Paulus Torchus

Month: January, 2014

Ulysses by James Joyce: Part 3


I have reached a point of great frustration with James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is this: that I can’t just sit and read it to the exclusion of work and all other responsibilities of life. I love books that demand that I throw myself into them. I love books that devour me and spit me out a different person than I was when I started. This is one such book. I just want to disappear into it.

Bloom enters the offices of his newspaper, which is his place of employment. This section is split up under bold headings (like a newspaper, you see). The men in the newspaper office are a bit like roughhousing horses in their banter, much like a group of men in a working environment. “The Professor” brings in more talk about links to the classical and the desperation over the dying Irish language. Also Hamlet. Also foot and mouth disease. There also seems to be a motif of Onanism. I think this last one speaks to the time, the modern world as separate, alienating, isolating, loveless in a way.

These motifs could be synchronicities or they could simply be what is boiling in the collective unconscious of that corner of space/time (if there really is a difference between the two). These are men in various places of their lives from The Professor’s place of intellectual headship, waxing elegiac over Greek as the language of the mind, to J.J. O’Molloy’s general process of decline to Mr. Simon Dedalus who seems bitter over the loss of his wife and the state of his son’s life. There is a point later when Hamlet is quoted again:

“Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit

Doomed for a certain time to walk the earth.”

That’s Simon.

The narrative itself does not give many indicators of how we are supposed to feel about a certain person, so the few times when it does, it seems like we are called upon to take great notice.

We have another odd Modernist breach in Stephen Dedalus. He isn’t quite the hero, is he? At the very least he is not our protagonist (or main character might be more appropriate to describe Bloom). I know I can’t be alone in this, but I WANT to be following him. I think the Key that I read before starting commented on how Stephen jumps in and out like a flea and we are delighted when he shows up. This is definitely the case for me. I also find myself picturing Stephen as Joyce himself.

These newspapermen, his coworkers, seem to have little to no respect for Bloom. Such is life in the workplace I suppose. There always seems to be the type who decide to take a disliking to one of their coworkers for no good reason at all. ‘Twas ever thus.

Bloom wanders around a bit, taking us along in his consciousness stream. The memory of a crucifix nightlight to the Catholic tendency towards rampant childbearing.

I had another point of looking up something because I did a triple-take when I came to this line:

“Like getting L.s.d. out of him.”

Knowing this to have been first published in full in 1922. It isn’t acid. It is the abbreviations for pound, schilling, and pence. Funny how words and terms change.

There is so much to comment on, far more than I ever could, and I suppose that’s rather like a day. Bloom is still in his mourning clothes and this fills people he meets with an unease. A humorous unease. Some ask; some speculate behind his back. Bloom reflects on birth and mortality moments after feeding some bird:

“One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.”

Here is one of the moments of clarity and awareness of the immensity of existence- arguably one thesis of the piece. About a page later, Bloom remembers the old days and thinks on how he was happier then. Then he second guesses that. Is he happier now or was he happier then? That is the side effect of nostalgia.

Bloom goes to a reeking pub filled with disgusting men eating sloppily, but thinks better of it and goes to a humbler pub. He wanders in thought a bit more and then we find ourselves in the library. And in one of the most perfect chapters in the English language.

Stephen Dedalus is holding court, explaining his theory of Shakespeare to some of his intelligentsia friends. Again, this is one of my favorite things that I’ve read so far and I don’t just mean in this book. I mean as in ever. And as such I don’t feel like writing in too much depth about it as I am still in the glow of reading it, but I will make a few comments.

Dedalus and his friends also have a bit of that roughhousing horses energy to them. Stephen says that Hamlet is reading the book of himself… which is what Stephen is doing too, right? He says that Shakespeare works in local color, works in everything he knows and makes them accomplices. Which is what Joyce is doing, right?

