Chapter and line numbers from the Gabler edition.
The literary idea of Ulysses is represented in microcosm by its fourteenth chapter, unofficially titled “Oxen of the Sun.” Whatever you think of this chapter — whether you find it impressive, pretentious, exhilarating, intimidating, boring, liberating, or unreadable — is likely to be your opinion of the novel as a whole. For that reason, we may also start there.
First, a brief summary of what happens. Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist, visits a maternity ward late at night in order to check on a family friend who has been in labor for three days. He never actually sees her, instead spending the entire chapter in the waiting room, where several medical students and their friends are getting drunk. The group includes Stephen Dedalus, the secondary main character and subject of the first three chapters. After a while, they decide to move to a pub, but it closes just then and they wander off to continue their carousing somewhere else. Bloom, vaguely recognizing Stephen from some social occasion long ago, follows.
This simple content is given a bizarrely mutable form, a sequence of over 30 prose styles spanning the entire history of the English language. I won’t list all of them, but for example, here is an obviously parodic passage, near the beginning of the chapter, which Joyce himself associated with the Roman authors Tacitus and Sallust:
In short, “anyone in his right mind would agree that procreation is of utmost importance for every nation,” which also has no real content. No one really wrote like this in the ancient world; on the contrary, Greek and Roman authors set the standard for elegant, concise literary expression for centuries to come. But the idea here is not really to imitate them, but rather to suggest a primitive stage of English, when it did not really exist as a literary language, only as a literal translation that cannot do more than copy the original Latin order of words and grammar. Only a few paragraphs later, we reach the Middle Ages and their books of chivalry:
Still later comes the 17th century, and the religious allegory of John Bunyan:
Philologists have dissected the chapter and found parodies of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and other English luminaries in subsequent paragraphs. A particularly amusing moment is the following parody of 18th century Gothic romance:
Haines is an Englishman visiting Dublin who appears in the first chapter. He does not actually appear in person here — apparently, Malachi “Buck” Mulligan is telling some story about him, which then “comes to life” as per the demands of the genre. There are still ten or so styles left to go, of which the most recognizable to the reader may be this parody of Dickensian sentimentality:
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
According to Joyce himself, “This progression is also linked back at each part…with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general.” The birth and development of the English language in the prose style parallel the birth of the child that occurs in the plot. The reader is practically encouraged to identify them, leading to the uplifting conclusion that the entire history of every culture is contained and recapitulated within each individual carrier of that culture, already from the moment of birth. Each human being thus takes on mythological significance; physical procreation is blurred together both with cultural perpetuation and artistic creation. This is a winning move with critics because they generally do not see physical procreation as inherently valuable — to them, human existence is justified only by artistic creativity, and so the chapter appears life-affirming and celebratory. One doctoral dissertation from 1984, titled “Myth and narration in James Joyce’s Ulysses,” finds that “the symbols of fertility in this episode are also words, language, whose growth and development on an expanded historical level is conflated with the nine month evolution of a foetus.” A 1974 article in the James Joyce Quarterly views the “births explicitly treated in the episode: those of Mina Purefoy’s baby boy and the English language” as harbingers of “the birth, the coming to be, of an entirely new universe, an artistic world,” and for that reason asserts that, “The entire episode shows a great confidence in the fact of birth, the wonder and mystery of new life.” A 1980 article in the Osaka Literary Review states that “the narration of ‘Oxen of the Sun’ is a celebration of fertility in language.” The fact that “confidence” and “celebration” are expressed through parody is acknowledged by some critics, but not seen as a problem. Here is a fairly representative attempt to address that concern:
Christopher Ames, Twentieth Century Literature, 1991
In other words, it’s all in good fun; any conceivable destructive effect of the parody only serves to affirm “the richness and virtuosity of the English language and prose tradition” on a deeper level. Once again, “love, procreation, artistic creation” jointly constitute the “human importance” of the chapter. It sounds plausible enough…but still, I wonder.
I rethought “Oxen of the Sun” when considering how it has been translated into other languages. Few texts are so closely bonded to the form of a specific language, but one can imitate what it does by analogy. For example, the early paragraphs can literally transcribe Latin grammar into, say, French or German, as Joyce does in English. Likewise, English medieval prose can be approximated by the corresponding archaic version of the language in question. Hans Wollschläger’s German translation renders “Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship,” (Ulysses, 14.60) which Joyce described as, “earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon,” using a similar kind of proto-German as, “Bevor geborn daz kint vrevde erfvr. In muoter schoze wart ez wol verert.” Sergei Khoruzhy’s Russian translation uses Church Slavic for these sections. These archaic passages are arguably the easiest to transplant to foreign soil — the task of translation becomes much more difficult when dealing with the more recent English authors. It is easier to read a passage such as, “Nature, we may rest assured, has her own good and cogent reasons for whatever she does and in all probability such deaths are…some of us think, in the long run beneficial to the race in general in securing thereby the survival of the fittest,” (14.1277-14.1285) but to truly complete the analogy in translation, one would need a local author full of the same self-satisfied, half-educated, militant materialism as Joyce’s English model, Thomas Huxley. Usually the translators do not go that far, and so those sections that are closely tied to specific individuals from English literary history appear innocuously artificial.
But the medieval passages, when written in, say, Church Slavic, become unexpectedly repugnant. Perhaps Arthurian legend and Catholic scholasticism mean nothing to the contemporary English reader, but Church Slavic is still living, to the extent that it is used in the services of the Orthodox Churches. It is not uncommon for recent converts or just curious visitors to initially feel intimidated by the unfamiliar words and grammar of this language, but then, on subsequent occasions, to find themselves understanding it much more quickly than they had expected. One would not be able to speak or write in Church Slavic, but one begins to associate its phrasing with worship and penitence. The very difficulty of these states, and the spiritual concentration needed to approach them, seem to require a particularly strict, unconventional form of verbal expression. From that point of view, Joyce’s parody comes across as an invasion of privacy; even if we ignore the frequently profane content of “Oxen of the Sun,” the deliberately mundane setting of Ulysses is incompatible with the somber, monastic composure of Church Slavic.
