Ulysses, James Joyce

Ay carumba! It’s time for Ulysses, a book I have held at arms length (which is exhausting since the book is heavy!) for YEARS. As I tuck into it again, I remember why I quit so early in college–Joyce takes special joy in describing things as “snotgreen” and the words “phlegm” and “bile” come up early too. Such a turn-off to a 20-something girl. 30 years later, it doesn’t bother me so much. Let’s go, Joyce: bring on your “knuckly cud”s and “urinous offal”s and “leprous nosehole”s! 

I’ve also dragged around a concordance to Ulysses called “Notes for Joyce” that is invaluable. Joyce is quoted as saying, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I mean, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” What a magnificent asshole!

Ulysses is divided (not that Joyce would tell you, but scholars have figured it out) into sections corresponding with Homer’s The Odyssey. The first sections are about Stephen Dedalus, a character that appears in several works by Joyce and is somewhat based on himself. Part One is the Telemachiad, Stephen being representative of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. It takes place in the Martello Tower and the Sandycove Harbor, about seven miles south of Dublin’s city center, Dalkey, a small town where Stephen teaches, and a beach in Dublin.

w/r/t vocabulary–there will be waaaay too many words and Latin, etc phrases I will need to look up, so I will only note a few here. For example, I love the Middle English word “inwit” which means “conscience.” Isn’t that adorable? Your “inner wit.”

There is so much gorgeous poetry here. An excerpt: “Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted, flooded and let fall.” The sea seems very seductive to Stephen, and there’s a sense he might like to relax into it and let it take his life, like a man recently drowned, “a corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow, bobbing landward, a pace, a pace, a porpoise.”

A seadeath was foretold for Odysseus by Tiresias (thank you concordance). So cool! Also, Eliot’s The Waste Land is all about these same references. Love the intertwining of learning!

Part 2: The Wandering of Ulysses (Leopold Bloom’s journey around Dublin)

July 30, 2017 I have made it through 181 pages of Ulysses! In the “Calypso” episode, we meet Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, his daughter (through a letter) Milly, his wife’s maybe lover, Blazes Boylan (through a letter), Bloom’s maybe lover Martha (through a letter he receives in Episode 4 but reads in Episode 5, The Lotus Eaters).

Bloom is very much in his head, he and his wife seem to be extremely sensual, she is in bed, he is serving her breakfast in bed, the way he thinks about his daughter seems a little incestuous, he and his wife both have active sexual interest in other people, and he is constantly noticing gross things, like the tang of urine in a bite of kidney, one of his favorite foods. The episode ends with him taking a highly curated shit.

In the next few episodes, Bloom goes to a funeral (Episode 6, Hades), then goes to the newsroom where he works selling ads (Episode 7, Aeolus). Nothing is blatantly pointed out by Joyce, but I began to feel sorry for Bloom. Was he being snubbed? Is he a Jew? Did his father kill himself (we find out later that yes, he did, and b/t/w Bloom’s father WAS Jewish but converted to Protestantism when he moved to Ireland). Hmm, so it wasn’t my imagination, somehow in the middle of all those remote Irish references and Latin and stuff the information was in there and I picked up on it.

So Bloom is an outsider. And an epicure. He thinks about food a lot (Episode 8, the Lystregonians) , and in very unique ways. “Glowing wine on [his] palate” his thoughts drift to youthful outdoor sexcapades, full of passion and hope for the future. I relate to Bloom, so much more now in my fifties than I did in my early 20s. He is a Catholic/Protestant/Jew/atheist who’s got a suicide father and a dead infant son and an unfaithful wife and whose youth and innocent hopeful love is well behind him. He’s reconsidering everything, for example the oyster (cross reference MFK Fisher’s book, Consider the Oyster–who among us hasn’t wondered why we eat those tightly-clamped, rough-shelled  clumps of grey gunk?–and David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster).

Episode 7, which takes place in the newsroom of the Freeman’s Journal, was the toughest for me to get through so far. The type was broken up by headlines that didn’t exactly relate to what followed them and made the whole episode more confusing rather than more clear. Maybe that is the joke Joyce intended. Lots of double entendres and puns.

Inwit Interlude: It’s taken me 3 days to read 181 pages. I have 587 pages left, so it will take me at least 10 more days to finish Ulysses if I read daily/maniacally.

Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis: Wikipedia tells me that Bloom dodges into the library or the museum to avoid his wife’s supposed lover, Blazes Boylan, but I totally missed that. On rereading, I see that he recognizes someone, but how a reader is supposed to understand that it is Blaze is really beyond me. You would have to remember that confusing passage about the straw hat and turned up trousers and then, when Blaze is described wearing that later, remember back. I guess it’s not so tough, except the brain is working overtime untangling all this language. Sigh.

I did fully grok the Shakespeare and Hamlet conversation going on in the library with Stephen Dedalus and his friends. Its the same conversation we literature majors had in college. Why did Shakespeare’s wife only get a second-best bed in the will? Was he unfaithful, was she, was it an inside joke, was the bed gorgeous or super comfortable?

Episode 10, The Wandering Rocks: Just a bunch of little episodes of the people we’ve already seen and met doing their thing and running into each other. Bloom is mentioned as generous, a man of his word (he committed 5 shillings and actually put the money down, unlike many of the characters who are always borrowing and boozing or gambling) and an artistic, deep sort of person. His inner monologues contrasted with some of the other characters shows how much more poetic and complex his thoughts are, as are those of Stephen Dedalus.

August 2, 2017 Episode 11, The Sirens: I’m finally feeling more comfortable with the language and style of Ulysses. This section was the easiest to compare with The Odyssey. The “Bronze” and Gold” barmaids and the other women mentioned in the episode are obviously the sirens, and the whole episode is filled with music–singling, tapping, jingling and jangling and discussion of music–the song of the sirens. The women seem to be discussing Bloom’s appearance, which they find to be greasy and unattractive. But if Bloom is so unattractive, how did he get Molly Tweedy, who by all accounts is quite a catch (if fat and tawdry now)?

At the end of the episode, as Bloom leaves the restaurant/bar/hotel and walks to his next appointment and to post his letter to his lover (I still can’t tell if they’ve done the deed or not, maybe I missed something) he farts his way along. I was so proud of myself for understanding what was going on, foretold a few pages earlier with Bloom’s musings on the gassiness of cider. In the middle of Bloom’s stream o’consciousness, Joyce writes, “Fff. OO. Rrpr.” and “Pprrpffrrppfff.” Bloom’s thoughts go back to the cider and the burgundy he had earlier, –I get it, he’s farting! Ass music.

It’s not all phlegm, farting and organ meats, though. Ulysses has got me hooked with the strange and brilliant way he gets the reader to feel his way through the text–intellect plus memory of everything you’ve ever read plus the second brain in the gut.

I just happened upon a great interview with actor/writer/thinker Philip Shepherd (The Sun, August 2013). Shepherd talks about the neuromass in the belly and it’s intelligence being a keen sensitivity. There is some magical connection Joyce makes between the cerebral poetry, lofty allusions and Latin language (head) with the very visceral humanity (in tight trousers and low cut blouses showing all their “belongings” (belly). The reader has to be fully present and sensitive to the slightest reference or word clue or even partial word clue. This is not a book you can read with the radio playing in the background. Shepherd talks about the second gut brain as being all about non-doing, noticing, feeling, surrendering. This brain seems very much engaged when reading Joyce.

August 3, 2017 Episode 12, the Cyclops: I certainly wouldn’t have figured out that this section coincides with the Cyclops/Polyphemos section in the Odyssey. However, there is a wonderful, burly and masculine rhythm to the dialog and it reminds me somehow of a scene in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. That scene takes place in Eriador (hmm, sounds like Eireland). Three trolls (with the very Irish/Anglo names of Tom, Bert and William) sitting around the fire and discussing which dwarves to roast. Gandalf keeps them arguing until sunrise turns them to stone.

Big interesting point–in Tolkien’s fictional Eriador the forests have all been cut down by the Numenorians for ship building. In this episode of Ulysses, one of the topics of discussion is the lack of trees in Ireland, all cut down by the English. In fact, there is a long reverie about a fictional wedding of a couple named for trees and the large wedding party, each person with a plant or tree name like Palme or Rowan or Hawthorne. Whose reverie is it? Impossible for me to tell.

I’ve never seen a comparison of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings with Ulysses or The Odyssey, but it certainly was an Odyssey for Bilbo and later Frodo. Bilbo, especially, was all about the getting home to his cozy hobbit hole.In fact, could hobbits have been inspired by leprechauns?

