A Bloomsday Surrender
Ulysses is a lot of things, but the aspect that has long held me most closely is the lesson of the surrender that must come before true intimacy. For most of the book, which is partly an allegory of a hobbled, down-beaten artistic sentiment finding its way back to love, passion, and the source of creation, the principal protagonists — Molly and Leopold Bloom, husband, and wife — are at rough ends. They’ve not made love in ten years, and through the narrative, we learn they’ve found a way to cope. Leopold is always looking out at other women. He’s a bit of a twerp, trying to sneak glimpses down blouses or staring unobtrusively at the round of a bottom. In one chapter, he publicly has at himself on the beach while watching Gerty MacDowell and her “rosebud mouth” as she stands in the water.
Meanwhile, Molly has her lovers, and that very day meets with Blazes Boylan, a crude and foolish man who treats her like “a horse or an ass,” never really seeing her — only what she can give him, the release she provides with her body.
It’s pretty clear that Joyce intended, at least in part, for the book to be an allegory for the destruction of unity brought about by colonialism in his homeland. Blazes is positioned as a stand-in for the British Army of occupation. Molly is the land’s fecundity and the Irish culture’s depth and sensuality. Leopold is the wandering spirit and intellect of a distraught, belittled cuckold neutered by the world and beaten down to voyeurism and self-indulgence.
But Molly and Leopold still remember one another, deep under the pain.
In one telling passage, Molly — after sleeping with Blazes — reflects that for all Boylan’s performative virility, Bloom “has more spunk in him.”
To that end, they both know where they belong — with love and one another, if only they can get out of their damn way. But history, defeat, insecurity, anger, frustration, and disappointment keep them wandering — like ancient Ulysses himself — for ten long years, lost at sea.
Until the surrender.
The book ends with Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, in which she repeats dozens and dozens of times the word “YES.” It is a beautiful moment of self-awareness and self-assertion, but even more sensually, that self-awareness and self-assertion manifest themselves in a release. She says YES all those times in the final chapter because she has grown so weary of saying NO. She and Leopold have been saying NO to one another for a decade. They’ve grown isolated, scornful, and cruel, striking out at one another and debasing themselves. They’ve built walls and hid behind them, scurrying around out of fear and shame and the lost battles of long ago.
Until Molly — the great, sensual spirit and passion that swims below everything — finally surrenders, lays down her arms, and remembers what it is to love.
Joyce doesn’t tell us, but I like to think that — at the end of the longest day — he’s wise enough to do so, too.
Happy Bloomsday. I hope you celebrate by dropping whatever axes you hold and opening your arms to love.