And then it occurred to me: what if, in fact, “Oxen of the Sun” has the exact same effect (if not more so) in its native English, and I just did not see it before? Since Joyce surely never planned for this part of his novel to be translated in this specific way, it stands to reason that English was his first target. In other words, Ulysses is an act of aggression against the English language, an expression of calculated hatred toward it.
Look at Ulysses just once from this point of view, and much may become clear. Yale’s “Modernism Lab” writes regarding “Oxen of the Sun” that “form is shown to be inessential to the plot.” I don’t think that is the case at all — the various literary styles not only describe events, but also shape how characters speak and think, and this happens not only in “Oxen of the Sun” but consistently throughout the novel. In “Aeolus,” for example, does the socially inept Stephen really say, “Gentlemen. As the next motion on the agenda paper may I suggest that the house do now adjourn?” (7.885-7.886) to a group of older men at the newspaper office, or is that prosody dictated by the snappy journalistic style adopted in that chapter? In fact, it is the plot that is inessential to form. Parody imposes stylistic conventions that override purely novelistic concerns; the mismatch between them is the main source of comedy in Ulysses, especially because its plot is rarely interesting enough, in and of itself, to overshadow style. But, by being bent into the service of such a non-plot, the style itself is emptied of meaning. Swift, Sterne, Burke, Dickens, and Ruskin have been made to hold forth, in their full rhetorical splendor, about nothing, with the implication that the emperor never had any clothes to begin with; empty style was all they ever were.
This is an especially insidious argument because English-language writers are uniquely susceptible to it. One could find reasons to criticize, say, Dostoyevsky, but surely over-reliance on style would not be one of them. In fact, Western readers often view style as Dostoyevsky’s main weakness; as Hemingway put it, “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?” Similarly, one’s opinion of Dumas and Zola, or Soseki and Mishima, would likely be determined by the content of their writing, rather than the form. Nabokov, the stylist par excellence, is only seen as such by his English readers. There are many scholarly articles in English dedicated to identifying and unraveling allusions in Lolita or Pale Fire, just as there are entire companion volumes whose sole purpose is to explain obscure references in Ulysses, but no Russian critic has ever made it his life’s work to do the same for The Gift, even though that novel might actually reward the effort. The reason is because the notion of “style” as an independent literary category exists only in English-language criticism. The prominence of purely stylistic experimentation in modernism is not a natural stage in the development of literature, but an accidental byproduct of Anglo-American economic dominance during the twentieth century.
Edmund Burke, worried that Joyce has him figured out.
In English writing, the technique is the content. Thus, when Joyce imitates Burkean oratory in, “It was now for more than the middle span of our allotted years that he had passed through the thousand vicissitudes of existence and, being of a wary ascendancy and self a man of rare forecast, he had enjoined his heart to repress all motions of a rising choler and, by intercepting them with the readiest precaution, foster within his breast that plenitude of sufferance which base minds jeer at, rash judgers scorn and all find tolerable and but tolerable,” (14.859-14.865) this pompous moralizing is uncomfortably close to the essence of the original. In Burke’s case, this aspect of his writing is acknowledged even by academic specialists. One scholar, commenting in The Irish Review, offered the candid assessment, “Students of Burke have long been preoccupied with several major problems in his writing. Any summary of these issues would have to include the tension between the ornate quality of his advocacy and the banality of so many of his prescriptions…the intemperate, seemingly self-defeating and openly partisan dimension of so much of his advocacy; and the contradictory element in his major arguments[.]” Paddy Bullard, professor at the University of Reading and author of a monograph titled Edmund Burke and the Art of Rhetoric, based his work on the thesis that “the proper study of [Burke’s] rhetoric must focus on the terms of his referential purpose. To put it another way, the subject of his rhetoric (who is addressing whom, on behalf of whom?) is the pressing problem, to which the object of his rhetoric (argumentative persuasion) is subordinate.” Joyce’s parody, then, is a further refinement of this philosophy — by totally removing the object of rhetoric, and really the subject as well (treating “who” and “whom” as mutable abstractions), Ulysses reduces rhetoric to its essence, as rhetoric-in-itself.
Joyce’s attack on English literature is unanswerable within this frame of reference. But, precisely because the frame is so exceedingly narrow, the subject cannot be fully contained within it either. Dickens, for example, may be an easy target, not least because many contemporary readers feel bored by his prose. If they know anything about him, it is that he was “paid by the word,” which, presumably, is the only reason they can imagine for why anyone would ever want to write so many words. Joyce himself felt compelled to defend Dickens from the charge of being “the common purveyor of sentimental domestic drama and emotional clap-trap as he appears to the jaundiced eye of a critic of the new school” in a 1912 essay, though it was written on a formal occasion (part of an application to the University of Padua) and some of the compliments in it are a bit back-handed, e.g., “English taste has decreed to Dickens a sovereign position and Turk-like will have no brother near his throne.” I admit that, at one point, I also largely subscribed to the conventional interpretation of Dickens as a commercially successful sentimentalist, and I did not seriously question that view until I came across a very different opinion from Fr. Seraphim (Rose). There is a kind of modern-day Byzantine apothegm about Dickens, which is told by Fr. Seraphim’s biographer, Fr. Damascene (Christensen), but also circulates on its own in Orthodox communities:
Charles Dickens, looking more like Don Quixote
than a massively popular commercial writer.
Dickens may have excessively relied on what Joyce called “exaggeration,” but what other way was there to communicate normal, human, Christian feelings in Victorian England? You would have to be ungainly, awkward, and disheveled to be able to feel kindness in such a society. Fr. Seraphim believed that, “Dickens communicates an extremely warm feeling about human life, about human relationships… The warmth of Dickens can help break through one-sided rationalism better than years of arguments, because even if you accept the truth you can still be cold and rationalistic and insensitive. Simply reading Dickens can already produce in one tears of gratitude for having the true religion of love.” (Damascene, 970) Well, I can’t say that I have wept at Dickens, but I will note that, even in A Christmas Carol, at his most wholesome and sentimental, he was brave enough to criticize the doctrine that, “If they would rather die…they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” which is still, to this day, an article of absolute faith for Anglo-Saxon thought. In any case, Dickens’ prose style has little bearing on the extent to which these surprising depths may be found in his work. By focusing on style, Ulysses functions as a distorting mirror, shutting out even the possibility of content.
