and acquiesce to it and how they collaborated to further the abuses suffered by the Irish people through nearly 800 years of British oppression.

In the presentation of the play, Yeats added a poem he wrote in 1893 from his Rose collection. Accompanied by a harp, it is offered to comfort the countess, after she completes the Faustian bargain that sacrifices her soul to rescue her people. James Joyce attended the premiere of this play at the tender age of 17 and believed these words to be the finest lyric ever constructed in all the world. It begins:

Who will go drive with Fergus now, / And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade, / And dance upon the level shore? / Young man, lift up your russet brow, / And lift your tender eyelids, maid, / And brood on hopes and fears no more.

Later in life, Joyce completes his epic masterpiece Ulysses (1922). It begins with the brash and bullish Buck Mulligan making a mockery of the Latin mass and harassing his more impressionable and introspective companion, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is the continuation of the main character in Joyce’s earlier work, Portrait of An Artist As a Young Man (1914), and in both books is a projection of the author’s own twenty-two year old self.

Mulligan is on the attack, speaking from the parapet of a Martello tower in Sandycove, located just 8 miles to the southeast from the center of the city of Dublin. Bold and dauntless in speech, he spews his words with the rapidity and force of cannon fire, strutting forward with the irritating confidence of a playground bully, the hyperbolic overdrive one might expect from an equally proud and self-professed hyperborean [1:213]. Yet, another term jammed-packed with meaning!

But Stephen is more perceptive than his critic and understands the entirety of Yeats’ poem at a far more profound and complex level than what is being offered by Mulligan. Sorrow is not merely a mood you can turn off and on. Genuine melancholy is not just a temperament you can choose to abandon at will. The second stanza completes the poem, Who Goes with Fergus?:

And no more turn aside and brood, / Upon love’s bitter mystery, / For Fergus rules the brazen cars, / And rules the shadow of the wood, / And the white breast of the dim sea / And all disheveled wandering stars.

Those who fret over the condition of the world and their role within it are connected to something far greater than themselves or their personal problems. And often, those who intent to push them away from their troubles, like Mulligan with Stephen, or Antinous, Claudius, and Gertrude in Hamlet, do so for their own selfish purposes.

It is better, though more burdensome, to know how sadness is associated with careful perception and awareness, to confront the transience of our numbered days and the reality of entropy, to identify with those who suffer and recognize the long arch of lament that extends throughout time immortal. “The whole creation groans together in travail,” recounts the Apostle (Romans 8:22).

We should not rush too fast past this point. In my experience, still holding to the vitality of a faith obviously scorned and at points, legitimately denounced by both Mulligan and Dedalus, identification with those who suffer is the beginning of true compassion. We do not simply feel sorry for others we judge as misfortunate. We join with them in their discontent and courageously join this chorus present from the beginning of the world.

More on Why?

The Backyard Offerings – May 17, 2019

Earlier I discussed the initial reasons for choosing Ulysses to be the main focus of my sabbatical studies. My decision focused on time and place, the two inescapable forces that envelopes our existence. We live in a precise moment registered by a specific time zone . Everyone can be plotted to a series of exact GPS coordinates.

Our movements change these numbers. Seconds tick off whatever is left on our biological countdown timer. Transportation expands the limits of our horizon. The experience of our lives is an ordered unfolding of the what and the who through the when and the where.

Journalists have reminded us of a fifth “w.” As imaginative creatures endowed with the gift of language, we squeeze reasons into our encounters. We learn about times and places not of our own making. We come to understand and interpret our stories in comparison to other stories. We engage in the requisite task of stitching together a coherent meaning for our lives.

Three distinct types of hero stories are of concern to the book Ulysses. The Archetypal Hero is elucidated by Odysseus’ epic adventures as recounted by Homer. They are foundational to the mythology of a hero’s status and may be some of the oldest stories known to humanity. Joyce organized his novel around the different chapters of the Odyssey, where the battle-weary hero spends 10 years trying to get back home to Ithaca, after the previous 10 years fighting the battle over Troy. The classical hero, usually against incredible odds and seemingly insurmountable challenges is finally proven victorious in the end.

The Tragic Hero cannot get out of his, her or their own way. Whether through circumstances or personal dispositions, or a combination of both, this hero who can be extraordinarily gifted, charming or powerful, is also fundamentally flawed. These defects override otherwise perfect opportunities and potentials. We feel sympathy for tragic heroes and see in them our own imperfections.

Like Telemachus (the son of Odysseus) in the Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet features a son who is forlorn over his father’s absence and questions his mother’s fidelity to him. But Hamlet’s situation is far more tragic. Telemachus is separated from his father because of geography and will reunite with him in the future. Hamlet’s father has died and by visits heard only by Hamlet from his father’s ghost, he is persuaded how his uncle Claudius has been scandalously involved with his mother, Gertrude and together they were responsible for his father’s death.

The father of James Joyce was a well-known and liked Dubliner from County Cork with a mixture of strengths and shortcomings. Talented and charismatic, he had squandered his large family inheritance through the excesses common for a spendthrift and an alcoholic. Joyce both loved his father and was sorely embarrassed by him, paralleling his similar great faith and severe disappointment in his mother country of Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses is an amalgam of Telemachus, Hamlet and Joyce’s projection of his 22 year old past. Dedalus is learned, insightful and engaged in the normal search common for all young adults– seeking to discover an agreeable path to guide and direct their quest for maturity and meaning in life. As with Joyce, his father’s esteemed talents are tainted by selfish behaviors and excesses with the drink (its always the drink!) and offers scant help for providing such instruction.

Almost by happenstance, Stephen finds a mentor in the unlikely personage of Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged advertisement salesman of Hungarian-Jewish heritage who was born and raised in Dublin, but is sympathetically presented as a stranger, a searcher, an outsider, and a wanderer.

