Monday, March 18, 2013

A Time to Re-Joyce: “Circe” to “Penelope”

It was perhaps not James Joyce’s intention to create a “Little Gidding” moment for his reader at the end of Ulysses, but this was indeed my experience as I closed in on the climax (and that is the proper term for it) of this great and exhausting novel. I felt as though Joyce had taken me back to the place where we had started, and that I, after 700+ pages of prismatic, mesmeric (and often baffling) text, came to know it for the first time.

This place has of course a literal locale—7 Eccles Street in Dublin, home to Leopold and Molly Bloom, though the novel does not technically begin there—as well a figurative one. The best way to describe this more metaphoric circumnavigation is to say that Ulysses returns us, in the end, to a place of Heightened Irony, one that Joyce establishes earlier in the book. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that irony itself—a concept, an exploration, the very frame for this novel—becomes Ulysses’ chief protagonist. It becomes, oddly, a character onto itself. I’ll come to what I mean by that a little later.

But first, I think it’s important to describe how these four remaining episodes cause a collision of worlds between Leopold Bloom and his newfound companion, Stephen Dedalus. As I described in both my first post and my second, Joyce uses the novel’s diurnal framework to slowly draw these two men toward each other in space and time. But it is here in “Circe,” the book’s 15th episode, that their two worlds fully collide. It is perhaps fitting that this happens in a brothel in Dublin’s red-light “Nighttown” district, as Bloom as been wrestling with various bodily urges and exigencies—most of them sexual—throughout the story.

Yet Joyce does a queer thing in this chapter to show how these two damaged men come to expose their worlds to each other in this episode: he structures it like a play. Of course, anyone trying to stage “Circe” would have a hell of a time with it, what with so many bizarre stage directions, countless characters roaming in and out to speak a single line, and appearances from the dead—specifically the recently deceased Paddy Dignam and Bloom’s own dead son Rudy. Creepy yes, but also wholeheartedly woven into the other structures and preoccupations of Ulysses.

Joyce uses this dialogue-heavy approach to reveal undercurrents to Bloom and Stephen that we did not have access to before. The men find not just sex in the brothel: they find yet another confrontation with Irish nationalism as well as the sins and failure of their own past. Joyce casts Bloom here as whinging and emasculated as his own sexual ineffectuality comes to the fore. “Circe” takes us on a journey through Bloom’s relentless failures, not only with his place within Ireland as a Jew but also with his wife Molly and his inability to keep her faithful to him. There are parallels here that Joyce plays with to great effect, and it reveals much about the novel’s grander vision about the relationship between the mind, the body and the heart.

It is interesting to see how the relationship between Bloom and Dedalus flourishes over the course of the next two episodes. The men flee the brothel and look to anchor themselves back in some semblance of a logical world. To do so, they retreat to a cabmen’s shelter. Bloom and Dedalus spend most of this episode, called “Eumaeus”, reflecting on the day and what has passed between them. It seems as if they are aware on some level how closely their lives have been intertwined during this diurnal period. But in another way, it seems as if the mysteries of the day have very much eluded them:

For which and further reasons he felt it was interest and duty even to wait on and profit by the unlookedfor occasion, though why, he could not exactly tell, being, as it was, already several shillings to the bad, having, in fact, let himself in for it. Still, to cultivate the acquaintance of someone of no uncommon caliber who could provide food for reflection would amply repay any small … Intellectual stimulation as such was, he felt, from time to time a firstrate tonic for the mind. Added to which was the coincidence of meeting, discussion, dance, row, old salt of the here today and gone tomorrow type, night loafers, the whole galaxy of events, all went to make up a miniature cameo of the world we live in …

The next episode, “Ithaca”, sees Dedalus follow Bloom back to his house on Eccles Street, but the narrative literally begins to doubt the solidity of the preceding events by framing itself in a series of rhetorical questions. These enquiries are, in a way, Joyce’s tipping of the hat to the improbable sequence of events that have unfolded, but of course there is more to it than that. If we are to see Ulysses as Joyce wanted us to—as a long, elaborate and modernizing play on Homer’s epic The Odyssey—then this episode represents the Great Return, the journey’s end, the reuniting with home and land and love. Never mind, of course, that the most significant thing that occurs in the episode is that Bloom and Dedalus take a piss together in the back yard, and then Bloom unsuccessfully attempts to convince Dedalus to crash for the night. The questioning nature of the narrative throws all of this into speculation, as if daring us to believe there is something else here, that surely if Joyce was playing on The Odyssey, there would be something more epic to this epic moment.