The malice behind Joyce’s historical excursion becomes evident at the end. “Oxen of the Sun,” we are told, has the theme of birth, and the succession of styles emulates “the natural stages of development in the embryo.” At the end, Mina Purefoy gives birth, but what is the corresponding result of the chapter’s linguistic gestation? After the parodies have concluded, the style shifts one last time:
Remember, the birth occurs at the end of the chapter, not the beginning. The tortured pseudo-Latin was not the birth, but merely the conception of the English language; medieval English, Burke, Dickens etc. were only the transitory stages of pregnancy; but what is born at the end is what you see here. That is, according to Joyce, English is born as a deformed abomination, a shapeless mass of disconnected phrases, unable and unwilling to formulate any meaning. Formally, the incoherence of the ending represents the idiotic drunken chatter of the students, but there is very little plot in “Oxen of the Sun” and the reader may be excused for having forgotten it. The conclusion of such a deliberate progression is, by implication, the triumphant culmination of English literature, toward which the latter has always unwittingly worked. All of our history, our art and science, all to meet the needs of that beast…
Perhaps, in 1922, the conclusion of “Oxen of the Sun” felt like spirited hooliganism, a bit of anarchic fun. But, one hundred years later, there is no trouble imagining that something like this will be the common dialect of English in, say, 2050. “Kind Kristyann wil yu help yung man hoose frend tuk bungellow kee tu find plais whear tu lay crown of his hed 2 night.” (14.1539-14.1540) Am I wrong to see in this some strange presentiment of Internet slang? In a strange way, Joyce and Orwell approached the same point from different directions.
Early on, in “Telemachus,” there is a curious moment where the milkwoman overhears Haines speaking Irish, but mistakes it for French, and comments, “I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.” (1.433-1.434) One may then be tempted to impose some sort of anti-colonialist interpretation on “Oxen of the Sun,” whose hostility toward English language and culture can then be seen as a rebellion against English oppression. But Joyce’s opinion of Irish culture is not much better. Irish nationalism is the villain in “Colossus,” where a drunk hurls anti-Semitic insults at Bloom, but does so just ineptly enough to remain safely contemptible rather than frightening. The onlookers do not directly participate in the altercation, but sympathize more with “the citizen,” as he is called, than with Bloom, whom they resent for his educated vocabulary and what they see as his insufficiently convivial behavior. The unnamed narrator of the chapter, a garrulous man-on-the-street type, “one of the lads” who can always get someone to treat him to a drink at any pub in town at any time of day, summarizes the general consensus as, “And Bloom, of course, with his knockmedown cigar putting on swank with his lardy face. Phenomenon! The fat heap he married is a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley.” (12.501-12.504) Joyce does not share this opinion, however, and his way of ridiculing the citizen is to describe him in the hyperbolic language of national myth:
Even the most trusting reader should realize by the end that he is being had. Even the narrator isn’t convinced. In his inner monologue, he turns on the citizen without warning: “All wind and piss like a tanyard cat. Cows in Connacht have long horns. As much as his bloody life is worth to go down and address his tall talk to the assembled multitude in Shanagolden where he daren’t show his nose with the Molly Maguires looking for him to let daylight through him for grabbing the holding of an evicted tenant.” (12.1311-12.1316) It seems that, to Joyce, Irish nationalism is not serious enough to be an ideological adversary. It is just irrelevant, like the Irish language was shown to be in “Telemachus.”
Joyce’s disdain for Ireland goes beyond the purely intellectual realm, to a physiological level. In “Lestrygonians,” Bloom stops at a restaurant for lunch, but is overwhelmed by revulsion at the sight of people consuming Irish food:
Bloom flees this den of iniquity for another establishment, where he orders a cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy, which, one can only suppose, is meant to characterize him as a sensitive thinking sort, far above the plebeians with their cabbage and soup. In his mind, he wishes for “a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer… A nice salad, cool as a cucumber,” (8.758-8.759) but alas, such sophistication is not to be found in Dublin.
But really now, lads, which of these would you say is more appetizing?
Rarely has a novel relied so much on its setting. The authenticity of Dublin in Ulysses was a major concern for the author — one can precisely reconstruct Bloom’s walking route on a street map, and many of the pubs, shops and offices will still be present at their addresses. But this meticulous reconstruction is rarely pleasant. On the beach, “Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck [Stephen’s] treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.” (3.150-3.152) After lunch, Bloom “walked towards Dawson street… At Duke lane a ravenous terrier choked up a sick knuckly cud on the cobblestones and lapped it with new zest… Returned with thanks having fully digested the contents.” (8.1028-8.1033) “Calypso” famously includes a scene which describes Bloom defecating. Perhaps this is the only novel in history where such a scene serves a genuine literary objective — it fits Joyce’s Dublin perfectly, exactly what one would expect to see there. He certainly did not suffer from nostalgia, even though he had been living abroad for 18 years by the time Ulysses was published. I hope they at least served him a nice salad in Paris.
Joyce’s attitude toward Ireland is best described by Stephen’s quip in “Eumaeus” — when Bloom tries to reassure him that his learning could prove valuable to Ireland, he replies, “But I suspect…that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.” (16.1164-16.1165) In other words, according to Joyce, Ireland’s only redeeming quality is Joyce himself. Without him, all that remains is a bunch of ridiculous caricatures of language, patriotism, and cuisine.
