James Joyce – Ulysses
by Robert Anton Wilson
from Magical Blend, Issue 15, 1987
…the time is come wherein a man of timid courage seizes the keys of hell and of death, and flings them far out into the abyss, proclaiming the praise of life, which the abiding presence of truth may sanctify, and of death, the most beautiful form of life.
The time was 1 February, 1902: the place, the Literary and Historical Society room in University College, Dublin. The speaker, who would be twenty years old the following morning, 2 February, was James Joyce; and it does not take great perspicacity to observe that his style was not yet equal to the task of containing his vision. Dublin students, who are always great wits, had a wonderful time parodying “timid courage” in the following days, but one of them (whose name has been, alas, lost) had even more fun with the final strophe, satirizing it as “absence, the highest form of presence.“
In Ulysses, the dead and absent are not only present but omnipresent. Stephen Dedalus is afflicted with what psychiatrists would call clinical depression; Stephen with his medieval erudition, prefers to call it “agenbite of inwit”-the incessant gnawing of rat-toothed remorse. His sin? He refused to kneel and pray when his dying mother asked him, an act not motivated by atheism but by antitheism: Stephen fears that there might be a malign reality in the God he has rejected, and that any act of submission might open him to invasion and reenslavement by that demonic Catholic divinity. Probably, only another ex-Catholic can understand that anxiety, but any humane person can understand the dreadful power of the guilt that, personified by Stephen’s mother, haunts him all through the long day’s journey of 16 June 1904 into night.
Stephen is the overture, and, later, the anti-chorus. The major theme of Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, Irish Jew, timid here, solid wanderer in the formless abyss, the greatest comic and tragic figure in modem literature. If Stephen is haunted by a dead mother, Bloom is equally preoccupied with a dead son: Rudy Bloom, dead at the age of 11 days, absent from the public world of Dublin, alive and ever-present in Bloom’s memories.
If the dead have power over our imaginations, the absent have even more power. Conspicuously absent from the text of Ulysses – he only appears on stage once, to utter banalities to a shopgirl, is Hugh “Blazes” Boylan, who is also overconspicuously absent from Bloom’s thoughts most of the day. Only about two thirds of the way through the book, on first reading, do we discover why Bloom’s private inner conversation with himself (which we are privileged to share) always wanders into chaotic images and a wild search for a new topic of interest whenever Boylan’s name is mentioned by another character. Bloom knows, but does not want to know, that Blazes Boylan is having an affair with Bloom’s wife, Molly. By being absent from Bloom’s consciousness, Boylan acts like an invisible magnetic field governing thought processes that we can see, but cannot understand, until we know Boylan is there, unthought of, deflecting and determining the conscious thoughts we do see. That the name Blazes Boylan suggests devils and hell reminds us that Joyce’s “man of timid courage,” Bloom, will seize the keys of hell and of death” before the book is over.
Bloom earns his living cadging ads for a newspaper. On 16 June 1904, he is trying to secure an ad for Alexander Keyes, whose company logo is a pair of crossed keys, suggesting the coat of arms of the Isle of Man. Symbolically, the crossed keys indicate everything associated with Celtic crosses, Christian crosses, Egyptian Tau-crosses and all crossed emblems of rebirth; and the Isle of Man symbolizes humanity’s isolation and solidarity at once (another Joycean paradox): every man is an island, but we are all crossed or linked with each other, as Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom are crossed and linked in ways neither understands. (It is no accident that the first sentence of Ulysses has 22 words, one for each letter of Cabala, and that the last is “crossed.“)
Indeed, Ulysses is made up of crossed keys in time as well as in space. In the first chapter, Stephen Dedalus broods on his agenbite of inwit, eats breakfast, and replies with dry, bitter wit to the more robust, blasphemous and outrageous jokes of Buck Mulligan. Only when we discover the parallelism with Homer’s Odyssey that explains Joyce’s title do we realize that Stephen is re-living the experiences of Telemachus, who at the beginning of the Odyssey awakens in a tower, as Stephen does, and is mocked and bullied by Antoninoos as Stephen is mocked and bullied by Mulligan. When Stephen, in chapter two, is given pompous and pontifical advice by the Ulster Protestant, Mr. Deasy, we are again watching trans-time synchronicity: Telemachus was similarly given ad-vice by Nestor in the similar section of the Odyssey. The parallels follow throughout: Bloom is Ulysses, Molly is Penelope, the Catholic Church is the island of the lotus eater, the newspaper office where everybody quotes their favorite political speeches is the Cave of Wind, etc. Dead and absent for 3,000 years, Homer’s images are alive and present, in some sense, in Dublin.
In what sense (as the impatient may ask) is Stephen literally the reincarnation of Telemachus and Bloom of Ulysses? Or is the connection one of Jungian synchronicity (not yet discovered when Joyce wroteUlysses)? Or might one posit Dr. Sheldrake’s morphogenetic resonances in time? Joyce does not answer. He exhibits the living presence of the absent dead and lets us draw our own conclusion.