Mind you, “Ithaca” feels almost like a mere precursor for what is to come in the final episode, “Penelope”: Molly Bloom’s infamous and oft-quoted soliloquy. It’s tempting to see it as ironic that Molly gets the final word in the novel, and indeed this was probably what I thought when I read it the first time. But upon this second (closer, more engaged and more informed reading) I can see that she has been a looming spectre over the entire book, her presence very much affecting Bloom’s relationships with the characters he encounters, including Dedalus. It’s fitting then, that we come to her so fully personified in this final episode; that we are given her in the flesh, speaking her own version of her relationship with Leopold.

And what a fleshy presence it is. It goes without saying that Molly Bloom is in the full flush of her sexual peak; she is driven by deeply held physical desires in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) her flagging marriage to Leopold and the death of one of her children. Joyce captures her rapturous voice perfectly, its cadences a haunting, horny, late-night simulacrum. But that voice is also tangled up in the quotidian tedium of her past; and indeed, for Molly, it’s virtually impossible to separate the two:

yes I think he made them a bit firmer sucking them like that so long he made me thirsty titties he calls them I had to laugh yes this one anyhow stiff the nipple gets for the least thing Ill get him to keep that up and Ill take those eggs beaten up with marsala fatten them out for him what are all those veins and things curious the way its made …

If we accept Joyce’s insistence that Ulysses is structured as a retelling of The Odyssey, then Molly represents Penelope as the lady in waiting: waiting, not necessarily for her Odysseus to come home, but waiting for passion itself, the deep and fruitful ravaging that she longs for, to arrive through her door to slake the desires that have overcome her. This is not mere explanation for her dalliances with Blazes Boylan. It also represents a metaphor, perhaps, for all of Ireland, for its nationalist pride and desire to return to a passionate sense of its own identity. This has been an ongoing trope throughout Ulysses, and it’s ironic that it finds its figurative apex in Molly, a woman who was essentially born and raised in Gibraltar.

But this is not the ultimate irony I spoke about above. Because of course to accept this and other paradoxes within Ulysses, one must accept Joyce’s precept that this is all just a giant retelling of The Odyssey. But can we? Can we really? As I pointed out in my first post, most of the criticism surrounding this novel finds its origin in Joyce himself, telling the scholars of his day how to process and interpret the novel. But do these allusions to Homer’s epic actually exist independently in the text itself? The episodes are not named—we get their Homeric titles from references outside the novel. There are plenty of ebbs and flows, characters and situations, that would fall well outside a one-to-one mimicking of Homer’s work. And is Joyce’s masterpiece really an epic? Does its diurnal approach not, ultimately, undermine that essential assumption?

I think this is the greatest irony of the novel, worthy enough to name Irony itself a character. Upon this second reading, I felt as if Joyce (abetted by my edition’s overseeing critic Jeri Johnson, as well as the critics who came before her) had put me on a wild goose chase, daring me to spot (or even manufacture) these allusions in the text itself. And Joyce also dares me to come to one final haunting conclusion—that they are not actually there. This is my experience reading the novel for the second time around. I will most likely return to it in another 10 years, and perhaps my reading of it, my interpretations of its ironies and intentions, will be different once again.

One final word on the experience itself of rereading Ulysses. The book takes not a small amount of guff from contemporary readers as being too dense and impenetrable. But my impressions at the end of this journey (yes, journey, though perhaps not a Homeric one) is that the juice is definitely worth the squeeze. Yes, Ulysses is hard. Yes, its points and counterpoints, its high- and low-culture allusions are hard to track. Yes, it is written by a dead white male. Yes, it has no real plot. Yes, it is set in a period dubbed “modern” and yet feels about as alien to life in 2013 as life on another planet. But this novel is worth it. It challenges and foils not the just the inner eye that we all read with. It challenges—and ultimately  strengthens—the very thing we need in order to read anything effectively: our attention span. And this accomplishment, coming to me in 2013 as it did in 2003, is a great gift indeed. To complete a reading of Ulysses is to celebrate the very notion of attention span, of giving yourself completely over to a novel. To complete a reading of Ulysses in 2013 is to understand how much our attention spans can feel like an endangered species, and really require a lush sanctuary such as this one.

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