“He smellsipped the cordial juice and, bidding his throat strongly to speed it, set his wineglass delicately down”
Leopold Bloom, Davy Byrnes Pub, Ulysses.
While James Joyce managed the seemingly impossible by condensing all the vagaries of our daily existence into a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, we here in Dublin need the better part of a week to digest and dissect the 16th June 1904. Ground Zero for Joyceans around the world is the Bloomsday festival centred around this date each year in the locus of his artistic terroir, Dublin.
While 20th Century Ireland has no shortage of disruptors and iconoclasts, Joyce stands out as the archetypal artistic-rebel with a cause. Through his life and art he transcended our notional boundaries of what it means exist, survive and thrive. Through sheer force of will and talent he maximised his ability to such an extent that he changed the world, literally. He remains the benchmark for all modernist writers.
The Joycean world is a sensual one. Throughout his writing he is informed primarily by sight, sound, smell all of which act as vehicles for reflection similar to Proust’s Madeline. Eating and drinking play important parts symbolically throughout his oeuvre so it should come as no surprise that he was a wine lover.
Having spent a large part of his self-imposed exile in Zurich with Nora Barnacle he developed a fondness for the Swiss white wine, notably one Fendant De Sion which he dubbed “The Archduchess” (for reasons which you’ll need investigate yourself) and cryptically referenced it in Finnegan’s Wake. With barely 1% of Swiss wine ever exported beyond its borders there is a thrill in the idea of someone so enigmatic, drinking something so elusive.
Wine also plays its part in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, a coming of age novel that influenced everything from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Anarchy in the UK”. The central motif here is Joyce’s coming of age from innocent and devout Irish Catholic to curious sceptic and then onwards to wholesale rejection of both the Church and Nationalism, all in the pursuit of his art.
There are two wine-related scenes in “Portrait” that attest to his transformation. In the first, we hear that some altar wine has been stolen by boys in his class from the sacristy of the college church. Well aware of the symbolic role played by wine in Christianity and reflective of his pious nature, Stephen Daedalus (A surrogate of young Joyce) worries intensely what fate will befall the perpetrators.
He worries ”But to drink the altar wine out of the press and be found out by the smell was a sin too”.
In the second scene, returning to college after a particularly traumatic family Christmas dinner, he overhears two boys again discussing the stolen wine and the subsequent punishments. This time he no longer cares and eternal hellfire holds no fear. Christmas is symbolically associated with death and rebirth and Phoenix-like he rises above and anew. He has now begun the process to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” by rejecting prevailing social shackles and committing to life as an artist with purpose and vision accompanied by exile.
The Lestrygonians chapter of Ulysses is mainly set in Davy Byrne’s pub off Grafton street around lunchtime. There, our everyman-anti-hero Leopold Bloom dines on a glass of Burgundy and gorgonzola sandwich. This isn't the only scene set in a public house, which now seems as man’s colosseum. The Church has been cast away for a new temple. Bloom “smellsipped” his libation. Now there’s word I need to use more in my tasting notes.
Joyce was willing to sacrifice everything to burn himself in the flames of his creativity. "You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star" wrote Nietzsche and this was the rock that Joyce built his church on. Punk wasn’t invented in the 70s. Joyce was raging against the machine long before that.
I enjoy Bloomsday, if only for taking me back to a time when punks drank Burgundy.