Ulysses and reality

Jul 25th, 2012 | By | Category: Personal Columns

RTE Radio ran a Molly Bloom programme this evening. Being halfway through a re-reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ that commenced on 16th June, Bloomsday, the documentary seemed timely, as though someone up in the studios in Montrose knew there was a country cleric mired in mid-novel who needed a bit of encouragement.

Why does it matter, though? What difference does it make if Blazes Boylan is cuckolding Leopold Bloom, or if the whole thing is in Bloom’s imagination? In the detective novels that are the stuff of holiday reading, what difference would it make if all those on the good side in a novel were dead at the end? Reading Alastair MacLean’s ‘HMS Ulysses’ as a thirteen year old, there was a struggle at the end to work out if any of the novel’s central characters had survived the sinking and a sense of relief that one officer had been transferred to another ship; but what did it matter?

There is a scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ where the Players visiting Elsinore are asked to perform lines from a Greek tragedy; the performance has a profound effect upon Hamlet:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

Hamlet 2:2

What did it matter to a seventeenth century actor that tragic events had befallen a Greek city? Nothing, yet the lines are acted as though every moment was in personal experience, that everything described was being felt at first hand by the actor himelf.

Sometimes the fictional evokes more response than the factual; a novel can bring a spectrum of emotions, yet confrontation with real tragedy can bring an overwhelming sense of numbness. Perhaps realities are just too overwhelming; illness, sudden death, accidents, pain, grief, bereavement; inexplicable tragedies.

Perhaps stories, plays, fiction are a way of coping with daily grimness; providing a safety valve through which emotions may be released. Hamlet protests at such a situation; he allows his emotions free rein and piles tragedy upon tragedy.

Quiet reflection upon unsatisfactory endings, whether real or fictional, provides a safer world than one where we follow our imagination and make bad situations worse.

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