August 4, 2017 Episode 13, Nausicaa: This episode begins beautifully. Joyce paints a picture worthy of Edward Burne-Jones or John Singer Sargent of three girls at the seashore. One in particular is a fragile Irish beauty with dark hair and blue eyes who pays a lot of attention to the small details of her clothing. But somewhere in the middle a dark man comes into the picture, flirts with the beauty from a distance (by staring) and masturbates. Yuck. There’s Joyce throwing phlegm on the rose again. I was really disappointed that Bloom, who I’ve been trying to build up as the hero figure in the book, was so pervy. He tucks in his wet shirt after, meaning he will be walking around with semen-stiffened shirt tails for the rest of the novel. Maybe he deserves the ridicule and disdain he’s gotten from so many characters in the book.

Bloom even says, “See ourselves as others see us. So long as women don’t mock, what matter?”

I’m seeing so many similarities between Ulysses and Prufrock/The Waste Land I think they can’t possibly be coincidence. The two works were published int he same year, 1922, but with a little research I find out that TS Eliot had access to Joyce’s manuscript and was critiquing it for Joyce… I even come across unique words and phrases (“I shall tell you all,” “semblable”) that I remember from the Waste Land and believe Eliot read them in Ulysses before borrowing the ideas for Waste Land. Would love to go further down this rabbit hole!

Episode 14, Oxen of the Sun: I started reading this episode, which is incredibly dense on the page, and was immediately gobsmacked by one of the early sentences which is 13 lines long and full of 50 cent words. I opened a new search page in my browser and typed: Why is Episode 14 of Ulysses so difficult? I found a site with the quote, “I think this episode might also have been called Hades for the reading of it is like being taken the rounds of hell.” –Harriet Shaw Weaver. OK, I am not alone! I will crack this baby! And literally, it is all about the babies and fertility, not The Selfish Book Club’s favorite subject.

Once through the first few pages of this section, it does get easier. There are a lot of puns and pretty funny jokes, for example, “Greater love than this…no man hath than to lay down his wife for his friend,” and “Thus, or words to that effect, said Zarathustra,” and back to Shakespeare and his possibly unfaithful wife, “Bring a stranger within thy tower it will go hard but thou wilst have the secondbest bed.”

I’m getting more annoyed all the time about  the similarities to the Waste Land. In this section on page 407, Joyce even writes, “Agendath is a waste land…Netaim the golden is no more. And on the highway of the clouds they come, muttering thunder of rebellion, the ghosts of beasts. Huuh! Hark! Huuh!” If this isn’t direct inspiration for What the Thunder Said in Eliot’s poem, I’ll eat my bookmark.

August 5, 2017, Episode 15, Circe: At last, through the dense herd of words that Oxen of the Sun put in front of us and into a wide open field of type more like a play, with speakers identified, then a novel. It’s the last episode of Part II, and the longest of any episode in the book.

August 7: w/r/t Episode 15, I hated every page of it. It was mostly depraved fantasy–fant-nasty, nasty fantasy–now I see where the attempted censorship and accusations of pornography came in when the book was released in the United States. It is a collection of jagged shards of despicable scenes, S&M, costumes, religion, whores, the dead, drunkenness etc. In a word, unsavory, and, at first reading, without a lot of artistic merit and without moving the story forward or deepening our understanding of the characters except to give Bloom and Stephen, the dreamers/fantasy-havers even blacker, filthier underbellies. Bloom does rescue Stephen from a bad scene–whores and booze and cops, oh my! But other than that, it barely moves the story forward a jot. (Note: Eliot’s The Waste Land comparison again–“These fragments I have shored against my ruins…”)

I’m so glad to be out of those woods. Maybe that is what Joyce intended. That we would be relieved when we leave the circle of hell that is the “Circe” episode. And Harriet Shaw Weaver thought “Oxen of the Sun” was Hades! It was, but a different, less ugly circle of the place.

If you’re looking for disgusting imagery or ideas for your next Halloween get up, it is in this episode. How about a priest with a carrot up his hairy bum performing a mass over a naked pregnant woman? How about Bloom smelling dirty toilet paper to get aroused? How about a hanged man ejaculating as he dies and the women in the crowd mopping it up with handkerchiefs? Why so gross, Joyce?

The great blogger who I just now discovered and want to inhale, Sheila O’Malley (Ulysses, James Joyce), has a much more educated reaction to the episode than I do and I embrace it and want to share it. She suggests that we need to drop our judgment. Let it hit the floor with a thud. We thought we knew Bloom, but we didn’t really know the depths of his mind. We all have sexual fantasies, your thing may not be my thing, vivre et laissez vivre.

