“All of us become pilgrims at one time or another, even though we may not give ourselves the name.” –Richard Niebuhr
PJ, who presides over Dublin’s dusty shop Sweny’s, has read Joyce’s Ulysses 51 times in 6 different languages. Over a dark pint of Guinness, with the mist from the glass melting on his fingertips, PJ speaks about the lines from the book that are making his pulse race that minute. He doesn’t try to persuade you of their sacredness or its genius. He just smiles slightly, revealing coffee-stained and wayward teeth, and nods as he cites whole paragraphs. PJ loves Joyce. To PJ, Sweny’s, the shop where Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap for his wife Molly in Joyce’s epic, is an invaluable relic of Joyce’s Dublin, and he would do anything to protect its legacy. Even as rent steadily increases, PJ continues to sell bars of lemon soap in the chemist’s shop, now cluttered with old photographs, various editions of Ulysses, and hundreds of small glass bottles. PJ says with a wry smile, “the soap cleans the body while the book corrupts the mind.”
Every year on June 16, the same date that marked Leopold Bloom’s walk around Dublin in 1904, a host of literary pilgrims visit the city to pay tribute to Joyce. Sweny’s was a sacred stop on the tour for people I met last Bloomsday, people who came from Australia, Japan, Bosnia, South Korea, the United States, Germany, Spain, Argentina, England, France, and Switzerland.
In the Catholic tradition of pilgrimage, a location that is considered sacred is often referred to as a “thin place,” a place where the space between heaven and earth wanes, and becomes rarefied or thin. Such places typically mark the site of a saint’s ascension, a miraculous act, or some epiphanic moment. In other religions, places may be considered sacred because they have been saturated with meaning by God. What might a thin place be in a conversation about literary pilgrimage? Perhaps where the distance between an author’s imagination and a reader’s lived reality narrows and eventually collapses. And where the human being who generated meaning in the place—the author, the artist, the genius—begins to acquire divine status. Joyce certainly seems to assume deific qualities every year on Bloomsday as devotees travel to Dublin and re-enact the events from Bloom’s life, visit the places he walked, and read excerpts of Ulysses aloud.
In the home I grew up in, we consider all books sacred, and one of my family’s South Indian traditions has become practically reflexive for me. When someone accidentally drops a book or grazes one with a foot, we place our hand on the cover and gently touch our closed eyelids. We thus symbolically ask forgiveness for treating a book with inadvertent disregard. My parents instilled in me a deep appreciation for written words. Literary pilgrimage provides an opportunity to reflect on that appreciation, and on what happens when it extends beyond an individual gesture to a collective expression of reverence. Why do people become dedicated to one author, or one text? And how does that dedication evolve from fleeting infatuation to persistent devotion?
Last summer, on a quest to reckon with these questions, I attended the Bloomsday festival, which is primarily organized by the James Joyce Center on Dublin’s North Great George’s Street. Deirdre Ellis-King, the chair of the board of the James Joyce Center, notes that the center is committed to providing “different points of entry” into the text, be it “music and song, drama, costume, or food.” The entry points Ellis-King referred to are visible throughout Dublin on Bloomsday. As I walked down North Great George’s Street, people were dressed for the trends of 1904—most men sported black top hats, and carried walking sticks, while women donned petticoats, lace gloves, and parasols. One man even tipped his hat, saluted me, and said with a melancholic tinge, “what a shame, poor fellow, Paddy Dignam,” referencing the character whose funeral in Ulysses occurs on June 16.
When I arrived at Davy Byrne’s, a central pub in the novel, I witnessed a joyful uproar of Irish anthems and songs from the book. There were productions of Ulysses all over Dublin, from the Abbey’s adaptation of the entire epic to the Bewley Café’s staged reading of Molly Bloom’s monologue, and her famed finale, “and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” There were pub crawls across Dublin, not to mention food tours that took visitors down Bloom’s bizarre trajectory of consumption, from kidneys for breakfast to gorgonzola sandwiches and burgundy for lunch. All these events were meant to challenge the notion that Ulysses ought to be abstruse and abstract for readers. Bloomsday participants come with varying levels of Ulysses knowledge, but even if you haven’t read the book, you can still down a pint or digest a kidney.
