Ulysses (James Joyce)

» June 14th, 2019


Note: While I’m always reading a couple/few books, Ulysses is on a perpetual slow spin. I’m reading it forever–usually just a few pages at a time. A new friend of mine, who gives tours in Dublin based on the novel (plug: https://www.tripadvisor.ie/ShowUserReviews-g186605-d10499551-r504251692-Dublin_Ulysses_Tours-Dublin_County_Dublin.html), told me that he learned to love the book by joining some friends in a pub once a week and reading it aloud. He said that by his eighth time through the book (lot of pub time, lot of pints) he started to get it in an intuitive way. Interestingly, I will often be alone but feel compelled to read the novel aloud. And I do. The thing is nothing short of a gift to the world. (Image above is the Dubliner Joyce at 20 in his Latin quarter hat, which would have been like wearing a pink fez in Vicksburg, Mississippi today).

“My Latin quarter hat. God, we simply must dress the character. I want puce gloves. You were a student, weren’t you? Of what in the other devil’s name? Paysayenn. P.C.N you know: physiques, chimiques et naturelles. Aha. Eating your groatsworth of mou en civet, fleshpots of Egypt, elbowed by belching cabmen. Just say in the most natural tone: when I was in Paris, boul’ Mich’, I used to.” 

Ah, Joyce. Lot of French in there–but not enough to distract from the point that we are all at least partial poseurs (which must be a French word). Artists in particular feel the need to dress the part. There’s Stephen (one of the novel’s protagonists and basically Joyce) with his hipster Latin quarter hat and his insider reference to the Boulevard St. Michel, the street in Paris where artists and writers congregated in cafes or, as Arthur Symons brilliantly described them, “brainsick young people who haunt the brasseries of the Boulevard Saint-Michel and exhaust their ingenuities in theorizing over the works they cannot write.” (Me)

Anyway, when I read (red) the above passage I began to think about the sartorial choices we make (or in very rare cases don’t) and how those choices align with the work we identify with. Last semester a philosopher I teach with wore the same outfit every day. I think his little experiment was fun, but also deeply related to the fact that he was a philosopher. But the real question I have is a chicken-and-egg sort of query. Does the sartorial predilection come first? I mean, does whatever mysterious element of our psyche that leads us to dress as we do–which, if you think about it, is about as intimate as we can be about ourselves with the world on a daily basis–shape our vocational choices? Or is it all just mashed up in our identities–clothes, person, work, love, political view, gender, race, ethnicity, view on animal rights and abortion and capital punishment and beer choice. Of course it’s just mashed up. But, when getting dressed,  it’s worth wondering who wears the pants, you or some ridiculous cultural expectation of what you are supposed to wear.

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