Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Sixteen: Eumaeus

[Link to previous chapters here]

Once again, Joyce gives the audience a breather, following up the sexual nightmares conjured by M.C. Escher and Franz Kafka in the previous chapter with straightforward prose that suggests Joyce really could have written a lucid, charming novel if he'd cared to, one that might even have put some money into his vacant, cobwebbed bank account. Then, just to shut everyone up, he sets about sabotaging this structure and pointing out its weaknesses.

For after spending nearly 600 pages entrenched with the foibles, perspectives, fantasies, observations and patterns of Stephen and Bloom, Joyce suddenly acquiesces to all those who would complain of its complexity and pulls back into language that's easily understood. But it lacks the intimacy of the reader's connection to these two characters. Where we used to get the barest flicker of pure reaction to another character or situation, now we get broader strokes. Granted, it's a hell of a lot easier to get a feel for the painting when you see the whole thing and not extreme close-ups of the preliminary pencil sketches, but who would pass up the opportunity to see Picasso revealing his process in minutiae in order to just see the finished product?

And so, ironically, this most readable of chapters probably reveals the least about Stephen and Bloom. This is even funnier given that this is the first chapter in which they are well and truly united. The odyssey is done; now it is time to wind down and return home. First, though, they stop at a cabman's shelter to straighten out a little bit. Can you blame them? Stephen's wasted on absinthe and Bloom just walked out of a sadomasochistic fever vision.

So as they relax for a bit in this shelter, Bloom starts chatting with Stephen, and whatever hopes that these two would find comfort and strength in each other soon flies out the window. Bloom, seeking to impress Stephen, tries to talk politics and pretentiously attempts to hold court on art he does not understand (if he's heard of it at all). Stephen, drunken and cynical, barely listens to the man, and he always seems to pick up on the worst thing. Mistaking Stephen for a politically active young man, Bloom touts his own socialist beliefs, which rub Stephen the wrong way because of the restrictive role of artists in such a utopia.

Earlier, in the Cyclops episode, I couldn't quite tell if Bloom's objections to the others at the Ormond seemed so rude simply because A) he reacted to the complete unctuousness of the nationalists and B) the biased, anti-Semitic narrator skewed Bloom's tone. It would seem there was some truth to the manner that narrator presented Bloom: he seems less a paternal guidance for Stephen than a patronizing git who can moralize against Stephen for squandering money on prostitutes and wasting his potential when he can't even bring himself to go home to his wife.

He also reveals less noble reasons for wishing to aid young Dedalus that go beyond moral consideration. Bloom thinks he might be able to glean intelligence from the genius, and when he convinces Stephen to come to his house at the chapter's end he has all sorts of ludicrously ambitious ideas for what to do when they get there -- write journalism and literature, sing Italian duets, you name it. When he learns Stephen can sing beautifully (something he shares with Joyce himself), Bloom imagines managing Stephen in a successful singing career that would leave plenty of time for buying books, as he condescendingly thinks to himself.

On some level, Bloom sees this as a way to prove himself to Molly and to show up Boylan, who is managing Molly's tour. But it also ignores who Stephen is, who we know him to be from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and from his chapters here. He doesn't care about money, and he would rather stay poor developing the ideas that consume him than make a fortune and pursue his life's passion as some trifling hobby. One cannot entirely deny Bloom's reasonable position: his plan for Stephen would let the man practice two forms of art and never have to worry about his financial future, but it also demonstrates the major split between art and science that demarcate Bloom and Dedalus.

Joyce reflects the communicative gulf between the two in the aesthetic distance of the chapter's structure. These two men do not truly know each other, and the removed descriptions of gestures and whole thoughts shows how little they realize about the frantic fragments bouncing around in each other. Bloom, like the cliché-ridden text (compared to Joyce's embodying allusions and citations, the quotations here are more straightforward, less obscure and more present simply to be recognized), tries too hard to impress, but when you strip away everything, you see that he only has the SparkNotes on Stephen, not the full story and the way that story unfolds for Stephen. Bloom thus serves as a stand-in for the overconfident reader here: he thinks he has the other figured out and plays to that, only to make a fool of himself when that carpet Joyce convinces the reader to keep standing on gets whipped away yet once more.

By shattering the illusion of Bloom's capacity to guide Stephen to some epiphany, Joyce forced me at last to reckon with the last scrap within me that looked to Bloom as a hero. Here at last, Joyce makes inescapably clear that Odysseus does not exist in the real world; there's just a nervous guy with a good heart and an occasionally rotten head. Compare his banality to Murphy, the sailor who loudly brags about his lifelong exploits on the seven seas. At first glance, he seems to be the Odysseus-like hero Bloom isn't, a confident adventurer with brave journeys that kept him from home instead of a fear of more pain and renewed commitment. But Bloom slowly catches Murphy out in tall tales, noting a different name on a postcard the sailor passes around and knowing that the man couldn't possibly have visited all the places he's claimed to and not remember the Rock of Gibraltar since vessels at that time would have had to sail past it to get to half these locales. It's tempting to shift attention to Murphy as Bloom immediately starts stumbling in conversation with Stephen, but soon we see him for the fraud he is and realize that Bloom must be our beacon: he may be flawed, but that makes him all the more relatable.

Of course, Bloom tries to envision himself as a hero to offset some of his recent downturns. When the other patrons get on the subject of Parnell, Bloom jumps from a memory of handing the politician his dropped hat at a rally to trying to imagine himself as the crusading nationalist and womanizer. Though Joyce never settles on politics as the answer for anything, both Portrait and Ulysses owe a great deal of their overall tones from the void left by Parnell and what he represented. Here, however, Bloom primarily fixates on the sordid love triangle between Parnell, his mistress Katherine O'Shea and her husband. Perhaps still clouded from his preceding trip into the depths of his masochistic sexual hangups, Bloom wonders why Parnell couldn't have been allowed to get away with his infidelity and keep O'Shea (whose Spanish blood ties her more explicitly to Molly). He seems to be resigning himself to his role, that of the cuckolded husband who stayed with O'Shea. Eventually, she denounced Parnell and went back to the captain, and Bloom seems to suggest the best way forward in his own life is to forgive Molly. It's still a warped solution, but it shows how badly he wants to keep her.

And if Bloom's symbolic equations and ill-thought-out solutions don't make a lot of sense, what does at 1 in the morning after a long, exhausting day? The threads of conversation and thought in this chapter always start with strength and conviction but no one can muster up any fierce debate. It's at that magic hour when you start to say ridiculous things and the only thing others can do is yawn and say, "Yeah." Seriously, if someone went up to the head of the ADL at this time of night and told him that the Holocaust was a Zionist conspiracy," Robert Sugarman would just drearily nod his head and say, "Later. We'll talk about this later."

There are glaring contradictions in character: Bloom even-handedly wonders why there's no female equivalent of The Odyssey, in which a woman gets to gallivant around for years while the husband must mourn and stay chaste, only to turn to vicious misogyny in his denunciation of prostitutes (a rant brought on by the sight of the first whore he ever slept with). Later, and after all the grief he's suffered for his own ethnicity, he makes stereotypical comments about Italians. But there are counters even to these counters, and the drifting, collapsing patterns suggest that even the novel is wearing itself out. We'll be home at 7 Eccles Street soon, but now that Joyce has scattered the last thought that Bloom is Odysseus, can we hold out any hope he will expel the suitor?

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