Sam Slote, a professor at Trinity College Dublin who has organized an academic symposium on Ulysses, cites Joyce’s remark, “If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” Slote comments that in order “to get to the heart of Dublin, Joyce represents the city in all its specificities.” In this way, he “gets to everywhere else and all their specificities.” Deirdre Ellis-King agrees, remarking that “Joyce and Dublin are synonymous, it’s any-man and every-man, you could be in any city in the world and enjoy the same kind of experiences of the streetscape.” Paradoxically, by being so precise, the text becomes universal. This stylistic technique is analogous to the character of Bloom. “It’s not that every man likes kidneys for breakfast, but every man has his particularities,” Slote says. It is in this way that Ulysses speaks to any reader, any person in motion, any pilgrim—not in the specifics of every human being, but in the specificity with which any human being can be represented. No one is special. Everyone is special. Stephen Dedalus, the other main character in the novel, has a line, “every life is many days, day after day.” This could be the motto for not only the epic, but also the festival commemorating June 16—any day, in any life, could be Bloomsday. The annual convergence of time and place restores significance to every ordinary and individual encounter, to every overlooked dollop of time.
Jessica Yates, who oversees the Bloomsday festival and manages the James Joyce Center, tells me she “converted” to Joyce (her word) because of Bloomsday. Unlike people who embark on a pilgrimage to honor the text they love, Yates casually went out to a pub on Bloomsday eleven years ago without any prior knowledge of Ulysses. It was there that she met “someone special,” and they set out on a project to read Ulysses before their first anniversary. She says with a trill of laughter, “I got so into Bloomsday.”
She recommends I sit in on one of the storied reading circles at Sweny’s. I do, and am struck by the variety of voices present. Some readers sit with a cane or walker leaning against their chairs, and others sprint over to the shop after class. As Joycean phrases echo in the small confines of Sweny’s, I hear accents from Argentina, South Korea, and France. One Dubliner named Paddy has been attending the reading circle on and off for about a decade. Paddy wears long trousers, a light blue button down shirt, and round reading glasses. He seems serious, but he also has a toothy grin. While some wanderers came into the bookshop after one or two beers, Paddy arrives early, eager to pour over the text he deems so valuable. He has read the book in 6-month cycles about ten or eleven times—he can’t recall exactly. He views Ulysses as a vessel through which he can access his own ancestors, a thin place with miraculous possibility. He explains, “I am from Dublin. My parents, my grandparents too. I have no non-Irish connections. I think I am deeply of Dublin, and there are few books deeply of Dublin. Ulysses is one of them.” He explains why the book resonates with him emotionally by pointing to its melodic qualities: “There is a music in the language, a rhythm in the speech. I can hear my parents who are now dead, my grandparents who are now dead, I can hear them talking, when I read it, I can hear their voices.”
Yet another regular at Sweny’s is Finon, a former student at Trinity College. He has been attending readings of Ulysses for four years, and he loves how Sweny’s regulars move “in a loop,” how the book itself is like a “carousel, no fun unless you get to do the whole thing.” “After all,” he chuckles, “if you haven’t finished, it’s not worth the money.” Like many sacred texts, Ulysses contains philosophical reflections, surprising imagery, and beautiful poetry. And like many religious holidays, which draw pilgrims from all over the world to a holy site, Bloomsday too, according to Finon, becomes a “spawning day,” to which “a lot of people return.” Both re-reading and pilgrimage are rituals of returning.
Attempts to disavow the sacred aspects of the festival sometimes sound inadvertently religious. When Finon describes the goal of Bloomsday, he seems a bit like a defensive missionary: “The attempt to popularize the text is really an attempt to create an invitation into it. I mean nobody’s looking to actively spread it onto people, but to keep it as welcoming as possible.” Similarly, Jessica Yates says she wants to get people excited about the text, but she insists, “I don’t want to impose it on everyone.” They are enthusiasts who hesitate to proselytize.