But this at least gives us a way to make an inroad into Ulysses — we saw the same sentiment in The Three-Cornered World and The Gift. It inevitably accompanies the beginning of self-awareness. The acute perception of one’s own individuality is not the same thing as genius, but feels like it. As one experiences one’s self more deeply, the outside world begins to seem crude, simplistic, incomplete in comparison. One is naturally inclined to look at it, if not with condescension, then with the kind of irony that is born of what seems like omniscience; others become mere stray sheep, glimpsed on the periphery of one’s vision. A person in this condition may be strange and disagreeable, but The Gift shows why it can have such a hold. As Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev daydreams in his shabby room in Berlin, his disconnected thoughts suddenly find an inner harmony, and spontaneously form into graceful poetry, which soars effortlessly into immediate oblivion, never written down. Joyce was no stranger to this experience either: after all, he is the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, whose very title describes the “genre” to which The Gift belongs. Stephen Dedalus is the protagonist of that book, and has a moment very similar to Cherdyntsev’s, in which it seems as if the secret of literature has been unlocked, and great work is practically there for the taking: “The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?”
But in Ulysses, this feeling is long gone. Stephen still has some similarity to Cherdyntsev: both are poor, both make a living tutoring students whom they despise, both carry on imagined dialogues with people they know. Dedalus lacks Cherdyntsev’s aristocratic background, but arguably has studied more seriously. In “Proteus,” he wanders around the beach after work, letting his mind wander, just as Cherdyntsev does in much of The Gift. But the moment of poetry never comes. Fragments of aesthetic and philosophical vocabulary float through his mind; many readers probably gave up at “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” (Ulysses, 3.1) but the reason why this seems like gibberish is because it never coalesces into a complete thought. Stephen’s mind is distracted by a constant sense of failure. He has lived in Europe, but his studies were not successful, and his mind dully berates him over every memory that randomly presents itself: “Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher.” (3.184-3.186) There was a time when he could sequester himself in “Marsh’s library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas,” but now to him it is a “stagnant bay.” (3.107-3.108) His plans to become a writer have become the subject of impotent self-flagellation: “Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one… Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?” (3.138-3.143) His acquaintances are aware of his artistic impotence and have written him off: over lunch with Haines, Mulligan laughs, “He is going to write something in ten years.” (10.1089-10.1090)
Stephen talks and thinks in disconnected “one-liners,” declarative statements such as “History…is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” (2.377) These lines are often quoted, because they stand out among the turbid stream of consciousness, but they do not lead anywhere. His unfeigned misery notwithstanding, this mode of self-expression is a very convenient substitute for content. “Scylla and Charybdis” shows that he has not completely abandoned intellectual pursuits — in this chapter, he has a chance to expound his interpretations of Shakespeare to an audience of local literary men, and they are interested enough to listen, if not to pay for the privilege of publishing them. But he presents his views in a ridiculously florid style:
This is exactly the kind of writing that Joyce parodies in “Oxen of the Sun.” The thesis is festooned with so many rhetorical embellishments that they completely obscure it. Really no thesis is needed; for the true English man of letters, “the ornate quality of his advocacy” (as in Burke) is a self-sufficient objective. The description of how “Shakespeare has left the huguenot’s house” could just as well be inserted into any essay on Shakespeare, being equally irrelevant to any claim or premise. One cannot be certain that Dedalus really says all this — his interlocutors also sound pompous, and the rhetorical style may be deliberately overwritten to emphasize the comic quality of a literary debate between provincial intellectuals. Perhaps, in reality, Stephen is just stammering incoherently, and Joyce is dressing up his gnomic utterances as a form of parody. In any case, just as in “Oxen of the Sun,” the comedy comes from the discrepancy between this grandiose oratory and its subject matter. If we try to identify what Stephen is actually arguing, for example, it is that the ghost of Hamlet’s father represents Shakespeare himself, complaining to his young son Hamnet (who died at age 11) about his wife’s infidelity. As proof that “he has branded her with infamy,” (Ulysses, 9.672) there is a lengthy aside about how Shakespeare slighted his wife in his will, which Stephen calls “the swansong…wherein he has commended her to posterity,” (9.682) by bequeathing to her “his Secondbest Bed,” (9.697-9.699) rather than his best bed.
The gradual accumulation of Shakespearean majesty (the chapter even briefly turns into a play script for two pages) eventually turns into a parody of Shakespeare himself. A direct quote from Romeo and Juliet is used to generate parasitic verbal excess: “What’s in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours. A star, a daystar, a firedrake, rose at his birth. It shone by day in the heavens alone, brighter than Venus in the night, and by night it shone over delta in Cassiopeia, the recumbent constellation which is the signature of his initial [Cassiopeia looks like the letter W. -FL] among the stars. His eyes watched it, lowlying on the horizon, eastward of the bear, as he walked by the slumberous summer fields at midnight returning from Shottery and from her arms.” (9.927-9.934) But then, one might ask, doesn’t the original do the same? How many of Shakespeare’s characters have fully convincing motivation, and conduct themselves in a manner consistent with their social status? How many of his stories develop believably from these motivations and positions, rather than by arbitrary plot mandate? Tolstoy wrote about King Lear, “Such is the second act, full of unnatural events and even more unnatural speeches that do not follow from the characters’ situations; it ends with a scene of Lear with his daughters, which could have been strong, if it had not been larded with the most awkwardly pompous, unnatural, and above all irrelevant speeches placed in Lear’s mouth. Lear’s vacillations between pride, anger, and hope for concessions from his daughter would have been extremely touching, had they not been spoiled by those verbose absurdities which Lear speaks about how he would have divorced Regan’s deceased mother if Regan had not been glad to see him, or about bringing poisonous vapors [“Fen-suck’d fogs.” -FL] upon his daughter’s head, or about how the heavens should favor old men because they are also old, and much else.”
I won’t say that I agree with Tolstoy. Shakespeare’s lack of distinct character can also be viewed as a strength — precisely because his plays are mostly artifice built around simple plots in generic European settings, they are very pliable, completely open to interpretation by many different cultures, even as basketball dramas or samurai films. In Shakespeare, the English obsession with pure form succeeded in becoming a mirror in which all people could see whatever they wanted. The gaps and deficiencies in his writing can always be rectified by talented actors and directors, thereby imbuing his plays with meaning, even if they had lacked it before.
