The Centenary of Ulysses
by Stuart Walton
Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays about James Joyce’s Cultural Legacy
Montclair: Sagging Meniscus Press, 2022. 358 pp.
One of the most arresting features of the Odyssey of Homer, as generations of classical scholars have emphasised, is the poetic potential its author finds in the most everyday, incidental details of its characters’ lives.
In the early hours of 17 June 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom stand in the back garden of the latter’s house at 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, and piss together, ‘their sides contiguous, their organs of micturition reciprocally rendered invisible by manual circumposition’. Bloom’s stream follows a moment after the inception of Stephen’s. Once able to aim higher than that of any other boy in his high school, Bloom’s flow is now less direct, strangely bifurcated, ‘less irruent’ (with not as much gush, although the esoteric adjective tends to denote a rush of ingress, not egress). Stephen’s peeing is that of the younger man, now higher than Bloom’s, ‘more sibilant’, issuing from the ‘insistent vescical pressure’ of an evening’s drinking, coercing him to the resort of suggesting to another man in his own garden that they might relieve themselves.
Urinary competition, what later vulgarism would call a ‘pissing contest’, had struck the elderly Freud as a likely spur to the rise of civilisation. Finding erotic satisfaction in demonstrating his masculine power over fire, which was extinguished when he pissed on it, the primeval man must surely have been prompted to the ecstasy of ‘homosexual competition’. In any case, it generated the young Gargantua, standing on the tower of Notre Dame pissing out an engulfing stream of wine for the Parisians, and Gulliver putting out a fire in the Queen of Lilliput’s temple with his piss, to her notorious ingratitude.
Much earlier in the day, Stephen had stood on the strand at Sandymount attending to another of nature’s imperative calls: ‘Better get this job over quick.’ Attent, according to the male prerogative of watching himself piss, he hears and sees the spring of creativity, of poetry, issuing forth. Portrait of the young man as a piss-artist. ‘Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss ooos … In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap … It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.’
Over in Eccles Street, earlier in the morning, Mr Bloom, introduced to the reader as a cognoscente of offal, has begun his day by purchasing a breakfast pig kidney. Fried till singed in butter, it renders him the coveted ‘fine tang of faintly scented urine’. Such discernment is ever a private matter. Other people’s eating, as depicted in the purgatorial lunchtime scene at the Burton Hotel on Duke Street, confronts Bloom with a vision of all-consuming predation, another primal horde, transposed from Bosch, ‘wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food … A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it.’
In the comparative sanctuary of Davy Byrne’s pub, Bloom will eat one of the most celebrated of all literary lunches, a bespoke Gorgonzola salad sandwich with an accompanying glass of red burgundy. In the piss-elegant connoisseurialism of the present day, this is a disastrous mismatch, the veins of blue penicillium in the cheese crunching young Pinot Noir in a metallic acid clash that strips it to its bare bones. This is not Bloom’s experience. ‘Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun’s heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory.’ In any case, in 1904, it had very likely been topped up by the vigneron with spirituous Algerian red, as a result of the continuing shortage caused by the phylloxera disaster that decimated European wine production in the 1860s.
According to Multiple Joyce, David Collard’s smörgåsbord of centenary vignettes, Joyce himself hardly ate a thing. A French literary historian, Louis Gillet, recalled his limitless beneficence in entertaining friends at Paris’s premier addresses – the Trianon, Fouquet’s. The author himself, though, was a toyer with food, a pusher away of unfinished plates, perhaps a salad leaf or a fragment of cake to offer a little porosity to a Gargantuan ingestion of white wine. ‘In Ulysses,’ Collard notes, ‘Stephen Dedalus has practically no interest in food at all’, exhibiting instead the aesthete’s disdain of the culinary as anything to do with art, or of consumption as anything sensual. During a two-month summer vacation with Nora Barnacle in Torquay in summer 1929, Joyce discovered that the English Riviera, for all its Continental pretensions, was a barren desert to one in search of a decent glass of wine, offering only the rebarbative local cider. In lasting tribute to his passing through, the town still jealously guards this reputation a century on.