He then proves to us that Shakespeare is Hamlet’s ghost, that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, and that all of Shakespeare’s characters are Shakespeare (a Jungian interpretation). There is so much more to leave unsaid, but I think this entry has probably gone on long enough.

More soon.

Let’s All Write a List Poem!

This form is simple. A List Poem is what it sounds like: a poem where you list something. Whitman, Ginsberg, etc., are invoked in the description. No specific meter or structure are demanded by the form, so let’s dispense with the explanation and get to the poem.


My Education

by Paul Mathers


Old photo pre-double digit me in Halloween homemade Mr. Hyde.

Lord knows how I came by the indictment of Victorian morality tale,

but there I was towheaded child in cheap top hat and cape, fangs and fur.

The photo was a key!

Thirty six year old me remembers

and remembers contemporaneous Incredible Hulk obsession

and click:

the older brother wrestling, pinning, trying my hardest and failing anyway,

the ill advised prized possession to school where they take it from you, throw it around, run it from you faster than you can go,

‘Influenza’ so called because of its pre-germ theory unseeable journeys and my hands chapped from washing,

The girls, there’s only so handsome I can get, so I pick smart and crazy as my strategy,

the skinhead who tried to show me a video of a woman struck my a train, the emotional recall is still there for the tapping,

the shackles of poverty, to buy bread or the want ads?

the unfolding onion to weep over humanity:

learning murder, burglary, vandal scofflaw rapery,

lying in wait in every corner of every mirror,

and learning of terrors to hold of plague, overdue asteroid, the volcanic uppercenter of my country, polar shifts,

and cancer and AIDS and stroke,

that trip to Salem museum where the most pious turned to burning and hanging neighbors like bleeding school of sharks,

that peer with the excruciating eight hours on acid taken again and again for companionship and manufacturing stories,

that eternal silence, most noticeable after praying,

the glee of de Sade in the youthpastor showing end times show beheadings, beast marks, corny giant venomous locust, vanishing loved ones,

all of which my education:

the hand of mankind held out with,

for my grasping, the one consolation anyone can have: depravity.

And, ah, that hand was so warm and the universe so cold.

the Lie: I was never stronger than anything.

Ulysses by James Joyce- Part 2

I suddenly realized that the book is not divvied up into chapters 1,2,3, etc., each starting with a letter that fills a whole page. Along with this realization came the realization that I actually had no idea where the chapter breaks were or which chapter I was reading. There are breaks in the narrative and there are sudden shifts to entirely different forms of prose (I finally decided to end my reading for this section when it shifts to newspaper headlines), but I became aware that my updates on this book would have to be in sections of my own devising, rather than chapter by chapter. I suppose I could go look up where people, in the past 90 years, have decided where they put the chapter breaks, but I’m trying to avoid looking up too much in this reading. And I dread confirming my suspicion that there are long arguments by scholars about this.

Leopold Bloom arrives in our narrative and is instantly identified as a dreamboat. That is, if you are the kind who love men who love to eat the gnarliest innards of animals. If not, in his favor, he is also a cat lover. So much of the text, and a large part of why it is one of the most perfect novels in the English language, is its euphony. So much of it is composed for the tongue. “Then he went to the dresser, took the jug Hanlon’s milkman had just filled for him, poured warmbubbled milk on a saucer and set it slowly on the floor.” Read that line aloud slowly, over-enunciating, and enjoy the mouthfeel.

Like Dedalus and, indeed, Hamlet, Bloom is starting his day in mourning colors because he has a funeral to go to. But before he gets that far, we have a lot of sensuality to experience through his mind’s eye. He is imaginative, but also a bit vice-ridden and perhaps less educated than Dedalus. The 7 Deadlies are strong with this one. Observing Bloom in this manner began to grate against me and I began to second guess my perceptions. Was this just my crypto-puritanism rearing its ugly head? Are his attributes in this decidedly Modern piece intended more towards the lusty and sensual manly? This would be more in line with the character conjured by the title.

