Ulysses and the Lie of Technological Progress

How a broken Twitter adaption of James Joyce’s novel reveals the secret of Bloomsday

Joyce enthusiasts celebrate cosplay Ulysses on Bloomsday, 2000 (Reuters)

Today is Bloomsday, a folk holiday adopted to celebrate the life and work of the Irish writer James Joyce, in particular his 1922 novel Ulysses. The name derives from the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, one of the Dubliners the book follows through the day of June 16, 1904. First celebrated mere years after the novel’s publication, Bloomsday festivities have been enjoyed for decades. Today, Bloomsday is marked globally in various ways, but especially in Dublin, where it has taken on the character of a citywide festival and as a pilgrimage for aspiring high modernists worldwide.

In our age of fast-obsolescing smartphones and apps, it’s hard to find fault in a makeshift holiday that celebrates a book nearly a century old. But nevertheless, it’s also troublesome to observe Bloomsday as a rote paean to Joyce and Ulysses.

For one part, it takes the ordinary day of the novel and makes it extraordinary. Joyce picked June 16 as the time of the novel partly to commemorate his first date with his future wife (more on that in a moment), but also because it was an otherwise ordinary day, on which ordinary people did ordinary things. Like the rest of literary and artistic modernity, the novel pits the epic against the mundane, and Joyce’s version toes the line with virtuosity.

For another part, Bloomsday turns Joyce into a national and international hero in a way that risks misinterpreting his literary project. Bloomsday has become a day of haughty panegyrics. Almost a century removed from the heyday of high modernism, it’s easy to render James Joyce a staid and honorable figure of cultural uprightness. But nothing could be less the case. Ulysses bathes in low-culture vulgarity, even if it’s hard for today’s reader to see it clearly. The choice of June 16 as an homage to his future wife’s first date is partly romantic, but partly bawdy, too. As the story goes, the date ended in a handjob, a sex act profane in such a humdrum way that is “not even deserving of its own Latinate nickname,” as the writer James S. Murphy once observed in Vanity Fair. The book itself was long considered profane, too: it was banned for vulgarity in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1920s, although that history is as forgotten today as are Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, which now seem genteel compared to just about any Google Image search.

Instead of standing on the shoulders of giants in faux-humble deference to tradition, as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot had done by incorporating classical references and source material, Joyce devoured and disgorged them again. And it was beautiful and real, like watching a drunk heave outside a pub in the wee hours of the morning. This is life.

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I’ve faced the dispassion of Joyce’s dual legacy head-on. In 2007, the entrepreneur and fellow Joyce aficionado Ian McCarthy and I set out to create a modest disruption of the aspects of the Bloomsday Industrial Complex via contemporary technology: a cast of Twitter accounts for the characters in one of the book’s chapters, programmed to tweet the chapter’s events in real-time.

Joyce’s novel is structured in relation to the Homeric epic The Odyssey (“Ulysses” is the Roman name for Odysseus). Each chapter (or “episode”) of the novel corresponds with, and plays with the themes of, a book of the epic. For example, Odysseus’s outsmarting of the Cyclops in The Odyssey is transformed into an encounter between Leopold Bloom and an abusive character called “The Citizen” in Barney Kiernan’s pub.

Ian and I targeted episode 10 of the novel, “Wandering Rocks,” the only chapter without a direct Homeric parallel (In Greek mythology, these planktai, or “wanderers,” were rocks said to produce particularly violent seas that smash ships to bits; Odysseus braved the route between Scylla and Charybdis rather than risk it with the planktai). The episode presents vignettes of the activities of 19 Dubliners. The result is a lattice of the anonymous bustle of urban modernity, in which some of the novel’s main characters become enmeshed. The struggle and collision between all these possible stories, none fully told, analogize the chaotic planktai. And yet, these wandering rocks, a bulwark of total danger in Homer’s epic, become neither positive or negative in Joyce’s novel. The ragged bodies and places and events of the modern city aren’t dangerous, exactly. They just are.

“Wandering Rocks” is a cipher for the collision of high and low, significance and ordinariness, uprightness and vulgarity that pervades the novel as a whole. Unlike the modern novel in Joyce’s time as much as today’s, “Wandering Rocks” refuses to settle on a single subject or story. It is modernism at its most postmodern, a prototype for the meandering, complex, interwoven, semi-plotlessness that would find its way into much more recent books, from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Ian and I hoped to return some of the joking mockery and vulgarity of the book to Bloomsday and Joyce worship more generally. To be sure, a certain measure of debauchery pervades Bloomsday celebrations, especially in Dublin, where many acolytes attempt to retrace the steps of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the novel’s other characters through the city—and its pubs. But today, bewildered grotesquerie is served up less by the disorienting modern city than it is by the internet, which has replaced the city as our treacherous Wandering Rocks.