That the simple model of reincarnation or metempsychosis (which is deliberately hinted at by Joyce in Chapter 4, when Molly asks Bloom the meaning of “methimpikehoses“ and Bloom tries to explain “the transmigration of souls” to her) will not quite cover the case is indicated by the secondary level of parallels with Hamlet which underlies and reinforces the parallels with Homer. A whole stream of symbols linking Stephen with Hamlet, Bloom with the ghost of Hamlet‘s father, Molly Bloom with Gertrude etc. gradually emerges on re-readings of the book. What Joyce is exhibiting to us is, in fact, a coherent synergy or blot, as Bucky Fuller would say: a pattern that coexists in many places and times. The dead and absent will be again live and present, in this context, because history repeats the same stories endlessly, just changing the names of the players.
But Ulysses is also a mock-encyclopedia, with every chapter corresponding to one human science or discipline; and the discipline emphasized in chapter one is theology, as Joyce’s notes indicate. This begins with Buck Mulligan’s burlesque of the Mass, runs on through Stephen’s tortured reflections on the “mystic oneness” of Father and Son in the Trinity, comes back in Mulligan’s hilarious “Ballad of Joking Jesus,” and permeates every paragraph in subtle ways. If Stephen=Telemachus as son disinherited (Stephen’s father, a drunk, has sold at auction the properties Stephen expected to inherit) and Stephen= Hamlet as son haunted (by a mother’s ghost, not a father’s, but still haunted), the theological context of the chapter implies that Stephen= Telemachus= Hamlet because all young men, at some point, are obsessed with a father who is either dead or missing-in-action: namely, God the Father. Ulysses is set exactly 18 years, or nearly a breeding generation, after Nietzsche announced that God was dead. Stephen as young rebel orpuer aeternis is a perennial archetype; Stephen as individual is representative of the first generation to arrive at maturity with that grim Nietzschean autopsy on their minds.
This is why Mulligan remarks that he and Stephen are both “Hyperboreans.” He is almost certainly referring to the startling opening paragraph of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist:
Look me in the face. We are Hyperboreans; we know very well how far out we have moved. “Neither by land nor by sea will you find the Hyperboreans”-Pindar al-ready knew that about us. Beyond the north, beyond ice and death, lie our life, our happiness. We have discovered joy, we know the way, we have the exit out of the labyrinth of history.
Nietzsche ‘s labyrinth of history, which Stephen later calls the nightmare of history, is the rules laid down by State and Church. Mulligan has indeed found his way out of the labyrinth; but Stephen has not. He is named after the maker of labyrinths Daedalus: whose name also means “artist” in Greek-and he remains trapped in the labyrinth of his own narcissistic agenbite until Bloom de-livers him.
For Bloom, as for Stephen, God is either dead or missing-in-action; but Bloom, at 38, has been a freethinker longer and is no longer hysterical about it. Approaching middle-age (by 1904 standards, when average life expectancy was 50), Bloom has lost faith, successively, in Judaism, Protestant-ism, Catholicism and Freemasonry; one feels that his attachment to Socialism is precarious also. In the abyss of uncertainty, Bloom re-mains a modern Ulysses steering his way diplomatically and prudently among such hazards as drunken Catholics (Simon Dedalus), anti-semitic Nationalists (the Citizen) and unctuous undertakers who may be police informers (Corny Kelleher.) Mourning his dead son, ashamed of and yet attached to his father who died a suicide, knowing his wife is “unfaithful,” Bloom retains equanimity and practices charity discreetly and inconspicuously: feeding the seagulls, helping the blind boy across the road, negotiating to protect the rights of Paddy Dignam’s widow, visiting Mina Purefoy in the hospital. Lest we think this kindly chap is a paragon, Joyce keeps Bloom in the same precise naturalistic focus as we watch him defecate, urinate, peep into a masochistic porn novel and masturbate. Joyce announced that he did notbelieve in heroes, and Bloom is no hero: just an ordinary decent man. There are a million like him in any large city: Joyce was merely the first to put him in a novel, with biological functions and timid courage unglamorized and uncensored.
The climax of Ulysses – the brothel scene in which Stephen, drunk, actually sees his mother’s ghost cursing him, and Bloom, exhausted, dreams in hypnogogic reverie of his son not at the age of his death (II days) but at the age he would be if he had lived (11 years)–brings us back to the living presence of the absent dead. But in that scene also, Bloom’s timid courage becomes timid courage as he risks scandal, gossip, disgrace and even associating with the possible informer, Corny Kelleher, in order to protect Stephen from two drunken and violent English soldiers. This is the pivot-point of the novel, and, since Joyce carefully avoids revealing Bloom‘s actual motivations, critics have had endless entertainment “interpreting” for us.
