Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Five: The Lotus Eaters

Well, dear readers, we move from the waste management system to the playground. Yes, where the digestive system formed the anatomical reference of the Calypso chapter, Joyce now swivels round the pelvis to focus on the genitals. Funny, considering that the organs would actually correspond with their Odyssey counterparts better if swapped, the the kidney for the Lotus Eaters and the genitalia for Calypso.

The Calypso episode of Homer's epic reset the narrative to introduce Odysseus, who'd spent seven years as the lover of the demigod Calypso (meanwhile Penelope hasn't stopped crying for 20 years; women through the ages have probably, and so rightly, referred to this as "a crock of shit"). Joyce's Leopold does not set out from his lover to return to his loyal wife. Rather, he fears her infidelity but does not say anything, too nervous to broach the subject. Already, the link between cunning, strong Odysseus and meek Bloom seems ironic. Yet both have the power of observation, though where Odysseus uses his ability to read people and situations to serve him well, Bloom still cannot apply his sensual connection to the world to any change. He's more active than Stephen Dedalus but just as unable to get where he wants with his more direct approach to life.

In The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters episode refers to Odysseus and his crew landing on an island populated by people who forget everything when they consume lotus flowers, thus keeping them on the island eating the flowers for the rest of their days. It might make more immediate sense to link the digestive system to the notion of eating to forget, but then Joyce never intended Ulysses to line up perfectly with Homer's poem, and the alterations reveal an ingenious insight into his thought process.

Sex dominates Bloom's thoughts in this chapter, which go beyond the stream of consciousness into the fragments of dreams, appropriate for the Lotus Eaters chapter. On his way to his friend's funeral, Bloom begins to wander around Dublin a bit, laying some of the framework for the novel's touted exploration of the city. Sights, sounds, smells, conversations, thoughts, all of them mash together on the page, fractals of ideas jumbled in snippets. Though we know he ultimately aims for Dignam's funeral, one cannot tell where Bloom is at any moment.

The only remotely clear thoughts come from his fixation on the women around him. Bloom tries to sneak peeks at these women, even getting annoyed with an acquaintance, McCoy, for interrupting him as he watches a rich lady prepare to enter a carriage. To add to the insult, just as Leo thinks she might bare her leg getting inside, a tram moves by and obscures her. Bloom receives a letter (written to his pen name Henry Flower) from what amounts to some early-20th-century version of a phone sex operator. The penpal, Martha, chastises him for not following some decorum, then flirts with him despite knowing he's married. Her hypocrisy matches his own; after feeling sorry for this seemingly loving man who so attentively prepared breakfast for his ungrateful, potentially disloyal wife, now we see him writing erotic letters to another woman and spying on every lady within eyesight. Perhaps he's not so different from Odysseus after all.

But part of Bloom recognizes his errant ways, and he begins to think about physical repression. He sees gelded horses on the streets and wonders if those castrated stallions "might be happy all the same that way." He briefly turns to thoughts of Hamlet and whether the Danish prince was actually a woman. Then he spots a priest, and his ruminations shift to the Church and thoughts of eunuchs.

At this point Joyce's intentions become clear, hilarious and piercing. Ireland, one of the most stereotypically Christian nations in the world, attains the dreamy, forgetful nature of the Lotus island because of its fascination with sex, an obsession rooted in the repression set down by the Church that lasted among both parties even after the Catholic-Protestant schism. Bloom's view of the Eucharist is astonishingly erotic, imagining a priest telling a supplicant, devout woman to "shut your eyes and open your mouth," suggesting not only sexual invasion but that the Church has conned people into swallowing their brand of restrictive social order.

By placing these thoughts inside of Bloom, the Jew, Joyce can successfully step outside the structure of the Church in the way he can't with another character, not even a Protestant, nor Stephen, who grew up in the Church before rejecting it. Seen through Leopold's eye, the Church's ways seem so absurd he cannot come to terms with them. He spots the priest cleaning out the chalice that holds the wine and wonders what makes the wine so special. It's just alcohol, after all; why not use Guinness (if only Christ had been Irish)? Bloom seems to understand that most people cannot seriously believe that a cracker and some wine turn into the body and blood of Christ in them, and he guesses that some come to churches like the one he sees because they actually give out the wine and not more temperate liquid -- remember that church attendance in America under Prohibition skyrocketed, though likely not for the reason those crusading moralists had hoped.

Because Bloom has all these thoughts on his way to Paddy's funeral, imagery of sex and death coexists, and in some cases they overlap. When Leo thinks, "O, surely he bagged it" at the start, the context is muddy enough to suggest that the man he's thinking of either died or bagged himself a woman. Later, he reads a newspaper ad for something called "Plumtree's Potted Meat," a goofy name that could work as some hysterically vague innuendo -- "Where have you potted your meat, Leopold?" -- or as another idiom for kicking the bucket.

With sex and sexual repression on the brain, even a straightforward, not to mention dour, journey can stretch and fade into ethereal circularity on this island, an island about to suffer the throes of partition (the book is set in 1904, though when Joyce finished Ulysses Britain had already made the Irish Free State but had not yet seen Northern Ireland rejoin the UK). Even then, however, sex will still cast a pall over the island, obsessing and terrifying everyone in equal measure.

Amusingly, the sciences used here for imagery are botany and chemistry, which line up sexually. Chemistry can of course refer to physical attraction in addition to the makeup of compounds, while the flower imagery naturally makes visual reference to female genitalia. Men's too: the chapter closes with Bloom taking a bath, staring down at his "bush" and the flaccid penis on top of it like a wilted flower. Without saying anything on the subject, Joyce clearly implies Bloom's impotence, something hinted at with his cowed dealings with his wife and his willingness to flirt with Martha but never to meet with her. After already jumbling our view of Bloom, Joyce complicates him a bit further, also suggesting the ultimate toll of stressing over sex in a society that makes it all-important by demonizing it.

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