Just finished ‘Ulysses’ for the second time.

That probably puts me into a small subset of humanity but I have to write about how wonderful that book is.

I just read that thundering last paragraph about 5 minutes ago and the whole flow and flood of Molly’s dawn monologue is still pulsing in me like blood.

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought as well him as another 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

It feels wrong to quote it out of context because it’s the final strophe of a 20,000 word monologue which is mostly breathtakingly earthy – covering the girth and stamina of her afternoon lover, starting her period on the chamber pot under the bed, ruthlessly criticising her husband and most men, fantasising about giving a 20-yr-old lodger a stiffy by showing him her underwear, pondering semen stains on the sheets – and refrains from almost any flights of fancy except this last one.

And it’s the example of Joycean excess. It doesn’t use fancy words or complex ideas. It simple lists in a long flowing monologue all the thoughts and memories that pass through this woman’s head as she’s dozing in bed on a summer’s morning in Dublin, 1904.

I feel rather bereft having finished the book – which I started almost 7 weeks ago – and particularly bereft to have lost that husband and wife from my life. Molly and Leopold Bloom are the most subcutaneously loveable characters in any book I’ve read. Actually, Molly and Stephen Dedalus (the other main character) are both quite hard to really like – but they act as foils for Bloom who is the most vivid creation in literature.

Molly only has this one last chapter (she only grunts, half-asleep, otherwise in chapter four). Stephen has the first three chapters and appears in several of the central ones – but the book is really Bloom’s.

Why Joyce chose this flubby, scientifically-minded Jewish advertising salesman as his hero I don’t know but in the hundreds of pages he devotes to Bloom’s moment-by-moment observation and reaction to the Dublin around him, I come to love him dearly. The other men in the book (and Molly is really the only woman who comes to voice) are silly, vain, bigoted, or only half-way decent. Bloom is kind and curious. Unusually in Dublin, he doesn’t really drink, he looks after his wife, he’s liberal and reasonable. He also masturbates over under-aged girls, visits brothels and revels in masochistic fantasies. He’s tormented by the fact that he’s avoiding going home because Molly is having sex with her lover. He is anything but heroic. But he is human and that is wonderful.

During the flabbergasting ‘Circe’ chapter which is written like a long phantasmagoric expressionist play with surreal stage directions and bizarre set pieces, Bloom describes himself:

I stand, so to speak, with an unposted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general postoffice of human life

But, again misquoting distorts. This is a moment in the lurid fantasies Bloom has of self-abasement (followed shortly before by unbelievable self-inflation). In fact, Bloom is pretty happy with himself. He doesn’t often criticise himself or think too roughly about himself. (Molly doesn’t either but she’s pretty rough on others. Stephen thinks all together too much – mostly about himself and Tomas Aquinas – and is haunted by terrible paralysing guilt over his mother’s recent death.)

Bloom is not exceptional but the way Joyce writes the book around him makes him mythical. The fourth character in the book is the book itself. Joyce displays almost superhuman huzhpah in writing Ulysses. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for it in literature. It starts off fairly conventionally – like one of his Dubliners short stories but then about halfway through the style starts to become a character of its own.

There’s the chapter that mimics human gestation by morphing prose styles from pre-history to futuristic slang via every great prose writer in English literature. The chapter where words are arranged by purely musical methodology. The chapter which is a massive catechism, asking and answering questions about early morning events in pedantic but sometimes ecstatic detail.

Alone, what did Bloom feel?
The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reaumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn.

Of what did bellchime and handtouch and footstep and lonechill remind him?
Of companions now in various manners in different places defunct: Percy Apjohn (killed in action, Modder River), Philip Gilligan (phthisis, Jervis Street Hospital), Matthew F. Kane (accidental drawing, Dublin Bay). Philip Moisel (pyemia, Heytesbury street), Michael Hart (phthisis, Mater Misericordiae Hospital), Patrick Dignam (apoplexy, Sandymount)

What prospect of what phenomena inclined him to remain?
The disparition of three final stars, the diffusion of daybreak, the apparition of the new solar disk.

What’s strange about the book is that all this cleverness and word play and excess of creativity should really get in the way of feeling things for the characters but actually it weirdly does not. Or, at least, it doesn’t for me.

For the first time, while reading a book, I had a panic because I knew that Bloom was about to disappear. I had the distinct feeling that I was going to miss him when he finally curls up to sleep, kisses his wife’s buttocks and disappears from the text. He’d been in my head for 5 weeks and now he was just going to fade out?

Now I’ve finished Molly’s final soliloquy I realise that it’s Joyce’s voice I’m going to miss. His omnivorous attention to the world of flesh and blood, light and form, word and meaning. He makes it feel good to be human.

