June 16 is Bloomsday — a special day for Irish literary geeks, on which fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses gather in Dublin to retrace the steps–and drink the drinks–of the novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom, who both starts and finishes his surreal Odyssean journey in his wife’s bed.
Ulysses, with its ring-like structure and themes of transformation, is a story for moderns trapped within the cyclical “nightmare” of history, from which the only escape is a kind of mythic re-imagining of everything. Like other modern aesthetes – Friedrich Nietzsche, Isak Dinesen, Tennessee Williams – Joyce seeks to practice a kind of aesthetic redemption, everything becoming bearable through art. Art transforms the dingy into the shining, makes of a lonely man on a dusty road a long shadow, cast across our shared imaginations.
But before the cyclical Odyssean journey in Ulysses, there was the journey of Chesterton’s Innocent Smith, who has to leave his home and set out around the world until he can come home to his own wife. Like Bloom, Smith breaks into his own house. He courts his own wife again and again, as she poses in different aliases.
Usually we think of our Christian journey as a pilgrimage from Point A to Point B, not as cyclical. Pilgrimage presupposes destination. In Canterbury Tales, one presumes, everyone eventually makes it to the shrine, even if they don’t deserve it (grace: unmerited favor). Dante gets out of the dark wood, even if he has to go through hell and across Satan’s thigh to emerge and see the beauty of the stars.
But the motif of cycling, turning and returning, is as much present in the Catholic imagination as in the mythic neo-pagan one, as we see in Chesterton’s story. Repetition is liturgical, after all. Dante’s Divine Comedy is organized in terms of rings and cycles. Both the damned lovers in hell and the beatified ones in heaven follow the same motion, swirling round and round.
This motif of repetition and cycling connected with the spiritual longing both to escape and to find home. We hunger for strangeness and wildness. Love means a breaking down of barriers, a shattering of walls. But also we long to belong. To rest one’s head.
But – as the patterns in Dante’s Inferno point out – repetition is also terrifying. It feels like doom, like the Myth of Sysiphus, like cycles of addiction and toxic relationships, like being trapped in mental illness. It feels like history, with our wars and genocides and our praise of pompous demagogues.
Is this what they call the dark night of the soul? I don’t think so. The Dark Night seems to manifest presence by absence. God was there, and now is gone.
Oh yes, a shattered romance is greatly improved, rendered enjoyable even, by the cunning application of melancholy music and strong drink. Dinesen said all things could be cured by salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea. We can dream of breaking our mild fetters, setting off west…But the fetters are not always mild, and it’s not just a broken heart that has to mend. What can art do for the drowned refugee child? For the dying in South Sudan? We can make them beautiful and remembered, but this we do for ourselves.
Not that it isn’t a good thing to do. But it isn’t enough on its own. Leopold Bloom escapes the Cyclops, as Odysseus does, and Chesterton’s hero manages to avoid being shipwrecked or slaughtered in civil war. But the cyclical journey fails because for many of us, we are clinging to jetsam in the stormy bay, trapped in the Dark Wood, going round and round, no light in sight, no artist to pluck you burning from the torment. This is the pilgrimage of the broken. Far off drumbeats speak to you of doom, or perhaps they are hammers in the dark. Hammering what?
Bloomsday is an attempt to make it okay that you just end up where you started. It’s a noble attempt, but it won’t suffice. By the end of it, you might be drunk enough to feel that myth will repair the world’s sorrows, but this is only illusion. The addict seeks this illusion again and again: another cycling.
The Canterbury Pilgrims reach their shrine, but where is the favor for the wanderer in the wood to whom no guide is sent, as the drums beat on?
Where for Dante’s teacher, Brunetto Latini, running round and round upon the sterile sands of the Seventh Circle of Hell? Latini who once wrote: “And I, in such anguish, thinking with head downcast, lost the great highway, and took the crossroad through a strange wood…”
Yes, Dante stole his opening lines from his beloved teacher, as well as putting him in hell. But maybe it’s less a theft than a recognition. The Dark Wood is there. Are you going to get around it, or cut across a corner of it, maybe fight giant spiders, fall into the stream of enchanted sleep, meet with La Belle Dame Sans Merci, be imprisoned in a stony grotto for a hundred years while your armor rusts, finally emerge to tell a cautionary tale? Will you seek out the drumbeats in the dark? Is it fairies, and will they make you dance a dance that will never end, in red-hot iron slippers?
What if you go through your whole life and never get out? What if you pass the shattered tree and cairn of rocks over and over and over? Beatrice never sent a guide. She never even knew you existed.
There are drumbeats in the wood, or perhaps footfalls, or perhaps the strike of a hammer. There are trees in the wood, gnarled and misshapen. On such a tree was hung the Son of Man, who left his home never to return. The hammers are all the hammers of the world, driving nails into his hands and feet, into our hands and feet. He is with us here, in the dark. His blood mingles with our tears, and whispers to us of some redemption beyond what we can see or hear now, lost in the woods.
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer, teacher, farmer, and Christian rebel. She edits the journal Convivium and blogs at Suspended in Her Jar.