Episode 4: Calypso

20140704_100403-EFFECTSLeopold Bloom. Let’s talk about him. Let’s talk about how awesome he is.

Okay, first I have a confession to make. When I first read Ulysses, I did not think that Leopold Bloom was that awesome. I thought that he was kind of a failure. Now I am convinced he is one of the best characters in literature. I was I think 20 or 21 when I first read this book. Now I’m 31. Could be me that has changed.

I will give you a little warning here: I’m going to talk a lot about Bloom, and mention some things that are alluded to here but not really revealed until later on, as well as some things that are just flat out not mentioned until later on.[1]

Who is Leopold Bloom? Is he someone special, or “just this guy, you know?” (Adams, 153). Bloom is often referred to as an “everyman,” but I think this is a disservice to him. Bloom is a complicated fellow, a wanderer on the streets of Dublin, a man who may in fact become a hero. Bloom is our Odysseus.

We meet Leopold Bloom in his kitchen. He is up early; later today he will be attending a funeral for a friend of his, but now he is preparing breakfast for his wife, Molly[2]. He talks to his cat[3] while making Molly’s toast, and eventually decides to walk around the corner to buy a kidney for breakfast.[4] At the butcher’s shop, he ogles the maid from next door. When he gets home, he brings Molly her tea and the post, and they chat about various subjects. Although he nearly burns the kidney, he manages to save it and has his breakfast while reading Milly’s (his 15-year old daughter) letter to him. After eating, he steps out into the garden; there has been a drought, and the plants are overgrown[5] and in need of tending. Then, in one of the scenes that got the book marked as obscene, uses the jakes.

We actually learn a lot about Bloom from this day-in-the-life section. We see that he cares for Molly, but get a sense that something strange is going on between them (for example, he notices Molly has hidden one of the letters she received at 4.308). He thinks about their son, Rudy, who was stillborn (see 4.418–20), and we get the feeling he is still sad about it. We also see that he’s a curious person, and he seems like someone who has spent a lot of time reading, although his hypotheses are not always correct (for example, his discussion of cats’ whiskers at 4.39–42). Bloom also thinks about mortality, especially in light of the funeral of Paddy Dignam that he is shortly to attend—he’s genuinely sad about the death. Bloom is not an educated person the way Stephen Dedalus is with his command of several languages, but he’s interested and engaged in the world around him. We actually see him engaging in some interesting Orientalist fantasizing about being “[s]omewhere in the east” (4.84):

Wander through awned streets. Turbaned faces going by. Dark caves of carpet shops, big man, Turko the terrible, seated crosslegged, smoking a coiled pipe. Cries of sellers in the streets. Drink water scented with fennel, sherbet. Dander along all day. Might meet a robber or two. Well, meet him. Getting on to sundown. The shadows of mosques among the pillars: priest with a scroll rolled up. A shiver of the trees, signal, the evening wind. I pass on. Fading gold sky. A mother watches me from her doorway. She calls her children home in their dark language. High wall beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen. A girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers. I pass.

Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read . . . (4.88–99)

There are so many interesting things here I can’t spend time on all of it, but in brief: the “cries of sellers in the streets” mirrors Stephen’s note that God is “[a] shout in the street” (2.386) from episode 2. The language itself conjures up very beautiful images. And finally, the rejection at the end of the passage means that Bloom has more insight into the truth of (i.e., the lie behind) Orientalism than Buck Mulligan.

One of the things this episode really shows is how effective stream-of-consciousness narration can be. Without necessarily understanding all of the stuff I’ve mentioned above, we are allowed to perceive many of Bloom’s thoughts that prepare us for the later truths. For example, we see him notice the missing letter, but don’t grasp immediately why it’s significant. We understand that he had a stillborn child, but don’t immediately grasp the impact this has had on his life. These small points prepare us for the revelations about Bloom’s life in the rest of the novel, as well as symbolically setting up certain themes. Narratively, Joyce manages to accomplish all of this without having to actually tell us anything more than what a normal morning at the Bloom household looks like—a neat trick.

The other important theme introduced here is that of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. As Bloom explains, “Reincarnation, that’s the word . . . . Some people believe . . . that we can go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet . . . . Metempsychosis . . . is what the ancient Greeks call it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance” (4.361–86). Bloom is actually off a little bit here at the beginning—metempsychosis is as he says at the end, “the passing of the soul at death into another body either human or animal” (Merriam Webster, s.v. “metempsychosis,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metempsychosis), whereas reincarnation is “the idea or belief that people are born again with a different body after death” (Ibid., s.v. “reincarnation,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reincarnation).[6] Recalling that we are dealing with a work that has strong thematic ties to the Odyssey, this theme may begin to make sense.

Next time: Sex, drugs, and religion, what fun.

Notes

[1] For those wondering about how these essays are being constructed, I am constantly wrestling with the issue of discussing the episodes qua episodes versus discussing the episodes qua the book as a whole. Here, I’m going to do the latter a little bit.

[2] Short for Marion, née Marion Tweedy.

[3] For a number of reasons, I really enjoy the little moments with animals that turn up in Joyce’s works. Stephen watching a dog running on the beach in the previous section, Bloom’s interactions with the cat—all of them strike me as very well observed. In addition, for historical reasons, it’s interesting to me to see how people interacted with their pets at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[4] In what may be the first of many reminiscences, I want to note that in honor of this scene, my father once went out and got himself a pork kidney and cooked it while my mother was out on call. Although my parents didn’t keep strict kosher, they did eschew pork products; as my father told the story, Mom wasn’t pleased when she got home and found out about the kidney. (To be fair, this may have had something to do with my father’s chronic inability to remember to wash the pans he’d used after he cooked, rather than the kidney qua kidney.)

[5] As any English professor worth her salt will tell you, the overgrown gardens are a metaphor for the relationship problems between Molly and Leopold.

[6] People being slightly off on things they say is another theme in the book—for example, Bloom occasionally misquotes a piece of an aria as “Volglio e non vorrei” (I want to and I wouldn’t like to) rather than “Vorrei e non vorrei” (I’d like to and I wouldn’t like to).

References

Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1993.

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