Em oi! #432: You’re going to be Mister Finn again

During a rather wide-ranging talk with a friend, it was suggested to me that I should try reading Finnegans Wake aloud to young Hal. Of course I tried it the next night. Much of Ulysses reads aloud very well, and I have gained a new appreciation for the Telemachiad that way. And I have heard it said that reading the Wake aloud is also a great way to catch the double meanings. But. Um.

Honestly, reading FW aloud feels a little like developing some type of aphasia. And the double meanings (I hesitate to call them puns) are, well–

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war…

The word I’ve bolded here is extremely typical of the type of reference that’s supposed to become obvious when the text is read aloud. “Passencore” = “pas encore” = French for “not yet.” Sir Tristram had not yet returned from North Armorica. (Armorica is one of those words that makes you feel like you’re having a stroke–it’s really an ancient term for part of northern France, but I think it is used intentionally to also seem to reference North America, since later in the paragraph there are references to the city of Dublin, Georgia, USA.) Anyway. If you read the text aloud with the proper Dublin accent (not a secondhand attempt to mimic some great aunt’s County Down accent), and possibly also you knew what you were looking for, you might make sense of passencore. Or, as mentioned in the comic, “ostrygods gaggin fishygods” = Ostrogoths gagging (fighting with) Visigoths. But you’d probably have to figure that out from context as much as anything else.

I have started slowly picking my way through a few good books on the subject (A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Campbell because I recall my dad having a copy…and A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake by Tindall, because it was recommended by one of the websites that came up while I was researching this). They are helpful and put things in some context–more so than, for example, this site, which aside from having been designed in approximately 2003 contains more information than can ever possibly be useful. Anyway, the short answer to the question you’re all probably asking (“What on Earth…?”) is that the book depicts a man (probably HCE? although I don’t know if there’s a good reason to assume the character inside the dream is the same as the one outside) who falls asleep and dreams the history of the Earth and its repetitions as described by Giambattista Vico in The New Science.[1] The fall of Tim Finnegan and his revival, as depicted in a Dublin street ballad (“Finnegan’s Wake“[2]), becomes the prototype of every fall (the fall of man, e.g.). HCE becomes the Duke of Wellington, Adam, Osiris… (Yeah, another significant influence was the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which leads to my new PhD thesis, Colonialism, Orientalism, and Intercultural Mimesis in the Works of James Joyce.[3]) Other characters (HCE’s wife and sons) are similarly used symbolically to represent recurring figures throughout history. If you’re confused, you might want to check out The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder, which does basically the same thing except not in dream language.

One other fact I recall: Joyce spent a good portion of his life on this book. So while he was working on it, his daughter Lucia (who was fairly ill-used in many respects) was going mad. Carl Jung, who treated her, apparently observed that while both Joyce and his daughter were “submerged in the same water,” “…where [he] swims, she drowns.” So there’s that.

We’ll file this under PR6019.O9Z5 L86 2018, for English literature–1900-1960–Individual authors–J–Joyce, James, 1882-1941–Biography and criticism–General works. Also please note that this is one place where the classification falls a bit flat–this is the English literature category; there’s also an American literature category, as well as Canadian literature. During Joyce’s lifetime, Ireland went from being a colony of England to an independent country. But there’s no Irish literature category. And yet Joyce is inevitably defined as an Irish writer. (Also/however, c.f. the following quote from Ulysses.)

–I am a servant of two masters, Stephen said, an English and an Italian.

–Italian? Haines said.

A crazy queen, old and jealous. Kneel down before me.

–And a third, Stephen said, there is who wants me for odd jobs.

–Italian? Haines said again. What do you mean?

–The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.

Haines detached from his underlip some fibres of tobacco before he spoke.

–I can quite understand that, he said calmly. An Irishman must think like that, I daresay. We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.


[1] I used to reject the idea that history was at all cyclical. Then we elected Nixon II as president. (I am sure this has something to do with Nixon becoming a somewhat funny pop-culture figure rather than an evil motherfucker in the meantime, but–first as tragedy, then as farce, right?)

[2] The Gaelic word they mention, “uisca beatha,” comes from the Latin word “aqua vitae” translated into Gaelic in the Middle Ages.

[3] The extremely genius part of this is that most people haven’t read the Wake and aren’t going to, so you can make almost any claim you want about it and people will believe it. C.F. this blog post.

Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters

A few brief bits of housekeeping before we get going: first, I have back-linked all the episodes of


Ulysses so far commented upon to the introductory blog post, which will now also serve as an index. It can be viewed here. Also, in many cases I have made some small tweaks to the writing to make the style slightly less bombastic or grandiloquent or I guess casual and more something my MA advisor wouldn’t have shaken his head at and dismissed out of hand. Still not perfect. Oh well. Also, for those of you who are sick of Ulysses, I should have another comic ready to go soon. The summer sabbatical was nice, but I am starting to feel like drawing again. Hooray? Also, you might have noticed that I moved all The Joy of Fishes-related links to this page. Just a reminder, if you read it, please consider reviewing it on Amazon or Goodreads. Thank you!

And now, Ulysses. Enjoy.

This section of Ulysses, “The Lotus Eaters,” takes its name from an episode in the Odyssey referred to somewhat briefly in chapter IX of Homer’s text. Odysseus and his men land on an island to get fresh water and food. Odysseus sends a few men into town to see what’s up. It turns out everyone on the island eats lotuses, and the lotuses are so delicious that once you taste them, you don’t want to do anything else but lie around eating lotuses all day. (Please make your own joke about the 1960s here.) Odysseus marches his men back onto the boat and gets out of there tout de suite.

In their 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which happens to also be an adaptation of the Odyssey, the Coen brothers used the episode of the Lotus Eaters to refer to religion—specifically, as our heroes are wandering through the countryside, they come across a long line of (somewhat stoned- or hypnotized-looking) people dressed in white, waiting in line to be baptized.

Not coincidentally, although almost certainly unrelated to the Coen bros, this episode of Ulysses has a lot of religion in it. In fact, the whole book has a lot of religion—it’s set in Ireland, after all, a place where divorce was illegal until 1996[1] because of the influence of the Catholic church. But if you are about to quote Marx’s quip about religion being the opiate of the people and think we’re done, think again. This is Joyce—nothing is so uncomplicated.

In the first episode (Telemachus), we saw several different ideas about religion. Stephen, called a “fearful Jesuit” by Buck Mulligan, seems to believe in a deity he is unwilling to worship. Like Lucifer[2], at the end of Portrait, we get this scene between Stephen and his friend Cranly:

After a pause Cranly asked:
—What age is your mother?
—Not old, Stephen said. She wishes me to make my easter duty.[3]
—And will you?
—I will not, Stephen said.
—Why not? Cranly said.
—I will not serve, answered Stephen.
—That remark was made before, Cranly said calmly.
—It is made behind now, said Stephen hotly. (Portrait, 259–60)

Stephen claims that he “neither believe[s] in [the eucharist] nor disbelieve in it” (Ibid.), but his stance in Ulysses is a bit less equivocal, telling Haines, “You behold in me . . . a horrible example of free thought” (1.625–6). “Free thought” meaning “thought free from the dictates of ‘Christian revelation’ “ (Gifford 24). He is quite firm on this point, to the extent that he is unwilling to take communion to appease his dying mother. But as much as he makes these claims, he’s still very much in the grip of religion, seeing himself as well as “a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian. . . . The imperial British state . . . and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church” (1.638–43). In fact, like Lucifer whom he quotes, Stephen is defined by religion and God, regardless of the latter’s existence; his desire to disobey the church brings him into much more strife than simply not caring about religion would—compare his refusal to take communion to appease his dying mother versus Bloom’s relaxing through a church service he doesn’t particularly understand or care to learn about.

In the first episode we also see Haines, who “couldn’t stomach that idea of a personal God. . .” (1.623), and Buck Mulligan, who is an irreverent medical student (as I already quoted, his feelings about death are put to Stephen like this: “And what is death . . . your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else” (1.4–6)).

