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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

corny Joyce


Yes, yes, yes I too have bought the lemon soap at Sweeny’s.

Bloomsday is corny – it is a corniness laid at the foot of the monument, Ulysses. I can say it: this is my "favorite" novel. In a consumerist gesture we’ve learn to do automatically, we make lists of favorites: favorite songs, favorite books, favorite tv shows. But within my soul, to get all gaudy about it, there’s a complaint: the favorite position pretends that consumption is possible. I have, on occasion, an inverse desire: to become the |favorite of." For instance, to become the favorite reader of Ulysses. A trickier thing altogether.
Corniness is one of the many aesthetic zones traversed in Ulysses, which is unashamed about the way potboiler novels try to get the reader hot and bothered. Fuck books, or at least wank lit. Paul de Kock figures as largely in the novel as Shakespeare. The officially censored Dublin of 1904 could allow de Kock, under the counter, with illustrations - which is, to a reader of 2021, almost quaint. Like the fetishized covers of paperbacks from the fifties that certain blogs specialize in. Dublin's was definitely not, as Joyce knew, a place with room for a subculture of Sade, for instance, as you found in Paris from Baudelaire onward. This was the pre-pornofied world, the world of multiple brothels and decorum in the parent's bedroom. But even Leopold and Molly Bloom knew that their dirty reading was also corny.
“Corny” – the word pops up in Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick as she considers Henry James’ late style, which bears the marks of its delivered orality – its dictation – in a sort of turn to standup. Although, Ngai points out, this standup is delivered to an employee, who writes the thing down, or types it. Ngai is famous for considering aesthetic categories like cuteness, but I don’t believe she has more than brushed up against corniness.

According to the slang trackers, corny surfaced in the theater world – as so much slang does. It descended from ‘corn-fed”, another term for country bumpkin. We see, in this term, that old division between country and city: between a regime of sublimation which represses the “dirty” and elevates the sentimental, and a regime that represses the “sentimental” and elevates the ironic. Of course, the country/city division – which was once a demographic description – got muddied as the peasants came to the ville. And their descendants moved to the suburbs. In Dublin, in 1904, the emigration has not been to the Irish city, but to the English and American ones – as a sociological fact. But the players, here, are, if not natives to Dublin, anchored at least in city belief. Leopold and Molly Bloom are well aware of the theatrical contact zone – Molly, as it is often noted, displays her charms – her physique – and her voice in many a small Irish burg. And of course Bloom is a rootless cosmopolitan, to use the standard anti-Jewish platitude. Joyce brilliantly converges the Greek myth and modernity, given the way in which Odyssey deals with the outer areas. Thus, the cattle, the hoof and mouth, and ... corn.
Corn is not associated with Corny Kelleher – Corny as a nickname was common at that time, by the way – but with Shakespeare, who Stephen says is a “cornjobber” who horded corn in famine times. Corn, here, is not maize – but simply the majority grain, wheat or oats. However, even if corn doesn’t figure majorly in the book, corniness pervades the fantasies, the sentiment, the songs. Even Stephen Dedalus, trying desperately to break the grip of provincial Dublin, finds himself in the corniest story – the bankrupt, drunken father, the mother dying in rags, the brothers and sisters fighting to survive, and he himself unable to gain a distance that would, ideally, make these things images or epiphanies or anything but the tawdry and impossible call on his existence of flesh and his blood, indeed. Every family story is a vampire family story.
I love it that Joyce understood and used the corny in Ulysses, as well as every other device he could think of. Compound of sentiment and sentimentality, of country and city, suburban and sophisticate, the great and the little tradition – such is myself as candidate for favorite reader. But even if I am not, I will never get far from Ulysses, no matter where I run to. I make a point of reading it every five years or so, and each time I fall in love with it again.

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