Unfortunately, that only means that Dedalus has made a fool of himself in three distinct ways: first, by spending so much time on Shakespeare in the first place; second, by reducing Shakespeare’s work to his marital problems, by far the most vulgar genre of criticism, whether they were real or not; third, by attempting to understand Shakespeare’s work through its author, which in this one particular case is the least productive way to approach it. “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” By the end of the chapter, he admits to John Eglinton that he doesn’t believe a word of what he said, eliciting the droll reply, “Well, in that case…I don’t see why you should expect payment for it since you don’t believe it yourself.” (Ulysses, 9.1071-9.1072)
If The Gift is the story of individuality miraculously blossoming out of literally nothing, able to sustain itself with no support from its squalid surroundings, then Ulysses is the story of failed, defective individuality, unable to pull together the shattered fragments of its thought. There are no miracles in Joyce’s Dublin. In the end, Stephen has nothing to say, and deep down, he may not want to. Joyce does not set the intellectual loner in opposition to English tyranny or Irish chauvinism. From his point of view, it doesn’t make any difference. Nothing does.
I keep bringing up Nabokov not only because of parallels with The Gift. It may come as a surprise that he was quite vocal in his admiration of Ulysses, which he taught at Cornell. His lecture notes have been preserved and are in print (Lectures on Literature, 1980). These are sketches, not complete critical studies, but some of Nabokov’s casual observations can prove more useful than reams of critical muck. For example, regarding Stephen’s walk on the beach: “he meditates on many things: the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible,’ ineluctable meaning ‘not to be overcome’ and modality ‘form as opposed to substance'[.]” (Nabokov, 300) This is actually not the typical academic interpretation of this infamously abstruse phrase. Much more typical is the following, from a 1999 article in the James Joyce Quarterly: “Joyce’s critics have explained the two modalities of the visible and the audible that engage Stephen’s mind as emphatic references to Aristotle’s treatises De Sensu et Sensato and De Anima (Books 2 and 3), and to Berkeley’s An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision.” But I think Nabokov’s version is simpler and far more accurate: the inability to overcome form as opposed to substance is, at the very least, far more relevant to “Proteus,” and really all of Ulysses, than Berkeley.
Not only the theme of sex: in Joyce’s book, nearly every theme is mixed and intertwined with the theme of the latrine. This turns his pathology into an entire comprehensive worldview. If there is anything real in Ulysses, it is physiology. Bloom in the outhouse is quite believable, as is Bloom masturbating on the beach in “Nausicaa.” Death, as a physiological process, is also very real. Both Bloom and Dedalus have very morbid imaginations; in “Hades,” Bloom attends a funeral and spends the entire chapter dwelling on such imagery as, “I daresay the soil would be quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails. Charnelhouses. Dreadful. Turning green and pink decomposing. Rot quick in damp earth… Then a kind of a tallowy kind of a cheesy. Then begin to get black, black treacle oozing out of them.” (Ulysses, 6.776-6.789) No need for suspension of disbelief there. It is only the higher expression of human life that is not real in Ulysses, that can be imagined only in the form of vulgar parody. Bloom lusting after Gerty MacDowell — that is an indisputable fact. Gerty deliberately showing her legs to Bloom — that could have been part of his fantasy, but could also have been real; it is plausible within the logic of the novel. But Gerty’s dream of a happy marriage, and therefore, the very idea of youth’s naive dream of love — that, in Ulysses, has to be the lie. Feelings like that are the material of advertising copy and mass-market novels, whose gaudy sentimental language is the only proper form for them: “He would be tall with broad shoulders (she had always admired tall men for a husband) with glistening white teeth under his carefully trimmed sweeping moustache and they would go on the continent for their honeymoon (three wonderful weeks!) and then, when they settled down in a nice snug and cosy little homely house, every morning they would both have brekky, simple but perfectly served, for their own two selves and before he went out to business he would give his dear little wifey a good hearty hug and gaze for a moment deep down into her eyes.” (13.235-13.242)
This outlook reaches full development in “Circe.” Shortly after the end of “Oxen of the Sun,” Bloom follows Dedalus (who has somehow become separated from the other students) to a brothel in the bad part of town. Stephen is still extremely drunk, barely understanding where he is. Bloom keeps an eye on him while awkwardly talking to the prostitutes. Eventually Dedalus breaks a lamp with his walking stick and stumbles back outside, where he is beaten by an English soldier who does not like his face. Bloom catches up, helps him to his feet, and leads him away.
