Episode 2: Nestor

This is a short episode but one in which many of the novel’s famous lines occur.[1] Here we see Stephen Dedalus as a teacher in a boys’ school, teaching history, literature, and maths to his students. After they go outside for a field hockey game, Stephen talks to his boss, the headmaster Mr. Deasy, about various topics—money, the English, religion, and foot-and-mouth disease. On this last topic, Mr. Deasy asks Stephen to take some letters to newspaper editors he knows, and Stephen agrees. As he leaves, Mr. Deasy chases him down to offer one last (anti-Semitic) joke.

There is a lot to talk about here in terms of colonialism—Stephen teaching his students the history of ancient Greece, his inner thoughts on Haines’s remarks in the previous section, his recollection of seeing a Siamese person working in the library in Paris in which he was studying,[2] the boys playing field hockey (an English game) rather than hurling (a somewhat similar Irish game), Mr. Deasy’s reverence for all things British (up to a picture of Albert Edward on his wall[3]), and so on. There’s a lot to say also about the father-son connections—as Tindall observes, Deasy (pronounced like “daisy”) seems to want to be a father figure to Stephen, who rejects his advances; Deasy’s name seems to prefigure the appearance of Leopold Bloom (who occasionally goes by the pseudonym “Henry Flower,” but we’ll come to that in time),[4] who will serve as a better (?) father figure to Stephen. There’s a lot about religion and a lot of pretty clear parallels to the Odyssey (Deasy represents Nestor to Stephen’s Telemachus). But I’m not going to talk about all of that right now, or not directly, though I’ll come back to some things later on. I’m going to talk about this line:

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. (2.377)

What does this mean? Don Gifford notes that it is a reference to Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue, who wrote, “ ‘La vie est trop triste, trop sale. L’histoire est un vieux cauchemar barioléqui ne se doute pas que les meilleurs plaisanteries sont les plus courtes’ (Life is very dreary, very sordid. History is an old and variegated nightmare that does not suspect that the best jokes are also the most brief)” (1988, 39). This is interesting but unilluminating. Tindall notes that the entire chapter is about history—in fact, it is listed as the “art” of the chapter on the schemas. “To [Stephen] the past is intolerable, its shape arbitrary, its materials fictive and uncertain . . . Confined to time and space, history is impermanent and unreliable” (1959, 141). But this again is mostly a restatement of what Stephen is actually saying, rather than an explanation thereof.

So what does it actually mean? Deasy provides a clue when he replies, “The ways of the Creator are not our ways . . . . All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (2.380–1). This is a very Victorian view of history, although Gifford traces it all the way from Augustine of Hippo through Giordano Bruno to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel himself (1988, 39). By contrast, Stephen’s view is much more modernist verging on post-modern[5]: rather than being a progression toward something, history is instead the nearly random actions and reactions of a disparate group of people with variable motives, terrible and uncontrollable.[6] For a writer, there are some interesting implications to this. Stephen is, of course, denying the idea of destiny, but maybe there’s more than that. Books, after all, contain a plot wherein actions within a narrated time stream take place in a certain order and come to a conclusion. In a certain sense, because the plot is created by someone outside the novel, the conclusion is in fact a preordained final point toward which the rest of the book works. By awakening from the “nightmare” of history, Stephen can perhaps step outside this emplottedness and write something different, something that similarly lacks destiny.

Reading Stephen as Joyce, of course, we can say definitively that he did manage this with Finnegans Wake.[7] But that’s breaking the fourth wall a little bit. And it’s also not entirely fair, because obviously when he was writing this, Joyce didn’t know that he was going to write Finnegans Wake. But if he really did go out to “Forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (Portrait, 275–6), I suppose we can guess that he probably had something brewing.[8]

There’s one other thing I want to talk about with regards to this episode, which is movement. In the whole section, Stephen stands in his classroom, goes to Mr. Deasy’s office, and then walks out of the school. There is absolutely nothing remarkable here—very little movement, some strained conversation without much in the way of emotion or really description, but yet through what Joyce refers to as a personal catechism,[9] we as readers not only get a good sense of Stephen’s emotions, but we tacitly understand that this is somehow his last day of this. He is leaving the school. As he declared in the first episode that he won’t return to the Martello tower, he also won’t return to the school. I’m not the only one who senses this, by the way—Tindall also remarks on it (1959, 141). This is thematically appropriate somehow—the first part of Ulysses seems to concern death: the death of Stephen’s mother, the funeral Bloom attends, and also the death of certain parts of Stephen’s life—he is leaving the tower, leaving his job. He has reached a certain point of life—I can certainly relate to this feeling—where the things of his youth no longer fit, yet he doesn’t quite know which of the trappings of adulthood he’s reaching for—he doesn’t know what he’s going to be yet.[10]

Where is he going? What will become of him? Tune in tomorrow for the next episode.

Notes

[1] The assertion that these are famous lines is made in the Ulysses Wikipedia article and is uncited. But I think it’s true. (See Wikipedia ).

[2] I feel like I should comment on this, even if only to say that yes, there were a lot of Siamese students (mostly the children of elites, including many of King Chulalunkorn’s (Rama V’s) sons studying in the West during the late Victorian period. The crown prince, Vajiravudh, who would become Rama VI, lived in the UK from 1893–1902ish and took a degree at Oxford in law and history.

[3] Prince Albert Edward was Edward VII (r. 1901-1910); his son Albert Victor was possibly somehow mixed up in the Jack the Ripper killings but probably just a somewhat weird product of royal inbreeding. See also my essay on From Hell, “That Sick Feeling: From Hell Reviewed.”

[4] Leopold Bloom is our Odysseus to Stephen’s Telemachus, but we won’t meet him until episode 4.

[5] That’s right, I said post-modern. I’ll talk a little more about the (surprisingly many) po-mo aspects of the book later on.

[6] As Amy Fish at the Modernism Lab at Yale University points out, Ulysses was composed directly after World War I, a time when the idea that things were going in a planned direction seemed especially ludicrous.

[7] Damn, I said I wasn’t going to talk about the po-mo stuff until later on. Also I should point out that in a sort of weird ironic counterpoint to my suggestion that the Wake is something different from the nightmare of history qua novel plots, it’s about one man dreaming all of human history. I think.

[8] Or, that is to say, he may have had an idea of the direction in which he wanted his literary project to move. For the uninitiated, I didn’t mention this before, but you should know that Ulysses is sort of a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was originally the (unpublished) book Stephen Hero, and the character of Stephen Dedalus is a somewhat thinly veiled (or, say, semi-autobiographical) version of Joyce himself, who at one point used the name “Stephen Daedelus” as a pen name.

[9] This is the term he uses in the Gilbert schema (here).

[10] I apologize for my gratuitous use of the em dash in that last sentence.

References

Fish, Amy. “Nestor.” The Modernism Lab at Yale University. http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/%22Nestor%22. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2010.

Gifford, Don, with Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2nd ed., rev. and exp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Edited, with an introduction and notes by Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Tindall, William York. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. New York: The Noonday Press, 1959.

Dogs ChasingHappy Bloomsday, everyone!

 

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