[My note: one of the big themes is how we see ourselves and how others see us. Very early in the book is a reference to Shakespeare’s Caliban looking in a mirror and hating his reflection. This section reminded me of that. There are references here and there in the novel to how we see ourselves versus how others see us, characters looking in the mirror, etc.]

Blogger O’Malley also reminded me that in The Odyssey, Circe turned all of Odysseys’ men into pigs and that Athena warned Odysseus that Circe would unman him (in one hallucination Bloom is put into women’s clothing and even becomes pregnant in this episode and at another point is turned into a pig briefly). If I would have remembered that, this episode would have made a lot more sense and I would have gotten a lot more out if it. I’m kicking myself for not remembering about Circe and the pigs.

One thing I did find amusing is that Bloom carries around a lucky potato, which the whore Zoe (Greek for “life”–probably meaning behind that) takes from him and which he gets back from her near the end of the episode. I gots to have me lucky tater! What an adorable talisman.

All right, onward to Section III, the final section of three episodes. Only 170 pages to go!

August 10, 2017 Episode 16, Eumaeus: I had to take a few days off after the almost-never-ending Circe episode. I did a very satisfying palate cleanse with a binge of Season One of the new Netflix series Ozark, which I highly recommend. The Eumaeus episode, named for a loyal servant who takes in the disguised Odysseus and in which Telemachus and Odysseus are reunited, is pretty boring. They sit in a cab stand/coffee house trying to get Stephen sobered up with some non-alcoholic beverages and Bloom does his Jewish mother-best to get Stephen to eat some solid food as well. As a reader you want them to FINALLY connect, especially after the final hallucination in Circe–the apparition of Bloom’s dead son, Rudy. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.

At any rate, they depart the cab stand and head towards Bloom’s house.

Episode 17, Ithaca: Bloom has forgotten his key and so climbs in a window and he and Stephen settle down by the fireside for some cocoa and a chat about subjects far and wide. The style in this episode is omniscient question and answer. It is formal and very boring reading. The only reason I’m continuing at this point and not throwing the book across the room is that a) I am committed to finishing and I have come this far b) I am desperate to get to the famous Penelope episode and Molly Bloom’s famous “Yes” monologue/memories and c) I know that if I read this in college with the guidance of a good professor I would be loving it. I think I need to reach out to a few people who want to geek out on Ulysses and talk about it, make it come alive. A trip to Dublin definitely is sounding more interesting especially since Sam Shepard died July 27 (very sad, he was one of my idols and I didn’t even know since I’m avoiding all news) and I read that he and Patti Smith (hero and heroine) went to Dublin together not to long ago and poked around Beckett and Joyce sites.

So…many…words to look up.

apothegms: aphorism, concise saying

augurative: having to do with divination based on the appearance and behavior of animals; prophecy

videlict: Latin to see and it is permissible

cisatlantic: on the same side of the Atlantic as the speaker

obtunding: blunting, deadening (as in “this episode is obtunding my senses”

periphrastic: w/r/t speech, rambling, circuitous, wordy, long winded (in other words, this episode)

mnemotechnic: relating to practice of aiding the memory

virgular: this is a good one. the slash we’re all so familiar with now because of web site addresses is know as the “virgule” it is also known as the “solidus” or the “whack.” In this instance, virgular means branching based on the sentence and forward slashes would look branchy if put together in certain ways

quinquecostate: five formed (rare, botanical term)

Ogham: ancient alphabet of Ireland used for special inscriptions on monoliths

hypostasis: accumulation of fluid in lower extremeties due to death or poor circulation

leucodermic: white-skinned

sesquipedalian: polysyllabic, long winded, characterized by long words (like this episode)

actuate: cause or motivate

moiety: part, portion, particularly lesser portion

inchoate: just begun, unformed

perigee: also “apsis”–the extreme points (2) in an elliptical orbit

obverse: the side of the coin with the head or principal design on it; the opposite of a fact

quadrature: something geometrical to do with the volume of squares and circles

irruent: w/r/t pissing, rushing, moving quickly

rutilence: (rare) a red glow

incuneated: wedged, impacted

cicatrice: scar froma healed wound

demense: land attached to a manor retained for the owner’s use

phthisical: relating to tuberculosis

ormolu: gold colored alloy of copper used in 18th century decorative ornaments

oleograph: lithograph textured to look like an oil painting

solidungular: single hooved

covin: fraud, deception

contravention: action that violates a law or treaty

venville rights: tenants rights in England’s Dartmoor forest

desuetude: in law, statutes that have lapsed and are unenforceable

orotund: deep, sonorous, round, imposing, pompous, pretentious, flowery (this episode)

rectitude: morally correct, integrity, righteousness

I have to say, that while looking up every other word was tedious, I did end up enjoying the episode a lot more. I only started this about halfway in, so someday will have to go back and look up all the words I don’t know in the first half of the episode.

