Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Seven: Aeolus

"Talk, talk, it's all talk
Too much talk, small talk
Talk that trash"
-- King Crimson, "Elephant Talk

Steeped in obscure Irish history that not even the copious endnotes try to fully explain, the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses makes for the toughest reading yet. However, the ideas it communicates are some of the most clearly stated in the book so far, and as I have learned to just let go at this point and stop trying to "figure this novel out," I enjoyed the chapter immensely.

I also have a soft spot for its half-caustic, half-affectionate view of newspapers. The chapter deals with rhetoric, so naturally it is formatted as if a newspaper. At the turn of the 20th century, the papers were still locked into competitive yellow journalism that spewed opinion more than simply the news (ah, the good ol' days), and the newsroom Bloom enters to sell his ads bustles in such a frenzy that even Sam Fuller couldn't have imagined such pompous havoc.

After being treated as if he did not exist in previous chapters, Bloom finally runs into outright hostility. The editor does everything but spit in Bloom's face when the man just tries to sell his ad for a client, and newsboys run around him like imps, mocking him viciously. Here is a calm, intelligent man only doing his job, and the Irishmen tear him down for no reason.

Joyce's contempt for his fellow Irish comes through loud and clear here. In The Odyssey, Aeolus gave Odysseus a bag containing the four winds, only for his crew to grow jealous and rip the bag open just as their ship came within sight of Ithaca, sending them blowing off course. Appropriately, this chapter bursts at the seams with windbags, pretentious editors and academics who mill around offices pontificating until they run out of things to say, at which point they quote windbags of yore to fill time. And when their lungs send that air flying, it knocks Bloom back, making him unable to complete his job -- to sell an ad that uses key symbolism to suggest Irish home-rule -- and return to his home, possibly preventing him from keeping his wife away from Blazes Boylan. All could be ruined for him just because these assholes will not shut up and help him.

Joyce had already put forward his belief in looking to the future instead of being crippled by the past in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a giant stone of guilt and tradition presses down on Dublin throughout Ulysses to this point. The men in this chapter reminisce over Irish orators, unanimously ridiculing a speech given by a man named Dawson who advocated using the original Irish language over English for living in the ancient past. Then they spend the rest of their time using classical allusions (one man insults Dawson by way of Hamlet) and fuss over the Phoenix Park murders, committed some 22 years before the novel's 1904 setting.

Unlike the Irish Catholics who go on and on about speakers of the past, Bloom can detach himself from the past. That is not to say he isn't cognizant of it: as he watches the typesetters place each letter in backwards, he thinks of his father reading Hebrew right-to-left and briefly dwells upon the language. But he does not let the past define him in the way the Irish do, and if the Homeric connections posit him as the Odysseus figure, the Telemachus stand-in, the figure in need of fatherly guidance, may not only be Stephen but the whole of Eire.

No one in this chapter truly seems to listen to anyone save for Bloom, and for his troubles he is the most obviously ignored and cast aside. Joyce's wordplay comes to the fore, but he acknowledges the esoterica of such writing by using it to emphasize the cryptic and alienating nature of inside jokes and obscure references around those who don't get them. I'm becoming as frustrating by the incessant hyperbole I use to talk about this book as you must be, but I genuinely felt deafened by this chapter. It's nothing but lungs forcing air through pipes and newspaper rollings grinding and whirring. The book to this point has mashed together fragments of overheard conversation, but never has so much been going on. It can be infuriating, and Joyce knows it.

He knows it, and he even turns the screws tighter by teasing the audience with Leopold and Stephen just missing each other. Made to go back to his client to secure months' of subscription to get the ad in the paper, Bloom leaves just as Stephen arrives to deliver Mr. Deasy's ridiculous letter, which is accepted without issue. Stephen mingles with the men as they get into such a raucous conversation that when Bloom calls, no one takes the call. They go to a pub for a bit, and Bloom arrives just as the Irish leave. Bloom and Stephen do not talk to each other: Stephen, like the rest, ignores the man, while Leopold only takes note of the boy's new boots and mentally tut-tuts the muck on them. So basically, Jimmy just makes the tease that much more agonizing by showing Leo already adopting a paternal attitude toward Stephen. Can anyone else wring so much tension out of such a pedestrian setup?

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