Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tales of Brave Ulysses

Hey there...Benthoven here, back after a prolonged absence here at the Mongrel with a special Bloomsday blog post. For those of you not in the know, Bloomsday is an annual commemoration of the life and work of James Joyce, specifically his most famous novel Ulysses, whose action occurred entirely on a single day: June 16, 1904. Since the 1950s, Joyce scholars, bibliophiles, and people willing to take advantage of any excuse to visit a tavern have celebrated Bloomsday. Those who can afford it travel to Dublin and walk around the city to the various sites mentioned in the story. Those with more modest budgets generally attend readings or participate in pub crawls.

And then there are starving grad students like yours truly. I read Ulysses as an undergraduate and despite being thoroughly flummoxed the majority of the time, I still reveled in my attempts to decipher a text full of references to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the Bible, 19th century Irish political history, and everything in between. But most years I haven't had the time, money, or inclination to devote a full day to James Joyce.

Which is why I've taken it upon myself to provide a relatively painless means of celebrating one of the 20th century's greatest novels: the first (as far as I know), MP3 playlist based upon Ulysses. Each track corresponds to one of the novel's 18 episodes which in turn parallel an event in Homer's Odyssey. A brief explanation of each track follows below.

free music

Part I: The Telemachiad--The first three chapters of the book center around the character of Stephen Dedalus, the title character of Joyce's earlier Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

1. Telemachus---Prelude/Angry Young Man (Billy Joel)
"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead...": The novel begins with Stephen and his friends Buck Mulligan and Haines waking up and getting ready to face the day. Dedalus, one of literature's great angry young men, broods over the death of his mother and worries about his place in the world.

2. Nestor---To a Teacher (Leonard Cohen)
In the Odyssey, Telemachus seeks advice from his father's old brother-in-arms, Nestor--the master charioteer. A nestor has since entered the English language as a term referring to a venerable and wise old man, someone to whom one can turn for advice. Leonard Cohen's voice definitely evokes the sagacity of the mythical Nestor even if his Joycean analogue, Stephen's employer, Mr. Deasy, is an anti-Semite.

3. Proteus---Changes (David Bowie)
Proteus, a sea god second in power only to Poseidon, possessed the power to shape shift who would answer the questions of any mortal capable of restraining him. Telemachus learns that another of his father's colleagues, Menelaus, succeeded in pinning him down and discovered the whereabouts of his father, Odysseus. Although Proteus has no character analogue in the novel, his chapter is characterized by shifting and amorphous language. Who better than David Bowie to describe a god defined by his metamorphic abilities?

Part II: The Wanderings of Ulysses--In Chapter 4, the novel shifts its focus from Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom, the 38 year old advertising canvasser who is the book's second protagonist and serves as its Odysseus figure.

4. Calypso---Calypso (Bonanza Banzai)
Leopold Bloom wakes up, goes to the butcher, and cooks a kidney for breakfast. Just as the goddess Calypso trapped Odysseus on her island, Bloom is bound by the routines of domestic life, serving his wife breakfast in bed, reading a letter from his daughter, and reading the newspaper in the bathroom. Despite the musical genre associated with this episode's name, a boisterous Caribbean tune didn't seem apropos to the mundane events described. So instead, this more wistful track by Bonanza Banzai, the greatest synthpop group to come out of Hungary during the late 1980s. And hey, it has the same name! That's convenient.

5. The Lotus Eaters---The Lotus Eaters (Dead Can Dance)
Bloom heads off to the post office, the drug store, and then for a leisurely bath. His drifting toward the bathhouse is meant to parallel to the drug-induced haze of the Lotus Eaters that Odysseus and his crew had to resist. This hallucinogenic episode requires the musical equivalent of smokey, exotic, opiate dream-state. Thankfully, the Australian based darkwave duo Dead Can Dance provided an appropriately titled song for just that purpose.

6. Hades---O Death (Ralph Stanley, from the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack)
Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead in search of guidance from the dead sage Tiresias. While Leopold Bloom doesn't actually descend into the underworld during the novel, he does attend the funeral of his friend Paddy Dignam and ruminates upon mortality and crosses four rivers in Dublin that parellel the major rivers of the underworld. What better way to highlight this musically than a Grammy-winning dialogue with the Grim Reaper? Not to mention one that is featured on the soundtrack of another Odyssey parallel, O Brother Where Art Thou?.

7. Aeolus---Four Strong Winds (Johnny Cash)
Bloom and Dedalus' paths cross for the first time in this chapter set at a newspaper office. The chapter highlights rhetoric and is divided into short segments by newspaper-style headlines. This chapter's emphasis on language alludes to the Aeolus, the lord of the winds who tried to help Odysseus and his crew get home...until his crew screwed it up. One of my favorite sections of the book and the subject of my undergraduate English paper, to represent Aeolus in this playlist, I selected an artist whose use of language is easily the equal of Joyce. I refer of course, to the Man in Black.