These events are presented in the form of a monstrous play script that takes up 150 pages, almost a quarter of the entire book. Very little of what is described actually happens. Every minor detail of the “real” scene is accompanied by bizarre digressions, increasingly nonsensical hallucinations. I will summarize one instance as concisely as possible, just in case you have not seen what this is like. When “Zoe Higgins, a young whore in a sapphire slip,” (15.1279) shows Bloom inside and tells him to “Make a stump speech out of it” (15.1353) when he tells her that he does not smoke, the backdrop instantly transforms into a political campaign where Bloom, suddenly wearing “workman’s corduroy overalls, black gansy with red floating tie and apache cap,” (15.1356) makes a speech about tobacco, is immediately elected “Lord mayor of Dublin” (15.1364) and “chief magistrate,” (15.1372) receives an ovation from the entire population of Ireland, including even the citizen from “Cyclops,” becomes “emperor-president and king-chairman,” (15.1471) and builds “the new Bloomusalem. It is a colossal edifice with crystal roof, built in the shape of a huge pork kidney, containing forty thousand rooms.” (15.1548-15.1549) The crowd loses its mind in adoration, to the point where “Many most attractive and enthusiastic women also commit suicide by stabbing, drowning, drinking prussic acid, aconite, arsenic, opening their veins, refusing food, casting themselves under steamrollers, from the top of Nelson’s Pillar, into the great vat of Guinness’s brewery, asphyxiating themselves by placing their heads in gasovens, hanging themselves in stylish garters, leaping from windows of different storeys.” (15.1745-15.1751) Nonetheless there are dissenting “antiBloomites” that denounce Bloom as a “fiendish libertine” (15.1753-15.1754) and incite a mob to set him on fire. “Bloom becomes mute, shrunken, carbonised.” (15.1956) Only then do we return to Zoe in the brothel. It is now nearly 20 pages later, and she is still telling Bloom, “Talk away till you’re black in the face.” (15.1958)
“Circe” contains many other such vulgar, deliberately idiotic excursions, and it is not rewarding to study them individually. On the whole, one could interpret them as movements of Bloom’s subconscious. Associations flash through his mind, instantly spiraling into detailed fantasies. The “political” sequence, for example, could represent Bloom’s desire for approval, not necessarily from people he knows. He imagines “success,” taken to a ridiculous extreme, which then turns into martyrdom, something that is in some sense easier to imagine because he is not really used to success. It is a neat enough explanation, but if that was all there was, the point could probably have been made sooner. Nabokov had a different interpretation:
The image of a book that “dreams” its characters (and its author as well?) is brilliant, but unfortunately must remain an aesthetically pleasing invention. The problem is that its “dreams” are all of one nature, directed by the author’s malevolent will. For example, previous chapters established Bloom’s family origins as a sensitive topic: his father, Rudolf Virag, a Jewish immigrant to Ireland from Hungary, committed suicide nearly twenty years ago, when Bloom was a young man. In “Lotus-Eaters” Bloom suddenly thinks, “Poor papa! How he used to talk of [the theater]… The scene he was always talking about where the old blind Abraham recognises the voice and puts his fingers on his face… Every word is so deep, Leopold. Poor papa! Poor man! I’m glad I didn’t go into the room to look at his face. That day!” (5.197-5.208) One of the few physical reminders Bloom has of his father is, “An indistinct daguerreotype of Rudolf Virag and his father Leopold Virag executed in the year 1852[.]” (17.1875-17.1876) But in “Circe,” Bloom is visited by an apparition of his grandfather, appearing as a horrible abomination: he “chutes rapidly down through the chimneyflue and struts two steps to the left on gawky pink stilts,” (15.2304-15.2306) with “his weasel teeth bared yellow,” (15.2339) arbitrarily taking on other animal attributes: “his yellow parrotbeak gabbles nasally,” (15.2415) “he gobbles gluttonously with turkey wattles,” (15.2433-15.2434) he “points a horning claw” (15.2461) and “chases his tail.” (15.2555) His role in the script is to needle Bloom with embarrassing reminders of his sexual proclivities: “Promiscuous nakedness is much in evidence hereabouts, eh? Inadvertently her backview revealed the fact that she is not wearing those rather intimate garments of which you are a particular devotee. The injection mark on the thigh I hope you perceived?” (15.2314-15.2316) Just before he exits, he “unscrews his head in a trice and holds it under his arm.” (15.2636)
Hieronymus Bosch’s critical analysis of “Circe.”
This is not at all out of the ordinary in “Circe.” Stephen also talks to a horrible apparition of his mother as a rotting corpse, “her face worn and noseless, green with gravemould.” (15.4159) Paddy Dignam, a onetime acquaintance whose funeral Bloom attended in “Hades,” also appears: “His green eye flashes bloodshot. Half of one ear, all the nose and both thumbs are ghouleaten.” (15.1207-15.1208) At the very end, Bloom sees what appears to be a more comforting vision of his son Rudy, who died ten years ago, as “a fairy boy of eleven…dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand,” but even this potentially pleasant image is described as “a changeling, kidnapped” (15.4957-15.4959) — in other words, an impostor. What all of this really resembles, if we call things by their proper names, is the revelry of demons, who torment the unfortunate protagonists by forcing upon them terrifying distortions of their family and friends, and turning their feelings toward these people, as well as toward themselves and the world as a whole, into grotesque caricatures. Bloom gets the worst of this, since he offers so much rich pathological material to work with. For example, he is temporarily transformed into a woman and subjected to physical humiliation by the brothel madam (who, accordingly, transforms into a man).
Yes, this is all a “parody,” not least of the author himself, gleefully setting fire to his own creation. There are hundreds of parodies in Ulysses, but they all serve a single purpose — to leave no place for normal human feelings and desires, to force them out beyond the limits of what can be thought and expressed. “Circe” fills the universe with bizarre, irrational shadowplay precisely so that there will be no room left for anything else. As Nabokov says, “Bloom is supposed to be a rather ordinary citizen.” Therefore, according to Joyce, the ordinary citizen has no parents, no wife, no children, no occupation. He is lost in an endless nightmare, beset by accusations from leering, bestial visages, in an amorphous expanse that continually changes shape and is thus impervious to comprehension. And there is certainly no solace for him to be found in Shakespeare or any other art or literature.
After “Circe,” Bloom returns home. He brings Dedalus along, and “does his best to be friendly towards Stephen but is regarded by Stephen with a slightly contemptuous indifference.” (Nabokov, 354) Once his guest finally departs, very late at night, Bloom finally goes to bed. The final chapter, “Penelope,” consists entirely of a long internal monologue by his wife Molly.
“Penelope” is perhaps the most famous part of Ulysses. It is easier to understand than “Oxen of the Sun” or “Circe,” and changes perspective in a particularly striking way. Many college students hated having to read Ulysses, but some loved it, and for them I think “Penelope” had much to do with it. The explicit content of Molly’s thoughts not only ensured reader attention, but also gave rise to a hundred years of academic literature debating whether or not “Penelope” can be interpreted as feminist. However, I think it is more useful to look, not at these scholarly debates, but at personal reactions, and not by critics, but from the general public. Here is one, which appeared in a student-run journal at Wellesley College in 2019:
Maggie Roberts, “Thank you, Molly Bloom“
She has a point. Here is a theatrical production of “Penelope,”
but this is nothing like the physicality of Joyce’s Molly.