Finally we get to Mr Leopold Bloom. His attitude towards religion seems to stand somewhere between irreverence and ignorance.[4] For example, it is difficult to know whether or not he is joking when, watching a service, he muses, “Letters on his [the priest’s] back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in” (5.372–74). Similarly, he attributes the use of wine during the Eucharist ceremony to it being “more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they [the parishioners] are used to Guinness’s porter or some temperance beverage. . .” (5.387). During the mass he thinks of sex: perhaps he will meet Martha “one Sunday after the rosary” (5.375); imagines the priest murmuring to the communicants “Shut your eyes and open your mouth” (5.349–50); considers the confession process as a sadomasochistic ritual in which the confessor asks the priest to “punish me, please” (5.426); and imagines a woman confessing her infidelity (5.427–32). It should be noted that Bloom actually proposes the idea of the mass as an opiate during this section: “Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first” (5.350–51) and sees the communicants as walking with “blind masks” (5.353) to take communion.[5]

What does this add up to? For Stephen (and probably for Mulligan, whose “Ballad of Joking Jesus” is showcased in several sections), religion is a source of creative energy if not comfort. For Bloom, it’s a source of mild interest. For none of them is it actually a sedative or distraction from the true woes of the world. But perhaps other things are—for example, Bloom ignores the gravity of the service to think about sex. While walking, he meets M’Coy, who is so wrapped up in preparing for a trip to the races that he will miss Paddy Dignam’s funeral (5.169–73). In another scene, Bloom calculates the amount of porter a local businessman must have sold in order to make a million pounds (answer: about 15 million gallons)—a lot of porter, and another common addiction (5.304–12). Bloom muses on drugs as well—cigars have “a cooling effect. Narcotic” (5.272), and the Chinese might prefer “an ounce of opium” (5.327) to learning about Christianity. All these things (sex, drugs, gambling) are in our modern time are commonly understood as things that one can become addicted to, which is to say that they can certainly be so distracting as to take one away from the duties of one’s life.

The message here is difficult to tease out, and of course different readers will draw different conclusions. Is Joyce suggesting that religion is problematic, but other things are problematic too? That “worldly” things like sex and gambling prove more of an opiate than religion? That somehow the removal of a deity from religion causes it to become one more distraction like any other? Any of the nice moral summaries I come up with sound pat, and I’m not convinced that Joyce actually believed any of them, since he notoriously indulged in both drink and sex himself (see for example Chiasson 2014). Ultimately there’s not an easy answer here, perhaps because there’s no author trying to pass judgment—although I’ve used the word “addiction” in the preceding paragraph, Joyce wouldn’t have, even were he alive today. This is just life—sometimes some things blind us to other things that are going on; preoccupied, we find ourselves unable to interact with every encounter the way that we should. In other words, perhaps everyone is an eater of lotuses.[6]


[1] As noted by (I’m sorry) Christopher Hitchens, the repeal of this law was opposed by, among others, Mother Theresa herself. (He noted this in several places; see for example his letter to the New York Review of Books here.) Also, I note from her Wikipedia page that she is now The Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, M.C., which is annoying because she’s from Macedonia.

[2] I’m not prepared to walk you through the mythology here. I suggest a reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a good book. Or, the relevant reference, as summarized in Portrait:

Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; yet he fell: he fell and there fell with him a third part of the host of heaven: he fell and was hurled with his rebellious angels into hell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin. (126)

[3] “Easter duty” refers to “the obligation to receive Holy Communion at least at Easter time . . .” (Catholic Essentials website, quoting “A Catholic Dictionary, 1951”; link below). Receiving communion requires that one have confessed first as well, so Stephen’s mother is essentially requesting him to go through the whole ceremonial shebang. See http://catholicessentials.net/easterduty.htm.

[4] Bloom later comments that Christianity is “more interesting if you understood what it was all about” (5.423–24). It’s hard to know how to take the INRI remarks in view of this.

[5] It’s worth pointing out that Bloom’s attitude towards Judaism is typically more reverent—and tinged with remembrances of his father. See for example 7.206–13: “Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear! All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage Alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No, that’s the other. Then the twelve brothers, Jacob’s sons. And then the lamb and the cat and the dog and the stick and the water and the butcher. And then the angel of death kills the butcher and he kills the ox and the dog kills the cat. Sounds a bit silly till you come to look into it well. Justice it means but it’s everybody eating everyone else. That’s what life is after all.” Sharp readers will note this is as slightly wrong as the earlier INRI (it’s not “into the house of bondage”), which certainly leads to more questions. However, the topic of Bloom’s (putative) Judaism exceeds this essay, so I will return to it at a later time.

[6] Having spent my past week hanging out with a bunch of actors, I feel pressed to add something about the performativity of the mass scene—the way in which the priest seems to be moving through a series of steps (suggested by him reading things off cards and the like) rather than truly engaged in the service. So, too, one could ask if the predictable actions of the parishioners are meant to suggest members of an audience, or even of a Greek chorus, performing some kind of specific role. But no space for that here. Perhaps another time.