It would have been difficult for other holidaymakers to miss the Irish writer. Halfway through his round ton of oblique reflections, Collard anatomises Joyce’s ‘look’: the Zylo spectacles, their perfectly round lenses joined by an uncushioned nosepiece, with curly wires for hooking behind the ears; mismatched jackets and trousers that hung off him; rakish boater alternating with the elegant black Borsalino. With the worldly sagacity of the 23-year-old, Joyce had once apprised his younger brother Stanislaus of the simple principles for getting on in life: ‘grow a moustache, pretend to know everything, and dress magnificently’. These are the wisdoms.
Dress assumes cardinal significance at many narrative junctures in Ulysses. The novel begins with the billowing yellow bathrobe of Buck Mulligan, a priestly vestment suited for the sacred ritual of the matutinal shave, and ends with Molly Bloom’s nocturnal inventory of silkette stockings, kidfitting corsets, the one brown costume, skirt and jacket, mud-plotched boots, ‘the peak caps and the new woman bloomers’ of chic lady cyclists. ‘I suppose theyre called after him,’ she surmises, not an illogical supposition, but it was Amelia Jenks Bloomer, American suffragist and Temperance agitator who, clad in a tunic over billowing pantelettes, popularised the style.
It’s Gerty MacDowell who is the true ‘votary of Dame Fashion’, taking the evening air on Sandymount shore in electric blue blouse and navy three-quarter skirt, topped off with ‘a coquettish little love of a hat’ of wideleaved straw, with an underbrim of ‘eggblue chenille’ and butterfly bow on the side. The demise of her affair with Reggy Wylie, not noted for his strength of character, has done nothing to dim her romantic aspirations, but this evening, she will content herself with showing her underwear to the watching Mr Bloom, who, hands transparently concealed in pockets, appreciatively masturbates.
By contrast, Stephen appears throughout in ‘cheap dusty mourning’, some of his apparel acquired secondhand from Buck Mulligan, a funereal style of dress that suits his languidly repining Hamlet nature, the sartorial shabby chic of a young man in a higher state of consciousness, leaning on the affectation of an ashplant walking-cane. His boots crunch the shells and dried seaweed along the shore. At the close of the Nighttown episode, when Stephen is knocked out by a belligerently pissed English soldier, Private Carr, for disrespecting King Edward VII (‘I’ll wring the bastard fucker’s bleeding blasted fucking windpipe!’), his hat rolls off towards a wall, from where Bloom retrieves it, and the long-awaited encounter between the two commences.
The Circe chapter, written in the form of a hallucinatory drama, was responsible above all else for the critical revulsion with which Ulysses was met in many quarters on its first publication. Published in a limited edition of 1000 copies by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, the book was impounded for obscenity on its arrival in Britain and the United States. Where it was noticed, it provoked a corncrakes’ chorus of rabid censure. Collard, who intends one day to write a concise history of philistine deprecation that would run from Fauvist painting to the Sex Pistols, enjoys one of the more vituperative of contemporary reviews. Sporting Life found nothing in the novel but ‘stupid glorification of mere filth’, ‘coarse salacrity [sic]’ (a Joycean coinage if ever there was, connoting perhaps the salacious alacrity that suffuses much of the narrative), and matter to entertain ‘sniggering louts of schoolboys’. In short, ‘it would make a Hottentot sick’. Virginia Woolf found much of it nauseating, but recognised its momentousness. ‘Absolute rot,’ thought Evelyn Waugh. T.S. Eliot noted that, whatever its indelicacies, it had killed off for good what remained of the literary nineteenth century.
