James Joyce’s Democracy
Saturday, 16 June 2012, dawned sunny and clear. There you have a sentence that Joyce might have written in the “namby-pamby marmalady jammy drawersy” Nausicaa chapter of Ulysses. Nevertheless, that's what it was like on Delancey Place, Philadelphia, where the brotherly love overflowed and cascaded down the tall columns of the monumental, long-dead author. This was the first year that Joyce could be read unfettered, free of the legal incivilities of his keeper-of-the-flame grandson, who chose down the years to make enemies, and yet might have honored his grandfather far more profoundly had he chosen to make friends.
The Rosenbach Museum owns the original manuscripts of Ulysses. Could they have found a better home? Not in my opinion – great curatorship requires love, as well as physical care of the artifacts. And the Rosenbach shows its love in many ways, not least an annual celebration of the mighty novel by means of a day-long reading that was more joyful and intimate than any I have attended. More than 80 readers took part; I had the honor of being among the first and we stayed to watch the elegant democracy of the event as professional actors and singers led and followed passionate citizens and, from time to time, their children. It was moving; it was amusing and in this it echoed the novel. And, as with Joyce himself, class took no foothold, neither socially nor intellectually. Philadelphia, after all, is the city where America began the first and most comprehensive exercise of democracy. Curious – and delightful – how much one hears afresh at each reading. Even more curious – and even more delightful – is how the book works no matter what the reader’s voice. It was as though Joyce’s famed common-man intent had indeed come to life.
One of the most enjoyable ways to “get” Shakespeare is to sit with a great cast recording and read the play at the same time. Many audience members at the Rosenbach had brought their copies of Ulysses and kept their eyes on the pages; and it occurred to me that, were it possible, the perfect way to grasp the novel is to have a marathon Rosenbach reading of the entire work rather than the – necessarily – edited pieces we heard on Saturday.
Highlights? Begin at the end, with by any measure the best Molly Bloom I have ever seen and I’ve seen fifteen or so. Drusie McDaniel’s vivacity had all the fun and the tawdry glamor, and the seedy egotism, and the awful intimacy of Molly’s borderline personality and her near-desperate self-involvement – the casual amorality; the boundless self-belief; the unchecked narcissism. The singers and musicians who performed the music that haunts Ulysses had exactly the appropriate balance of merriment and wistfulness; and I will never as long as I live forget the readings from Ithaca, by David and Daniel Simpson, blind-from-birth brothers, who not only read the pages, they lived them, right down to the poignancy of Mr. Bloom’s final snore. And thus their fingers, moving at great speed across their Braille, also reached in and touched our hearts. For all his edgy arrogance, Joyce, sight-challenged himself, would have turned away to conceal his pride.
Before the readings began, Derick Dreher, the Rosenbach’s Director allowed a few of us to look at the manuscripts. Remember the moment in Indiana Jones when we see the Ark of the Covenant? That’s what it was like looking at Joyce’s Jesuit handwriting, sloping away off the page, driven to the extremities of his sight by astigmatism or glaucoma or macular degeneration. The pages on which he worked were smaller than I’d expected; and even when he used French school notebooks with their graph paper, his control of his lines didn't much improve.
The readings sank to a wistful closing near 8pm. I still feel the regret. Why am I not there today, among those tall brick houses of Philadelphia’s rich past, still listening to this book that was also read elsewhere across the world on Bloomsday: somebody said 40 cities? The Rosenbach's, I feel certain, was the largest and - I'd put money down - the warmest.
But, though the chairs have long been folded, the words linger, and perhaps not just in the minds of those who were there. Several years ago, a psychic investigator in Ireland claimed that voices remain in the air, that the words we speak hang there above us, ineluctable modality of the audible, if you like. One of the phrases he recorded (I never doubted him: millions did) was a male voice, self-identifying, who said, over and over, the words, “James Joyce, James Joyce, James Joyce” – I have the 45rpm recording somewhere, and I have to concede that the accent and the tone were damn close to those of the everyman from Dublin and Trieste and Zurich and Paris. That's what can happen when you want to believe something.
If it’s true, if our words do indeed hang above where we've spoken them – then rush down to Delancey Place, Philadelphia, with a pyschic tape recorder. Hold the microphone above your head and you’ll capture the most wonderful cornucopia of sounds in the air outside the Rosenbach Museum. If you can’t make it today – don’t worry; they’ll hang there for a while. And they’ll be refreshed next year.