Ironically, though the author of this piece undoubtedly saw herself as a feminist, more seasoned and professional feminists would likely admonish her for putting too much trust in a literary character created by a man. However, I think her reading is quite representative of a significant portion of readers, particularly those who are not familiar with “theory” and are still able to experience an immediate reaction to a book before putting it through ideological filters. Ulysses is unique among “difficult” novels in that there are still many people willing to try to read it even if they are not required to do so for a class, because it has enough name recognition that they have heard of it and know that it is somehow important. Among those that do not give up, many may indeed walk away with the impression that, “Penelope is when we finally hear what Molly Bloom has to say… It is a true voice of female sexuality, [culminating] in her orgasm and her decision to love her husband, because, well, he could be worse,” as one Livejournal user innocently put it. (She concluded, “It is a perplexing book. I’m not sure I will read it again, but I am glad I did read it.”)
Unfortunately, I think Nabokov is again closer to the truth: “The style is a sustained stream of consciousness running through Molly’s lurid, vulgar, and hectic mind, the mind of a rather hysterical woman, with commonplace ideas, more or less morbidly sensual, with a rich strain of music in her and with the quite abnormal capacity of reviewing her whole life in an uninterrupted inner verbal flow. A person whose thought tumbles on with such impetus and consistency is not a normal person.” (Nabokov, 362) This quality, however, is exactly what makes Molly appeal to precocious college students. In the early 21st century, for the first and quite likely last time in history, college is the place where one has the ability to continuously review one’s whole life, for the simple reason that one has nothing else to do, and no real knowledge or interests beyond the “morbidly sensual,” especially now that one can watch pornography in class for academic credit. Maggie Roberts praises Molly for “letting her body’s cravings, both sexual and edible, dictate her actions,” implicitly viewing her as a fellow twenty-year-old college student.
If that were the case, there would be no objection. But Molly is not a college student. She is nearly thirty-four, and has a fifteen-year-old daughter; if Ulysses were set in the present day, she might easily be in her late forties. At this age, to experience one’s life as the sum total of “her body’s cravings,” which tyrannically “dictate her actions,” is unhealthy and above all very strange. Adultery is the least of Molly’s problems. By far the most bizarre aspect of “Penelope” is that, although Molly indeed “reviews” her life, recalling her childhood in Spain and many past events, parenthood appears to have completely escaped her notice. She savors each detail of how, “yes O yes I pulled him [Mulvey, an English officer with whom Molly dallied as a teenager. -FL] off into my handkerchief…I opened my legs I wouldn’t let him touch me inside my petticoat because I had a skirt opening up the side I tormented the life out of him first tickling him…he was shy all the same I liked him like that moaning I made him blush a little” (18.809-18.815) and so on, all of which happened years ago. She remembers various mundane episodes from her life with Bloom. But she never recalls her daughter’s first words, or what she did as a child, or what they did together as a family back then, or any serious time spent with her. In fact she seems to unconsciously (or consciously, who knows) view her daughter as a sexual rival: “I suppose [Bloom] thinks Im finished out and laid on the shelf well Im not no nor anything like it well see well see now shes well on for flirting too with Tom Devans two sons imitating me whistling with those romps of Murray girls calling for her can Milly come out please she in great demand to pick what they can out of her…no matter what they say her tongue is a bit too long for my taste your blouse is open too low she says to me the pan calling the kettle blackbottom[.]” (18.1021-18.1034)
Outside the sexual realm, Molly reacts to the world primarily through resentment. It might be understandable if she felt this way about Bloom, but it is her default tone toward a very wide variety of people, many of them women: “Mrs Riordan…never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was…telling me all her ailments she had to much old chat in her about policies and earthquakes and the end of the world…she was pious because no man would look at her twice,” (18.4-18.11) “Miss Stack bringing him flowers the worst ones she could find at the bottom of the basket anything at all to get into a mans bedroom,” (18.26-18.28) “the shopgirl in that place in Grafton street I had the misfortune to bring him into and she as insolent as ever she could be with her smirk saying Im afraid were giving you too much trouble…but I stared it out of her,” (18.524-18.527) “Kathleen Kearney and her lot of squealers Miss This Miss That Miss Theother lot of sparrowfarts skitting around talking about politics they know as much about as my backside anything in the world to make themselves someway interesting[.]” (18.878-18.881) A common theme in all of these examples is that Molly always ascribes to everyone the most primitive motivation imaginable. Even her own daughter, if Bloom is explaining something to her, must only be “pretending to understand sly of course that comes from his side of the house he cant say I pretend things can he Im too honest as a matter of fact[.]” (18.1018-18.1020) Everyone is always pretending, you see. People say they care about politics, religion, and art, but Molly Bloom isn’t fooled.
“Strategy,” Jenny Saville, 1994.
No, this isn’t Molly either. But it is a very Joycean work.
Of course, Molly resents Bloom as well. One can infer this long before “Penelope” — her name for Bloom is not “Leo,” but “Poldy,” which has a dismissive air and even sounds like “moldy.” To be sure, Bloom does not inspire respect, especially not in anyone who has read “Nausicaa” and “Circe.” Molly looks down on him for his furtive, pathetic (and unsuccessful) attempts at adultery, as well as his general incompetence: “he ought to chuck that Freeman with the paltry few shillings he gets out of it and go to an office or something where hed get regular pay or a bank…of course he prefers plottering about the house[.]” (18.503-18.505) But she can just as easily change her angle of vision if it is necessary for asserting her image of herself and her social status. Comically, both her husband and her lover can simultaneously serve as supporting arguments: “let them get a husband first thats fit to be looked at and a daughter like mine or see if they can excite a swell with money that can pick and choose whoever he wants like Boylan to do it 4 or 5 times locked in each others arms” (18.892-18.895) The true cause of her complaints is not so much Bloom himself (especially since she also disdains everyone else) as it is the ever-present, gnawing feeling that she married beneath her: “I could have been a prima donna only I married him[.]” (18.896) Boylan, ultimately, will not be enough to appease her ego; in her thoughts, she turns on him as well, because “has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage,” (18.1368-18.1371) Molly being the very model of poetry and refinement, of course.
