Years ago, a professor in my Ph.D. program described her dismay upon reading a paper that semester from an undergraduate. She read it over and over again trying to decipher why it was driving her mad. Finally, she started counting the words in the sentences. They all were the same: 17 words. She remembered that she had mentioned to her class that studies showed the most effective sentences were precisely that long. Her student had taken the advice remarkably, annoyingly to heart.
140 characters at a time, for one of the greatest novels ever written – were we crazy too, like that obsessive undergraduate? Our brave leader, Stephen (you can’t make this stuff up), known to us as @11ysses, was right to worry when he initiated this grand Ulysses experiment, “Would recasting Ulysses in tweets produce something horrific or beautiful?”
Horrific, I assume, if we butchered Joyce’s work beyond recognition, or, if beyond recognition was actually okay, if we turned Ulysses into something so unlike the original as to seem to mock rather than honor what we loved.
What I see reading all of the 612 @11ysses tweets is readers trying to capture the song of the book that inspired them. Again and again our tweets invoked language and motifs that no Ulysses reader can escape once under its spell. Scrotumtightening. Seawrack and seaspawn. Metempsychosis. Those lovely seaside girls. Poldy. Stuck, the flies buzzed. Mother’s deathbed. Bronze by gold. Tell me I want to know. I Am. A. Bloomusalem. Yes.
As editors working separately from around the world without a plan, we could not maintain the flow of plot and character with our tweets, perhaps reminding ourselves how hard it was to follow those parts of the novel our first time through it. In this sense, Twitter seemed doomed to disappoint Ulysses.
But we also seemed to say that Twitter was custom-made for the pithiness, puns and vividness that are among the markers of Joyce’s language. Forced to condense paragraphs, pages, into 140 characters at a time, the cast repeatedly settled upon terms by now iconic in the Joycean vocabulary.
In this regard, I don’t think we simply honored Ulysses, I think we may even have emulated it. Amid language that threatens to overwhelm a reader’s understanding, Joyce keeps giving us a Bloom emergent in certain memories, certain events – his son’s death, his wife’s transgressions, Martha’s letter, Plumtree’s Potted Meat. And we, in Twitterform, kept evoking imagistic and material touchstones that by now are shorthand for pivotal scenes, critical moments, particular characters. Like Bloom’s mind itself, our collective mind returned us through signatures of Ulysses to the scenes they recall, just as the book threatens to bury Bloom beneath its originality but never quite does.
For a Joycean, it was a redolent barrage suggesting why the book keeps drawing us back. For newcomers, maybe it was enough of a taste to try the real thing. So with cap tipped to @11ysses, I thank him in Twitter-style for building our mad Ulysses Borg, which was fun, horrific and, yes, beautiful.
— Pete Mackey (@macposter), Ph.D., is the Vice President for Communications at Bucknell University, author of Chaos Theory and James Joyce’s Everyman, and father of identical twin daughters. For two years he and his wife happily called Ireland home and there once met U2′s Adam Clayton going into the Bloomsday reading of Ulysses.