AT PORT MELBOURNE
Joyce and the Cycle of Generation and Destruction
Port Melbourne is a tapestry of old and new, as the homes of the working class and the old factories make way for modern buildings. It seemed just the place to explore all sorts of evidence of decay and regeneration, themes so important in Ulysses.
The Joycean theatre of death and rebirth
Its old sea stories behind it, Port Melbourne is losing hold of its seedy and windswept grandeur, standing across from the new pseudo-Georgian estates. Port is no longer a port, not even Sandridge, but a developer’s sobriquet, Beacon Cove. The Georgian and the rundown, ideal backdrop for the annual recreation of Dublin 1904. In the first street performance of the day conducted on a boardwalk between the leading lights of the waterfront, the assembled Edwardians were asked: ‘Will Bloom buy a Beacon Cove address?’ Leopold Bloom, a man of humble abode at 7 Eccles Street, fantasised owning stately homes beyond his budget and beyond belief (‘…a thatched bungalowshaped 2 storey dwellinghouse … upon gentle eminence with agreeable aspect’). Read aloud by actor Bill Johnston, the corresponding fantasies of Beacon Cove developers competed absurdly with Bloom’s own hanging gardens. The projected fantasies of spruiking estate agents were grand linguistic architectures that overshadowed.
The large assembly of Joyce followers were then guided by Stephen Dedalus, in the form of actor Jeff Keogh, down the new Waterfront Boardwalk to the local health club. Upstairs in the aerobics room we went through a workout to extend our allegories, test the colon, and exercise against verbal diarrhoea. Local Port characters (Sasha the food stylist, Roland the factory manager avec ennui) then delivered internal monologues from the safety of their fitness machines, one example of the scripting committee’s use of Joycean technique to delineate contemporary Melbourne. The sight of Bloom himself getting extra-friendly with the gym’s equivalent of The Wonderworker, added a new dimension to our knowledge of l’homme sensuel.
Lunch at the South Melbourne dock
Appetite drives Ulysses. Thus whetted, we found it an easy stroll to Cafe Limani on Station Pier for Irish songs of immigration, interspersed with accounts of longing from the opus. Unalloyed sentiment mixed with desperate hardship. The performance was made easier with excellent fish courses and the kind of dry white that kept the Master afloat in the last years of his life. The Irish dwell on departures, long before they have happened usually. Such morbidity was balanced by our present awareness of the pier as both “a disappointed bridge” and a place of arrival. Consciousness of forebears tramping these same planks was never far away, nor the knowledge we celebrated one of the great disembarkation points of the Irish diaspora.
A Short Retreat at the nearby Carmelite Church brought the assembled into direct contact with Hell. Howls of laughter rather than gnashing of teeth greeted Allen Woolfrey’s reading of the full sermon we knew until then only from excerpts in Portrait. Unquenchable fire and walls four thousand miles thick were the unforgiving promise of the sweetly smiling priest. Most terrifying was the reminder that such threats were delivered as absolute truth to 14-year-old schoolboys. Some later recalled hearing such stuff themselves in the 1960s. Ex-Catholics, always numerous amongst Bloomsdayers, still found it hard to reconcile chortling in church about eternal damnation, while for many the Church’s revision of the doctrine of Hell did not come soon enough.
Thus chastened, the boulevardiers proceeded through the streets en masse behind a stately horsedrawn hearse (John Allison Monkhouse's 1820 hard-carved Dublin-made hearse), their intention to bury Paddy Dignam in his guise as old Port. Cranes, bulldozers and theodolites bedecked the area. Old courthouses have been renovated, warehouses turned into glittering prizes for the nouveau riche, stacking yards have become toy towns. We paid our respects to sailors, criminals and hangmen past, before reaching the Liardet Street Masonic Hall for a celebration of the apotheosis of Leopold Bloom courtesy of Jim Howard, Mary Keneally and a faulty amplifier. (“He’s a man like Ireland wants.”) Joyce’s masterful contrasts between desire and reality are there to exploit on every page, ably assisted by the Melbourne locale.
A standard fixture of Bloomsday in Melbourne, this was the eighth, is the seminar. Entitled ‘Memory Mania’, this year’s was held at Geluyckens Belgian Beer Cafe in Bay Street. Stephen McLaren discussed the sense of the collapse of all space and time felt at the turn of centuries, and identifiable in both the form and content of Ulysses. He reminded us of Stephen Hero’s idea that the real enemy of the Irish is not London but Rome with its dual imperial claim, a useful key to reading the novels. McLaren is studying Joyce in the period 1904-14. He identifies September 1907 as the crucial time when the writer moved from aesthetic theorising to applied poetics. The second ‘seminarian’, Ted Reilly, argued that Joyce was blinded by the intensity of his memories, that a psychosomatic story is waiting to be told of dapper Jim. Memory is not a single function of the mind. It is a construct, a product of sexuality, subterranean. Mythic memory is created not by those who were there, but by those who came later. So, Joyce made a myth of himself and Dublin after the event, and one hundred years later we make Ulysses the thing we want to believe it to be.
Irresistible and inevitable, Molly Bloom’s Hotel had to be the place for the evening show. Booked out for weeks, the lounge was crammed; Irish stew was served nouvelle cuisine. Punters looked through their glasses darkly brimming with the black stuff, before coming face to face with a version of the truth about Joyce and some of the women he thought he knew. ‘Her Singtime Sung’ dramatised and challenged feminist interpretation of the past twenty years. Central was a woman who ‘did Joyce in Third Year’ but now, on her wedding day, starts asking, what’s a girl to do? Isabella, a name fraught with meaning in Finnegans Wake, is helped on her way to self-actualisation by Joyce’s two sugar mummies, Misses Beach and Weaver. The false fantasies and expectations of the modern woman were ably parallelled by virginal Gerty McDowell, whose unembarrassed confections about her future have amused and dismayed generations of readers. The mix was complicated by the pragmatism of Molly herself and the lashings of Bella (also Bello) Cohen, the Monto whoremistress of indeterminate gender. Isabella’s final “unfettered” vision of her future was a bold overriding of these variant models, all of them flawed. A splendid female cast, plus JJ himself, were directed by Gillian Hardy.
Noticeably absent from this meeting of harpies though was Nora Barnacle. A revelatory note from Nora, archived in No.63 copy of the Paris edition, was our one link with the admirable Galway woman. Departing into the night toward a Port Melbourne tram, we could ask, had the scriptwriters met their match in Nora? Is Ulysses, this 933 page love letter, still unable to get to the mystery of its genesis? Who gets the final word anyway?