Today is Groundhog Day. In Harold Ramis’ film Groundhog Day (1993), there’s a scene I’ve always had great affection for: it shows Phil Conners, the caustic weatherman (Bill Murray), sitting at a table in a coffee shop early in the day, reading. One of the books on the table is Ulysses. Phil looks up from his reading, looks around him, and a feeling of bliss passes over his face.
Phil has to keep reliving the same day, February 2nd, as a kind of Purgatory, until he significantly changes its outcome (he finally gets Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, to fall in love with him). In the course of the film, Phil goes through all kinds of self-serving uses of the day -- to get money, to break the law without future consequence, to finagle affection from Rita -- and, driven to despair by a real love he has begun to feel that he can’t convince her of, killed himself numerous times. He always returns miraculously unscathed to the same day.
The scene of reading takes place when he at last begins to enjoy the ‘eternity’ that the day has become, eventually performing many acts of kindness so that others avoid injury or inconvenience on that day.
But what I love about that reading scene is that the atmosphere in which he reads -- the sunlight, the classical music playing, the sense of freedom for the luxury of reading -- brought back to me similar moments in college and in grad school when the only task was to read, and sometimes one would seem to wake briefly from a dream of words and see oneself in the act of reading, buoyed by a quotidian sense of time as simply present, but not pressing. And it was good.
It seems to me no accident that Ulysses is there on the table, a book that requires, indeed fosters, just such a removal from the rhythm of one’s own time in favor of the rhythm of its long, unfolding day. And it’s a day -- the endless February 2nd -- that is also the birthday of James Joyce, and also commemorates Candlemas, the presentation of Christ in the temple, also known as the Purification of the Virgin, and -- or more properly February 1st -- the feast of Imbolc, the beginning of winter’s end, and St. Brigid’s day.
2-2-2010 for JJ
No rest for the demon, no retreat.
He keeps before me a tranced space
Where fables of compunction elicit laughs,
And all that sacred poetry, born
Of tearful entreaty and fear of illicit
Conjunction, inspires a manic dance,
Spidery, fiery, flung over an abyss
We’re forever reading, forever waiting
For that glimmer of shared sense we need.
Knowledge -- take a bite, and flaunt glad
Ignorance of all injunction to freedom,
Cautioned by purifying candles’ witness.
Praise the joyous apostate, St. Brigid,
Close Epiphany for a season less frigid.