Bloomsday, 16th June, in ordinary times a day of celebration in those corners of the city of Dublin that are featured in Ulysses, the account of a day in the life of James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom.
The people of the city through which Bloom travels, on foot and by cab, were mostly impoverished. Georgian houses in parts of the city had become tenement dwellings, whole families sometimes occupying a single room. Alcohol problems were extensive in a city that was said to have a thousand pubs. Child and maternal mortality were high.
Yet in the midst of the poverty, there was a vibrant culture. Popular entertainment was to be found in the theatres and the music halls. Ordinary people read newspapers demanding a high level of literacy. Working men did not shy from serious debate.
Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living offers a reflection on how our current culture has regressed. Reflecting on the Dublin of Joyce, Kiberd wrote:
The tragedy of the twentieth century was the replacement of a public-spirited bourgeoisie, not with a fully enfranchised people, but with a workforce now split between overpaid experts and underpaid service providers. The world so lost turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it. The world of pub, cafe, civic museum and national library produced social democracy, modernist painting and Ulysses. The world which supplanted it can generate only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography. The middle class has no real public culture or artworks which critique its triumph, because it has assimilated all the oppositional forces of modernism, by reducing them to mass entertainment. Now the streets are places not of amenity, but of danger, through which nervous people drive in locked cars from one private moment to another.
Technology has not enhanced the lives of the sort of people whom Leopold Bloom would have encountered, instead it is devoted to the trivial, and to the cults of celebrity and individualism. Personal fulfilment has become a vicarious thrill derived from watching “reality” television.
An analysis of our society as trenchant as that of Declan Kiberd is inimical to the vision of those whose object in life is to monetize, privatize, franchise, to those who have substituted consumerism for culture. People have been rendered impotent by a culture which does not accommodate serious conversations. The exchanges of Bloomsday would no longer be possible.