Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Two: Nestor

The Nestor episode of Ulysses instantly changes up the novel from its first chapter, altering setting, structure, symbolism and thematic exploration. If the Telemachus chapter contained hints of thoughts haunting Stephen that mar an otherwise neutral beginning, the second episode gets steeped in misery. Stephen, our beloved anti-Establishment outsider, has returned to Ireland with his aesthetic ideals honed, only to find himself working as a substitute teacher in a boy's school, lecturing uninterested, ignorant teens on Milton and history. Cut to once idealistic English teachers solemnly nodding in empathy.

Reflecting Stephen's (and Joyce's) continuing difficulty at truly leaving the Church, Chapter Two is structured as a catechism, the call-and-response style used to educate a congregation in Catholic doctrine. The chapter begins with Stephen asking questions of the students, who respond by rote and without passion. But Stephen is amiable, despite his intellectual self-absorption, and he amuses himself by asking questions to catch the lads off-guard. When he dismisses the boys and speaks to the headmaster, Mr. Deasy, Stephen does not ask questions so much as speak tersely as Deasy carries on in block paragraphs of vacuous speech which Stephen transcribes to a letter.

The sense of gloom that pours out of the pages in this chapter is untraceable unless someone clues you in on where to look. The key color of the chapter is brown, though nothing is every simply described as such. Instead, Joyce mentions objects one knows to be brown, letting the audience envision their color. Leather, wood, old books, all of them evoking the color without Joyce outright saying it. Elsewhere, Joyce has proven a master of vivid description, poring over each image from afar and up close; here, however, he demonstrates what a great journalist he would have made: without many adjectives, he conjures immaculate portraits in the mind. But why does brown connote such misery in Joyce's writing? It's a drab color, to be sure, but not depressing.

Then I learned that, for Joyce, brown signified death, which only raised more questions. Why would he equate the two? Isn't black the more obvious choice? At last, it slid into place: "History," Stephen famously intones, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." As a European, Dedalus is caged in by history, the stifling weight of nearly two millennia of accumulated history restricting movement. Eddie Izzard jokes about this whenever he speaks of America, about how people in this country are amazed of anything that lasts 50 years, whereas, in Europe, anything that doesn't last that long must be one giant POS. History suffocates. But it also liberates in the worst way, allowing people to attribute ills to history and not seek to move beyond them. In the first chapter, Haines expressed some guilt for England's treatment of Ireland, only to absolve himself by placing atrocity in the past. The students Stephen lectures have no true concept of what Ireland still is because they view it through a historical lens: "For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop."

History is coated in brown. It's bound in leather-bound books, stacked on wooden shelves and debated in old halls. Stephen, who wants to live for the present, to glory in the new, is weighed down by the the immovable block of history that stands between mankind and progress. Even Irish nationalism is too rooted in centuries-old debate to be fresh enough for Stephen, and to identify with any nation would be to tighten the leash that binds him. Ironically, Stephen has a better command of history than anyone he talks to, versed in both literary classics and world history. He even meshes the two, interpreting Julius Caesar at least partially through Shakespeare. His immense knowledge of both kinds of history, fictive and real, allows him to speculate on alternate versions of events. Joyce pours everything into his writing, every perspective, every anticipated outcome, so of course he wonders what might have happened if Caesar had not been betrayed or Pyrrhus had not fallen. The what-ifs turn history into narrative, and no narrative can exist without excluding all but one story. Unless you're James Joyce, of course, in which case you can just flood the damn thing.

In The Odyssey, Telemachus visits Nestor, a kind-to-a-fault old man whose perceived wisdom belies a frustrating gap in awareness of the one piece of information Telemachus needs from him. Like Nestor, Deasy is ingratiating to the point of irritation with Telemcaus/Stephen, Nestor lavishing hospitality onto the man looking for his father, Deasy forcing Stephen to put up with his rambling nonsense to get a meager pay. And just as Nestor's speeches contain lofty, drawn-out claims that lead nowhere, so too are Deasy's proclamations void of any useful information to Stephen, who tempers his own disagreement with Deasy's simple-minded opinions of English loyalism, thrift and the supposed evil of Jews. Only the smallest protests are spoken, but Stephen understands that any attempt to engage this moron will only prolong his torture, so he copies down Deasy's halting thoughts -- the statements are so short, empty of analysis and direct that each period almost sounds like a telegraph stop -- and promises to pass them along to acquaintances at some newspapers.

Nestor was a tamer of horses, and the image of "vanished horses" dots the walls of Deasy's office. Whatever verve and authority the man might once have commanded are long gone by the time he pours out his crotchety old "Abe Simpson" rants, his transparent ignorance not remotely masked by the quantity of his words nor the fleeting stabs at verbosity nestled within them. Deasy is only just smart enough to see how bored Stephen has become with his situation (though he believes it's the school constricting him, not Deasy as well) and wisely notes that Stephen will not remain at the school long. "You were not born to be a teacher, I think," Deasy says. "A learner, rather," Stephen replies. Stephen looks at Deasy and sees the end result of becoming complacent with knowledge: unless he is always seeking more, the knowledge he has will atrophy until it becomes useless and toxic, infecting young minds with hollow thoughts disguised with big words, big words Stephen claims to fear despite his own use of quite a few of them. He knows that big words too are made through inflation and contain nothing but air inside them.

Just as the structure of the novel shifts from straight narrative to catechism, the subject being deconstructed moves from theology to history. Yet Joyce cannot tackle one, particularly when dealing with Irish history, without discussing the other, and religion factors into Stephen's thoughts and discussions. Deasy too brings God into it, his antisemitism springing from religious indoctrination passed down through history condemning Jews and his misogynist screeds rooted in the concept of original sin. Stephen continues to have none of it, proving his does not align with Deasy's Tory beliefs just as he rejected Davin's radical leftist leanings in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The Nestor episode is short, sweet and direct, yet the level of detail it conjures using mere back-and-forth dialogue and blunt but evocative description builds upon the jumbled but vivid first chapter even as it drastically alters the direction. Ulysses may be a seemingly aimless drift around Dublin, but the manner in which Joyce deepens and links his pseudo-narrative makes the sudden shifts in style coherent.


  1. This is great reading. I had forgotten all about this chapter, but yr post has brought it right back. Can't wait to see what you make of Bloom.

  2. Oh man, this is such an excellent account of reading this chapter.