That Bloom is also unkosher is one of his earliest noted attributes; we’ve already been trained to take note when a character struggles with the religion of their fathers.

Oh, by the way, one thing I did look up: turns out you can cross Dublin without passing a pub.

I think one of the emerging impressions of the book is the importance of a seemingly unimportant day. How many thoughts we have. How much we do. How much changes with every action. Multiply that by the number of people we encounter and the people they encounter and so forth. There is something of the Great Web of Life in it. And it is true.

It’s also a much funnier book than anyone had ever told me. Here Bloom thinks good reasons why the cat ought not eat pieces of the kidney, but after burning it gives the burnt bit to the cat. I was a little surprised to find that Woody Allen stole a joke from Joyce. The “Lazarus, Come Forth!” joke appears in a slightly modified form in Love and Death. Although, I guess that shouldn’t be the most problematic thing I find with Woody Allen. As a complete rabbit-trail, he’s been on my mind lately what with the Golden Globe kerfuffle and I was struck by remembering his joke about how he can’t listen to Wagner because it makes him want to invade Poland. Fortunately, his own fans (of which I am as wary a one as I am of Wagner) did not follow suit with his own work and the artist’s own personal horribleness.

But we were talking about James Joyce. One thing that sticks in my mind is a letter of Virginia Woolf’s which I read years ago in which she said in passing words to the effect of being determined to finish that book by that horrible little man. The little man was Joyce and the book was this. Thinking on it now reminded me of my rather mild reaction to some of the more fervent critiques of this book and I think some of it has to do with the fact that I read William Burroughs extensively in high school. First of all, I am unphased by many pages of stream of consciousness or obscure narrative. Second, compared to the obscenity of Burroughs, Joyce seems quite normal and reasonable. Third, as is so often the case upon reading the classics, I find that the original groundbreaker is far superior to those who came later. And, it might get me in trouble in some quarters to say so, but the flaws in Joyce’s personal character are nothing compared to the horrible little men of the Beat Generation. But, again, I am firmly of the camp that art can separate from the artist. If you insist on all of your art coming from people whose lives were entirely unimpeachable, you will never enjoy art.

Bloom poops. Which is a thing people do in the morning. I did notice that twice in the early morning Bloom takes pieces of writing he appreciates on some level and condemns them to destruction. This struck me as a twinge Dadaist.

So after this man has pooped, eaten of the cloven hoof, lusted unabashedly in his heart, and entertained the notion of reincarnation, he goes to a Catholic funeral. In the dissolving of the communion wafer, Bloom reflects on the swallowing of religion by its adherents rather than chewing, as well as the palliative of the works-based dispensation of grace. Bloom’s view of religion seems to be more confident than Stephen’s, more confidently suspicious of it. He thinks, “Those old popes were keen on music, on art and statues and pictures of all kinds.” Which is a commentary on the post-Constantinian privilege. He does recognize what everyone seems to recognize about Catholicism: “Wonderful organization certainly, goes like clockwork.” Mirroring a sort of nature’s God order of the universe, a sort of Deistic “as above, so below” in the church unawares. Bloom strikes at the core of the problem of religion near the end of the service when he thinks “He had his answer pat for everything.”

Oh, there is so much here that I would like to write about. The procession to the burial and graveside is, I don’t think I am being overly superlative in saying, one of the finest pieces of writing in the English language. Joyce paints the inside of the head of one at a funeral: the inappropriate humor, the superstition, the grim, bleak existentialism, the wandering mind and the self-reprimanding at the wandering mind, the invariable odd moments (someone no one knows shows up, an acquaintance requests that you add their name to the list of people present).

Some stand-out moments before I cease what has become a much longer post than I intended:

*Bloom recalls Julius Caesar in defining the best sort of death, once again revealing our dependence upon antiquity while at the same time suggesting their inability to do us any practical good (the best death is the sudden, unexpected death).

