Monday, June 16, 2008

Bloom's Day - A Buddhist reading of Ulysses

In Ulysses by James Joyce, we read about one day [June 16] in Leopold Bloom's life as he drifts around Dublin.

In the book, at one point, Joyce calls Dublin 'Dyoublong' [=Do you belong?]. This is very telling.
We learn that James Joyce, who of course lived in Paris in self-imposed exile, felt that he did not belong in his native city so conservative, suffocating and hypocritical was it in his day.

Today, fans of the book re-trace Bloom's journey from location to location.

It has been said that Bloom's walkabout takes him in a full circle all around the city. His search for new experiences and perhaps a little happiness takes him both around his usual habitual haunts and he is swept along by the events that unfold.

It can be assumed that this circular route, for Joyce, has both positive and negative connotations.

This is also the case in Buddhist imagery. Joyce was fascinated by Buddhism although little was known about it in his day. Doubtless, however, he was aware that the image of the circle could mean either of two things -

1. a hum-drum life full of dissatisfaction and suffering [Samsara]

2. a life lived in the present moment, filled with limitless contentment [Nirvana]

The teaching of the Buddha emphasises the need to accept, and let go of our present circumstances, good or bad, and to dwell profoundly rooted in the present moment - beyond hope and fear altogether.

This exhortation to live mindfully draws us back to the here and now, to openness and contentment.

In this sense, the circle brings us constantly back to where we began - an opportunity perhaps to fully appreciate afresh the positive aspects of our lives and to water those seeds of joy.

As Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh puts it-

"In the Zen circle, we say 'This is it.' What you are experiencing in the present moment, this is what you are looking for. This is it. You don't have to look for it in another place, at another time. This is a very wonderful door of liberation. You have to put this into practice. It will relieve a lot of suffering.

"Our civilization is not going in that direction. We are always looking for something outside of ourselves. We are always running to the future. We are not capable of recognizing that the conditions for our happiness are already there in the here and the now."

The circle can also signify the cycle of birth - old age - sickness - death - rebirth... ['this infinite ocean of Samsara'].

Buddhists aspire to liberating all beings from this endless cycle of rebirth altogether by guiding them to full enlightenment. One can even discern that, even during one so-called lifetime, we live many different lives... we go through deep change and each phase of our life may be understood as a kind of death and rebirth.

This is evident too in Bloom's life in one single day - Leopold assumes various roles according to the situation he finds himself in and his search for God-knows-what leads him [astray] all over town.

The internal chatter and borderline madness of the average person's mind is graphically portrayed by Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style [or should i say, stream-of-unconsciousness].

It is not intended to be an easy read. It shows clearly just how crazy we really are. Our thoughts and emotions flood through our mind and we are swept away by them. Even gobble-di-gook and unfinished words have equal power to mislead our minds if we allow them.

Joyce himself was by no means immune. He too was swept away by his own creation at times; a downstairs neighbour of his in Paris reported how he wrote while extremely drunk and regularly lay just above her ceiling pounding his fists on the floor with uncontrollable laughter at the lines and phrases he was daring to commit to paper.

It appears Bloom [and Joyce] didn't have a single unexpressed thought. His text is bursting at the seams with neurotic detail and nervous energy.
Samuel Beckett remarked along these lines, 'I try to leave everything out whereas Joyce puts everything in!'

Ulysses is almost like a glimpse into the neurotic human mind for those who cannot face looking deeply into their own minds. The apparently relentless energy and chaotic struggle against boredom drive us, quite literally, out of our minds!

We chase after the external, thinking it will make us happy, completely forgetting we already have everything we need inside ourselves.

So today, dear reader, spare a kind thought for all deluded beings [me and you included], that we may at least enjoy Samsara while we are stuck here. Furthermore, may we all soon discover Nirvana within right here, right now - there's no time like the present.

Just look at the energy we could save by not running around in circles all the time in 'the pursuit of happiness'. Far better to become less and less self-obsessed and more self-aware and stable. Only then can we truly benefit others.

Spare a thought also for those poor Bloom's Day revellers traipsing around Dublin in the footsteps of a fictional character created by a genial malcontent - a cunning linguist.

But, by all means, join with Molly Bloom who cries an orgasmic melisma of affirmations...

Yes to life...

to love...

and Yes to this wonderful city of ours
on the banks of the River Anna Livia Plurabella...


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful post. On an inspired whim, I googled "james joyce buddhism" and up this popped. Maith thú!