Indeed, Professor Slote of Trinity College Dublin notes with a hint of smug amusement that many people were asking him what he thought of Bloomsday from a scholarly perspective and he was “about to say something,” until he realized, “I’m not going to be this guy.” It would be understandable, from an academic standpoint, to scoff at some of what unfolds. For starters, many of the most devoted participants have never read the book. Take John, the James Joyce lookalike who has stood outside the James Joyce Center every June 16 for the last seven years. He carries a cane, and wears a black top hat, a suit, a healthy gray moustache and a tiny square beard. He peers through large circular spectacles, and takes photographs with tourists. Originally a hat-maker, John grew up in Dublin. He explains the mass of people at the James Joyce Center in an assured tone: “People don’t have to be readers to enjoy Bloomsday, people just like the association.” When I asked John what he thought when he read Ulysses for the first time, his eyes stretched open, and he raised his brows: “Read it? I wrote it!” I smiled, and he conceded, “I’m afraid I didn’t read it.”
For Joyce, a writer who said that if “Ulysses isn’t worth reading, then life isn’t worth living,” John’s confession could be considered blasphemous. But returning to Professor Slote’s less judgmental perspective, it’s unnecessary to “be that guy” who reads and analyzes Ulysses in order to have a genuine relationship with the text. Slote analogizes criticism of Bloomsday to what “we have in America—the [rhetoric of the] war against Christmas … the secularization of Bloomsday is not a bad thing.”
Is Bloomsday a sign that the religion of Joyce is somehow being compromised, challenged, thinned out in the public’s touristic, commercial and dangerously superficial imagination? Or is Bloomsday’s existence reaffirming the sacredness of Ulysses to its readers? After all, not everyone who travels to Lourdes has read the Bible, and not everyone who journeys to Mecca has read the Qur’an. The mastery of a text is not necessary, or at the very least, not a prerequisite for meaningful motivations. Pilgrimage provides a different kind of proof of faith.
As Slote elaborates on not wanting to be the Grinch of Bloomsday, he says, Bloomsday “is not a bad thing—usually it falls on nice, sunny weather,” and it’s “a pleasant excuse to have a bit of a lark.” He concurs with the organizers of the Bloomsday festival that it’s good to get people interested, and even though he says “my job is generally not to think about popularizing Ulysses,” he believes offering various points of entry for readers is noble. He elaborates on Joyce’s mission with Ulysses: “While it is a book that is studied at universities, it’s not just for those people. It has a wider audience. The way culture has moved, these things tend to be more academicized, [and] something like [Bloomsday] is a good counterbalance.”
Leslie Daugherty, from the North Side of Dublin, plays Leopold Bloom in the James Joyce Center productions of Ulysses, and he agrees that the so-called “secularization” of Joyce is a good thing. He describes the text as “a fabulous read,” but takes issue with some of the academics who treat Ulysses with the wrong kind of “reverence,” effectively “making Ulysses unattainable.” He objects to the notion that Ulysses is for “the posh people,” and shook his head as he said, in a throaty voice, “No. Ulysses is for everyone who has a mind of his own.”
Marty, a man from Donegal, Ireland, who is a marketing and events coordinator at the James Joyce Center, first encountered Joyce when he read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he says with a chuckle that “a lot of teenage Catholic dudes in Ireland identified with it.” He describes being deeply moved by the part where Stephen is called to the priesthood but says, instead, that he is an artist. The tensions between religious tradition, devotion, expectation, and the inclination towards the life of an artist resonate with Marty.
Leopold Bloom, Ulysses, and Bloomsday itself are all fraught with similar tensions. Bloom is a man who loves his wife and preaches love but deceives her and behaves disloyally. Ulysses contains styles that contradict and challenge one another—clean prose, experimental stream-of-consciousness, advertisement jargon, and saccharine romantic-novel satire. Bloomsday has attendees who have read the text 51 times and people who have never heard of Joyce. The idea of “literary pilgrimage,” too, brims with ambiguity. Are books meant to be read, or to be revered? And does a book find its meaning in an isolated experience, or in a collective celebration?