Nabokov found some kind of reconciliation in “Penelope.” To him it seemed that Molly’s “thoughts are occupied by humdrum recollecting that reverts constantly to her husband. She does not love Boylan: if she loves anyone it is Bloom,” (Nabokov, 364) or maybe he said that out of pedagogical considerations, for the benefit of his Cornell audience. I don’t see it. In nearly 40 pages of uninterrupted stream of consciousness, there is zero self-reflection. Molly’s worldview is as simple as it is unassailable: she deserves more and the world does not appreciate her enough. She is particularly annoyed at being asked to do something — “then he starts giving us his orders for eggs and tea and Findon haddy and hot buttered toast I suppose well have him sitting up like the king of the country pumping the wrong end of the spoon up and down in his egg wherever he learned that from” (Ulysses, 18.929-18.933) — but, ironically, she is not shown actually doing anything at any point in time during Ulysses. Bloom brings her breakfast in bed in “Calypso,” and it seems that she is still there in “Wandering Rocks,” when her “plump bare generous arm shone, was seen, held forth from a white petticoatbodice and taut shiftstraps” (10.251-10.252) through the window. Presumably she at least got dressed in the late afternoon so that Boylan could take her out to dinner, but we do not see any of it; deliberately or not, Joyce created the impression that she has been in bed the whole day.
To be sure, Bloom is not much better. Nabokov describes him as a “middlebrow” of “shallow culture” with “a streak of the philistine,” (Nabokov, 355) which is accurate enough. Bloom often thinks about money, not for specific practical reasons (for example, because he needs more of it) but as a kind of habit. If Stephen’s thoughts are clogged by the broken detritus of poetry and philosophy, Bloom’s are always focused on the material world, even during flights of imagination. But I can say one thing for him: at least in “Circe,” he is entirely the victim of violence perpetrated upon him by James Joyce. He has to be beaten into an animal state. For Molly, on the other hand, such a state has always been the natural order of things — she wallows in it with satisfaction, and firmly believes that anyone who says there is anything else must be lying. Imagine having to live with such a person.
“Penelope” is the punchline to a cruel, hateful joke. Ulysses, from its very title, is built as a kind of modern reenactment of Greek epic. Nabokov disliked the allegorical reading, writing, “I must especially warn against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey, with the adman Bloom acting the part of Odysseus, otherwise Ulysses, man of many devices, and Bloom’s adulterous wife representing chaste Penelope while Stephen Dedalus is given the part of Telemachus.” (Nabokov, 287-288) But even if Joyce had never sketched out the Greek chapter names appearing in the Gabler edition, and even if he had titled the book differently, Ulysses does not have to be a “close parody” in order to stand as a natural antipode of the Odyssey. Through Joyce’s intervention, Bloom’s walk around Dublin, and the minor inconveniences he encounters, take on a mythical scale, at one point literally bringing him through centuries of history. At the end, “He rests. He has travelled.” (17.2320) Critics would have made analogies to the Odyssey even if Joyce had never openly mentioned it.
But Odysseus returns home, to his hearth and his family. The purpose of his trials is to win back his happiness; he makes the world whole again with his own hands. His wife and son, who still remember him and refuse to give him up for dead, bring life and harmony back to it. But for Bloom’s world, wholeness is not imaginable even as a remote possibility. Wikipedia has a separate page about Molly Bloom, which states, with childlike innocence, that “she roughly corresponds to Penelope in the Odyssey. The major difference between Molly and Penelope is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not.” This statement is inherently a mockery of itself. That alone, however, is not what makes the Blooms’ marriage hopeless; the real cause is not that Molly is unfaithful, but that it is fundamentally impossible to communicate with her. One implication of her “uninterrupted inner verbal flow” is that she will never pause it long enough to listen. She is incapable of dialogue; it will always be the same flood of self-congratulation and petty complaints, day after day after day.
“and I thought well as well him as another” (Ulysses, 18.1604-18.1605)
The perfect wedding vow!
Ulysses was predestined to acquire the reputation of a “revolutionary” and “liberating” novel. This narrative began forming almost from the moment of its publication; the obscenity trials were so predictable that the publishers must have been, to some extent, consciously organizing a provocation. But shock value ages quickly, and as Joyce entered the secular canon, the prevalent interpretation softened — now, his attack on literary convention is supposed to be tempered by a greater humanism. This premise is not restricted by ideological boundaries. The right-leaning online magazine Quillette writes, “Molly is the word made flesh. She is the book embodied, and her coda is an accretion and an affirmation of all things,” but left-wing journalist Chris Hedges also describes “Penelope” as “one of the greatest [monologues] in literature, affirming the sanctity of love and life.” The trendy liberals at Slate Magazine thought that, “Obscenity was the lifeblood of Ulysses, the proof that it truly comprehended all human experience,” but the religious conservatives at First Things reached the same conclusion: “For Joyce, the crafting of Ulysses — a project on which he spent sixteen years! — was an affirmation that his characters mattered, that human lives matter, and that literature matters.” It has even become an official talking point of Irish diplomacy: Ireland’s ambassador to the United States wrote a column about Ulysses stating that, “Leopold Bloom is ultimately a life-affirming character — and Ulysses a life-affirming novel.”
Perhaps it was inevitable. The anti-aesthetic project of Ulysses could never have fully succeeded already because it made use of aesthetics. Readers who were fascinated by the novel as an intellectual puzzle or a stylistic demonstration had to find some interpretation that would give meaning to their effort. If Ulysses had had no meaning, it would have been necessary to invent it. But let’s not get carried away. Far from embracing “all human experience,” Ulysses seeks to reduce it to the barest minimum. Its elaborate “realism” gives it the semblance of universal truth, and makes it difficult to believe in anything that is not present in its world. In other words, you’d have to be a fool to think that Penelope waited for Odysseus when Molly is so much more “realistic.” But realism is not the same thing as reality, and the world of Ulysses is stunted and miserable. Love, friendship, and art are all vapid clichés concealing crude physiology, which itself takes risible and humiliating forms. To attempt to communicate with another person (as Bloom does with Stephen) is to lose face. Stripped of homeland and family, one drifts on a tide of meaningless thoughts, trapped in decaying flesh. And the English language becomes the means by which life is forced into these unbearable confines.