400 Participants in Separate Rooms across the Globe

A Report on the Bloomsday in Plaguetime Seminar on Facebook 16 June 2020 by Host, Philip Harvey

Leopold Bloom, the problem-solving main character of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is a devoted student of new science. But even Bloom would have spent some time mentally processing this year’s Bloomsday seminar, in which over 400 participants in separate rooms across the globe attended a 15-hour conversation about the book, some fifty of those engaging directly and sharing their own ideas. This is about the standard listener-talker ratio at seminars, though total figures were up in 2020.

Bloom is also a problem-inventor, open to asking peculiar questions of things that cross his mind, likely to come up with impressions that may or may not prove empirically credible, and prone to find himself holding the wrong end of the stick. He would be right at home in a Bloomsday seminar.  Hiding behind a Facebook account, Bloom could have joined us for the day, offering opinions, hurrahing the 18 short films that prompted discussion, and clicking ‘Like’ with the positivity for which he is renowned. Equally, he may have chosen to be an honourable internet lurker, snoop, or perve, following the conversation with his trademark close attention.

As host of the seminar, my task was to ask questions: some pre-worded, others impromptu, to figure out what several people were saying at once (try it!); and to direct the dialogue so it didn’t fall off a bridge into the Liffey. Nice things about chairing a seminar on your computer are that you are given time to deal with curly comments, don’t have to look at eye-rollers in the front row, and can even ‘hide’ someone’s favourite, but distracting, photograph of Nora Barnacle. Was that Bloom who did that?

The films are like précis or miniatures of each episode. They were each launched as closely as possible to the timetable of the book. Max Gillies is the armchair guide maintaining an easy presence, adept with his quizzical looks and general sense of wonder at the unfolding story. Each film uses the zoom frame to good effect. Background, multiple heads, camera-consciousness, and other features of zoom are utilised artistically to make the films a theatrical performance. The home-bound actors are in our faces, but at a healthy distance. The quality of information in the films, and their delivery from the superb cast, made the chair’s job that much easier. Director Jennifer Sarah Deane, film-maker Kurtis Lowden, and the scriptwriters offered dozens of cues for creative discussion.

The first of the 18 short films rolled at 8 am, at which moment we commenced our all-day conversation about the films, ‘Ulysses’, and all things Joycean. Participants included students in their own version of a Martello Tower, thinking over how to forge the destiny of their nation. There were seasoned attendees of Bloomsday in Melbourne, keen to check out the latest theatrical dimensions. And there were those who, as always with Bloomsday, had come across this thing only now and wanted to learn and enjoy something of one of the modern masters of our first language, English. All were welcome.

Online seminarians could visit anytime for any of the films. It was a bit like a Philip Glass opera where you can sit in or take a break whenever you like. They were not shy to make a contribution, whether a comment, a quip, an aside, even an entire rant. The seminar was open to all voices. As is the case with the unwieldy Facebook platform, conversations went in any direction. Impartiality is a byword. As chair I refrained from clicking ‘Like’, ‘Wow’ &c. as this could show favouritism and put people off. It was a test to balance objectively the claims and counter-claims, but lots of fun. One unusual trait of this seminar was how people could chat away in corners without the chair having to bring things to order.

Is Stephen Dedalus’s grief confected?  Is it necessary to spend 15 minutes in the outhouse with Bloom? When is something considered jocoserious, and is there a limit? Is the language of some scenes likely to corrupt morals? Is Molly more manipulative than first imagined? These were in the stockpile of leading questions designed to prompt responses, though other questions quickly arose too, with no shortage of comment. While keeping an eye out for the most original theory about Ulysses in fifty years, it was the diversity of opinions that were most noticeable. I had ready a battery of books and maps and old Bloomsday brochures, as well as links to high places like the Zurich Joyce Foundation site and such like powerhouses of knowledge. As it turned out, the seminar was almost self-regulating, with little recourse to outside authority. My main backup was a huge canister of Jasper’s No.2 Blend Coffee.

The seminar demographic disclosed what many on the street have been aware of for years. Some punters are there for the Guinness and the craic. Others wish to share understandings of the multi-layers of each episode. A couple of people want to be the next Richard Ellmann. It’s a pretty broad cross-section, and that’s just the stalls. This year, the gallery and upper circle of international participants added whole new dimensions, making for a complex mix and whistles from the gods. Our 21st century Leopold Bloom was out there keeping a watchful eye as well, no doubt.

By 11 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, the Melbourne Bloomsday officially drew the curtain for the night. Fifteen hours of keyboard tapping were their own intellectual performance. My shift as chair came to a close. Dublin Bloomsday and New York Bloomsday and Toronto Bloomsday were only just getting going. Thanks to the technology, there was possibility for ongoing argument in Melburnian dreams from the other side of the world. Nor is the seminar itself closed. We may have come down from our annual Bloomsday high, but Ulysses activity thrives. Like everyone else with an interest, you are welcome to continue making comments to the 18 short films of Bloomsday in Melbourne, picking up on lines of conversation or starting up a whole new discussion. The Facebook page ‘Bloomsday 2020’ and the Bloomsday website stay open 24/7 for visitors all over the globe. You can read my Afterthoughts commentaries linked to the pages. And you can continue to enjoy the great artistry and originality of the zoom-based episodes and our lively conversation about the films and everything Joycean.

Philip Harvey

Philip is a Joycean, poet, literary blogger, master of a Sonnet School, and Carmelite Librarian. He is producing a series of essays, Analecta, in response to the Bloomsday films and seminar discussion.

  • Bloomsday in Plaguetime 2020 Films are permanently housed on YouTube
  • Blog which aims to add value to films is available here.