In 1996, Jonathan Franzen revised an essay initially published as “The Harper’s Essay” and retitled it “Why Bother.” In it, Franzen laments the demise of a reading-culture, and describes his “despair about the American novel.” He writes about one novel he read in reverent prose, marking his gratitude “that someone besides me had suffered from these ambiguities and had seen light on their far side—that Fox’s book had been published and preserved; that I could find company and consolation and hope in an object pulled almost at random from a bookshelf—felt akin to an instance of religious grace.” The experience of literature, of reading as an act of worship, is often seen as an individual one, as it is in this passage. Indeed, the collection for which Franzen revised his essay is called How to be Alone.
Yet Bloomsday’s beauty is in its social activity. As many literary pilgrims have pointed out, Joyce wanted his text to be democratic. The point of Bloomsday is for “any man and every man,” and the text is about bringing reverence to our everyday. Ulysses itself, in various bodily and granular descriptions elevates the profane to an esteemed status. For example, in one instance, Joyce satirically describes a man seated at the foot of a large tower as a “broad-shouldered, deep-chested, strong-limbed, frank-eyed, red-haired, freely-freckled, shaggy-bearded, wide-mouthed, large-nosed, long-headed, deep-voiced, bare-kneed, brawny-handed, hair-legged, ruddy-faced, sinew-armed hero.” And just as Joyce plays with his characters, gifting them gallant qualities (albeit in a sardonic tone), so does Bloomsday toy with its visitors and their expectations, until people find communion in a collective, at times gimmicky, at times reverent experience. Ulysses motivates its readers enough that they want to change their physical circumstances, embark on an embodied passage, and develop another vantage-point—beyond the systems of logic and reason that we so often subscribe to. The book inspires people to find one another, to derive solace and soul, from an admittedly kooky community. This somewhat paradoxical combination of the sacred and the irreverent is what permeates Dublin on Bloomsday. There are pub crawls and exclamations of Joycean passages made shriller by grand glasses of Guinness. But there is also something reminiscent of what we see in churches and memorials—pilgrims, persons in motion—seeking answers, inspired by something that has no neat ending, maybe realizing as they wander, that they too, will never be complete.
Despite all the ambiguity and insecurity that is present when one sets out on a pilgrimage, there is also a yearning. People embark on a pilgrimage in search of something, be it healing, obligation, or understanding. And whether it is religious or literary pilgrimage, we can discover havens in vagrancy the way we do in words. As Franzen puts it, “to write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?” There are not often clear answers in literature, but when paragraphs protect you, it doesn’t so much matter, does it? There are not clear lines drawn between the drawbacks and merits of Bloomsday either. Tourist Destination or Holy Site? One could easily say that the merits of Bloomsday are in its campiness, its accessibility, and its rendering a “thin place” palpable to readers. Franzen ends his essay with the image of a character discovering in a broken ink bottle “both perdition and salvation.” He writes, at peace without real resolution, “The world was ending then, it’s ending still, and I’m happy to belong to it again.”
Finon, one of the regular members of the Sweny’s reading circle, also embraces contradiction in Bloomsday. He believes that the festival is meaningful, but remarks with a knowing smirk that “on Bloomsday people like to drink and eat strange meat … [but] no one’s really talking about metempsychosis” (a concept of great significance in the novel). Finon asks if I had read Station Island by Seamus Heaney when I press him on the benefits and caveats of literary pilgrimage. I answer that I have not. He is keen to explain, “it’s a poem about revisiting a Catholic pilgrimage site, a catholic shrine …based on the idea that St. Patrick had a vision of purgatory there.” Finon outlines the context of the poem. “He was revisiting the place as a secularized figure … returning to a place he no longer believed in.” This raises an interesting question within a framework of literary pilgrimage. Is it possible to have a jarring return to a place you have lost faith in if all you have lost faith in is the sanctity of the literature (and not, for instance, the existence of God?)
