Blooming into eternity
Chico State professor Fitz Smith talks about James Joyce and his involvement in this year’s Bloomsday celebration
“Bloomsday” denotes June 16, 1904. In Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses, it is the date that contains all of the occurrences in the novel, which, for the most part, centers on young writer Stephen Dedalus, wandering everyman Leopold Bloom and the latter’s wayward wife, Marion “Molly” Bloom.
Set in Dublin, the tale echoes the trials and tribulations of Odysseus—symbolically, there are Cyclops, Sirens, clashing rocks, deities—while simultaneously suggesting the trials and tribulations of us all. Bloomsday stands not only as 24 hours in the life of Leopold Bloom, but also as a day for all time. A day blooming into eternity.
Ulysses is considered by many to be Joyce’s masterpiece. And that is why every year on June 16, in communities all over the world, admirers of Joyce’s work come together to express their dedication to and love of the novel.
Locally, for eight years now the Celtic Knights of the Sea has presented its own version of Bloomsday. The Knights often unveil dramatic reenactments of scenes from Ulysses. In addition to the generally fine adaptations penned by such current and former Chico State instructors as Stephen Metzger and Clark Brown, this year debuts a piece by new Chico State literature professor J. Fitzpatrick “Fitz” Smith.
Recently, Smith dropped by the Chico News & Review offices to talk about his interest in James Joyce and his involvement with this year’s Bloomsday celebration.
When the youthful Smith talks concerning certain tidbits he’s gleaned about Joyce’s works over the years, his voice takes on an almost conspiratorial intimacy. One feels as if one is being let in on privileged but fun information.
Fitz Smith attended college at Wittenberg University in Ohio. It was while on a “junior year abroad” program in Dublin, Ireland, that he finally got around to reading Ulysses.
“I went to an all-guys high school,” Smith explains, taking his tale back a bit further, “and we were taught that Joyce was the most important writer around. And I didn’t understand it,” he admits. “I didn’t understand Joyce at all until I went to Ireland [during college]. There in Dublin, I read Ulysses for the first time.”
Did he “walk the walk,” so to speak (it has been said that readers can literally retrace the steps Leopold Bloom walked through Dublin in the novel)?
“I ‘walked the walk,’ literally and figuratively,” he says and laughs. “I took a seminar with a couple of Joyce scholars, actually, one of whom ended up later being a reader for my [doctorate] dissertation, which was a wonderful coincidence among everything else. That’s where I began to understand. I would never claim to understand it all. But that’s when I saw that I wanted to dedicate my time and all of my energies. So when I returned from my junior year, I did.
“I wrote an honors thesis on Ulysses,” Smith explains, “and that led to the seed for my dissertation. But that’s where the interest began. It was living in Ireland and actually understanding [the novel] in a way that I couldn’t have earlier.”
What led Smith to Chico?
“I finished my Ph.D. in May ,” Smith says. “And I had begun applying [for work at colleges] in December .” His interview at Chico State took an unexpected turn. “It was an exciting interview; typically, these things are harrowing experiences. But this conversation was great, and I realized that Chico State was the school.”
Smith was most attracted when he was encouraged to teach “whatever” he wished to teach, to feel free to explore his subjects in his classes.
“They said, ‘You will have a graduate seminar your first semester,'” Smith explains. “Oh God, people work for years to get that. The department really caters, I think, to a kind of curious professor. It’s great. Everything they represented has been proven. Nothing was misrepresented.” He thinks a moment then smiles. “Maybe the heat was!”
How did he become involved in the local Bloomsday celebration?
Smith explains that while he was here simply investigating the campus, he met Chico State English instructor Steve Metzger.
“Steve said, ‘You gotta come check out our Bloomsday.'” Smith says. “I couldn’t make it the first time.” After he landed the position, Smith was again approached. “Steve [Metzger] and Maryann Latimer said, ‘You gotta come talk to us,'” he continues. “So, I went to my first meeting. And it’s such a warm group. I can’t believe how excited they are. Other Bloomsday celebrations I’ve seen are typically just a little too solemn: People reading to each other. You know, ‘You’re only in the know if you understand this joke.'”
For his contribution to this year’s Bloomsday event, Smith chose to dramatize what goes on between semi-professional singer Molly Bloom and her amorous singing partner, Hugh “Blazes” Boylan, while Molly’s husband Leopold is out on his “odyssey” through Dublin’s streets. This was no small feat. That the two have sex is a given. But what occurred between them before the sexual encounter is trickier to track down. Instead, little bits and pieces crop up throughout, the most specific found during Molly’s internal monologue, the “soliloquy,” which closes the entire novel with a spiraling, stream-of-consciousness ascent into universal acceptance and joy.
“We learn in the ‘Ithaca’ episode,” Smith explains, “where Bloom returns home after … everything with Stephen, when [Bloom] goes into the sitting room and bumps his head on the sideboard. And the sideboard has been moved.”
There is no explanation anywhere in the book, seemingly, why the sideboard has been moved.
“So I went through Molly’s soliloquy,” Smith explains, “and found out what goes on during that day [between Blazes and Molly], I mean, besides the sex, of course. Which she’s very graphic about.
“We learn so much about Molly,” he continues, “but only at the very end of the novel. So, let’s go back and see what type of Molly there might be. My play has two very different Mollies. It’s two versions of the same scene.”
Smith calls his interpretation, appropriately, “The Moveables.” The short scene is told in a “he said/she said” way, stars local actors Callen Reece and Jocelyn Stringer, and is directed by local actor-director Brad Moniz.
When asked about the cinematic version of Ulysses the Knights will be projecting onto the Pageant Theatre’s screen at noon on Saturday, June 14, Smith admits it’s been awhile since he’s seen it.
“But I look forward to seeing it again,” he says.
Which is somewhat like Ulysses the novel. It is a book that, once it gets into your being, inspires joy at the prospect of many repeat visits.