*I think I will forever remember the line “Out of the frying pan of life, into the fire of purgatory.”

*Joyce agrees: Shakespeare’s Hamlet owns funerals.

*Where ever you go, whatever you’re doing, no matter how much fun you’re having, remember: people are dying somewhere right now.

*Bloom reflects on the manner of how the dead are disposed of and, while he doesn’t say this specifically, how funerals and burials are for the living. This is why I want my body to be donated to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s CSI decomposition study program. However, deferring to, as I’ve stated, the wisdom that funerals and burials are for the living because the dead don’t care, if Laurie survives me, I doubt she will be comfortable with doing that and so I want her to do with my remains whatever will make her feel best.

What a perfect way to start the morning! There is wisdom in the house of mourning! I wonder what’s next!

Not really because I’m actually halfway through the next chapter. Next Bloom takes us into a newspaper. A newspaper is a thing that used to be published daily full of news items and advertisements. You may have read about them in history class.

More soon.

Ulysses: Chapter 1


I suppose it would be the pinnacle of cliche and the zenith of obviousness to state how deeply I identify, specifically myself when I was a young man, with Stephen Dedalus. The poverty, the bohemian crowd, the waves of human civilization washing over me. Dedalus lives with a stately plump, rather flamboyant Nietzschean/classicist, and an Englishman.

Before I misstep too far into “explaining what’s going on” (what a horrible mistake to try to put it into worse words), I should probably take a moment to offer the obligatory praise to Joyce’s prose-poetry. From the first half dozen words we are being trained on the importance of euphony in this book. Buck Mulligan offers a dash of exposition, commentating in the process on his and Stephen’s names, a moment in which we are also being trained by Joyce to watch for moments when Joyce winks at us.

Stephen Dedalus has a problem. It’s a religious problem as well as a major family problem (as his parents appear to be quite dead). On page 5, Joyce has a paragraph which informs us that this is going to be a work of absolute genius:

“Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of the bay and skyling held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.”

Buck Mulligan indicates that Dedalus’ mother had requested with her dying words that he pray for her, and Dedalus had refused.

I would hasten to note that this book was written while Freud still walked the Earth. We, the modern anti-heroes that crawl around the rockface, have parent issues that project into God issues. We are also confronted fairly early on that this is a book which will not shy away from going through an obscenity trial if necessary in the course of the telling. It’s a passing comment on the elderly milkmaid and the… difference evoked in the minds of the young men.

Which reminds me that I wanted to comment on the oft overstated difficulty of the text. I think this a bit of an anachronism as we, the modern well-read, are well accustomed to shifting narratives, stream of consciousness, and any other number of Modernist literary devices. I want to go around grabbing people by their collars and shouting in their face to not be afraid of this book! If anything, what is striking me so much about this book is how well it’s done. Joyce once claimed that he estimated 20,000 hours went into writing Ulysses. Certainly he could not have known of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but the point is well taken that this book is double that rule.

The chapter is full of great lines and moments. Irish art as the cracked lookingglass of a servant. Hellenising Ireland. History as a nightmare from which one is trying to awake. The sort of things that will stick with you for the rest of your life and pepper your thought-life and, likely, your conversation.

The language of Ireland is dead and/or dying and the Irishman Dedalus is torn between his two nationalities, English and Italian, a sentiment forged in the firey shifts between Stuart and Tudor, that time when how high to place the liturgy led to decades of bloodshed, a war which, for all intents and purposes, is still going on.

There is also Hamlet (as well as Whitman, Swinburne, Lady Macbeth, Swift, the early church fathers, and probably several dozen I missed) infused throughout. The ghost father, Dedalus’ grim mourning attire next to his celebratory companions, Pyrrhus in the classroom, the cloud like a whale, the dog on the beach reenacting the Yorick scene, and so forth.

I assume the antisemitism of the elder generations in the first chapter will somehow play into the following of our Odysseus who has not yet made his first appearance.

