A Portrait of the Artist – Bloomsday

Today in Ireland – and all around the world – Bloomsday is celebrated. For any not familiar with Bloomsday, it’s to commemorate the day – 16th June 1904 – that Leopold Bloom walks the streets of Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It also happens to be the day that Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and the reason he chose that date. So, to celebrate, I thought I’d write a short post with some thoughts on Joyce.

For anyone interested in a short but fascinating introduction to Joyce, I can recommend James Joyce (Irish Lives) by Peter Costello. A lot of food for thought in this book on his work ethic. He never stopped working, through illnesses both  physical and – with his daughter – mental, and despite the fact that the Joyces were never financially secure. Costello describes them as being like gypsies, because they never settled down for long in one place, right up until the end. This was usually due to their fluctuating financial situation. You also wonder reading it whether he was ever actually really happy. Because Costello says that, most likely, Nora never really was.

I also read a fascinating article on James Joyce some time ago, written by Djuna Barnes, from a 1922 issue of “Vanity Fair”. (You can read it here) It was fascinating to see her speak about Joyce in the interview in the same way that a modern journalist would talk about a modern writer. She met him in – of all places – Café Deux Magots (THE cool writer hangout on Paris’ Left Bank) and she talks about him sitting there sipping white wine, smoking a cigar, and talking about a waistcoat that his grandmother made for him. It’s a fascinating glimpse of someone like Joyce in a way that we would never see him, even in biographies. In biographies, people say “He did this” or “He was this”, but in this article she’s talking about the present – it’s very immediate.

Another interesting thing that she talks about is the way Joyce – despite sickness and deteriorating eyesight – continued to work eight to sixteen hours a day. He was a heavy drinker and smoker. He had chronic stomach problems and he was going blind – maybe the drinking and smoking was to help him get through. But the thing is, he did – he kept on going, even with a mentally-ill daughter to contend with, as well as being penniless half the time.

And thinking about that – Joyce being penniless, Henry Miller being penniless – started me thinking about the differences and similarities between an artist then and an artist now. From the Renaissance onwards, artists – be they writers, painters, whatever – always had patrons. At least, the poets and painters did – someone like Shakespeare had to get by scraping a living in the lowly theatres, until he too found a patron. And that practice lasted up until modern times – Joyce had a patron who he constantly had to turn to for money. Miller, of course, famously didn’t, and he had to scrounge from his friends and write erotica to scrape by. But it’s interesting when you think about somebody like Joyce with his patron, and him having to go to her for money. And the practice lasted even up until the Fifties and Sixties with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim. And then it stopped, and modern-day artists had to turn – not to patrons – but to credit cards and banks. That’s how the modern-day artist survives – on their credit card. Having money sometimes, being broke at other times, just like Joyce and Miller.

With one small difference: Joyce’s and Miller’s friends didn’t charge interest.

For information on the numerous Bloomsday events, check out the James Joyce Centre: http://www.jamesjoyce.ie/

Image: James Joyce by Louis le Brocquy


10 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Artist – Bloomsday

  1. Great post Derek – think I preferred the patronage system in one way … another well known example, Lady Gregory/Yeats – Gort 🙂 but then perhaps it’s easier to be beholding to the credit card & the bank…. Happy Bloomsday !

  2. Breaking news to me that Henry Miller wrote erotica. Must read up more on that – purely for literary self-educational purposes you understand.

    Great post – particularly the end with patrons not charging interest unlike the banks.


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