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Friday, August 24, 2012

Comparative Literature 101

If parody is a form of imitation, and if imitation is a form of flattery, then by my loopy logic James Joyce should be honored by the “comedic recontextualization” that we’ve put him through over the last month-and-a-half. 

Many of you will have seen the museum’s appearance on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report last month, in which host extraordinaire Stephen Colbert pit his “children’s book” I Am A Pole (And So Can You!) against Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses

As with all such film and TV productions, a lot got left on the cutting room floor. We thought we’d share some of our unaired (some might say, unasked for) observations about the books’ similarities here. This is deep stuff, as you’ll see. Thanks to Director Derick Dreher, and Joyce scholar Dr. Melanie Micir, for many of these references!
  • The story arcs of both stories have to do with odyssey, self-examination, and awakening.  Leopold Bloom's wanderings throughout Dublin end with certain realizations about the dynamic of his marriage, and his relationship to both his wife and his friend, Stephen Dedalus.  The titular pole from Colbert's book goes through various trials until it embraces its true “pole role” thanks to a troupe of boy scouts.
  • Joyce's novel has 18 episodes and Colbert's Pole character goes through 18 different incarnations before it finds its true calling.
  • National contexts are at the center of both books: the struggles of the Irish nation in Joyce's novel, and the very Americanness of America in I Am A Pole.
  • Both Joyce and Colbert provoked controversy in their works: Ulysses for its supposedly 'obscene' descriptions of urination, defecation, and masturbation; I Am A Pole for being the only "children's book" to include an illustration of a stripper.
  • Both books were issued in large editions with blue bindings—Joyce’s novel with an austere yet iconic blue/green cover (“Aegean blue,” in homage to Joyce’s own recontextualization of Homer’s Odyssey), and Colbert’s book with a deeper “American flag” blue.   
  • A number of characters and scenes from Ulysses seem to have found their way into Colbert’s book.  Early in I Am A Pole, the pole is seen reading a newspaper, which brings to mind the 'Aelous' episode of Ulysses, which takes place in a newspaper office.  A barber who also appears early in the book may be an homage to Buck Mulligan's appearance on the first page of Ulysses bearing a razor and bowl of lather.  And could those blooming flowers on the first pages of Pole reference a certain other Bloom?  Leo-pole Bloom?
  • Both books are based on true stories: The day on which Ulysses takes place, June 16, 1904, was actually the day that Joyce met the woman who would become his wife, Nora Barnacle.  We know I Am A Pole is based on a true story because it says so on the last page of the book, and if the world has learned one thing from Stephen Colbert, it’s always to take him at his word.
That's our list of similarities – can you think of more?


 Patrick Rodgers is the Traveling Exhibitions Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library.