In Heaney’s poem, various characters appear from disparate significant moments in the history of Ireland. And at the “dead center,” Finon narrates in a thrilled whisper, “he meets the ghost of the dead James Joyce.” Heaney doesn’t name him. He refers only to the storied image of Joyce that impersonators and photographers and readers and writers have memorialized for a century: a tall man with a cane, and the voice of a singer. Heaney writes that the figure held out his hand— “whether to guide or be guided I could not be certain,” because the man seemed blind. In this poem, an itinerant soul reckons with the loss of meaning in a formerly faithful location. That a hero of literature, a genius, artist, poet, is ambiguous in his leadership—that it is unclear whether he wants to lead or be led, demonstrates the deterioration and dismantling of Joyce as an idol, of Joyce as a God. Here Joyce’s hand is “fish-cold and bony,” and the onlooker knows him “in the flesh … wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush.” This is a weathered, human being, a worn body, tired, old, nothing divine or eternal-seeming about him.
In many ways, this encounter could represent the ultimate challenge, a revisiting and reckoning with the sacred ground on which a metaphorical shrine to Ulysses was erected. In Station Island the character of Joyce does not seem wholly self-assured. He says, “your obligation / is not discharged by any common rite. / What you do you must do on your own … You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” In this imagination of Joyce, the source of Ulysses’s genius, is not, on the surface, a divine force, because he feels entirely human. Yet, isn’t there something god-like in the command to strike out alone, to stop “listening,” and to embrace a new “rite”?
Considering Joyce as a simultaneously godly and ghostly figure is pertinent to the paradoxes of Bloomsday. Finon notes some logical dilemmas he observed on June 16 every year: “It’s a strange map in itself. I came to the real pub where a fictional character didn’t set foot. I came to the place where nobody bought the bar of soap. (laughs) It’s quite odd.”
Nonetheless, it seems hard to contend with the fact that Ulysses renders Dublin “a thin place.” It is the destination for wandering minds and bodies to relish and find refuge in words that feel mimetic of reality: the ugly, disturbing, devastating, and remedial stories that make up most of our lives. Letting Bloomsday be a thin place extracts communal joy from that solitary act of reading (or even of not-reading!) which can at times be isolating, and that private worship of Joyce, which can at times be embarrassing. A shared human soul pieced together from infinitely complex and individual particularities. One may plumb the mundane for miracles.
Niebuhr describes pilgrims as people “passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well.” I was passing through a territory not my own, and when I walked the streets of Dublin on Bloomsday, I felt both spiritual and giddy.
My very first interview, in the early morning of June 16, 2018, was with a couple from Trieste, and it felt like a moment of grace. I saw them loitering by the James Joyce Statue on the main street of the north side of Dublin. They were smiling and taking photos. It turned out that the man had read Ulysses as a young academic forty years ago. He matter-of-factly stated, “It was the text that inspired me to become a professor of literature.” As he spoke, his wife started laughing. I turned to her quizzically. She said, “Oh I’m sorry, it’s just my husband is really downplaying what this book means to him.” I asked her what she meant. “Well, when my first son was born—when I went into labor, what does my husband take along to the hospital? The thick fat book—Ulysses! He read it to me for twelve hours.” I turned to the man, now in his late 70s, a small smile playing on his lips, while a plum flush spread across his cheeks in patches. “Well,” he stuttered, “it’s sizzling … and brilliant … and so human.” This man wanted the very first words his son heard to be those of Joyce. What better anecdote could I have to demonstrate worship of this text? Yet, when I asked if he believed visiting Dublin for Bloomsday would lead to a more intimate understanding of Ulysses, he said, as his forehead creased slightly, “that would be too much, too big a claim.” His wife nodded knowingly. He added, “We’re here for more profane reasons.”
Literature enables both profane pleasure and reverence. On Bloomsday, no one has to choose.
Serena Alagappan is a rising senior at Princeton University studying Comparative Literature, with language study in French, Latin, English, and American Sign Language. She is pursuing certificates in European Cultural Studies and Creative Writing. She is the Editor-in-chief of the Nassau Weekly, a Behrman Society Fellow, and a recipient of the John McPhee '53 Award for Summer Projects in Independent Journalism. She hopes to continue finding personal and literary connections where one might expect to find differences.