Joyce captures a classroom of young boys in all of their vivid beastliness so well. As he does with the interaction between Dedalus and the elder generation in the form of Mr. Deasy, the horrid conservative who venerates Iago on the subject of money. And haven’t we all had that conversation with a person of the previous generation or two at some point, really? ‘Twas ever thus. There is hardly a more palpable nightmare from which we should like to wake than the generation immediately preceding us, what?

We end the chapter with Dedalus on the beach (I think) and some of the best stream of consciousness I’ve ever read.

There is so much to digest here and I feel like I’ve only just skimmed the surface. Once again, I’ve set before myself a Herculean task in writing about each chapter.

Micro-blogging, my eye!

Approaching Ulysses

So, I decided to live-blog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are many “guides” out there for reading the (what I think is far over-stated) difficult text. I recently asked one of my online friends about a book called Ulysses Annotated, which is annotations to go with Joyce’s book, specifically about the usefulness of such books. Some of her reply/recommendation:

“…there is something to be said for reading a book without being too influenced by the ideas of others – you could come up with your own thoughts and preferences first, before using the other book to help consider or develop them afterwards…While there is the benefit of having certain puns explained, they can be ruined in the telling! The notes can be just as dig ublin useful, and my googling ‘ashplant’ was a revelation (I don’t know what I thought Stephen was carrying!).”

I remembered I had a copy of A Key to the Ulysses of James Joyce by Paul Jordan Smith in a City Lights Books edition somewhere in my used books. (I used to operate an online used book business before the industry collapsed. Some of the inventory, probably a scant few hundred books at this point, still sit on shelves in my garage in spite of multiple stabs at unloading them.)  This guide is not much longer than a pamphlet and I read through it in an evening. The thesis seems to be “It’s The Odyssey… except not.” It has a list of Ulysses characters and their corresponding Odyssey characters. All of which I found to be not terribly illuminating.  But it did contain something that my friend also suggested and which I think will be helpful in this project.  It contained not only a map of Dublin from 1904, but with key points in the book marked.  So I photocopied this and am carrying it with me in my copy of Ulysses.

I’ve been itching to read Ulysses and live-blog my way through it for some time.  It is also well known how great, and in need of great digestion, are the individual chapters of the book.  So I thought I would read through Ulysses and blog about each chapter.  What you are getting in reading this series is this – my credentials, as it were:

* By no means am I a Joyce scholar, although j’adore what I’ve read of his.  This will not be the comments a Joyce expert, but rather a Joyce layperson enjoying his way through the book.

* I do, however, know a bit about classical literature and, in my reading, will probably be able to work out what is being said in the Latin he occasionally throws in without having to look it up.

* I am also a poet and a Shakespearean actor/booster (a sort of embarrassed Shakespearean actor, but no less of a booster). I am also fairly well versed in the Modernists and art/literature movements contemporary to Joyce.  I have a suspicion that being able at the drop of a hat to talk extemporaneously about Nightwood or Tristan Tzara or Pere Ubu for an hour might count as a credential here.


I also pulled my copy of Ulysses from my used book inventory. It’s a nice blue Modern Library hardcover from the 1960s which I look forward to utterly thrashing in my messenger bag on my bicycle and with marginalia and dog-ears.  This copy did have a previous owner who did not hesitate to put his name on the front end page, but, judging the condition of the book, seems unlikely to have read it.  It was an odd name.  I don’t always Google the names of previous owners of my books, but occasionally one will catch my eye.  I have an art theory book from 1910 which Googling taught me that the previous owner was a minor, but known, American composer.

Googling taught me that my copy of Ulysses used to be owned by a tax attorney in a town about a forty minute drive from here. This past Autumn, the 73 year old lawyer was convicted of defrauding his clients of millions of dollars for personal trips and other such luxuries.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this seemed fitting in its way.

More soon.