Catholic Essentials. “Easter Duty.” 2008. http://catholicessentials.net/easterduty.htm.

Chiasson, Dan. “ ‘Ulysses’ and the Moral Right to Pleasure.” The New Yorker, 16 June 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/ulysses-and-the-moral-right-to-pleasure.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Mother Theresa.” The New York Review of Books, 19 December 1996: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1996/dec/19/mother-teresa/.

Joyce, James. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Seamus Deane. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

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.


[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).


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

Episode 3: Proteus

Okay, so if you are reading through Ulysses as I am posting these, this is probably the first section that you really run the risk of getting hung up on. The language and style here are a bit more complicated than in previous sections, and if you aren’t accustomed to reading things in stream of consciousness, it can be disconcerting, to say nothing of the subject matter being outside most people’s familiarity. Don’t panic though—once you get into it, this section is great, and it’s not as difficult as you may be thinking right now.

Basically what happens in this section, and I don’t want to over-simplify, is that Stephen is killing time before he meets Buck, so he walks along the beach at Sandymount Strand and thinks about philosophy. He remembers his time studying in Paris and his father recalling him to Dublin because of his mother’s illness. He writes a poem. He urinates.

Edgar, playing the role of Stephen, shows how much physical action goes on in this episode.

Why do these few things seem intimidating? Moreso than the previous chapters, Joyce has here used a style called stream of consciousness, which can be disconcerting to the uninitiated reader. Stream of consciousness is a technique used for providing readers with a window to the character’s interior world; however, it is not simply as straightforward as having a character essentially “say” what they are thinking. Contrast the two following paragraphs:

One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a Lotel room in Mazatlán whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he’d died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only ikon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew. (Pynchon, 1965, 1–2)

His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs, nebeneinander. He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother’s soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly’s arm. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all. (3.446–52)

In both paragraphs, we see the character’s environment and hear her/his thoughts. But Oedipa’s thoughts are to a point (the death of Pierce Inverarity and her history with him), while Stephen’s thoughts wander from his shoes[1] to a woman he knew in Paris to a literary allusion boyhood friend (Cranly). Oedipa’s thoughts are also marked out with certain guideposts, words like “supposed,” “thought,” “wondered,” while Stephen’s thoughts arise more organically from the paragraph.

Joyce’s version is more accurate, in my (limited?) experience as a thought-having human being. Most people don’t think in straight lines and in sentences. At the same time, Joyce’s version is more difficult and risky. He has to trust that his audience will understand the shift from what Stephen is doing (looking at his boots) to what he is thinking without needing little signposts to mark the way. He doesn’t even typographically set the thoughts off from the narration through the use of italics. This is—in my estimation, at least—gutsy. As a writer, one always worries about the reader understanding what one is trying to do. (I say “one” because as far as I can tell, this is a universal problem.) I admire the panache here as Joyce just throws the chapter out there, like a challenge to his readers. It’s also risky to write an entire chapter with so little movement. The plot, if one can claim Ulysses has a plot, is not advanced here in any significant way. Primarily this is a full chapter of character development; more than that, as Stephen cools his heels, we are also killing time. It is risky to slow down the story like that—when you lose your momentum, you risk boring your audience and losing them as well. But the fascinating use of language here keeps us reading. (Or keeps me reading, at least.)

So how as a reader do you deal with the mélange of thoughts, memories, and even bits of external narration found here? I have tried two different strategies. The first is to get a copy of the Gifford and look everything up. Gifford is quite thorough in this episode—though it is only a bit more than 500 lines, he offers twenty-two pages of notes. Nearly every line seems to be noted. On the other hand, you can also just forge ahead and let the text wash over you. Although if you read what I just said about the Gifford you may be shaking your head, I think this is a tenable strategy. The stuff in the notes is largely interesting but not essential to understanding the text—sure, it is nice to get a translation of the few French phrases, or to know that “lawn Tennyson” (3.492) is a play on the game of lawn tennis and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, but these things are not essential to understanding what is going on, they only enrich the experience. I do encourage you as a reader just to dive in; you may not get every reference, but you will get the gist of what is going on, and some of the references will become more clear as you go on in the book.[2]

I have one other thing I want to discuss, and that is Stephen’s poem. I will quote it here:

He comes, pale vampire, through the storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss. (3.397–8)

