D.C. and Joyce — Both Incomprehensible

I was in an Uber on Broadway when suddenly the world began violently shaking.

A van had rammed the Uber.

I was stunned, but I was also determined not to miss this semester’s first day of in-person classes at Columbia University, where I’m studying for a master’s in English literature.

I gave the driver my information and ran to class. When I got there, I tried to breathe slowly and assess the damage. Was my brain functioning OK?

The words in the book before me were swimming past incomprehensibly.

“Ineluctable modality of the visible.”

“Limits of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane.”

“Morose delectation Aquinas tunbelly calls this, frate porcospino. Unfallen Adam rode and not rutted. Call away let him: thy quarrons dainty is. Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles: roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.”

Did I have a concussion, or was it just that I was reading “Ulysses?

On this centenary of James Joyce’s colossus, we can borrow a thought from W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”: Is “Ulysses”hard because it’s great, or do people assume it’s great because it’s hard?

“It’s hard because Joyce put a lot in there,” Dan Mulhall, the Irish ambassador, told me. “A lot of people are drawn to the novel because of its complexity and derive a lifelong satisfaction from delving into it more deeply. It’s like Wordle for serious readers.”

Nora Barnacle (left), James Joyce (center) and their solicitor in London on the day of their marriage, July 4, 1931.Credit…Popperfoto, via Getty Images/Getty Images

Ambassador Mulhall has taken “Ulysses” as his traveling companion around the world, using it for creative diplomacy. He has blogged all 18 episodes on the embassy website, and he marked the 100th birthday with a new book called “Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey.”

The epic is often compared to “Seinfeld,” because not all that much happens. It certainly doesn’t have the action of “The Odyssey,”upon which it is patterned. But it does boast, as Merve Emre wrote in The New Yorker, “a cultural literacy presented as godlike in its extent.”

Colm Toibin, the renowned Irish writer who teaches my class, wrote in The Financial Times about the book: “For the ordinary reader, it has the same cachet as running a marathon does for the ordinary athlete,” he said. “It is a challenge and then, for those who have read the book, a matter of pride.”

“Ulysses,” he added, “‘in all its generosity of style, its plenitude, the open sensuality of its characters, its lack of piety and respect for authority, its placing of a freethinking cosmopolitan Jewish man at its center, can be read as a contribution to the Irish argument, the tone of the book as a blueprint for what Irish life might be like after independence.”

Small moments, Toibin said, “glitter and shimmer” because of Joyce’s wild flights of language.

I bought a copy in Dublin long ago. But I had never mustered the will to read the story of love, desire and disconnectedness played out on Dublin strolls on a single day, June 16, 1904 — the entwined stream-of-consciousness sagas of Stephen Dedalus and Molly and Leopold Bloom — until now.

You’d think I would be accustomed to deciphering the incomprehensible after the last five years in D.C.

Donald Trump’s upside-down utterances. Kevin McCarthy’s demented backtracking. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s inanity, accusing Nancy Pelosi of siccing her “gazpacho police” on lawmakers.

This era of gobbledygook has also featured the Republican National Committee issuing a resolution that the barbaric attack on the Capitol was “legitimate political discourse.” This was so outrageous that Mitt Romney had to brush back the chair of the R.N.C., his niece Ronna Romney McDaniel. Aside from Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, most everything the Republicans do is cowardly; they are so afraid of the Trumpsters supporting the vandals that they tried to legitimize illegitimate discourse by calling it legitimate discourse. Shameful.

And there’s the government’s indecipherable instructions on Covid — crystallized in the ill-advised picture of Stacey Abrams trying to have it both ways, sitting and smiling, without a mask, in front of masked schoolchildren.

The only thing that can save President Biden and the Democrats now is Republicans showing how fringy and far out they’ve gotten. You know when Mitch McConnell is the guy calling out his own party that many top Republicans are freaking out. McConnell needs to get candidates to win in states Biden won, like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. That will be hard, given that we’re watching a party go nuts in real time. Their quarrons dainty are not.

The latest Trump embarrassment came when Axios reported that The Times’s Maggie Haberman writes in her new book,Confidence Man,” that White House residence staff members believed Trump had wadded up papers found in a toilet. So the former president has a bathroom fixation. (H.G. Wells said Joyce, who could be graphic about bodily functions, had “a cloacal obsession.”)

Nixon had the plumbers. Trump’s the one who needed them.

Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s self-portrait, captures our incomprehensible politics in a remark that burns brighter than ever: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

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