Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 6

by Paul Mathers

I was incorrect in the next 50 pages being Bloom’s stream of consciousness. Rather, Bloom wallows a bit in self-cultivational guilt before drifting into other thought tributaries as he continues his odyssey, unclean until evening, as time and distraction so often numb guilt (the wages of sin is death?). Bloom winds up in a pub where Stephen, Mulligan, and several other established characters are carrying on typical pub talk/activities save for two unusual elements. One is that someone is having a baby seemingly within earshot. The other is that the language of the narrative turns into a sort of Thomas Malory style. At first I felt as if this might suggest that, for all intents and purposes, humankind has not evolved much past the medieval and that childbirth is a fine example of this. While I don’t think this interpretation was invalid, as the scene progresses, the narrative language style progresses through the history of the written English language.

Why this and why here? I do feel that universality of the human experience, regardless of the fixed temporal point, is intentional. The discussion of the nature of time and language recur frequently throughout the book. One of the theses of the Modernist is a rejection of the linear, pat, orderly arrangement of time and language as demanded in the fictional narrative of the previous century. Time is not experienced like a parade; perception is infinitely more complex. Language is not a fixed star, but a wandering comet (Melmoth? Ahasver perhaps?).

Nothing like a barroom full of men talking about childbirth, what? And, as usual, it gets a bit brutal and, again, the topic of the cuckold returns (I suddenly am reminded of the earlier proclamation, in the library, that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Certainly what’s about to come brings to mind the knight in horns tormented by the fae. Also Stephen’s Oedipal/daddy issues. More on that very soon). Man’s inhumanity to man is a necessary theme in any great urban modern piece I think. Again, Bloom is denigrated by his peers. Loneliness in a teeming metropolis is also a necessary theme and Bloom embodies this fairly well.

At the end of this section, I simply wrote in the margin “I have no idea.” Likely another bit of modern commentary, when the language evolves to the current, it is incomprehensible. Stephen and, indeed, Joyce may very well be sounding the lament of the Classicist.

We then enter the Circe section. I knew this without looking it up because people (including Bloom) keep turning into swine and they seem to be in the presence of bewitching women. What is actually going on is obscure for, oh about 100 pages I would say, which sounds dense but this section is all written in stage dialogue and, therefore, reads remarkably quickly. In another illustration of the unreliability of time, the reader goes from halfway through the book to about 150 pages from the end in a single afternoon.

I imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Women in Joyce’s Ulysses.” I also imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Men’s Bodily Functions in Joyce’s Ulysses.”

I was reminded, as we move out of the hallucinogenic haze, of a long ago conversation with a friend of mine who was a creative writing professor at CUNY. He was talking about the two film interpretations (to that date) of Hunter Thompson: Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He said that the latter was the successful of the two because it showed what was going on inside the head of Thompson whereas the former showed how he looked in consensus reality. I was reminded of this because Bloom seeing a parade of women he has lusted after, turning into the Jewish Messiah of Ireland at first adored and then tried (seeds of Kafka!) and lynched, turning into a female and then to a pig is far more compelling than, “Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen sat in the lobby of a brothel drinking absinthe and staring off into space.” The hanging motif reminded me that both William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett undoubtedly read Joyce. Again, so many owe so much to this work. I would add that this is why it’s good to always go to the source, the classics, the early material. You can then discern from whence later figures are deriving (or paying homage or, in some cases, plagiarizing.)

In spite of these harrowing apparitions surrounding Bloom, the most fearsome is the final spectre: Stephen’s dead mother. She says “Beware! God’s Hand!” Which the dead mother seems to be saying to Stephen/Joyce/all of us. The guilt and terror grip Stephen, as does his resolve to his chosen path. Stephen is deeply shaken, but entirely unrepentant. The message of the story demands the triumph of his will just as much as it demands the utter personal devastation in the face of that resolve against the cold universe, against God, against the fragmented couple that gave him life, against nations, against humankind. Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen spill out into the street where British soldiers take exception to an oath of Stephen’s regarding the King (and the brutishness of nationalism rears its ugly head once again. It seems that Joyce’s villains are either nationalistic or canine).

A curious thing: the morally ambiguous Bloom steps into an actual savior role (the next section takes great care to immediately get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way). He assumes a surrogate father role, which seems like it is an inevitability for both of the characters. Bloom has the keen ache of the loss of a son and Stephen the loss of both of his parents in their own way. When Bloom cares for the beaten Stephen, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the book in my opinion. Perhaps I am putting too much of myself into this interpretation, but it is a small moment that resolves some major existential angst for the type of person likely to have made it this far in reading this book: the longing for salvation by/frustration over the failings of compiled human civilization that came before us. No less true for a turn of the century Dubliner looking at his parent’s generation than it is for a turn of the following century man looking at the destruction that the Baby Boomers have left in their wake.

But, again, maybe that’s just me.

Weighty stuff in the street outside of a Dublin brothel.

More soon. Possibly a conclusion soon!