boustrophedontic: an ancient method of righting, left to right, right to left

thaumaturgic: performing miracles

recrudenscent: revival, reawaken, break out (like a disease reappearing, it is recrudescent)

hebdomadary: member of the Catholic church chosen to sing for a week and recite breviary

tetragrammatron: another good one–the four Hebrew letters signifying the name of God YHWH

eructation: burp or belch

helotic: of ancient Spartan serf class

opoponax: gums, resins with medicinal properties

jessamine: version of jasmine

quoits: ring of iron or rubber for throwing in a game

epicene: of indeterminate sex, an effeminate boy, for example

abnegation: denial

frangible: fragile, brittle

aorist: grammatical term of unqualified past tense of a verb

preterite: grammar term

nescient: lacking knowledge, ignorant (me reading this episode)

velation: act or process of veiling, state of being veiled

Of course, the reader wonders why would the author make this episode so, so difficult in terms of vocabulary. Orotund indeed. Once I stopped gritting my teeth in annoyance and relaxed into it, I started appreciating it. When Bloom puts his head and arms into the aperatures of his night shirt, it got me to think of a night shirt differently than if he just “put on his shirt” or “put his head into the hole of his shirt.”

There are some poetic lines too: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” When I read the phrase, “apathy of the stars,” it was very moving to me. All this pretentious knowledge and heavy bank account of vocabulary is much ado about nothing. The stars in the firmament are silent, brilliant, out of reach; for all intents and purposes of a human, eternal.

August 13, 2017, Episode 18, Penelope: Yes, oh yes, yes yes…I finished Ulysses! The last episode, all Molly Bloom, is entertaining, much easier to read and understand, sexy, sad, pitiful, romantic, wistful, passionate, feminine. I think Bloom wins her heart in the end. They both are forever changed for the gloomier by their infant son’s death eleven years earlier, and the “taking for granted” that happens inevitably in marriage has taken a toll also, but their attraction and mutual respect of each others’ best qualities definitely lingers.

There is so much to remember from Ulysses but Joyce does a good job of making sure certain things stand out. The Gold Cup horse race is one. This symbol is very Christian/Arthurian (the grail or chalice, nothing to do with The Odyssey that I remember) and is a very feminine symbol–the chalice as the womb, as has been written about in the book The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler (formerly in my library, but for some reason I let it go). It is so interesting that history (for the Gold Cup race and all the horses mentioned is from historical fact) has given Joyce the horse Sceptre, the favorite, as a foil to the chalice Gold Cup since a scepter is a very phallic, almost sword/blade-like thing.

The chalice probably represents Molly, whose name is Marion (Mary). Molly is definitely more of a Magdeline than a Virgin, although she did lose a son. Mary Magdeline, a companion of Jesus, is thought by some to be the guardian of the chalice, which is the cup he used to drink wine from at the Last Supper.

In Episode 17 we were treated with a review of Bloom’s day (page 713) one of my favorite sections), which associated everything from the breakfast kidney (burnt offering) to the visit to the whore house (Armeggedon), so it is not too far fetched to think that the oft-mentioned Gold Cup symbolizes the chalice and Mary Magdeline.

In Arthurian myth, the grail is needed to cure the Fisher King, who has a thigh wound/impotence possibly due to the infidelity of his wife. Sounds a little like Bloom, right?

The other theme that resonates strongly through the book is the agenbite of inwit, the remorse of conscience. Remember very early in this report I gave the definition of inwit as one of my new favorite words? Well the memory of it sticks throughout the long novel, Stephen brings it up a few times and also Bloom remembers the similar sounding Agendath Netaim, which is the promised land (or the waste land).

I’ve read that agenbite of inwit should really be spelled ayenbite of inwyt. I think Joyce misspelled the phrase on purpose so that not only was it easier to understand and so sticks with you, but because it will trigger a memory when Agendath Netaim is read. What could give a person more remorse of conscience than the loss of the promised land? To me, the term and all its subliminal connections ties the whole book together.

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