I’m writing this from the corner of a room that has now become my office, looking out at the mix of storms and flowers that define every Oklahoma spring. From here, I can see neighbors in similar nooks in their homes and on their porches—all of us trying to figure out just what it means to work from home. We sometimes shout greetings or wave, trying to make up for the fact that we otherwise edge nervously away from one another on the sidewalk. The global COVID-19 crisis means that scenes like this have been playing out around the world for the last few months—as if we all stumbled into a play. We yearn for connection, yet are fearful of anyone who might draw close. The beauty of spring is balanced by the stark realization that illness and death move among us.
In some ways, this feels like the antithesis of Joyce’s fictional worlds, which pulse with the human energy of pubs, offices, and street corners. He reveled in the dirt and diversity of the cities he called home, but we have perhaps forgotten that those crowds too bred anxiety. As we know from the work of scholars and critics like Michael Groden, Kathleen Ferris, Kevin Birmingham, Vike Plock, and others, Joyce wrote in a world of pervasive illness, where medicine operated somewhere between art and science while the germ theory of disease still seemed new. We’re reminded of that fact in subtle ways throughout his work: in the agonizing labor Mrs. Purefoy endures, in the shockingly early death of Eveline’s brother, and in the funeral procession that winds its way through the streets of Dublin in order to see poor Dignam’s body to its final resting place.
I have been thinking a great deal lately of the “Hades” episode of Ulysses, which, for me, is the emotional center of the book. It’s possible, after all, that the novel itself began here, in the graveyard. In 1906, Joyce wrote to his brother about a possible new story for Dubliners to be called “Ulysses,” in which a character named Alfred Hunter would attend a funeral. The first manuscript draft we have dates from June 1917, which means Joyce worked on it in the ghastly aftermath of Verdun, a pointless battle that took one million lives. It appeared the next fall in The Little Review, its themes of death and mourning made even more urgent in a war-weary world now suffering the first wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Joyce’s earliest readers, in other words, encountered this episode in a situation similar to our own. Life had been disrupted for so long that everyday habits—writing a letter, talking a walk, visiting the pub—seemed suddenly strange. That’s one reason Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and others could focus their work on the most innocuous events. Like our own anxious trips to the store or around the block, Joyce’s everyday too had become a source of wonder, experimentation, and nostalgia.
And death, arguably the great pivot around which Victorian fiction once turned, had suddenly become the most mundane thing in the world. When I can stomach the news, I struggle to make sense of terrifying numbers that fall far short of what Joyce experienced. As I write, the novel corona virus has left 50,000 dead in the United States, 185,000 dead around the world, and infections are now measured by the millions. Numbers like these are simply too big for the human imagination to grasp. Maps with pulsing red circles around New York, Paris, Milan, and Wuhan don’t really help since such digital precision seems stale, distant, abstract. I think then about Joyce with his crayons and notebooks in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, struggling with some of the same questions we now confront. How to make sense of death and illness on such a vast scale? How to justify the work of the artist and critic in such times? And how to go on writing about the past when the present so urgently demands our attention?
The answers Joyce offers us in Leopold Bloom’s trip into the underworld have been a source of both power and comfort over the last few weeks. It’s easy to forget, but Bloom is socially distanced in his own way throughout the episode. He may be in the company of others, but they appear to have little interest in him—a point driven home later when his name is misspelled in the newspaper. As readers, we experience the joyous chaos of Bloom’s mind, but he is actually quiet, even sullen, as he wanders among the tombstones. In the graveyard, the brute facts of death are everywhere. Mr. Kernan seeks some solace in the priest’s words, but Bloom thinks only of the human body’s frailty, of the heart as a “rusty pump” that one day just gets “bunged up.” He reflects on the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, on his father’s suicide, and on the cruel loss of his infant son. Then, in one of the book’s most striking scenes, he watches a rat wriggle its way into someone’s crypt.