Joyce actually wrote two books of poetry[3]. I haven’t made a thorough investigation of them, but I don’t recall being blown away by the ones I did read.[4] This poem in particular is a derivative work—Gifford refers to it as “a souped-up . . . version of the last stanza of ‘My Grief on the Sea,’ a poem translated from the Irish by Douglas Hyde” (1988, 62). It is one of the marvelous Joycean ironies of this book that while Stephen-who-is-Joyce is lying on the beach writing these kind of wretched poems, Joyce himself is writing this amazing chapter that is actually quite poetic in much of its language and that is also such a break from what came before in so many ways.[6]

This has been a shorter essay than some of the others, I think. Not to suggest that this episode is less good, but I have less to say about it because I can either talk about these general things or give a sort of line-by-line discussion of what I’m enjoying,[7] which could be a bit tedious. Next time though, we get to Mr Leopold Bloom, and I am excited to talk about him, so make sure you tune in—same blog time, same blog channel.


[1] Could we take a moment to admire the shoe-related puns here? Stephen is wearing shoes given to him by a friend (I assume Buck Mulligan, owing to remarks in ep. 1 on other clothes he has given Stephen, plus the phrase “a buck’s castoffs,” but the text seems to be nonspecific), and could potentially be addressing his remarks (the “you”) to either the friend or the shoes. When he says, “Staunch friend, a brother’s soul,” he could be referring to Mulligan, or to the shoes themselves, which also have a soul (sole).

[2] Your goal in general should be to make it as far as episode 17 (Ithica). That episode will explain a lot.

[3] Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach.

[4] Wikipedia notes that many of his poems are still in print in anthologies today, and that some of the poems in Chamber Music were widely regarded as being technical masterpieces. It also notes that in 1909, Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle[5] that “When I wrote [Chamber Music] I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me” (Source). That is such a lovely sentiment I take back any of the mean things I said.

[5] The woman he eloped with after going on a first date with her on June 16, 1904, which PERHAPS NOT COINCIDENTALLY is the day Ulysses is set on. They actually didn’t get married until 1931, despite having two kids in 1905 and 1907 respectively.

[6] Except possibly Tristram Shandy? Hm.

[7] I cannot believe I wrote over a thousand words and didn’t find a way to work in a brief discussion about the beach being full of clammy sand (“His blued feet out of turnedup trousers slapped the clammy sands . . .” [3.370–1]). It’s clammy because it’s coldish and dampish, and it’s clammy because it’s a beach and there are clams in it. YES.


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.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam, 1965.

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.


[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.


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!


Episode 1: Telemachus

I hope you have all had a chance to read the first episode. Check the project’s introduction for an explanation and links.
My primary copy of Ulysses.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. (1.1–2)

My main copy of Ulysses (of course I have more than one) is rather heavily annotated at this point. The first marginal notation I come across here says “State-cross: Locate S [Stephen] w/in historical/political terms—G.B., HR Church.” I don’t know where this insight came from, probably the professor who gave the course in which I first read this book[1], but it’s a very interesting idea. Look at the sentence again:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Lest you think this is grasping at straws, Stephen later reiterates it in conversation: “I am a servant of two masters . . . an English and an Italian. . . . The imperial British state . . . and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church” (1.638–43).[2]

Ireland in 1904 was a colony of Great Britain. It’s not the sort of colony we usually think of when we talk about colonialism, because nowadays the Irish are seen as white and colonialism is something that white people do to non-white people (for example, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Indochina, the British in India, the British in Burma). But the British have very much colonized Ireland and were governing them. On the other hand we have the Roman Catholic Church (or Holy Roman Apostolic Church, as Stephen Dedalus would refer to it), which exercised at the time (and for most of the 20th century and on into the 21st) enormous power over the people of Ireland. One thing I’m going to argue in this essay is that there are strong colonialist themes running through this book. This is not a controversial claim—a cursory search of the internet provides a number of papers, such as Roghayeh Farsi’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Post-Colonial Text,” which argue essentially this. Worth noting is that Joyce began writing in 1918, shortly before Ireland declared its independence (January 1919) and began the Irish War of Independence with Britain; this war concluded around the time Ulysses was published in full (1921 versus 1922). Where is the line between a colonial novel and a post-colonial novel? We must be very close to it.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit. The first three episodes of the book make up the “Telemachiad,” which is to say their focus is on our Telemachus, Stephen Dedalus.