We chose Twitter, still a relatively esoteric “microblogging” platform in 2007, because it offered a perfect format for our interpretation. For one part, the invitation to post messages, in public, unfiltered, whatever thought or idea came out of one’s head perfectly paralleled Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness writing. For another part, even in those early days of Twitter, the platform was sufficiently popular that a great deal of content flowed through it—and yet, it was new enough that the website still aggregated everyone’s tweets in a single, common public timeline. And for yet another part, the live-updating user and public timelines allowed us to recreate the events of Wandering Rocks in time rather than in space.

The Twitter public timeline, circa 2007. @StephenDedalus, at center, is a Ulysses character.

To accomplish this, Ian and I analyzed the episode, extracted selections that best represented its action, and time-stamped them with rough estimates of the time of their occurrence, relative to the clues Joyce provided via the coincidences between the various vignettes. Scholars and fans have created various animated maps and Bloomsday touring guides over the years to show character’s physical traversal of central Dublin. But these efforts fail to capture the interleaved, temporal simultaneity of the character’s action—let alone their interaction with other citydwellers. Instead, they elevate Ulysses to the status of theme park, effectively gutting its workaday vulgarity.

We registered 54 Twitter accounts in the names of Ulysses characters—from @BuckMulligan to @WifeOfSheehyMP, and converted the passages we’d selected and time-coded into 140-character tweets, adding @-mention cross-references where appropriate. Like this:

Twitter had published an application programming interface (API) for its service. Using the API, I wrote some software to automate the posting, such that everything would be timed correctly. I just had to push a button and watch. We named the project “Twittering Rocks.”

It ran successfully in 2007, and thanks to the software, it would be easy to run Twittering Rocks every Bloomsday. Which we did, in 2008, and 2009, and 2010. Then it broke completely and hasn’t worked since. And that’s when I started to understand the real purpose of Bloomsday.

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Twitter’s early API was dead-simple to use. A programmer just provided the Twitter username, password, and message to post an update to that user’s timeline. That’s a perfect model so long as your API is willing to provide or request a user’s credentials. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. Requiring users to share their passwords with third-parties introduces justifiable trust issues, and it also disseminates credentials unnecessarily. By summer 2010, Twitter, and the consumer internet in general, had become popular enough that a proper company could run fast and loose with security. It implemented the OAuth standard for authorization, a technology that allows users to delegate access to a service without providing their credentials.

That was great for users and for Twitter, but for my software, it meant catastrophe. Total reengineering was necessary. I’d have to integrate with Twitter’s new OAuth system, then authorize the client manually from 50-plus separate accounts, or else I’d have to create 50-plus separate applications manually and then use their own authorization tokens in the main program. Not hard, admittedly, but time-consuming enough that it just didn’t happen. An internet joke about Bloomsday took a back seat to ordinary life. And so Twittering Rocks lived for four years and disappeared without fanfare. It’s nothing terribly remarkable. How many apps on your phone don’t work properly anymore? Software breaks all the time.

But books don’t. Ulysses is among the most important novels of all time, so it’s remained in print for almost a century—even when it was banned. But the novel isn’t just accessible—it also takes pretty much exactly the same form it always did: words on paper, letterpress- or offset- or digitally-printed, and bound in a codex (or the electronic equivalent). Twittering Rocks revealed something Joyce knew long before I did: the fester of decay is also the spring of novelty, and vice-versa.

Decay is nothing new online. Link rot pervades even the most well-trafficked media sites, the vestiges of redesigns and revised business models. Last year, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance explained how a Pulitzer-nominated, 34-part investigative journalism series vanished entirely from the web. One reason: it was built on a technology platform, Flash, that once thrived but now languishes. The same is true of countless works of computer-native media and entertainment. Software and videogames disappear when their underlying hardware or software platforms obsolesce. Popular titles get remade or sequelized or versioned-up, but such treatment assumes a commercial popularity that evades many creative works; Ulysses 2 (or 2.0) makes little sense, except maybe as a bad tweet or YouTube video.