In another kind of novel, such a scene would be catastrophic—a surrender to the brute materiality of the world and to our powerlessness in the face of it all. In one of his many acts of heroism on that June day, however, Bloom manages to escape from Hades. He does not ignore death, nor does he simply try to forget the pain it visits on the living. “Plenty to see and hear and feel yet,” he thinks and then devotes the rest of his day to helping others. He assists the unpleasant Menton with his hat, then travels around Dublin to collect funds for Dignam’s nearly destitute family, an act the novel first obscures and then punishes when the men in Barney Kiernan’s accuse him of concealing his winnings from the Gold Cup. Fresh from the confrontation in the bar, he then heads to the maternity hospital to check on Mrs. Purefoy, only to find most of the medical students drunk and indifferent to her suffering. Rather than heading home, he instead follows an intoxicated young man he barely knows, saving him from being swindled in the brothel, picking him up from the street, and finally taking him into his own home.
Like most everyone else in the novel, Stephen looks on Bloom with a mixture of confusion and contempt. And the older man ends his day just as alone—and maybe just as lonely—as he was in graveyard, in the pub, on the beach, and at the maternity hospital. He is nevertheless sustained by the casual courage and dedication to helping others that has made him into one of literature’s greatest heroes. In the face of death and suffering, he seeks ways to provide comfort. Amid hatred and anti-Semitic jeers, he clings to an ethics of human care that the Citizen might mock, but cannot defeat. He ends the day having spent far more time helping others than any other character we encounter, including priests, teachers, and doctors. There’s no reason to think he won’t do the same thing again on June 17th.
This moment of global emergency invites us to revisit Bloom’s courage and dedication to others. Here at the JJQ, in fact, we have responded to the crisis by asking ourselves “What would Bloom do?” And, in partnership with many others around the world, we have done our best to find some way to be of help. Carol Kealiher and our dedicated staff of interns not only shifted the journal’s work into the homes, but set about transforming our website and social media into a place for global connection and conversation. Working together, this team then devised a plan for Joyceans around the world to create short videos of themselves offering reports on their experiences of life in a pandemic. Responses to our invitation have arrived from China, New York, Japan, California, London, and more—and few have been more moving that Sam Slote’s videos of Dublin’s eerily empty streets. Although we may not be able to gather in Trieste this summer, these short clips and the responses to them remind us that we Joyceans are a global community. If you haven’t done so, I urge you to visit our website to watch them and to reach out if you might be interested in offering such a diary yourself.
In addition to creating these videos, the JJQ has also been able to join with many other academic journals in order to make our content temporarily available to anyone who might need to access. The sudden shift to working, teaching, learning, and writing at home meant that many of our readers could no longer access key content. In partnership with Project MUSE and with the financial support provided by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, we have been able to make much of our content open access through the end of the spring semester.
This is not, I want to stress, an easy thing to do. The pandemic affects not only our health but our economic well-being, and I’m saddened to say that we will have to close the journal down for two weeks over the summer to accommodate staff furloughs imposed by the University of Tulsa. I thus want to ask that you be patient with us as we work to remain a hub for the Joycean community even while struggling with the difficulties posed by this global emergency.
Despite all this, there is some reason for us to celebrate as well. As regular readers likely know, it has been a long time since the date on the spine of each JJQ has aligned with the actual calendar date. By steadily producing double issues for the last several years, we have nearly closed this gap. The next issue, in fact, will finally have us back on schedule. This might make it a good time, therefore, to renew your subscription to the journal and thus help us sustain and expand our mission of producing the best Joyce scholarship available while serving as a global meeting place for the Joycean community. If you haven’t done so recently, I also urge you to stop by our website and social media pages, where you’ll find a wealth of new and regularly updated material including video updates, artwork, interviews, readings, and more.
In 1963, Tom Staley founded this journal at a dining room table here in Tulsa. Now, some six decades later, we ironically find ourselves repeating the past as we lay out this issue in noisy apartments, dim basements, and crowded bedrooms. It stands, I believe, as a testimony to the commitment of a staff that held firm even as the world suddenly shifted all around us. And we are pleased to dedicate it to the readers and supporters who create, sustain, and renew the global Joyce community. We all have a touch of old Bloom about us—a dedication to that “warm fullblooded life” that connects even amid these strange and lonely times.
University of Tulsa