Stephen Dedalus is one of the main characters in the book; in this section we meet two major supporting characters, Buck Mulligan and Haines. They are all three staying together in a Martello Tower, which is one of a bunch of towers put up in Ireland to look out for the possible invasion of Napoleon.[3]

Buck Mulligan is a medical student who is witty, quick to make up songs and ditties, and who holds nothing sacred, as he tells Stephen: “And what is death . . . your mother’s or yours or my own? You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day in the Mater and Richmond and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom. It’s a beastly thing and nothing else” (1.4–6).

Haines, on the other hand, is “a ponderous Saxon [i.e., British] . . . [who is] bursting with money and indigestion” (1.51–2). He is every inch the colonial Brit, although he would no doubt claim himself enlightened. Tellingly, Mulligan observes that Haines’s father “made his tin by selling jalap to the Zulus or some bloody swindle or other” (1.156–7). This is a reflection of British colonialism[4]—the Zulus lived in Southern Africa and were defeated in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, which led to the fall of the Zulu empire. Haines is writing about Irish folklore (a book, I believe, possibly related to his degree) and has come to Dublin to do research. It is interesting that he is in fact living with two Irish men, neither of whom is exactly interested in serving as a native informant to him, but both of whom really want something from him—Mulligan wants money, and Stephen wants him to go away[5]. In fact, Stephen and Mulligan’s attitudes toward Haines are well, if unintentionally, summarized by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, when he writes of how native intellectuals are taught by colonialist bourgeois to believe in the ideals of Western civilization, which he describes as existing on a “Greco-Latin pedestal” (46). During the course of the decolonization process, the native intellectual begins to understand how indoctrinated into the ideology of his conquerors he has been, and eventually “he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature” (223).[6] So on the one hand we have Stephen the bard who wants to be rid of the British, and on the other hand Buck Mulligan the medical student who wants to Hellenize Ireland (1.158). What a pair. Haines’s attitude is typically apathetic, saying “An Irishman must think [that he is a servant of the imperial British state], I daresay. We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame” (1.647–9). This is, implicitly, the viewpoint Jean Paul Sartre is raging about in his introduction to Fanon’s aforementioned text.[7]

The presence of the Catholic Church should also be regarded as a force for colonization; as Fanon puts it, “The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor” (42). And indeed, the Catholic Church’s oppressiveness in Ireland has been well documented (see for example Christopher Hitchens’s article(s) on Mother Theresa, or any of the millions of things written about the Magdalena asylums).

I’m nearly seven hundred words into this section and I have covered about a page and a half of the text. Seems about right. That aside, I think I have begun to make my point about the colonial/post-colonial themes in this episode. This is something that took me very much by surprise when I began re-reading this section, as it happens—in between my previous reading of the book and this one, I spent a great deal of time studying post-colonialism and post-colonial literature, so it really jumped out at me in a way it didn’t before. I will not discuss the next episode here (spoilers!), but suffice to say that these themes continue there in several ways.

In the rest of the episode, the boys have breakfast, get milk from the milk woman, and walk down the shore. They make plans to meet again later for drinks—Mulligan promises Haines that “[Stephen] proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” (1.555–7). Then Mulligan and Haines go to bathe in the ocean and Stephen continues on to work, which takes us to the next episode. Tune in next time!


[1] I’ll do him the honor of not giving his name here. He probably wouldn’t want to be associated with this kind of project. Also, he was kind of an asshole.

[2] The basic rule of Joycean scholarship is assume everything is intentional, because it generally is. At least, this is my interpretation; I can’t claim to be deeply immersed in the academic side of Joyce at this point.

[3] I recall being told that the Irish were hoping that Napoleon would help to liberate them from the British, but I cannot find a citation for that. However, Gifford does note that the French made four attempts between 1796–8 to provide assistance to the Irish during a revolution (23). For a picture of a Martello Tower and more on their history than is strictly necessary, see their Wikipedia page. Hope that was fun for you.

[4] Edward Said often looks at the small mentions of colonialism that mostly live in the background of British literature, such as the very brief discussion of the slave trade in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Which is to say, this is a brief but important mention.

[5] As with many things in Joyce’s works, this is evidently drawn from an experience he had in which one of the other guests in the place he was staying had a nightmare and fired several shots from his gun into the wall above Joyce’s bed in the night. Joyce noped out in the morning, which is why Stephen expresses to Mulligan that he wants Haines to leave and refers to Haines ranting during the night.

