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Far From Flatbush

A Holiday that Celebrates a Handjob

The New York launch event for my book Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography, which I called Bloomsday on Beaver Street, and which was held on June 16 at the Killarney Rose, on Beaver Street, was a celebration of numerous things. We celebrated banned books, like Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Beaver Street, that some people had branded “smut” and “filth” and that others, correctly, had recognized as literature. And we celebrated the 40th anniversaries of Deep Throat, the movie, and Watergate, the political scandal, both of which are connected to Beaver Street.

June 16, of course, is the day that Ulysses takes place—in Dublin, in 1904. It documents approximately 24 hours in the life of the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, which is why the celebration is called Bloomsday. Traditionally, people read from Ulysses, as MC Supreme Byron Nilsson did, eloquently reciting the passage that got Ulysses banned in America for 13 years—Joyce’s description of Bloom masturbating.

There was, however, one thing that should have been explained but was not explained at Bloomsday on Beaver Street: Why, exactly, did Joyce set Ulysses on June 16, 1904?

The answer to that question can be found in the July 2 issue of The New Yorker, in an essay about Joyce titled “Silence, Exile, Punning,” by Louis Menand.

That was the day that Joyce had his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. Menand explains what happened on that date: “They walked to Ringsend, on the south bank of the Liffey, where… she put her hand inside his trousers and masturbated him.”

Quoting from a letter Joyce sent to Barnacle several years later, Menand provides more detail: “It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you who slid your hand down down inside my trousers… and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.” Joyce later notes, in another letter, that on that night Barnacle “made me a man.”

So, Bloomsday, then is a literary holiday that celebrates a handjob. And Bloomsday on Beaver Street was such a success, I’m considering making it an annual event. You can rest assured that next year, the MC Supreme will take pains to explain the sticky origins of the celebration.

Ladies and gentlemen, mark your calendars.
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