Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Seventeen: Ithaca

[Link to previous chapters here]

In a way, "Ithaca," the penultimate chapter yet the proper summation of Ulysses' "plot," is as gorgeous and revealing as its final entry. Joyce's own favorite of the 18 episodes, "Ithaca" is one of the most profound things I've ever read, despite (and in many ways because) of the banality at the heart of it. It achieves a simultaneous microscopic and macroscopic view, soaring above the characters yet summarizing and concluding their quirks, beliefs, attitudes and fleeting connection with such precision that, were the prose not such a challenge that only those who've endured the strongest passages of the novel to this point not prepared to handle it, this chapter might serve as a study guide for the rest of Ulysses.

It's a towering achievement, but in a specific respect. After building and building for nigh on 700 pages, Ulysses damn well better deliver on Bloom's return home to handle Stephen's indirection and his wife's affair. Yet Joyce quickly makes it clear that the humanly observed reality of his characters will not, can not, suddenly give way to the fantastical resolution of complex human issues. This is not an explosive end to the book's story; it is a monumental summary of the book's use of language.

Structured as a Catholic catechism — a call-and-response chanting designed to teach doctrine — "Ithaca" is typified by a brief, objective question and an equally brief yet intricately detailed response. Joyce doesn't simply say that Bloom, who forgot his key, climbs his wall and opens the door from the inside; he describes Bloom's height and the slight jump down on the other side with the sort of precision normally reserved for the documentation of an experiment for publication in a research journal. Amusingly, as Bloom and Stephen struggle to find a common perspective between Leopold's scientific view and Stephen's spiritual connection to art, Joyce finds it for them, but he does not share this wisdom.

This chapter was both easier and harder than what came before. It proved difficult in the sheer level of detail put into the most casual observation, scientifically breaking down a boiling kettle of water and also inventing number games with the age disparity between the two men. In effect, he not only captures the present in its minutiae but rebounds off the past and even future. Yet the episode is also more legible than, say, "Oxen of the Sun" or even an early chapter like "Proteus" because it knows how far we've come with these two and rewards us for our diligence.

Joyce pulls the perspective back into a tone of voice that goes beyond third-person omniscience into the voice of the Lord Himself. The questions start simply, in broad terms to prepare the reader: What did Bloom and Stephen do after leaving the shelter? What did they discuss? But with each pass the viewer gets closer and closer, drawing out details until Joyce begins breaking down particles, particles of personal connection and of the atomic properties of objects.

If you can keep up, Joyce actually manages to dig into these characters further, and in his objective, clinical observation, he actually reflects the subjective perspectives of both characters: inside, Bloom goes to make a cup of tea, and Joyce describes what Stephen and Bloom see in the kitchen. Stephen, a guest in the house and an observer of aesthetics, notes with precision the layout of the room and the specifics of each object (what it's made of, how it's arranged, etc.). Bloom, who is of course familiar with his own house and more pragmatic than Stephen, sees a saucepan and a kettle.

(That amusing bluntness characterizes the humor of the chapter, which sometimes plays on our previous knowledge of Bloom and Stephen to make double meanings out of literal descriptions. The narrator asks of Bloom, "Which domestic problem as much as, if not more than, any other frequently engaged his mind?" The response: "What to do with our wives.")

Similarities and differences between Stephen and Leopold manifest fully now that both clear their heads enough to talk in complete sentences. They share their halting knowledge in their ethnic languages, Stephen going over basic Gaelic letters and phrases and Bloom doing the same for Hebrew. The parallels between the Irish and Israelites strengthen. The differences, so alienating in the previous chapter, are now surmountable through Bloom's acceptance of varying views, a tolerance exacerbated by the long-shot perspective of the chapter.

That's another thing: as much as "Ithaca" summarizes the book and how Stephen and Bloom relate to each other, it also refines Bloom's humanism to its purest point. From his vantage point, Joyce can fully illustrate the range of contradictions in Bloom and how he overcomes them. He knows that the plans he and Stephen make at 2 in the morning for future meetings will likely not come to fruition, but he still feels centered in Stephen's presence. He steps outside everything (with the narrator) and contextualizes his situation. He and Stephen may not forge a bond to heal both their wounds, but this banal exchange of pleasantries over cocoa should not be discarded. Bloom does not even feel that Stephen fills a hole left by Molly's affair because he sees no hole. He is described as satisfied, and when the catechist asks what satisified him, you can almost hear a note of incredulity in the neutral voice. "To have sustained no positive loss. To have brought a positive gain to others. Light to the gentiles." He has helped Stephen in some small way, and however insignificant the act may be, it looks equally major in the all-encompassing intimacy of the prose.

Bloom notes the poorly hidden signs of the affair all around him, but he does not mind. The strain in his relationship with Molly has been expounded upon in fleeting moments of reflection, but here we get the full impact of their troubles in the blunt prose. The narration says it has been 10 years, 5 months and 18 days since Bloom last had full intercourse with his wife, and admitting this aloud to himself seems to hammer home how much Bloom has neglected her. We've seen, we've felt, his overriding love for Molly, but loving someone has never ensured not harming her. Bloom finally seems to reflect on how he's failed her, not how he's failed himself.

The Odyssey culminates in a vicious slaughter of the suitors, but the most Bloom can do is fleetingly and sarcastically think of dueling Boylan. But is Odysses' rampage all that heroic? He spends seven years being the lover of a demigoddess, then another year in Circe's sway, but he gets to come home and be all high and mighty about men horning in on his wife after two decades? Instead, Bloom thinks of all the harms and ills in society that are worse than adultery, running through a long list that dissipates his threatened masculinity. At last, and contrary to that old saying, he does something human, not godlike: he forgives her.

"Ithaca" is beautiful. Never mind its ostensible remove: in a book ironically about finding one's position relative to others while containing an account of a city so accurate people can still walk around Dublin today using Ulysses as a map, this vast yet humble conclusion perfectly summarizes Joyce's novel. And in one of Joyce's inimitable moments of humanity and humor, he finishes the chapter, and Bloom's story as he sees fit, with a sort of "You are here" period marking Bloom's, and the audience's, place in all this.

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