It’s Bloomsday. Sigh. Before I get into my annual apology to James Joyce for having yet to complete reading his modernist masterwork, Ulysses, consider this term I learned from a recent New York Times Magazine article on (missing?) Joyce scholar John Kidd: horror vacui — the “fear of the void.”
The article’s author Jack Hitt, uses it in reference to the “compulsion to fill an existential emptiness” as has been recognized in the crowded canvasses of some folk art. Hitt also extends the term to the completist nature of some Joyceans to know and understand every allusion and nuance of a work Joyce himself said is crammed with “…so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Perhaps this was Joyce’s “fuck you” to academia or an attempt at a kind of critical immortality. Or perhaps the work is symptomatic of the author’s own horror vacui — a neurotic exercise in worldbuilding akin to losing whole rooms of one’s home to the bacteria of a model train set. Why this need to rebuild the world? Is it that old saw about getting right in art that which we can’t in life? Is everything that wrong?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Horror vacui is what compels fans of Star Wars and the Marvel to know every iota about Jedis and Infinity Stones and the same anxiety accounts for those with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical babble and base runs. I similarly had the bug one meaningless adolescent summer when I took a deep-dive into the comparatively shallow waters of The Beats. And like users who become pushers to feed their own habits, I now find myself packing my own work with enigmas and puzzles and inside jokes, not just to fill an apparent existential void but the more harrowing one of the blank screen. (Yesterday, while we were editing our film Pill Head, I changed the graphic of a phone number to suggest the title of a long-lost play I co-wrote. What’s wrong with me?)
So, this is what thou hath wrought, James Joyce. Anyway, as promised:
It being Bloomsday and all, I just wanted to apologize for not having finished reading Ulysses. Again. I know, I know, this is totally ridiculous, not least of which because my own mother named me for one of your major characters (you will be happy to know that I have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so part of my pseudo-Greco ass is covered).
Back in 2004, during the Bloomsday centenary, I bought a copy of Ulysses and hunkered down in fake Irish pub called Finn McCool’s somewhere in Santa Monica. This was sad. What was sadder was my intention to drink Guinness until I finished the damn book. Unfortunately, my page to pint ratio turned out to be about one to one. You’re as dense a writer as I’m a slow reader who also happens to be a quick drinker. This is what I remember: “Stately plump mulligan,” a tower, a shaving bowl and having to return the next day for my credit card.
That particular copy of Ulysses ended up on its own Bloomsday adventure, touring the concrete jungle of greater Los Angeles from the back of the cab where I left it. Fortunately, I’ve since acquired two additional unread copies of Ulysses, so I promise to you, Jimmy, I’ll read at least one. Someday. I will. Yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.
And, yes, yes, I skipped to the last page…