8. Lestrygonians---Eat You Alive (Limp Bizkit)
The Lestrygonians are one of those sections of the Odyssey that everyone learns about in high school and then immediately forgets because their name is too long. The Cyclops? Circe? The Lotus Eaters? These are all better known than the Laestrygonians despite the fact that the Laestrygonians were freakin' CANNIBALS. The parallel section of Ulysses is hardly so exciting, centering on Leopold Bloom's tasty lunch (mmm...gorgonzola cheese!), but hopefully this choice of cannibalism themed music (which narrowly beat out Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive") can help liven things up while reminding the listener of the chapter's grim overtones.

9. Scylla and Charybdis---Wrapped Around Your Finger (The Police)
The original rock and a hard place, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters who lived on opposite sides of a very narrow strait through which Odysseus had to navigate. Moving too close to the monstrous Scylla would cost the lives of six of his men while Charybdis' mighty whirlpool would destroy the entire ship. Applying the maxim later popularized by Spock in Star Trek II that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Odysseus moves toward Scylla and sacrifices six of his men to save the rest. In Ulysses, the perils in question are Aristotle and Plato...or dogma and mysticism...or Stratford and London...and instead of sailing a ship, the challenging task in question is Stephen attempt to explain Shakespeare's writing based on the posited adultery of his wife. Bloom appears at the National Library where this takes place and briefly encounters Stephen, but is otherwise absent from the chapter. For this scene outlining the perils of extreme commitment to either side in an argument or any person in a relationship, the Police's "Wrapped Around Your Finger" seems eminently apropos, especially through its reference to the titular monsters of the episode in its first lines.

10. The Wandering Rocks---Clash City Rockers (The Clash)
Those of you who have read Homer may be wondering about this section of the book. Joyce apparently needed a transition chapter while Bloom and Dedalus travel through Dublin and turned to an event referenced in The Odyssey but not experienced by Odysseus and his crew, for inspiration. The Symplegades, two rocks at the entrance to the Black Sea smashed together at irregular intervals making navigation perilous for all who attempted to sail between them. Jason and his Argonauts survived, but Odysseus decided to brave Scylla and Charybdis rather than risk smashing his ship. The stacatto punk stylings of The Clash thematically match the crashing sounds of the Symplegades as well as Joyce's stylistic division of the section into a series of interpolated vignettes highlighting the lives of various Dubliners.

11. Sirens--Song to the Siren (The Chemical Brothers)
Music plays an important part throughout Ulysses, but perhaps nowhere more than in this section of the book centered on the Concert Room, a saloon bar frequently visited by Dublin's amateur musicians. While Bloom eats dinner, ogles barmaids, and enjoys the restaurant's assembled musical talent, his wife Molly proceeds to invite her lover Blazes Boylan to an afternoon rendezvous. This is a section about seduction and enticement, with the barmaids corresponding directly to the Sirens of Greek myth who lured sailors to their doom. Odysseus was able to hear their song but not without being sorely tempted, almost to madness, in the process. Although there are a wide array of songs referencing the Sirens, this track from the Chemical Brothers' first album avoids the main flaw of the majority of these: clunky, annoying lyrics, emphasizing instead a wordless voice that seems ever so close to saying something meaningful before fading away.

12. Cyclops---Cyclops Rock (They Might Be Giants)
The Cyclops section of The Odyssey features Polyphemus, the giant, one-eyed son of Poseidon whose appetites, especially for wine, lead to his eventual blinding at the hands of Odysseus. In Ulysses, the Cyclops is symbolized by a character referred to as "The Citizen", a narrow-minded Fenian who attacks Bloom as they and a few others discuss politics at a pub. The chapter is laden with extended passages parodying literature and customs of the day-translations of Irish legend, the Bible, the minutes of a meeting, song lyrics, even legal jargon! Who better to lampoon a section that thrives on parody than They Might Be Giants, a group known for their experiments with different musical styles. The fact that they have one of the few songs out there with the word Cyclops in the title only makes the selection easier.

13. Nausicaa---Princess (Elton John)
One of the more controversial chapters in the book, the Nausicaa section is meant to parallel Odysseus' rescue from shipwreck after leaving Calypso's island by the aforementioned Phaeacian princess. Joyce's version transforms Nausicaa into Gerty McDowell, an enticing young woman that Bloom ogles on a beach. Gerty realizes that Bloom is watching her and begins to writhe and pose in order to entice him eventually leading to a controversial scene involving masturbation and a well-timed, if heavy-handed, use of fireworks as a symbol for orgasm. (No wonder the book was deemed controversial when it was published in 1922!) Elton John's Princess not only evokes Nausicaa's royal background, but its lyrics also touch on the loneliness and love that underlie motivate both Bloom and Gerty's actions throughout the chapter.

