A City of Loves Lost and Found
The 20th century gave us James Joyce’s expert cartography skills, and Joyce gave us an old soul in the character of Bloom. It takes one to know one, and in reaching back to Homer to create (and map) Bloom, Joyce, too, proved himself among the old soul ranks. Odysseus and Bloom aren’t just wanderers out of time, they are–more specifically–romantics who understand that love is the ether between destinations.
Today’s equivalent of Bloom mutters a eulogy to romance with every eager OkCupid message he sends. He’s in perpetual motion to make the most of this ether, committed to the pursuit of an impossible ideal. Where would this pursuit lead him? The following map of New York is a testament to the odd assortment of loves whose names we would dare to speak if we only knew them
Cleopatra’s Needle: This Central Park obelisk connotes the pricks in Cleopatra’s arms for the poison that, according to Plutarch, ended her life. Plutarch wrote of the self-sacrificial love Antony had for Cleopatra:
“Such being his temper, the last and crowning mischief that could befall him came in the love of Cleopatra, to awaken and kindle to fury passions that as yet lay still and dormant in his nature, and to stifle and finally corrupt any elements that yet made resistance in him of goodness and a sound judgment.”
When Cleopatra killed herself after Antony’s death, Antony’s adversary Octavius Caesar could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should be buried by Antony with “royal splendour and magnificence”.
Brooklyn Bridge: Something endures of old romance that is not hollowed out, our Bloom thinks as he crosses the bridge. It is Emma Lazarus’s love letter written in stone—not only to those who fell on the sword in a sacrifice to love—but to those who suffered tuberculosis in search of life. Or, local to this landmark, the men that descended in furnace-like caissons to construct “the eighth wonder of the world” and the 27 of these souls who died for the competitive wage of $44 a day. In a dating world plagued by the overabundance of choice, let us not forget the freedom that makes this angst possible. Yearning to be free means accepting that nothing will be handed to you, not even love.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Dora Wheeler’s “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night” is a testament to patient love–love that doesn’t change the radio halfway through the song or consume its news in list form. Penelope is a love loyalist although, in the Penelope episode of Ulysses, one is never sure who the real long-suffering wife is. Joyce didn’t need reality television to be unsentimental about love. “Yes I will yes” cannot be isolated from infidelity and bodily functions: Wheeler’s Penelope unravels her threads and dreams of Ulysses, but out of frame she may be wondering what is for dinner. She is part epic, part modern, and all human. She’s a one woman organic fiber craft fair.
Hotel Chelsea: Outside the boarded up Hotel Chelsea, our protagonist ruminates on an artists’ enclave past its prime. It was within these walls that Kerouac penned On The Road—a veritable love letter to the restless misfits of the Beat generation. Kerouac’s characters agree to “love each other madly”. They talk about “[leaning] forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” in an inevitable future with or without romance. Devotion to the derelict is continued by those who still reside in the closed Chelsea, which is primarily a construction site. The art that served as rent and currency in the hotel’s heyday has been taken off the walls. Only the promise to love madly remains.
William Shakespeare statue: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories—there is nary an English student who can’t recited these categories of the Bard’s work. Our Bloom wonders if perhaps we do ourselves a disservice, in both literature and love, by maintaining a fence around them. Laughter, tears, and power are the perennial elements of great literature and romantic relationships. There is no tragedy without an iota of comedy in the dating plot; the actors have changed but the play has not.
Whispering Gallery: Across a crowded space in Grand Central Terminal, sweet nothings are delivered by way of an acoustic effect produced by the hemispherical shape of the walls and ceiling. It’s a metaphor for today’s public privacy—the tunnel vision of eyes meeting and lips touching in a sea of camera phones. Bloom hates our paparazzi culture, hates the tourists crowding the space in front of the Oyster Bar. And yet, a whisper still finds a way to circumvent the noise. A table for two is still a table for two.
Tower footprints: For some, the ellipsis is the perfect ending to a relationship. To the modern Bloom, an ellipsis is both appropriate and infuriating. Of course these three dots abound in Joyce’s work, but they are overshadowed by the infamous singular dot at the conclusion of the chapter Ithaca. The love of home, a destination we haven’t plotted yet, is contained in that dot’s cheeky response to the question “Where?”
Between one and three is two—like the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers. Love of home is no greater than in the aftermath of attack and the process of healing. Home is truly between location (one dot) and omission (three). It is going, going but never gone.