Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Fifteen: Circe

[Link to previous chapters here]

Did someone tear out what was meant to be the Circe chapter and paste in the screenplay for Bitter Moon hoping I wouldn't notice? Having read some of Joyce's more erotic letters to his wife Nora, I knew he could be astonishingly forthright about sex, but nothing in this book -- not even the graphic description of Bloom's cum-soaked shirt post-masturbation in the Nausicaa episode -- truly prepared me for the explosion of sexual desire contained within this chapter.

In The Odyssey, Circe traps Odysseus and his men when she turns the remaining crew into pigs, which is actually a step up from the usual fate to befall Odysseus' men, which is agonizing death in the name of their commander's quest for welcome-home sex. Odysseus receives an herb from Hermes that helps him avoid this curse, but he still falls under Circe's spell, staying with her for a year and becoming her lover.

A similar spell of sex and drug-induced haze falls over this chapter, which Joyce formats as if a play but structures in any way but a typical drama. This could almost have been written by Hunter S. Thompson after a particularly wild night even by his standards. As Bloom follows Stephen into "Nighttown," the area choked with brothels and whores, he begins having fantastical visions, all of them dovetailing into his warped sexual frustrations and desires. As Joyce moves deeper into the nightmarish (yet darkly funny) vision of sexual excess and the liberated id, he once again casts aside everything we think we know about this man.

Bloom has been slowly falling apart all day over his wife's affair, and the very last place he should be going right now (round about midnight) is to the red-light district. He knows this, and he wonders why he even feels the need to look out for Stephen. It's not like the lad is any worse off than his friends, all of whom are just as young and just as squalid. His paranoia over Molly heightens as his desires are enticed by the prostitutes around him, and soon he starts having vivid hallucinations.

He imagines himself arrested for being a nuisance, only to wind up in a Kafkaesque trial in which women from his past materialize from thin air to accuse him of lechery. Some even mock him as a cuckold. J.J. Molloy shows up to act as defense, and he provides an understatement for the ages when he tells this dream court "If the accused could speak he could a tale unfold one of the strangest that have ever been narrated between the covers a book." Jesus, you're telling me. Not all the accusers are so outraged, however; Gerty shows up and initially condemns Bloom for looking up her skirt but adds, "I love you for doing that to me." Bloom's not the only one who's looked with lust upon another.

Bloom manages to imagine himself out of that scenario and enjoys a brief respite where he becomes the vision of Ireland's grace Joyce set him up to be at the start of the novel before kicking over that pedestal and making sure everyone was on the same level. He cheekily rises through the social ranks as adoring mobs swarm him, at last becoming new king for Ireland, one so beloved that even the anti-Semitic citizen comes to sing his praises. Then, amusingly, Bloom lays out a plan to unite the country among races and creeds, which cannot penetrate the Catholic skulls even of invented specters, and the crowd turns on him.

Eventually, Bloom staggers his way to the brothel, and all hell breaks loose. Bloom got himself out of his warped "trial" by summoning Paddy Dignam's ghost to clear his name. Before Dignam dissipates, he says he must " satisfy an animal need" and expel some disagreeable buttermilk. Satisfying an animal need also applies to having sex, and Joyce rips the veil off both the romanticized and repressed visions of sex that dominate the social view of intercourse. Joyce explores sexual fantasies, but not in the lilting, harlequin romance way or even the erotic novel way; he pores over every nook and cranny of a dark thought to see what it is that really excites people, what primitive wants come out in the animalistic act of sex.

And my God does Bloom have a lot of pent-up feelings. Before he can do anything for Stephen, he must first navigate his own hangups, forced to confront them by Bella Cohen, the mountainous madam of the brothel who proves so domineering that the two switch gender roles. Bella becomes Bello as "ma'amsir" (as one of the other prostitutes calls her) begins stomping and humiliating Bloom, who acts as a pig for a brief time (remember Circe?). It's a madhouse, but one not designed to be viewed as a freak show. This is what happens when a society is crippled sexually. Bloom, who cannot have full intercourse with Molly, is messed up by it, just as Stephen, who grew up with such religiously strict views of women that he ironically avoids the issue of being unable to find someone pure enough for him by corrupting himself with prostitutes.

We can see the guilt eating at them here. A vision of Molly teases Bloom, and Bella/Bello makes Bloom think of Boylan taking his wife. At one point, an apparition of Boylan arrives and Bloom takes on the role of lackey as he obsequiously bows to the man's demands for taking Molly; Leopold even asks if he can bring some friends to watch Blazes having sex with her. Poldy's dead father laments his son's corruption, but he ends up consumed with ideas of sex himself, specifically how sex relates to Christ and the idea of virgin birth.

Poor Stephen has it even worse when Joyce briefly tracks the lad's hallucinations. His father appears, as drunken and stupid in imagination as he is in life, and Stephen wards him away. But his mother later arrives, and Stephen falls to pieces. He lapses into apoplectic insensibility and smashes a chandelier in fear and guilt, for which Bloom pays. It's a horrifying, heartbreaking moment, and Bloom gets to prove his paternal instinct when he smooths everything over, something that proves trickier when Stephen runs outside and finds himself in a fight with two guards who take him to be anti-British and froth at the mouth at insults to the King (Joyce actually starts putting "fuck" and "cunt" into the text as the mood turns more hostile). One constable has enough and lays Stephen out with a punch, and Bloom can't help but pity this well-learned but wasteful young man as he lies mumbling on the pavement. Just then, Bloom has a vision of his son Rudy, now 11, standing there with them. The father calls out to his dead child, but Rudy pays no heed.

This is not the first time Joyce has transitioned from funny to sad, but normally the two moods mingle; here, he leaps extremities, moving from twisted black comedy to these terrible glimpses into the full horror nagging at Bloom and Stephen. To place them in the chapter going into the dark heart of sex only shows how everything is connected, and to wall off certain human feelings and acts disrupts the unity of the whole. And it's not like Joyce was a mad womanizer: he stayed committed to Nora from the moment he met her. Hell, June 16, 1904, the setting of this novel, is the day the two had their first date. He's not trying to justify Dionysian lifestyles, only to address the hangups and fetishes he had and knew existed in others. Scary and rending as their final visions are, Bloom and Stephen reach a catharsis precisely through confronting their full desires, though it remains to be seen if they learn anything from it.


  1. This series makes me realize I remember NOTHING from my four years studying English Literature. NOTHING.

    "What's a verb?"

  2. I'm gonna be honest: if it weren't for those who came before me and gave me notes to follow, I'd have made it approximately 6 pages into this damn thing. But man it feels so rewarding now that I'm at least in the flow. Of course, I still check the notes all the time.