Drunk as all hell in the brothel, Stephen has been disappointed to find his favourite, Georgina Johnson, ‘dead and married’, but is sexually satiated nonetheless, wildly overpaying later on with borrowed money. Bloom’s fantasies take him in the direction of a ritual humiliation derived from Sacher-Masoch, a transgender interlude not in the interest of liberation but for the excruciation his own failings seem to him to deserve. Not the least of these is the affair his wife Molly is having with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan, who makes a telling appearance in the fantasy, inviting Bloom to kneel at the keyhole and watch while he gives Molly a few goings-over. While Bloom and Stephen urinate under the night sky later, Molly will interrupt her wide-awake monologue to get out of bed for an emergency squat over the chamber-pot. Here is the menstrual evidence that Boylan, with whom she has been that afternoon, has not impregnated her.
The date on which Ulysses is set – 16 June 1904 – was the day that James and Nora had their first date. ‘[They] walked together along the south bank of the Liffey to the suburb of Ringsend,’ reports Collard, ‘where Nora slipped her hand inside his trousers and tugged him off.’ Their love endured until Joyce died in a Zürich hospital in 1941, following surgery for a perforated ulcer. His last words were almost certainly not ‘Does nobody understand?’, but they could have been. What they didn’t understand, or what he probably thought they didn’t understand, was the technique that Joyce devised for generations that came after, also Homer’s own, of tapping from the banal minutiae of everyday life – the outward apparel, the eating, copulating, voiding of the bladder – the entire history of creatures who, observing their own natural functions from outside Nature, are cursed with the faculty of reflection. His two great leviathans, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), are the basking sharks of modernist literature, drifting through the ocean swell with mouths agape, gulping in the whole of world culture and its tragicomic fecundity.
If the Circe chapter of Ulysses is visionary drama, the earlier Sirens episode is full of music, of how words would represent music if they could escape the manacles of musicology and really hear music verbally, through onomatopoeia, sound-effects, the allotropic rhythms that are only tangentially related to those of speech and narrative. Homer’s first audiences in the eighth century BC would have heard the Odyssey delivered in song, in a megaron hall overlooking the bay of Emporio. Oxen of the Sun, set in the Holles Street maternity hospital, essays a chronological hike through English prose style from unarticulated Anglo-Saxon, via Malory, Pepys and Burke, to a variegated Edwardian Babel of Dublin street slang, Cockney, Bowery, Black diction and European pidgin, to tell the story of human life from the fertilised ovum to the parturition.
Beneath the profanities and the cultural motley, as Collard emphasises, the book is powered by love, its helpless emergence in the lives of the bruised and the blessed alike: Bloom’s love for Molly, hers for him (and Boylan too), their shattered love for Rudy, the son who died in infancy (‘Hate. Love. Those are names. Rudy. Soon I am old’), Stephen’s tender appraisal of his unlovely pupil, Sargent – ‘Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail’. Love, disastrously, gains too much of its force in retrospect.
So it seems to the soliloquising Molly, still tingling from her afternoon amour with Boylan, candidly comparing notes – Boylan has the bigger cock, but ‘Poldy has more spunk in him’ – then returning to the quondam passions of her younger days in Gibraltar and southern Spain, the rosegardens and jessamine, the candy-coloured houses, Algeciras and Ronda, the wineshops open into the night. Then lying among the rhododendrons on Howth Head, the day she beguiled Bloom into proposing to her, her perfumed breasts, his thumping heart, their ravenous kisses, ‘and yes I said yes I will Yes‘. In an obscure German philosophical work, The Star of Redemption, about God, the world, and humanity, published the same year as Ulysses, Franz Rosenzweig states that ‘The Yes is the beginning … This is the power of the Yes, that it adheres to everything, that unlimited possibilities of reality lie hidden in it’. Molly could have told him that.
About the Author
Stuart Walton is author of An Excursion through Chaos (2021), a debut novel The First Day in Paradise (2016), and studies of the emotions, the five senses, intoxicants, chillies and Adorno.
Matisse’s cover art is reproduced here under fair use.