The relatively unknown world of of electronic literature, of which Twittering Rocks is a humble example, has been hard-hit by infrastructural decay. Works produced for HyperCard, Apple’s once-popular programming tool, have long since ceased to be viewable on modern computers. That includes works by Douglas Adams, Michael Crichton, and others published under the Voyager Expanded Books shingle in the early 1990s.  Likewise, works created for the early hypertext authoring system Storyspace, including Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl cannot easily be experienced as they were originally conceived. And works like Natalie Bookchin’s The Intruder, created with Shockwave, once as ubiquitous as Flash once was, also can’t run anymore. If you’ve never heard of or experienced any of these works, that’s sort of the point. One of the features that allowed Ulysses to become canon—hardly the only one, but one nevertheless—was its ability to be read by human eyeballs in 2016 as much as in 1986, 1956, or 1926.

In the case of Twittering Rocks, something beyond mere technical compatibility had evaporated. The context for one of the fundamental design goals had become obsolete—and utterly forgotten, too. The Twitter public timeline had been retired, and with it the idea of a modern, digital rendition of the chance encounters between strangers and Joyce characters that Ian and I had envisioned in 2007. Sure, you could still follow the Bloomsday characters and reproduce a version of it in your private timeline, but unless you followed a large number of accounts, the result would be muted. And even if you did, you’d have crossed the threshold from everyday internet user schlub to foppish Bloomsday theme-park goer. The ordinary made extraordinary.

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James Joyce’s literary innovations were material and formal: the stream-of-consciousness prose; the Homeric parallel structure and theme; the puns and jokes; the experimental language, which ranges from dialect to evolutionary linguistics. Perhaps most of all, though, the cacophonic dissonance of everything all at once. This is no more notable than it is at the very end of the book, in lines quoted more often than they are appreciated. Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly, lying in bed, recalls in stream-of-consciousness fashion her memory of her husband’s marriage proposal.

I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The literary exuberance of these lines are only matched by their narrative skeeviness. Molly, whose freeform recollection is already interrupted by thoughts of urination and remark at nighttime noises, has spent much of the novel fantasizing about and then meeting her well-endowed lover Blazes Boylan, with whom Leopold actively knows she is having an affair. And worse, it’s a sin for which he is no less guilty, albeit with even greater perversity: as a public voyeur, an epistolary proto-sexter, and a surreptitious masturbator. He persists in his routine, because, well, that’s life, full of joy and piss. The train whistles and the bladder tightens and the memory of tenderness wafts up like heat from the pavement. We romance one another no less often than we relieve ourselves.

Joyce’s formal innovations exerted pressure on language rather than on medium. Words work more or less the same as they did in 1904 or 1922 or 1942. Books work identically. Today, by contrast, formal media innovation rules the day. New devices and infrastructures push out old ones, and they do so at an ever more rapid pace. And yet, Ulysses too was a media product of its time, one largely unreadable absent its historical context. The bric-a-brac of Dublin shop windows; the guffaws of then-current headlines; the references to long-outmoded Celtic twilight; the intrinsic linguistic conflict of the English language in Ireland; then-new technologies now long gone.

If Bloomsday must be celebrated, it is high time that the holiday fully devour Joyce’s novel in order to expel and move beyond it. The ultimate lesson of Ulysses is that everything that seems permanent decays and returns to earth. But in so doing, it doesn’t vanish. It facilitates new growth, both native and invasive. The old bonds with the new, and in so doing it both ruins and extols it.

It turns out that the horror of seeing our culture break and decay and disappear is also part of the delight of that culture. Today, everything everyone does is captured, stored, retrievable with a few taps on a magic, universal remote. This prospect is so terrifying that our European friends have been pursuing a “right to be forgotten,” lest Google’s index unfairly rule peoples’ futures. But at the same time, all the software and devices that do all that recording and storage also cease to function quickly—almost immediately, from the vantage point of historical time. The right to be remembered is no less at risk.

Carnivals embrace bacchanalia, the resignation to the pleasures of the flesh from those of the mind. But among those pleasures is the pleasure of destruction, of neglect, of abandonment. Bloomsday is the most contemporary of holidays, because it puts the lie to the conceit of contemporary life: that we move ever-forward through progress, amassing knowledge and innovation and adeptness. How quickly forgotten is the fundamental lesson of modernism—that entropy rules, but that we can still simulate order, even if just for a time, by reassembling shrapnel plucked from the atmosphere. Persistence is always vulgar before it is honorable. And that’s what Bloomsday is really for. It celebrates the ultimate technological advancement no matter the period: not discovery or innovation, but the warm, drunk rumble of the conversation between progress and decay.