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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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Why I mistrust D.H. Lawrence

2014/06/16 1 comment

It being Bloomsday, I have set aside the novel that had been occupying my idle hours—D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—and taken up Ulysses. Fortunate timing, for reading Women in Love was becoming more and more a task and not a pleasure. I do not know if I will return to the book when I complete Ulysses. Since, however, I have found in Ulysses passages that help clarify the grounds of my mistrust of Lawrence, I will take time out of my Bloomsday to excavate publicly these grounds.

A brief biography, to begin. I read and loved Sons and Lovers, and so became eager to read Women in Love. It seemed at first that that novel would equally become a favorite. But somewhere around 200-250 pages into it (about halfway), I began to become skeptical. Continued reading confirmed and deepened that skepticism, and now I have reached the point where I am not sure I was right to have enjoyed Sons and Lovers.

The basic source of the mistrust is Lawrence’s extremism—the value that he places in extreme emotions. There is no bare existence, in a Lawrence novel. Every moment is life or death, hatred or love, suffocation or intoxication. There is no ambivalence, only absolutes. But, someone will say, doesn’t Lawrence capture beautifully those moments in which, say, Gudrun Brangwen is torn, having heard Gerald Crich say just what she wanted to hear, yet nonetheless unable to go fully along with it? Yes, but this is a false ambivalence—it is two absolutes, two extremes, coexisting unstably.

This, it seems to me, is a myth. The mythical quality of Lawrence’s world may be expressed in a dilemma. Imagine for a moment that there is a perfectly real place the events of which Lawrence is attempting to describe accurately. Assume, that is, that Women in Love is a history rather than a novel. This history may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate. If accurate, it is a myth, because it leaves out the everyday, that general blankness in which the vast majority of human life is spent. The characters rocket from extreme to extreme, without passing through the middle: natura facit saltus. There is no everyday in this world. If inaccurate, it is still a myth, because it falsifies the everyday. Every slight animosity is not a hatred; every attraction not a love. Every blankness is not a death, nor every displeasure.

In either case, then, Lawrence is perpetuating a myth. The fundamental tenet of the myth states that what is valuable in life is a certain intensity of feeling—even irrespective of the valence of this feeling. I find a poverty in this tenet, and so I mistrust Lawrence. Ulysses offers a valuable alternative.

Both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom begin their day under the spell of death—Dedalus, the death of his mother, long enough ago that his grief is controlled but still present, yet recent enough that he still dresses in mourning clothes, Bloom, the death of Dignam, a casual acquaintance. Of these two, Stephen comes closer to Lawrencian extremes, whereas Bloom is more even-keeled.

As the novel begins, Buck Mulligan, usurper, is jovially tormenting Stephen Dedalus, who is showing signs of frustration. When Mulligan asks him what it is, Stephen recounts an episode shortly after his mother’s death, in which Buck Mulligan said, “O, its only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.” (8) [Page references are to the Modern Library hardcover.] Shortly thereafter, as we glimpse into Stephen’s consciousness, we are treated to the sight of “the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart.” Yet what causes these wounds is not “the offence to my mother,” but rather, “the offence to me.” (8-9) Stephen’s melodrama here is narcissistic at its base. This recasts his earlier rejection of Mulligan’s offer of a pair of grey trousers on the grounds that they were not mourning colors. The stately seriousness with which Stephen upholds the etiquette of death now seems less a tribute to his mother than a vapid sort of self-love. It is not contemptible, but it bespeaks an emptiness in Stephen’s grief. There is something disingenuous about it.

Bloom, by contrast, is neither extreme nor narcissistic. There is one moment of extremity, when a cloud covers the sun: “Desolation.” (61) Yet this is quickly dispelled by the thought of his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” So too in his relation to Dignam. While walking in the street, he runs into Mr. O’Rourke. “Stop and say a word: about the funeral perhaps…” (58) Yet when he speaks, he says nothing about the funeral. Why not? I suspect because it affects him more than he lets on. Even still, Bloom, at the end of the funeral service for Dignam, thinks: “Were those two buttons of my waistcoat open all the time. Women enjoy it.” (83) This sort of vulgarity is characteristic of Bloom: at once sincere and bestial. He treats Dignam’s death with no special gravity, but with honesty. And throughout it all there is a mildness, an averageness, an unremarkableness.

Stephen’s extremes are something of a put on, disguising a lack of substance. They convey a real lack of richness, a proper emptiness. Bloom’s mildness, by contrast, is lacking nothing, for all its constraint within narrow limits of intensity. Of course, it would be wrong to identify Stephen’s extremes with those of Lawrence’s characters. The point is rather that I think the picture Joyce provides, through Stephen, is more reliable than that of Lawrence. I do not believe one can feel perpetually such strong emotions as Lawrence suggests; nor do I think one should want to.

