June 22, 2005

Joyce scholars scribble, share and sing their praises of the great writer

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The 2005 North American James Joyce Conference held June 14-18 at Cornell University was "bloody inspirin' fine," as the American poet Ezra Pound wrote in 1918 to the Irish author after reading an early chapter of "Ulysses."

Inspiration came in a multitude of forms for the more than 150 Joyce scholars in attendance from around the world. Some labored long and hard on their papers, with critical theses built upon years of study. Notes and early drafts were composed on proudly displayed cocktail napkins and airsickness bags. And participants in a first-ever "Impromptu Joyce" session were challenged -- with only 10 minutes of preparation -- to expound on selected text passages.

The conference, "Return to Ithaca," featured reading groups, receptions, performances and panels on everything from Joycean sexuality to movies to musical parody. Sebastian Knowles of Ohio State University parodied Gilbert & Sullivan as part of his presentation, an uproarious memoir of his experiences with "Finnegans Wake." By December 2003, his failure to read the linguistically dense book, in light of his position in the Joyce community, "had become an official emergency," he recalled. "Reading it aloud in a bar isn't enough." Taking on the chapters out of sequence and using secondary texts as a guide, he undertook the reading with a group of his students.

"We argued about whether Joyce would have known about Popeye or King Kong or the teddy, that bit of ladies' lingerie," he said. "It turns out that yes, he had. We wondered if he knew about Tweety Bird or the Hell's Angels or the Kennedy assassination, and it turns out, no, he hadn't." Laughter followed, since Joyce had of course died in 1941.

"I never dreamed coming to terms with the 'Wake' could be so much fun," Knowles said. "The students made this happen. Now we can read anything."

In another tour de force, actor Adam Harvey gave two performances of a complete "Wake" chapter, playing all of the characters and performing 41 pages of text entirely from memory. "As a performance it was energetic and very impressive -- it was remarkably polished," said scholar Ryan Paul of Texas State University at San Marcos. 

"Impromptu Joyce" was conceived during the 2004 International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin by Sara Sullivan of Boston University, exactly one year prior to its debut in Ithaca. "[The concept was] modeled sort of after my high school speech class, circa 1991 or so," Sullivan said, before introducing scholars Richard Brown of the University of Leeds, England, Sheldon Brivic of Temple University, Dennis Foster of Southern Methodist University and Sean Latham of the University of Tulsa. "It was hard to find people willing to put themselves on the chopping block this way," Sullivan said. "The point is for all of us to enjoy 'Ulysses.'" 

For "Impromptu Joyce" the quartet was given 10 minutes to prepare something on three chosen passages and then 10 minutes each to talk. They acquitted themselves handily, making sudden and unexpected connections with the material at hand. "I have a whole new appreciation of the exercises I require my graduate students to do," Brown said.

Many scholars were simply impressed to be in such company. Richard Stack, of New Haven, Conn., said he was honored to hear Cornell professor M.H. Abrams talk about the university library's Joyce collection. Stack also enthusiastically praised one of the Cornell alumni among the scholars, John Bishop '70. "[He] has written the book on the 'Wake' ["Joyce's Book of the Dark"] -- his critical prose embodies the Wakean consciousness. What drops out of most critical theory on Joyce is how f---ing funny the writing is."

In addition to Abrams, a number of Cornell faculty members took part in the proceedings. "[Professor of English] Dan Schwarz's talk was insightful in a way many opening talks often aren't -- and very welcoming," said conference academic coordinator William Brockman of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Stephen Donatelli, a lecturer in comparative literature, eloquently addressed the elements of memory, desire and fantasy in Joyce. Graduate student David Rando linked Joyce and Cornell alumnus Thomas Pynchon, calling them "two pals I hang out with separately" in his paper, "Ithaca and Vineland." "Pynchon has given us a unique way to imagine his relationship to Joyce because he constructs 1990's 'Vineland' on an Odyssean scaffolding," he said, underscoring the Homeric structure of Pynchon's novel, in which "the political turmoil of the 1960s plays the part of the Trojan War." 

Several scholars focused on the conference themes of home and return. James A. Reppke of Henry Ford Community College recounted personal stories in "My Return to Ithaca After 30 Years of Chasing Leopold Bloom." "I feel that I have always read Joyce through my experiences," he said. "Dublin and Ithaca do not exist frozen in time." 

Joyce himself was even there, at least in spirit. At a reception for a Joyce exhibit in Carl A. Kroch Library, the writer's favorite wine was served, and amid the display of letters, manuscripts and memorabilia, there was a café table set with two drinking glasses, an eye patch, a cane and other items, suggesting the author had just stepped away for a moment.

"Having things in the library [is] great," Brockman said. "Many of us spend our lives in libraries. They're not just repositories, they can be forums for lively intellectual engagement."

The exhibit, "From Dublin to Ithaca: Cornell's James Joyce Collection," will remain on display in the library's Hirshland Exhibition Gallery through Oct. 12. 

The conference was hosted by the Cornell University Library, along with Cornell's Department of English and Society for the Humanities, the Pennsylvania State University Libraries and the Ithaca College Department of English.