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A seachange this

I. Thalatta! Thalatta! (5)

Seawater lingers in the mind of Stephen Dedalus. With him it is a sort of death, bringer of death and home of death.

Stephen begins his day trapped, as ever, between England and the Roman Catholic Church—appearing first in their homely guises of Haines and Buck Mulligan. It is Mulligan who first invokes the sea:

God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtighening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look. (5, Modern Library hardcover)

These words of Mulligan’s persist, as when Stephen, walking on Sandymount Strand, cannot but see the sea as “snotgreen.” (37) This sea is associated with Stephen’s exile. Buck Mulligan becomes the usurper who evicts (in Stephen’s mind) Stephen from his home, by taking his key. This after a long string of explicit and subtle torment, as for instance (a minor instance) when Mulligan refers to England as a “country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts. (14, cf. 50) When, at the end of Telemachus, Stephen sees Mulligan’s “sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round,” it is a sign that the sea is a hostile place for Stephen.

Later, for instance, as he walks by the water, he begins to be sucked into the muck of sand. As his feet are slowly engulfed, his thoughts return home: “He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes. A shut door of a silent tower entombing their blind bodies, the panthersahib and his pointer.” (44) The sand embodies physically what his mind is imposing mentally, the sense of being trapped.

The sea is the home of corpses. Quite literally it is the new home of the drowned man who is fished up a short time later, a “bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine.” (50) But even more it is the home of Stephen’s corpse. Mulligan calls Stephen a “poor dogsbody” (6)—one who does odd jobs. But—lest anyone think that when Stephen “lifted his feet up from the suck,” he was escaping the trap of Mulligan and Haines (44)—Stephen immediately comes across an actual dog’s body, “a bloated carcass of a dog.” Stephen makes the connection explicit, in his thoughts: “Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.” (46)

All of this is established by the operations of Stephen’s mind: the connections he makes between the sea and his own sense of exile make the sea itself the harbinger of that exile, or the locus of it. It is death to him.

II. The dead sea (61, 72)

Putting myself at risk of placing the predicate before the middle term, and so ruining the syllogism, I turn next to Poldy, who also lingers, mentally and physically, by the seaside. Bloom is of a much more even keel than Stephen.

It does not seem so at first. Bloom first thinks of the sea in what is one of his darkest moments of the day. A cloud covers the sun, and the world is, for a moment, gray. Bloom’s thoughts:

No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no first, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. no wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world. (61)

Characteristically of Bloom, however, this does not last. Of course, as I looked at earlier today, Bloom’s mood recovers with the thought of returning to his wife. But even beyond that, the image of the dead sea is made innocuous. As Bloom goes to the chemist’s to pick up a concoction for his wife’s skin, Bloom recalls a picture he saw:

Where was the chap I saw in that picture somewhere? Ah, in the dead sea, floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open. Couldn’t sink if you tried: so thick with salt. Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body in the water is equal to the weight of the. Or is it the volume is equal of the weight? It’s a law something like that. (72)

Here the dead sea is a curiosity, a strange region of the earth that offers a certain amusement to tourists: the sea where you cannot sink. It provides as well an opportunity for Bloom to stretch his brain on a math/science problem, though he does not fair well. No hint remains of the apocalyptic vision of before. It is characteristic of Bloom’s relative tranquility of mind that he quickly stabilizes after disturbances, and here is no exception. Perhaps there is a causal connection between the two events—perhaps the apocalyptic vision prompted, in some fashion, the later recollection of the curiosity—but all the as it were spiritual overtones are vanished and replaced. Bloom’s constitution is robust.

III. the sea the sea (783)

Moving on, then, to my final subject. Here I shall be more circumspect—I cannot read quickly enough to finish Ulysses in a single day, at least not if what I am doing is to deserve the epithet ‘reading’—as the passage I wish to discuss comes from the very end of Ulysses, as Molly Bloom recollects both past lovers and her choice to marry Leopold. Amidst these recollections comes a reprise of Buck Mulligan’s cry, with which I began—Thalatta! Thalatta!—only not in the Greek now, rather in the vernacular.

…O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire… (783)

Molly is caught in a torrent of thought, and here is one ecstasy within it. No longer is the sea a morass of turbid gloom, snotgreen, or a bloater of corpses, saltwhite: it flashes red with the sun. It is not musty and old, but vibrant. Nor is the play of light of the sun like the ominous image created much earlier, in Nestor: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” (36) It is euphoric.

There may be reason to doubt this euphoria. As a good friend and perceptive reader commented on my very first post on this blog, there is something ambiguous about it, perhaps even empty. I may be downplaying these ambiguities. (Having not reread Penelope today, it is hard for me to say.) Nonetheless, I cannot help but see this repetition of Mulligan’s cry, with a total opposition of valence, as a culmination of the move of the book from negation and death to affirmation—however ambiguous that affirmation might turn out to be.

IV. A seachange this (50)

For each character, the sea takes on the shape and color that fits their moods and swings of moods. Joyce looks at the sea, not in itself, but only in relation to those who interact with it, both physically and mentally. The sea is a receptacle for Stephen, for Bloom, for Molly. It is ample enough to contain them all.

Thus ends my Bloomsday.

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