My own guess is that, even if Bloom is looking for a substitute son, as some say, or has unconscious homosexual urges as others claim, or is hoping to procure for Molly a lover less gross and offensive to Bloom’s sensibilities than Boylan, as Marilyn French recently suggested, the answer lies in a four-letter word that each of Joyce’s three major characters speaks once at a crucial point in the narrative. Stephen speaks it first, in the library, when asking himself what he left out of his theory of Hamlet; he answers, “Love, yes. Word known to all men.” Bloom speaks. it to the Citizen, offering an alternative to politics and national hatreds:
– Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. And Molly concludes her ruminations on what’s Wrong With Men by repeating the theme of the two major male voices in the narrative: they don’t know what love is.
Beneath the Odyssey, Hamlet and Don Giovanni (recently discovered), Ulysses also parallels the most effective and memorable of the parallels of Jesus: the story of the Good Samaritan.
The dead and absent survive, then, because we love them. Ulysses itself, the most complexly intellectual of comedies, is a testament to love: to Alfred Hunter, a man of whom we know only a few facts: he lived in Dublin in 1904; he was Jewish; his wife was, according to gossip, unfaithful; and one night he took home a drunken, depressed, impoverished and totally embittered young man named lames Joyce and sobered him and fed him. All else about Alfred Hunter is lost, but those facts plus artistic imagination created “Leopold Bloom;” and if Hunter is dead and absent, Bloom remains forever alive and present for students of literature.
The curiosity of Joyce’s mature technique is that while on first reading Ulysses seems only intermittently funny and consistently “naturalistic” (realistic), on successive re-readings it becomes progressively funnier and spookier. None of Joyce’s 100 or more major and minor characters knows fully what is going on in Dublin on that one extraordinarily ordinary day of 16 June 1904-“a day when nothing and everything is happening,” as Edna O’Brien recently wrote. The first-time reader is similarly ignorant, navigating through 18 chapters and 18 hours of “realism” that is often as squalid and confusing “as real life,” Beneath this surface, as we have already seen, the ghosts of Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart and (if I am right about the Good Samaritan theme) Jesus are present-although-absent as the archetypal themes of their works are reflected in this everyday bustle of ordinary early 20th Century city.
Everybody in the story is involved in misunderstandings or ambiguities that be-come clearer and more hilarious on each re-reading. This existential fact that every mind creates its own reality tunnel is the abyss of which Joyce spoke, at nineteen, in the lecture on absence and death from which we began.
- By the middle of the book, almost everybody in Dublin thinks Bloom has won a great deal on the horse race that day. On first reading, we are likely to think so, too, and wonder why he hasn‘t gone to pick up his winnings. Only on careful re-reading do we discover the confusions out of which this inaccurate rumor got started.
- A dog who appears vicious and ugly to one narrator appears “lovely” and almost “human” to another narrator, and a third narrator claims the dog actually talks.
- Alf Bergan sees Paddy Dignam at 4 p.m. but Paddy was buried at 10 in the morning; we are to decide for ourselves if Alf saw a ghost or just shared in the general fallibility of human perception.
- Some Dubliners think Bloom is a dentist, and discovering the source of that error is amusing to the rereader.
- Bloom thinks Molly doesn’t know about his Platonic “affair” with Martha Clifford, but Molly knows more than he guesses about that and all his other secrets.
- Nosey Flynn, the first Dubliner to tell us Bloom is a Freemason, is wrong about everything else he says; it takes careful study to discover that this fount of unreliable gossip is right about this particular detail.
The tradition of the realistic novel, at this point, has refuted itself, in a classic Strange Loop. Joyce has given us more realism than any other novelist and the upshot of it is that we don’t know what’s real anymore. If Dante’s epic was informed by the philosophy of Aristotle, whom he called The Master of Those Who Know, Joyce’s epic, as Ellmann commented, is dominated by David Hume, the Master of Those Who Don’t Know. We have seen Reality and found it an abyss indeed; Blake only claimed to see infinity in a grain of sand, but Joyce has shown us the infinity by opening every hour of an ordinary day to endless interpretations and re-interpretations.
Things become even more interesting, and weirder, when we begin to count the coincidences in this very, very average day: a day so banally normal that early critics complained chiefly that many chapters are boring and pointless.
The Irish critic Sheldon Brivic has counted over 1000 coincidences integrating the banalities and confusions of 16 June 1904 into a patterned harmony that none of the characters consciously apprehend, al-though their thoughts and actions are creating or co-creating it in collaboration with each other and with the dead and absent. As Brivic says (Crane Bag, VI, 1):
The unconscious Joyce represents is not merely an area within the brains of his creatures. It is a network of connections through time and space that extends beyond any awareness most absolute.
(submitted to rawilsonfans.org by RMJon23)