When I first began reading Emerson and Nietzsche, I did not read them well. In particular, I read them as offering me just the sort of extremity that I find in Lawrence. At the time, I had a sense that I was dead, inside, that I could not feel much of anything. I thought Emerson and Nietzsche held the promise of a sort of perpetual ecstasy. This was a myth, my own—the myth of intensified feelings, I called it, for myself. It took me some time to disabuse myself of it.

I mistrust Women in Love because its attractions seem to want to suck me back into this myth I spent such effort overcoming. I even mistrust Sons and Lovers retroactively—I worry that what it appealed to in me was nothing more than the latent remains of this myth.

Happy Bloomsday.

Addendum: This is not really a proper Bloomsday post; I will have another up sometime later.

Imperthnthn thnthnthn

2013/06/16 2 comments

The Sirens episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses is structured around musical patterns. As a result, it is the most beautiful episode in the book. Yet its beauty is more often than not ambiguous. I hope to trace out some of these ambiguities. (All page references are to the Gabler edition.)

Sirens opens with a sequence of sixty lines, each one of which is a theme that recurs later in the episode, some many times, others but once. For instance, the theme that gives this post its title is the second of the sixty: “imperthnthn thnthnthn.” Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy are looking out the window, and the waiter is badgering them about the object of their spying. Miss Douce threatens to tell his boss about his “impertinent insolence” (212) if he doesn’t leave. Then: “Imperthnthn thnthnthn, bootsnout sniffed rudely, as he retreated as she threatened as he had come.” The theme repeats a page later: “Douce huffed and snorted down her nostrils that quivered imperthnthn like a snout in quest.” (213) Those are its only appearances in the episode.

But that theme is not the main object of my interest: like the waiter, I am more interested in the object of Miss Douce’s and Miss Kennedy’s laughter. Hence I shall engage in some impertinent insolence of my own, and investigate it. The first of the sixty themes reads, “Bronze by gold hear the hoofirons, steelyringing,” (210) referring to the brunette Miss Douce and the blonde Miss Kennedy. Once the string of themes has completed, with number 59 (“Done.”) and number 60 (“Begin!”), we are introduced to these two ladies, sitting in a bar and conversing. Their conversation turns eventually to Leopold Bloom, “that old fogey in Boyd’s.” (213) They begin to laugh at him, for instance at his “goggle eye.”

The passages describing this laughter show Joyce’s literary talents at their height. Two examples:

In a giggling peal young goldbronze voices blended, Douce with Kennedy your other eye. They threw young heads back, bronze gigglegold, to let freefly their laughter, screaming, your other, signals to each other, high piercing notes. (213)

Shrill, with deep laughter, after, gold after bronze, they urged each each to peal after peal, ringing in changes, bronzegold, goldbronze, shrilldeep, to laughter after laughter. And then laughed more. Greasy I knows. Exhausted, breathless, their shaken heads they laid, braided and pinnacled by glossycombed, against the counterledge. All flushed (O!), panting, sweating (O!), all breathless. (214)

Douce and Kennedy are having a good laugh at Leopold Bloom, man of “greasy eyes!” (214) and “bit of beard!” They are particularly laughing at the thought of Molly Bloom (née Marion Tweedy) “being married to a man like that.” This mockery is a precursor to the next episode, Cyclops, where Bloom will meet such insults face to face. And yet there is an ambiguity here, in the description of Bloom as “greasy.”

In the context in which Douce and Kennedy use it, the term ‘greasy’ means just what you’d expect: it suggests that Bloom is oily and dirty, slick. (Subliminally, it may be connected to his being Jewish, and the relevant associated stereotypes.) “—Married to the greasy nose! she yelled.” (214) But the narrator of the episode effects a shift in the way the word is to be taken. Immediately following the second longer passage quoted above (ending in “all breathless”), the narrator appends, “Married to Bloom, to greaseabloom.” Here, “greasy” is connected with “seabloom”, an image that plays off Bloom’s name and the beauty apparent within it. Moreover, the connection is not simply a juxtaposition of two opposing elements. In an Irish accent, “grease” is pronounced more like “grace” (I owe this fact to a college professor who taught a delightful tutorial on Joyce). When said aloud, then, “greaseabloom” subverts the negative connotations of “greasy”, and Bloom emerges triumphant, in a way. His greasiness is not denied, but, as with all of his vulgarities, is rather transformed into a virtue.

