Last evening, June 16, we had the privilege of attending the annual Bloomsday celebration of the Irish American Bar Association of New York (IABANY)
in the stately, plump Supreme Court Rotunda of the New York County Courthouse.
Founded in 1987 by a group of Irish-born lawyers living in New York City, with the primary goal of bringing together the large number of native Irish lawyers who had come over to New York during the immigration wave of the 1980s, IABANY has since grown to include members from the Irish-American legal community.
But last night's event was open not just to those in the legal community (yes, we are a lawyer but neither Irish nor a member of the New York Bar) but to all who appreciate and love Ulysses,
which some of us think is the greatest novel of the twentieth century -- although we never quite tackled the whole thing until we took the Modern British Novel in the spring of 1976 in the last semester of our MFA program at Brooklyn College.
Back in the 1980s, we once attended what now seems like the granddaddy at of all Bloomsday events, the marathon reading organized by Isaiah Scheffer at Symphony Space which is still going on and which, after leaving this event, we happily listened to all night on WNYC, yes, we said yes, until 1:48 a.m. and Fionnula Flanagan came to the conclusion of her majestic reading of Molly Bloom's soliloquy and Joyce's masterpiece.
After some welcoming and introductory remarks by JaneAnne Murray, a member of IABANY's board of directors, and Jacqueline O'Halloran Bernstein, the Deputy Counsul General of Ireland (the Consulate General of Ireland and Imagine Ireland, an initiative of Culture Ireland made tonight's event possible), the brilliant Kathleen M. Sullivan gave a fine talk on "Our Extravagant Free Speech Tradition."
James Joyce's Ulysses, of course, is part of the American free speech tradition. Our family's hardcover edition of the novel, which we first looked into when we were in high school, had Judge John Woolsey's opinion declaring the novel not to be obscene.
Following readings from Ulysses by Michael Murray of the Legal Aid Society and Janet Walsh, another IABANY board member, there was a reenactment of the trial of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 5 F.Supp. 182 (1933).
Judge Gerard Lynch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit played Judge Woolsey; Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes played the somewhat reluctant prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Sam Coleman (who believed the book, though obscene, was a literary masterpiece); and Lynn Oberlander, general counsel of The New Yorker magazine, played Morris Ernst, the defense counsel hired by Random House's Bennett Cerf.
It was a great experience to hear the arguments and Judge Woolsey's masterly opinion with the classic line that made us, when we first read it at 16, go to the dictionary:
[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.(Teenage boys tend to know the word aphrodisiac but not the word
Also worth reading is the Judge Augustus Hand's opinion, writing for himself and his cousin Judge Learned Hand, in the majority opinion of the government's failed appeal to the Second Circuit, 72 F.2d 705 (1934):
Art certainly cannot advance under compulsion to traditional forms, and nothing in such a field is more stifling to progress than limitation of the right to experiment with a new technique. The foolish judgments of Lord Eldon about one hundred years ago . . . are a warning to all who have to determine the limits of the field within which authors may exercise themselves. We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many.
Despite this, the fight isn't quite over although it may now be corporate rather than government censorship that is the threat to free expression; a year ago, Apple denied a graphic novel version of Ulysses permission to be an app, declaring it too obscene for the iPad.)
When we looked up to the rotunda's magnificent mural Law Through the Ages, it made us think this case was an important advance for literature and all the arts.
Anyway, we're grateful to the Irish American Bar Association of New York for last night's terrific celebration of Bloomsday.