I’m going to quote (and again it’s sort of misleading to extract from the context because this comes from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter where every paragraph is a parody of a historical prose style) and I’m choosing a quote that is Joyce’s voice distanced by pastiche but still moving. He’s alluding to nurses in hospitals but in a very illuminated way:

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die: over us dead they bend. First, saved from waters of old Nile, among bullrushes, a bed of fasciated wattles: at last the cavity of a mountain, an occulted sepulchre amid the conclamation of the hillcat and the ossifrage.

Isn’t that beautiful? I could quote endless bits I’ve highlighted or mention the dozens of words I had to click and look up on my Kindle (crubeen, occiput, sennet, mulcted, Lycopodium, rebus, luteofulvous, munches and lacustrine) but I guess I would be better to come back and re-read it again.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And the, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Seamus Heaney, Squarings

Yesterday, the UK Coalition Government introduced the ‘Bedroom Tax’ which affects 670,000 people (most cruelly those with disabilities) and will mean they end up paying on average £728 more a year. This will save the Exchequer £490m.

Next week, the UK Coalition Government introduces a cut in the highest rate of income tax. The UK’s 13,000 millionaires will each benefit on average £100,769 a year. This will cost the Exchequer £3 billion.

“Austerity” is a lie.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we chose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should love, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory

Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press 1994) quoted in Noam Chomsky Occupy (Penguin Books 2012)

I have fled the never-ending English Winter for an instant, well-established Spring in Cyprus.

And sitting among the purple vetches and white wild garlic, with bees missiling past my head and birds being very urgent in their sexed-up calls, I had a lovely long meditation looking out over the mountains about Limassol.

Part of the reason I booked a last minute flight towards the sun was to give myself some time-out between a lot of teaching and a long summer of filming. But there was so much interesting stuff in the teaching that is still buzzing round my head.

Mindsprings ran a weekend course at the Abbey on ‘Anxiety: The mindful approach’ (which sounds like a franchised film title, but was actually a great two day workshop). I was so happy with the way it went. And one of the many interesting things that came out of it was the concept of ‘surfing’ one’s neuroses through to a certain age and then hopping off them.

Having negotiated 40 and had a physical meltdown at 42, I’m feeling quite good about being 43. It seems like the ‘mid-life crisis’ is more of a ‘mid-life’ opportunity.

The surfing idea came up while we were discussing a concept I use from ACT therapy, called “dirty (dis)comfort.”

Basically a dirty (dis)comfort is a defence that is meant to make us comfortable by avoiding the experience of anxiety.

So a thought or a situation arises that rightfully makes our physical body send out anxiety signals (heightened heart-rate, pained breathing, stomach contractions, sweat, narrow thinking) and rather than acknowledge it we pretend it’s not there by indulging in an avoidant or defensive behaviour which ‘takes our mind off’ the anxiety. So for example, if we remember something our boss said that belittled or enraged us, and then we suddenly find ourselves half way through a bottle or beer or a tub of Hagen Daaz. Now we have the angry thought + the hangover/lovehandles. The dirty (dis)comfort is meant to make us feel better but actually makes us feel worse – hence the bracketted “dis”.

Dirty (dis)comforts (DDs) can be one-off behaviours like lighting a cigarette or shouting at your partner but they can also be habitual stances or behaviours that become part of our personality.

So, as I mention in my last post, we might react to the anxiety of being abandoned by always being a ‘people pleaser’. The DD momentarily assuages our anxiety by winning a reprieve but does nothing to dislodge the faulty belief (“people hate me”) that caused the anxiety to arise in the first place. In this way, the seeming success of DDs lead to them becoming endlessly repeated but futile character traits.

With mindfulness we get a chance to see through the thought and also experience the anxiety for what it is: an appropriate physical reaction to (possibly) inappropriate thoughts.

However, the thing that came up in the course was that these character DDs were not bad. Nothing is bad in mindfulness. They’re not bad but they may have outlived their usefulness.

We have to remember that these defensive decisions that we took when we were very young were the ones that helped us survive through to adulthood. OK, in the clear light of the 40s, they may not have been the best decisions we ever made (and believed a million times over) but they were good enough. They got us through.

But now, as adults with the ability to think clearly, with independence and more wisdom, we can change.

Neuroplasticity says that our brains can change – admittedly less swiftly than in infancy or in teenage, – and this moment right now, seems a good one.

We can acknowledge that our DDs have carried us like a wave through life to this point but now – before the wave crashes destructively into the gravelly shingle of the beach – is a good moment to jump off the wave. Before it breaks.

No regrets, no rubbishing what we have been, but a clear-sighted decision to do things differently from now on. Let’s thank the wave for getting us this far alive and hop off into buoyant waters, full of fish and life. No more surfing. Let’s go snorkelling among the corals before they die.

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