In Bloom, Joyce is crafting a new sort of hero for the 20th Century. Like Odysseus, he is estranged from his home and his wife, but it’s due to emotional not geographical distance. Compressed within a single day (June 16, 1904), he meanders around his native city of Dublin and through what appear to be ordinary occurrences: making breakfast, attending a funeral, shopping, doing a little business, running errands, walking the streets, feeding the seagulls, trying to find a spot for lunch, meeting friends for drinks, getting in an argument, checking on a friend in the hospital, dodging thunderstorms, getting lost, stumbling through the red-light district, falling into his bed upside down and exhausted at day’s end after trying to convince himself that he has done a little bit of good along the way, it is revealed, turn by turn, was actually a truly epic adventure.

Why am I here? This is always the grand question. Why here? Not there? Why this? Not that? Why now? Not later? Why Ulysses?

  1. All lives, however ordinary, challenging, difficult, messed-up or seemingly perfect reveal, if you take the time, a myriad of depth, significance and meaning. Spirituality is too often exclusively focused on the most visible, the best and brightest and most astonishing. Under the surface, we discover the flaws, frustrations and deeper longings that makes us truly human, and mysteriously one with one another.
  2. Ulysses is a means toward understanding a particular culture and city. While a work of fiction written during Joyce’s self-imposed exile, it is painstakingly accurate with respect to its geographical location and accuracy. In the chapter “Wandering Rocks,” more than 30 “characters” are described throughout the city of Dublin going about their daily routines between the hours of three to four in the afternoon. Clive Hart, through careful on-site research, traced each of these steps and synchronized their various encounters with tram schedules and expected times the distances would be covered on foot, finding Joyce’s exactitude to be amazing accurate, almost to the second (Davis, 2014). Joyce famously boasted, “If Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from my book.”
  3. This is a massive, dense and often confusing book, especially for a novice to it like me. It cannot be fully understood without some trusted guides to help (and even they can fail to answer all the many questions you’ll have). I’ve leaned on many resources in trying to break apart and appreciate what it right there in front of me. It has lead me to wonder about all those new persons who show up at the store-front of my profession. The person who, at-best, has a cursory, superficial and culturally-dominated understanding of any faith, including the Christian one of a particular Baptist persuasion I deeply treasure. How do they begin to comprehend the dense forest of the archaic language, metaphors and complex meanings within the Scriptures? How can I help free them from the terrible reputation and prejudices, often fairly deserved, associated by the title, “Baptist?” Though Ulysses is written by a single author over the course of nine years, it is jammed-packed with unfamiliar languages, ancient sayings and obscure references. It takes effort and outside help to move toward any true semblance of comprehension.
  4. Also, like scripture, I’ve found Ulysses easier to understand when read out loud than when read silently. I’ve used two audible companions to help me. It’s incredible to hear the book through proper Irish dialects, correct pronunciations and pacing than through the voice trapped within my own mind. When read aloud, the book flows better and is remarkably clearer. I’ve discovered I have picked up things from the audio versions of the same passage I missed when read silently.
  5. Ulysses convinces me of just how much I still don’t know. It’s humbling to find yourself a stranger in the English language of your heritage. Through patience, attention and focused study, we can all learn, grow and change. All who read well and often know the joy and liberation of fresh discoveries as the mind is richly fed, especially with the hard stuff.
  6. So, while daunting and difficult, this work is also a tremendous amount of fun. When we infuse our whats and wheres with a determined struggle toward the why, then life is truly a heroic adventure.

Should you read Ulysses? It probably would make for too challenging a beach-read, but I’ve found this audio version from the BBC entertaining. You do need to be prepared for some frustration (okay, a great deal of frustration) and the possibility of being a little bit shocked. I can also attest to some sections excellent for preparing to take a nap. But once, the mind is clear, and the dust is blown away, and a complex and compelling sentence is all broken down, and it slowly becomes appreciated as it appears, it ca be like listening to a great piece of music and you wonder why you’ve never been here before.

Picking It Out

In the Backyard – May 17, 2019

I’m reading Ulysses in the Modern Library Edition published by Random House (1992), mainly because it is features a hardback. I first ordered the more popular Gabler Edition, now affordably and conveniently available, like most all other things, from Amazon.com. When I received it, I discovered it was the size of a healthy city’s phone book (remember those?). It was also in paperback. I didn’t relish the idea of hauling it around. It would soon be ragged and dirty from overuse. I was certain the cover would be bent and torn within a month of travel. But I was determined to make it work.

Two weeks later, I was meeting someone for coffee at the Bronte-Bistro at Joseph-Beth. I thought, “While here, why not inspect the Ulysses section?” There it was. The copy I have now underlined, written in the margins and transferred many of the Gabler identification markings that line up with the equally massive notations from Gifford’s 1988 Ulysses Annotated.

After spending too much time on Kindle (further Amazon-manipulated convenience, and even rationalized by me as saving needed room on the bookshelf), and from reading other e-books, periodicals, newspapers, blogs, social media posts and other linked articles online, it feels really good to have a bona-fide book back in your hands again, one with a firm cover, a sewn spine and pages you actually have to guide and maneuver by rolling them over the tips of your thumbs and fingers.

I’ve missed you my old familiar friend. But I’m not sold on turning back time and reading most everything the old-fashioned way. There’s too much out there and still scant space on the shelves at home.

But the worthy stuff needs a special status. All noise is not music. All images are not art. All words are not literature. There are certain books that deserve to be held in the hand – to literally and figuratively feel the weight of the words resting in your palms, and pressing down upon your thoughts, to turn down a page like the welcoming sheets of your waiting bed so you can rest between the folds and return to the replenishment granted to all seekers and holding on to be filled, once again with the magic and wisdom of dreams.