This is a small instance of a process that takes place over the course of the entire episode. Compare the first theme—“Bronze by gold hear the hoofirons, steelyringing”—with the fifty-sixth theme—“Where bronze from anear? Where gold from afar? Where hoofs?” The episode opens with the bronze and gold heads of Douce and Kennedy, and they are ubiquitous throughout. The first theme is one of the most repeated themes in the episode. Yet the fifty-sixth theme, which explicitly appears only once (and even then only barely) points to the absence of Douce and Kennedy. Where are bronze and gold?

There is a turning point on page 237. We are treated to an “exquisite contrast: bronzelid, minagold”, and then, a few lines later, is this: “Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone.” It is initially tempting to read this as a description of Bloom as the lonely last sardine of summer, but the passage is again ambiguous. For, after this image of Bloom alone (and know that alone is not at all the same as lonely), we do not see bronze or gold again. They are mentioned only once, and mentioned only to note that they are not seen. A blind stripling has been making his way to the bar (his approach is marked by the presence of increasingly frequent taps, the tap of the cane he uses to navigate), and of him the narrator says, “He saw not bronze. He saw not gold.” (238) (The narrator goes on to list many others he did not see—Bloom is not on the list.)

This passage is the one quasi-explicit use of the fifty-sixth theme. Where are bronze and gold? They are not seen; who knows where they are? By and large they are absent: we are now seeing Bloom alone. (Here we see how “Bloom alone” has a dual meaning: Bloom is alone, yes, but also Bloom alone is seen by us—we see no one else.) It is this absence in which we really see the theme at work. It is not revealed (except in a glimpse) in any explicit language, but is instead revealed by the absence of language that recalls the previously omnipresent first theme. The two themes are opposed, and, by the end, the fifty-sixth theme has vanquished its rival.

This victory of Bloom’s is also represented with a second effort by Joyce to transform a vulgar act into a heroic one. Before looking into this, though, go back to the two passages quoted above, the descriptions of “bronze gigglegold.” Laughter is a naturally musical sound, and it is no surprise to find it at the start of Sirens. But while the language of those passages is beautiful, the laughter described is not. It is described (in passages not quoted) as “shrill” and “shrieking.” (213) In the first quoted passage, the laugher is described as “screaming” and “high piercing notes”; in the second, we are given a description of a strenuous, sweaty process. Joyce reveals the physicality of their laughter, showing it in detail that reveals its ugliness.

Of course, physicality need not be ugly, and Joyce throughout the novel uses such descriptions to reveal beauty—this is, in fact, precisely what happens when he is transforming Bloom’s crude physicality into his heroic nobility. The end of the Sirens episode is in fact a description of Bloom farting: little bits of gas escape as Bloom frantically searches for a safe, private place to let go, and he finally finds a “good oppor” (239) and lets it out: “Pprrpffrrppffff.” This fart—one of two in the novel—is the climax of the episode, and is presented as deliciously musical, much more so than the laughter of Misses Douce and Kennedy. Notably, just before the fart occurs, Bloom is described, again, as “Seabloom, greaseabloom” (238)—establishing firmly the positive valence of the image, of his greasiness.

But there is one further ambiguity that complicates things. In my discussion of the fifty-sixth theme, I focused on its first two questions, about Douce and Kennedy. But there are three questions total, the third being, “Where hoofs?” Like Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, the hoofs are absent at the end of the episode. In fact, they have been absent for a while, for they are the hoofs of the mare that “Blazes” Boylan is riding. Boylan is riding off to sleep with none other than Molly Bloom, so the question “where hoofs?” must receive the answer: Bloom’s house. The seeming triumph of the first two questions evaporates in the face of the third. Bloom may have vanquished two of his critics, but he has, so it seems, lost the much more important battle.

Yet even here things are not straightforward. When Boylan first walks into the bar, he is greeted by Lenehan: “See the conquering hero comes.” (217) Lenehan (probably) has no knowledge of the affair, but it is hard not to read a subtext of Boylan conquering Bloom. Immediately, however, the narrator subverts this: “Between the car and window, warily walking, went Bloom, unconquered hero.” Boylan may be a conquering hero, but Bloom remains unconquered.

This is, or should be, unsatisfying. For the ominous question “where hoofs?” arises later in the episode, and it doesn’t lack force. The narrator referring to Bloom as an unconquered hero is suggestive, but unconvincing, and the third question in theme fifty-six brings that home. If Bloom remains unconquered, we must see it. I think we do see just that, but for that we’d need to look well beyond Sirens. Sirens, taken alone, remains ambiguous.

Happy Bloomsday.