Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Six: Hades

Sometimes, despite my best effort to get as close a reading as possible, I find myself zipping through a book, so caught up in its narrative and/or style that I find myself so engrossed that I either lose fine detail for barreling through the story or, and this is really weird, I focus so intently on the construction that I sidestep the narrative entirely. (Austen does this to me a lot; I'll be both marveling and laughing at the way she sets up a joke and then go, "Wait, where did Darcy come from? Oh right, this was mentioned in the last three pages I blew through because I wanted to get to the punchline.)

The Hades chapter of Ulysses is the first time I can recall speeding up my reading simply because the thought of spending any more time in its hellish grip. Homer's stanzas in Hades do not communicate actual suffering: Odysseus, wisely wishing not to descend into the realm and further test his sour relationship with the gods, calls up the shades of heroes and relatives to meet him. Tears are shed and horrors related, but so much of it feels like a reunion, a sad one perhaps, but still a meeting of old friends and loved ones. Besides, the dead barge into Odysseus' life so much that one starts to feel as if he really is at a family reunion with "Uncle Agamemnon" reminding him that Odysseus' wife is probably cheating on him or whatever because his wife did. Meanwhile Odysseus probably still smells like ambrosia from hanging with Calypso for seven years.

Even Dante's Inferno, which modernist writers like Joyce and Eliot quote so often, does not achieve the same level of despair contained within the imagery of Joyce's chapter. Dante's cantos contain too much of the righteous fury of the pious, that bloodthirsty vengeance for those deemed unworthy. Dante's hell is one cooked up by the fervent imaginations of persecuted Christians crafting superhuman tortures for their tormentors. It displays the sadism of the warped Christian mind, reveling in the blood and gore of "deserved" eternal punishment. People sometimes forget that the pilgrim eventually makes his way back out of hell and gets to see Heaven in another volume.

Joyce's chapter, more than any outright Christian text, understands that hell in its purest form is the absence of God. And for an atheist, God is absent everywhere, making Earth its own hell. Death rises off the page in putrefying waves, necrotic gases hissing from rotted, burst organs. Even those alive seem held in death's grip, trapped in the same self-aggrandizing and perfunctorily mournful dialogue that marked Odysseus' chats with dead heroes. They are all shades in Ireland, all of them grim, pale reflections of the island's overcast climate.

And my God has the weather of the British isles never been so accurately captured. I have yet to have the pleasure of visiting Ireland, but I did have the fortune to spend two weeks in England during high school, where every single day it rained. I don't mean April showers or even heavy thunderstorms. No, the rain in England was incredible: it falls in needles, thin knives of frigid liquid that seemed to pass through our puny American umbrellas like a knife through Kevlar -- they were made to stop fat drops, not this -- injecting ice directly into the bloodstream. One must never go anywhere on a limb in London; if you're going to walk around in that shit for hours you better be going somewhere.

And yet, Bloom wanders around Dublin, drinking in its sights without clear purpose, and the effect is chilling. Riding in a carriage with other friends of Dignam's, Bloom quickly feels left out of the conversation as the other men know each other better, so he begins to stare outside the carriage and ruminate on what he sees. It's all bleak: an old woman noses around the hearse as if sizing up her future ride; one of the passengers spots Boylan, Molly's potential lover, plunging Bloom's heart into his throat; the carriage moves past where Bloom's daughter, Milly, is staying, and he resists the urge to visit her because he knows barging in might lead to some grim embarrassments.

Inside the carriage, the rapport shared by the other men reveals a familiarity forged in the Church. These men know the customs Bloom curiously thought about in the previous chapter, have shared memories owing to their bedrock of common knowledge, and they begin to speak as if Bloom isn't there. They pass by a moneylender's office, and one of the men jokes that they've all been there before, then makes a quick but meaningful glance at the Jewish Bloom. "Well, nearly all of us." Later, that same man brings out his Catholicism by viciously condemning suicide, an intensely uncomfortable proclamation given that Bloom's father poisoned himself. Yet the statement was not meant maliciously: Mr. Power did not know, and when someone takes him aside after the men arrive and get out of the carriage to tell him, he is mortified. So mortified, in fact, that he cannot even contemplate going to Leo and apologizing (who could?).