[6] Fanon characterizes this as the phases through which a native intellectual passes,[+] however within a single society it does seem possible to see intellectuals who are in different phases simultaneously—for example, see the letters of non-fictional people Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. (Note to self: add a citation when this book is published.) I have borrowed some of this terminology from Spivak, who discusses the epistemic violence the education of the non-Western intellectuals causes and the tendency of the Western intellectual to overlook the influence of ideologies in critiquing the position of the subaltern AT LENGTH in her amazing article “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[+] Just as an aside, I swear I had a really good quote about this but I’ve lost it. I guess I am reading too many things at once.

[7] Sartre writes, “You know well that we are exploiters. . . . With us, to be a man is to be an accomplice of colonialism, since all of us without exception have profited by colonial exploitation” (The Wretched of the Earth, 25). His entire introduction is a stirring excoriation of European imperialism and is well worth a read.


Farsi, Roghayah. “James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Post-Colonial Text.” The Criterion: An International Journal in English, vol. 4, no. IV (2013): 1–8.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

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.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan, 1988. Found online at http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf. (Online version is the referenced pagination.)
Thing I cannot cite yet, Routledge, 2014.

An Introduction to the Project

I quipped to my mother the other day that I wanted to re-read Ulysses and blog about it. In the month of June. And she said, “The whole thing?” Sure, why not? We have just passed the centenary of the release of Dubliners, and Bloom’s Day is coming up (June 16th).[1] Plus, Ulysses is a good book of the kind that is often on people’s bucket lists but seldom read. So I thought, “Why not write up a few of my thoughts about each section and post them?” I will try to keep it short, and perhaps my general impressions will give you a desire to delve into this amazing, beautiful book. Part of this will be chronicling my own path of discovery as I dive back into a work that is one of my favorites, but that I haven’t read in about a decade; part of this will be a sort of general discussion of the book and its themes from as writerly of a perspective as I can manage, since that is perhaps the one thing I can claim expertise in. Maybe. The one thing I will assert is that, unlike William York Tindall, I do not think Ulysses is “too difficult for careless reading” (123). Like any book, it can be read in a multitude of ways; any reasonably focused reader can make her way through it, enjoying the beauty of the language and storytelling without necessarily grasping the historical or philosophical references.

All of my citations will be to the text in the Gabler edition (see below for citation), but I will give an episode.line number citation (e.g., 1.10) so anyone who wants to follow along in one of the free online editions can do so (the line breaks follow the Garland, New York, 1984 critical edition). Do be aware that since the Gabler edition corrects several long-standing typos, the texts may differ slightly. The primary concordance I use is the Gifford—I’ll provide a citation for that when it proves necessary.

For those not familiar with Ulysses, although the chapters are not formally titled, Joyce created two schemas that divided it into eighteen episodes, all of which have names that refer to the Odyssey. These are the Gilbert schema and the Linati schema. I will probably not refer to these frequently, but you should know where some of this material is coming from. Other reference works I will cite as I go along.

As for what is the best way to read the book, I don’t think there’s any one right way to go about it. In high school, the first few times I attempted to make my way through the text, I had only the text itself. The first time I actually made it through, in college, I had the Gifford annotations by my side and frequently read it simultaneously with Joyce’s text. On this reading, I am making my way first through the episodes, then referring to the Gifford to clear up any lingering questions (and draw inspiration for these little essays). Any of these methods may work for you. For those who don’t have time to run to the library before starting this little adventure, this website containing hypertext annotations may be of use to you.

I feel at the outset that I should define my goal more specifically before I begin. This is not meant to be a series of scholarly essays into the text of Ulysses, although some of my essays do take on that form to a certain extent. This is also not meant to simply reproduce the information contained in any of the particular references I’ve consulted. Instead, I want you to read along with me and consider this a kind of book club discussion. You can find an ebook version here at Project Gutenberg or elsewhere on the web. I hope you’ll join me for a brief tour through a magnificent work of art.






Lotus Eaters




Scylla and Charybdis

Wandering Rocks




Oxen of the Sun






[1] I’d originally planned to post one essay per day between May 29-June 16, but that isn’t happening, is it. Take what you can get, that’s my advice.


Joyce, James. Ulysses. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler, with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.

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