What was the impetus behind Ulysses? What was the kernel that kicked the whole thing off? Why, a handjob of course. James Joyce chose to set his diurnal masterpiece on June 16, 1904 because that was the day he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle – a date that allegedly ended with her masturbating him through his pants. When you’re 22 and still learning about the opposite sex, you don’t forget a thing like that.
The diurnal heft of Ulysses becomes acutely apparent in the four episodes that span “Sirens” to “Oxen of the Sun.” As I mentioned in my last post for this series, the fact that the novel is set on a single day is one of the book’s chief ironies. The languorous drawl of detail, the heightened awareness of minutiae, can strike the reader as both stultifying and expansive. There is a level of whimsy needed now, a suspension of disbelief as the pages pile up and the systems and symbols coalesce around the novel’s themes. This is not light lifting. The four episodes here require the utmost concentration, the very best of your attention span. “Sirens” to “Oxen of the Sun” is where Ulysses separates the truly dedicated readers from the wannabes.
Except that, of course, these episodes are wholly compelling in their own twisted ways. We once again witness Leopold Bloom as the embodiment of the body: both “Sirens” and “Nausicaa” see him ensconced in a world of sensuality—gawking at barmaids, watching a seductive striptease on a beach, planning a trip to a brothel. He is overwhelmed with the possibilities of sexual release. This is all just another irony, of course, because his wife Molly is in the process of cuckolding him with Blazes Boylan. Indeed, the novel’s heightened sexual charge—hanging over all aspects of the “narrative” now—don’t really surprise us if we know the nature of the book’s impetus. We’re also not surprised, even as we read this in a 21st century context, that Ulysses quickly became the victim of obscenity charges when it was first published.
Of course, there is more here than just sex. Joyce was foreshadowing an argument around Irish nationalism in earlier episodes, and these preoccupations come to fruition in the episode “Cyclops”. Set inside Barney Kiernan's pub, Bloom encounters a character referred to by the chapter’s first-person narrator simply as the Citizen. What starts out as an amiable passing of time with drinks between a group of men after the funeral of Paddy Dignam soon turns into a heated argument about colonialism in Ireland. The discussion has the added complication of the Citizen being a rabid anti-Semite, and his hostility towards Bloom is palatable. This is another chief irony of the novel, one that imbues an irrevocable sense of unease. We ask: how can a man on the one hand speak of Ireland’s fight for sovereignty, of British oppression and the loss of Irish language and history, and then turn to Bloom after a question of nationhood comes up and ask “What is your nation?” Bloom’s answer is appropriate: He says Ireland; he says he was born in Ireland. But the Pandora of racism is now out of the box and cannot be let back in. Bloom aims to take shelter under the Jewish cross-pollination of all Western culture—he reminds the Citizen that Mendelssohn (probably Felix, the 19th century composer) was a Jew, as was Karl Marx, but it is all to no avail. For the Citizen, Bloom belongs to the race of nationless wanderers, forever the insidious foreigner, and he cannot reconcile how his kneejerk racism towards Bloom is at such odds with his plea to end British tyranny on the Irish people.
It would be one thing to point out the prescience that Joyce displays here—he rightly anticipates a more vigorous and institutionalized hatred of Jews that would infect the European continent later in the century. But it’s quite another to understand this inchoate racism within the context of Irish—or, for that matter, any—nationalism. Joyce’s framing of the topic in “Cyclops” is apt: the shortsightedness (one-eyedness?) of such arguments obviates any accusation that Ulysses has Irish boosterism at its heart.
But if these nuances prove tricky for your run-of-the-mill non-academic reader of average intelligence (of which I would consider myself one), then the gamesmanship displayed in episode 14, “Oxen of the Sun”, will downright destroy, mentally, many readers. “Oxen of the Sun” is the novel’s most challenging chapter; this will be the point when most readers throw the book out the window. The reason, of course, is that this episode, set partly at a maternity hospital, is couched in such a complex schemata of wordplay, puns, cultural (both high and low) allusions and elevated diction as to be virtually impenetrable. A random example:
This tenebrosity of the interior, he proceeded to say, hath not been illumined by the wit of the Septuagint nor so much as mentioned for the Orient from on high which brake hell’s gates visited a darkness that was foraneous. Assuefaction minorates atrocities (as Tully saith of his darling Stoics) and Hamlet his father showeth the prince no blister of combustion. The adiaphane in the noon of life is an Egypt’s plague which in the nights of prenativity and postmortemity is their most proper ubi and quomodo.
We can take solace that Jeri Johnson’s explanatory notes in the back of the book help us to gain some context and understanding of what Joyce might have been up to with these and other lines. It all revolves around birth and the nine months that surround human gestation. But one begins to wonder what we would have done with such a chapter had Joyce not left clues to it in subsequent communications with his first readers. As mentioned in my previous post, this does feel at least somewhat like a violation of the covenant between writer and reader.
Still, we finally have achieved what the novel has been building toward for nearly 400 pages—the inevitable collision of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’s worlds. How that clash will unleash other layers of meaning and possibility in the four remaining episodes will be the topic of my next and final post in this series. Onwards!