Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Thirteen: Nausicaa

[Link to previous chapters here]

Note to self: stop thinking I have Leopold Bloom pegged down. James Joyce delights in confounding expectations and shaking up his book every time he intuits the reader has found even a sliver of understanding. After pulling back to show Bloom's frustrating weaknesses, Joyce finally gave the man a moment to shine and stand up for himself, only to sink to a new low here.

Not that this is evident at first. The novel, as ever displaying a self-awareness and a humanistic desire to get other perspectives, no matter how flawed, once more dips into someone else's POV, and the style shifts accordingly. The first half of the Nausicaa chapter owes to, of all things in this game-shifting tome, cheesy Harlequin Romance. It's hilarious: James Joyce, King Glot of Everything, casting aside Shakespeare, Latin and Homer for the sort of book Bloom is bringing home for Molly, a flowery, flushed-cheek bit of fluff.

The narration focuses on a girl, Gerty MacDowell, as she sits on the beach with her two friends and the children they're babysitting. The narration describes her with such effusive paeans to her beauty that I almost suspected the conceited, Irish-loving narrator from the previous chapter had left the pub and decided to start beatifying an Irish lass to cool off from his murderous thoughts about Bloom. With church bells tolling in the distance, the vision of Gerty's purity is so syrupy and sentimental it's damn near impossible not to laugh.

But beneath her "ivorylike" skin and rosy cheeks lies a far more complicated creature. The tone of the narration does not shift, but slowly she lets on a sexually active imagination, one splintered by intruding religious thoughts. Joyce may not give us Gerty's actual inner monologues and subjective view as he does the men, but even in the distant, treacly prose he uses for Gerty's romanticized self-image, he delves into the Madonna-whore complex that rigidly defines women in the deeply Catholic Ireland. Joyce filled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with this complex, which crippled Stephen by twisting his perception of women until they could only fit one or the other. Joyce knows that even the most virginal girl -- and Gerty is just that, still a teenager -- can entertain the same thoughts that drive men wild.

Pining for a boyfriend that neglects her, Gerty turns her attention to a gentleman watching her from behind a rock. The man, whom we later learn is Bloom, stares at her, and she begins to construct a tragic, romantic life story around this man and the face that is "the saddest she had ever seen." Her fabricated narrative for Bloom fills her own loneliness and desire. I'm reminded of a moment in The Fisher King when the homeless madman Parry finally gets his date with the woman he loves; she expresses embarrassment for working to publish "trashy" romance novels, to which Parry says, "There's nothing trashy about romance. In romance is passion. There's imagination. There's beauty."

But there's a darker side to this, one that reveals a sadness in both Bloom and Gerty. She notices his stare and hikes up her skirt to tease Bloom. At a certain point, enough clues are dropped that we realize Bloom is masturbating; he's actually been reduced to staring at a teenager and getting out his stress in plain view of people. And what of Gerty, revealed to be more world-wise than the ornate, saintly prose would let on? Is she getting out her own sexual repression? I found her skin-showing to be oddly sympathetic, a recognition of someone else's own dissatisfaction as she sits among children she finds noisy and friends she finds common.

At last, Bloom climaxes as a Roman candle launches fireworks overhead. (Alfred Hitchcock must have read this chapter as a lad and thought, "Shoulders of giants, Hitch. Shoulders of giants.) The act finished, the narration shifts back to Bloom's internal monologue as he watches Gerty leave, filled with shame. But just as Gerty felt some degree of pity for Bloom, so too does he feel for her; he notices the limp she glossed over in her lofty self-portrait and feels bad for her.

Bloom goes on to meditate on women and sexuality. Because he is a man who, despite his Jewish heritage, has been influenced by the Church's social order (and Jewish scripture does not offer up any progressive views on women either), Bloom's first thoughts convey a casual misogyny he does not even realize. "A defect is ten times worse in a woman," he says upon realizing her condition. "But makes them polite. Glad I didn’t know it when she was on show.” We've stepped outside Bloom's head for a few chapters now to see the world cutting him down, making the already sympathetic portrait of the man all the more appealing to our hopes that he might overcome his fears and hangups and go back to Molly. Yet the first thoughts we hear upon returning that skull of his are abhorrent.

The second half is despairing and grimy. Bloom tucks his semen-soaked shirt back into his pants and his wet penis sticks uncomfortably to the inside of his trousers. He notes that his watched stopped at 4:30 and wonders if that's when Boylan and Molly had sex, which in turn makes him think of Molly having sex. He also notes past encounters with prostitutes, which begs the question: "Before or after marriage?" When he wonders about his daughter Milly's sexual development, uncomfortable parallels appear between her and the girl to whom he just masturbated. More than ever, Joyce defies us to press on and accept everything about the people in his books. Just as Gerty's flirtatious purity mixes reductive roles for women, so too does Joyce mix heroic qualities with vile ones.

But I'm suggesting that Joyce deals in dualities. Not so; he recognizes the multitude of contradictions inside each one of us, discrepancies and warring perspectives that expand further with joined with those of other people. Bloom may have reductive views on women, but he also displays a curiosity and sympathy for them. "There ought to be women priests," he thinks as he ponders women forced to go confess their urges to men, and, aware of the relief he enjoys from an orgasm, sympathizes with women who cannot come. At the end of the chapter, Bloom takes a stick and draws "I AM A" in the sand but leaves the sentence unfinished, giving the audience the freedom to put in the word that best describes him. But after this chapter, anyone who might have had a single-word summary of the man can no longer have so simplistic a view of the man. Anything can go after that phrase, and that's exactly the point.

In his post-ejaculation sleepiness, Bloom's thoughts turn to matters around him, such as questions of whether fish get seasick. Since Joyce nibbled at the Church's two-dimensional view of women, Bloom gets in more shots at religion. He outrageously blasphemes when he thinks that our body odor comes from sex and that women are thus attracted to celibate priests for having different scents, and he also compares the repetition in a Mass to that of an advertisement. Repetition makes the message stick in the mind more, helping pack simplistic slogans and jingles into a head until a potential customer blindly buys the product.

But the politics don't matter as much as the humanism here. Bloom's attention to smells comes on when he gets a whiff of Gerty's perfume, which in turn triggers scent memories of Molly's fragrances. As he goes deeper into his memory via olfactory recognition (smell being the strongest link to memory), he wonders why he never stopped and truly considered his wife's scent until now, now that he might be losing here. It's the first time Bloom has broached the issue of guilt at Molly cheating on him instead of despairing that the wife he loves (and he clearly does love her) no longer cares for him. It's the first step to accepting complexity in how things are going down and could lead him to do something about it. Of course, he's just shot his wad and needs a little nap first. One step forward...

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