Monday, February 14, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter One: Telemachus

The first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses is both inviting and lightly bewildering, providing almost no background information on characters, setting, or narrative yet putting forth so much wordplay and so many possible meanings that the 20 pages burst at the seams. I realize instantly the folly of charting my thoughts of this book as I read it, as I can only faintly guess at what's happening

Joyce structured Ulysses as an intimate version of The Odyssey, exchanging the turbulent, monster-laden Mediterranean with Dublin. Consequently, the first chapter lines up with the first part of Homer's epic, focusing on Telemachus, here represented by our dear friend Stephen Dedalus. Having left Ireland for France at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen returns home in 1904 to be with his dying mother, and by the time we join him on the morning of June 16, she has already passed. Stephen, who renounced religion with his national identity at the end of Joyce's previous novel, could not bring himself to pray over his mother's deathbed, an act that haunts him even at the start. Joyce's Telemachus therefore displays a more Catholic hangup in grieving for a lost mother, but, as the annotations included with my texts note, the same religious denunciation that prevented Stephen from praying for his mother also creates a hole in him where a spiritual father should be (as far as I know right now, Stephen's actual father, Simon, should still be alive).

This quest for a replacement for the Almighty Father is an understanding reading of the text, given the overwhelming amount of Catholic imagery present. The first dialogue of the film, courtesy of Stephen's sort-of friend Buck Mulligan is "Introibo ad altare Dei," meaning "I will go in the altar of God." It is the start of a Mass, and Mulligan's ironic tone speaks to the tongue-in-cheek manner in which Joyce uses religion. By opening his book with an impromptu Mass, he not only ties his novel further to The Odyssey (which opens with a prayer to the gods for inspiration) but also establishes Ulysses as his attempt to set down a new path for spiritual fulfillment after leaving the Church through Stephen. That the writing is still so based in Catholic writing demonstrates the difficulty of trying to extricate oneself from a religion that defined the social codes of conduct. You can take the Irishman out of the Church...

Joyce wastes no time piling on the puns and inventive lingual exercises, contracting hyphenated words into garish wholes, many of which connote some body part or fluid not normally mentioned in "masterpiece literature." Mulligan boisterously speaks of "the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea" and the rambling narration (neither 1st person nor fully 3rd person) discussing the milk poured by the old maid before clarifying any possible misconception with a hastily added "not hers. Old shrunken paps." Alliteration abounds, as does lewd innuendo: "Is she up the pole?" asks Stephen in response to news of a woman seeing a mutual acquaintance of his and Buck's, and the idiomatic suggestion of intoxication was not the first mental image I arrived at with these choice of words.

What struck me most about the chapter, however, was not potential meanings or even the mastery of Joyce's prose but the manner in which he defines these characters' voices in an instant without so much as a "Once upon a time" to give the audience some basic information. I immediately envisioned Mulligan as the pompous student he is, speaking in a voice that is too loud and too enunciated, his dips into offensive humor the outpourings of the educated asshole. Haines, meanwhile, is the new guy, innocently asking questions of Buck and Stephen's worldviews that the two are tired of hashing out with each other and do not want to share with another until one triumphs over the other. And Stephen, well, Stephen is Stephen. He continues to sound in my head like the most humanist character Dostoevsky never wrote, an intellectual rejecting normalcy in an attempt to find some social outlook that accounts for his genius, albeit without the darker element that runs through the Russian master's work. Stephen may be cocky, but he's lovable, and that's all the more apparent now that Joyce juxtaposes him against another wunderkind who revels in his intellect instead of seeking constantly to expand it.

While the structure of this first chapter deliberately leaves a number of connecting details that make not only the big picture but even smaller details vague and unknowable, I still found the Telemachus episode eminently readable and flowing. The flecks of outright silliness made for an unexpected bounce and even the most esoteric references do not bog down the story. I am sure I will continue to go through the annotations and look up various analyses as I work through the book, but even from the outset I can see the other side of reading Ulysses, the one that accepts it as a damn fun read despite the complexity. As I continue to move through the book, I shall strive to recall two key quotes on the importance of Ulysses. The first comes from Joseph Collins, a noted American neurologist who sent in a rave of the book to the New York Times upon its release in 1922 (and a decade before it could be legally distributed in the United States). Among the many brilliant and tantalizing things he had to say about the book was this nugget:
That he has a message there can be no doubt.
Then there was Joyce himself, who offered up what sounds like a most Catholic response:
The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.
Joyce layers his story even at the start, but I'm almost inclined to believe him here: for all the references to Ancient Greece, the Church, imperial Britain, Shakespeare and parental loss, Ulysses truly bounds out of the gate on the strength of its style, which is arresting and incomparable even after nearly a century. Overall, the Telemachus episode confirmed and dispelled my fears over tackling the novel, presenting me with a host of allusions and double, even triple entendres but also sublimating all that into a unified style, even if the style changes throughout the novel. But I'm just repeating myself at this point: I'm sure it will get harder to process later, but for now, I can't wait to keep moving forward through Dublin.


  1. "Stately Buck Mulligan ..."

    I am so excited to read your thoughts as you go through this book. One of the things I tell people who might be intimidated by it, or daunted by the language - is that, at its heart, it's really quite silly and fun. Joyce himself said (and he may have been exaggerating - just a touch - in order to drive people crazy): "On my honour as a gentleman, there is not one serious word in it."

    While again, I think he was exaggerating - I found that taking him at his word really helped me to just relax and go with it.

    The opening chapter is the start of the Mass, as you say.

    Awesome stuff.

  2. That's the hilarious thing about the book: it has so much going on but it will instantly liven up matters with a tongue-in-cheek talk about snotgreen being the color of the Irish artist or that hilarious clarification that, no worries, audience, the milk the old woman pours is not her own. I laughed out loud about three times while reading it.

  3. If you look at it in a certain light, the whole book is one long fart joke. With some boobies and boogers mixed in. Juvenile. Human. Profound. The human condition.