Ulysses: Chapter 1

by Paul Mathers


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!