14. Oxen of the Sun---For All the Cows (The Foo Fighters)
Throughout The Odyssey, Odysseus's efforts to get home are constantly thwarted due his lack of control over his crew. The Aeolus incident is one example of this. The oxen of the sun provide another. The idea is simple. The crew lands on an island sacred to the sun god Helios. Although he has been warned by Tiresias in the underworld not to harm the cows that reside there, Odysseus figures he can trust his hungry crew not to do anything stupid. After making them pinky-swear not to eat the plump and tasty oxen, the crew immediately proceeds to slaughter enough cattle for a six day long feast. Needless to say, the gods are not pleased and Zeus destroys the mortal's ship when it leaves the island. Joyce is only slightly less vindictive to his readers in this chapter which my professor, an expert on Ulysses, allowed us to merely skim through it during our reading despite containing Bloom and Dedalus's meeting at a maternity ward. The chapter emphasizes birth and is written in a style to evoke the birth of the English language, beginning with Old English and slowly evolving into early 20th century slang. Few songs provide such an etymologically diverse approach towards the English language, so it seemed wise to just keep things simple with a nice friendly bovine-themed song from The Foo Fighters.

15. Circe---Season of the Witch (Donovan)
This chapter is an 150 page acid trip, plain and simple. Bloom and Dedalus go to a brothel in an episode paralleling Odysseus's experience with Circe, a sorceress who transformed his crew into animals. Some may wonder at the use of this relatively short Donovan track to paraphase this longest section of the book, but considering its 1960s use of hallucinogenic imagery, its haunting use of electric guitar, and its lyrical references to magic, animals, and the interplay between them all serve to justify its inclusion here.

Part III: The Homecoming--The final three chapters of the book describe the final hours of Bloom and Dedalus's day as the two men wend their way home in a manner paralleling Odyssesus's return home to Ithaca.

16. Eumaeus---March of the Pigs (Nine Inch Nails)
Bloom and Stephen have a snack at a cabman's shelter near the Liffey River where they meet with a drunken sailor and other assorted characters. One of these is meant to represent Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd to whom Odysseus first revealed his identity upon his return home. The idea of wanderers returning home is reiterated several times throughout the chapter. Nine Inch Nails' "March of the Pigs" pays tribute to Eumaeus' original profession while describing an emotional journey filled with violence and rage leading to an ending that tends to "makes you feel better." The irony of these words, however, hints at a lingering fear that Bloom might never be able to reconnect emotionally with his wife.

17. Ithaca---I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home (Grand Funk Railroad)
Odysseus and Telemachus reunite at Ithaca. Or, if you prefer, Bloom and Dedalus crash for a few minutes at Bloom's house at 7 Eccles Street, Dublin. Bloom offers his friend a place to crash for the night, but the latter declines. They discuss a broad array of topics and then after urinating in the back yard with his host, Dedalus stumbles home. Bloom goes back upstairs and gets in bed, providing his wife with a brief narration of the day's events. Another favorite chapter for readers and a source of vexation for critics, this section is written in the form of an extremely detailed catcheism featuring such questions as "For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?" (Answer: "For a cat.") and "What composite assymetrical image in the mirror then attracted his attention?" (Answer: "The image of a solitary (ipsorelative) mutable (aliorelative) man.") Rather than searching for songs that utilize a similar question and answer style or overly elaborate vocabulary, the use of Grand Funk's "I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home" effectively conveys the message that we, along with Bloom and Dedalus are nearing the end of our journey.

18. Penelope---I Never Loved a Man (Aretha Franklin)
There are 8 sentences in the final chapter of Ulysses, representing the inner monologue of Bloom's wife, Molly. And yet, despite the fact that these 8 sentences are spread out over 36 pages with only two distinct pieces of punctuation, Joyce is able to effectively convey the thoughts of a sleepy Penelope analogue who, despite lacking the faithfulness of her mythical forebear, still understands her husband and remembers the love they used to share. The last words of the book are hers. And so the last words of this CD must come from a female artist, and I think Aretha Franklin is a fitting choice even if her song ends with a negation ("No, I never loved a man...") rather than a positive statement like Molly's soliloquy ("yes I said yes I will Yes. ")

So that's the book, as it were. I'd be curious to know what people think of this playlist. Do the track choices make sense? What changes, if any, would you make? Also, what do people think of the idea of linking music and literature in this fashion?

Dance to the full posting!