It's not that the men hate Bloom or are aggressively antisemitic to him; they just forget. It's funny, Stephen, the passive reactor to the world, is noticed more by those around him. He maybe getting shuffled around without purpose, but more people hold longer conversations with him than they do Bloom, who is an active force but cannot seem to get an equal and opposite reaction out of others. He dotes upon his wife, who barely rises from her bed only to prop up an elbow. In the carriage, he is cut off and ignored at every turn, even by Cunningham, who knows Leo and sympathetically diverts the conversation when Power puts his foot in it over suicide, interrupts Bloom's story and starts telling it himself. The only time he gets noticed is when his different perspective clashes with the Catholics. He expresses gratitude for Dignam's quick death because it spared him pain, but the others stare incredulously. Of course: a quick death for Catholics precludes the possibility of confessing one's sins on a deathbed. What is a few days, or weeks, of Earthly pain compared to eternity in the pit? Bloom might as well be the man in the casket, ignored save for brief moments of perfunctory deference to his being, or lack thereof.

The funeral itself is miserable in every way save the ones you'd expect. Scarcely attended, poorly furnished and lackadaisically noted, only the tears of Dignam's wife and child make the exercise meaningful. Everyone else, without saying it, seems to feel as if they've wasted a day, and their chat soon diverts from the tut-tutting and the crossing oneself over Dignam to Bloom meditating in his boredom. He wonders why the dead aren't buried vertically for greater efficiency, making them more like vegetables than they already are (and recalling that "potted meat" product from the previous chapter). His detailed imagination of maggots breaking down people into manure to grow gardens is repellent yet oddly humanistic. It's an odd Christian tradition, burial, a bit of a waste of space and time and resources to commemorate a body that might as well be burned. And if you're going to put them in the ground, make something useful out of them. "Plant him and have done with him," Bloom thinks. He looks around and sees no God, no potential for afterlife. No sense of going to all this fuss and solemnity in a place that already reeks of death.

This chapter tackles the flip-side of the Catholic Church's effect on people: the Lotus Eaters showed sex clouding the minds of the Irish, driving them to dreamy indecision with repression and desire. Here, we see how death gets manipulated. Everyone has to participate in the ritual for the sake of the deceased, though deep down they all feel the nagging sense that this is all for naught. But because they must worry not only about death but what happens after that, death casts a shroud over Ireland as blinding and disorienting as sex. It is a terrifying national portrait, and the manner in which Joyce can get out this devastating critique of religious influence without resorting to polemics is extraordinary.

Stray observations filter through Bloom's eyes and make for evocative reading. Apart from the gloom of everything around him, Bloom fixates on a stranger at the funeral, a man in a brown macintosh. His arrival makes him the 13th person there, "Death's number." Swathed in brown, Joyce's color of death, the man simply hangs around and creeps out Bloom and a few of the others, though he disappears as suddenly as he arrived. Who is this man? Perhaps he is death, there to claim Dignam. Vladimir Nabokov suspects it is Joyce himself. I've heard he pops up again later. I shall have to see what information those subsequent appearances bring...

Oh, I nearly forgot: Joyce nearly has Bloom and Stephen meet in this chapter. Stephen's father, Simon, rides in the carriage with Bloom, and Leo spots Stephen walking around Dublin. Simon grumbles something about Buck Mulligan, but the carriage moves on. Intriguingly, Simon, a somewhat appealing figure in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, suddenly comes off as inferior to Bloom. He's short-tempered, sarcastic and a bit childish. He actually reminds me of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, initially appealing because he compares favorably to those around him (specifically his superficial, boorish wife and all his daughters younger than the refined Jane and Elizabeth). Later, however, Austen reveals him to be not as clever as he thinks he is and, in his own way, as rude and vain as his wife. The same holds true for Simon, and we finally see why Stephen might be searching for a father when he still has one.

By the end of the chapter, Bloom seems as appalled and sick of the sights as I was, and he bustles out of the cemetery the way Odysseus backs out of Hades. Joyce's vision of Ireland incorporates its future split without overtly hinting at it through dramatic irony. He just lets an ill wind churn the cold air, creating a sense of doom one cannot quite place. Sex and death hang over this island like those wooden blocks that manipulate marionette strings: sex and death undid Parnell, and they could undo anyone gathered at Dignam's funeral. The heart first gets referenced in this chapter related to Dignam's broken one, the sudden coronary that killed him. And yet, by the end of the chapter, Bloom reveals his still-beating heart by turning away from death to think of preserving life. Let us not dwell in Hades but help those still here. For all his cowardice and invisibility, Bloom at last begins to display traits that break him favorably from those around him, and it suggests he might be a worthy guiding light for Stephen after all.

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