Friday, 28 December 2012

Beginning Ulysses: Stephen's past sins


—It is a curious your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve. 
-- James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce
Sure, I'd heard all the hype about Ulysses: it's a modernist masterpiece -- it's the greatest novel of the 20th century; so when I first started reading it, I approached the beginning with a mix of anticipation and trepidation.  The first lines read:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

—Introibo ad altare Dei.”

I didn't know what a "stairhead" was, I wasn't sure what a "dressinggown" was (sounded like a bathrobe?) and I couldn't understand the Latin.  I assumed Mulligan was the main character in the book (and later discovered how wrong I was about that).

By the first paragraph, I was already lost.

I later learned that the opening scene takes place early in the morning of June 16, 1904 in Sandycove, a coastal suburb in southeast Dublin.  Mulligan and Stephen are standing on top of an abandoned military building -- known as a Martello tower -- which Stephen rented for a few nights from the British War Office.  Although the term "tower" evokes an image of an expansive building, in reality, the tower is surprisingly tiny; it resembles a squat brick rook in a chess game. The previous night, Stephen and Mulligan had slept in the tower, along with an English student from Oxford named Haines.

James Joyce Tower, Sandycove, Dublin
At the outset of the book, Mulligan starts up a conversation with Stephen, who remains peculiarly silent.  Mulligan speaks eight times before Stephen says a single word.

At first, I struggled to decipher some nuggets of wisdom from Mulligan's comments.  He's a medical student, who seems to be performing some religious rites. Surely there must be some depth to what he says.  Yet it wasn't until much later that I realized not to take anything Mulligan says too seriously -- he's a minor character and a jerk.

To give some perspective, if I were to cast an actor to play Mulligan in a movie, I'd probably go with a young Jack Black.  Just imagine Black acting goofy, spontaneously breaking out into song, reciting some obscure lyric with an intense look on his face, and plotting ways to borrow money to get high (or in Mulligan's case, to get drunk).

Stately, plump Jack Black
This pretty much sums up my view of Mulligan.

The truly consequential character in the first chapter is Stephen -- but it's hard to draw that conclusion by just reading the chapter.

In the first chapter of Ulysses, we learn that Stephen's mother recently died, and he keeps having these jarring dreams and jolting flashbacks of his dying (or dead) mother's body.  In Joyce-like style these neurotic images spill into the text without warning or introduction -- one moment he's listening to Mulligan, the next his head is haunted with ghoulish visions.

We learn that Stephen was taught by Jesuits, but has since renounced religion.  When his mother was on her deathbed, she asked Stephen to pray for her eternal soul, but shockingly, he refused.  Now he's grappling with his conscience for denying her last request.

We also learn that Stephen is recognized as being brilliant and has developed some profound theories on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Overall, not much happens in the first chapter of Ulysses.  After Mulligan finishes shaving, he and Stephen enter the body of the tower to have breakfast with Haines.  During breakfast, an elderly Irish woman drops by to deliver some fresh milk, and Haines shows his interest in Irish culture.  After breakfast, the three of them leave the tower and walk to the harbour so Mulligan can take a swim.  On the way, Haines tries unsuccessfully to get Stephen to talk about his theories on Hamlet, and expresses some anti-semitic views. After Mulligan jumps in the water, Stephen walks away, thinking about how he will not sleep in the tower again, and how he will not return home, wherever that might be.

Stephen's approach to dealing with others can be summed up in the following three words: silence (he starts the chapter without saying a word  to Mulligan); exile (he decides not to return home, and not to sleep in the tower again) and cunning (he tries to pinch money from Haines in exchange for telling him his theory on Hamlet).

So what's the story behind Stephen?

As I later learned, to get the background on Stephen, you need to leave the pages of Ulysses, and read Joyce's first novel: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

Joyce wrote the semi-autobiographical story of Stephen as a youth, beginning with Stephen's earliest memories and following through until he decides to rebel against the Catholic church and leave Ireland to pursue his ambition as an artist.  Ulysses takes place several years after Portrait concludes.

While I won't fully summarize Portrait in this blog post -- suffice to say it's a stunning novel.  Joyce used a remarkable technique in which the book's narrator is always the same age as the main character.  When Stephen is a toddler, so too is narrator -- and by the end of the book the narrator is as sophisticated as the grown man.  In Portrait we learn about Stephen's formative years in Catholic school, and how he later engaged in "sinful" behaviour (i.e., visiting prostitutes).  In the third chapter -- one of the most remarkable in literature -- a preacher gives a long sermon about the consequences of sin, drawing graphic and visceral images of hell which must have of scared the bejesus out of the children listening.  In the end, Stephen's analytical-self triumphs over his religious-self, and he rejects an offer to become a Jesuit priest -- ultimately leaving the church entirely.

At one point in Portrait, Cranly asks Stephen if he would do everything he could to save his mother from suffering, and Stephen said he would if it would "cost [him] very little":

In many ways, this question is a preamble to the first chapter of Ulysses, where we learn Stephen did indeed have the opportunity to ease his mother's suffering by merely praying for her soul, but wouldn't.   In Portrait, Stephen gives a hint as to why he wouldn't do it:

— I fear more than that the chemical action which would be set up in my soul by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration.

After I read this, I could, at least, begin to understand the rationale behind Stephen's refusal to consent to his mother's request.   Without this context, the first chapter of Ulysses would be a puzzle.

This is just one example of how Portrait provides the context and background necessary to understand Ulysses.  Without the earlier work, it would be like trying to fully appreciate the Godfather II movie without seeing Godfather I.  

I also learned that, in any journey to understand James Joyce's work, you'll need to read everything he wrote.  It's all connected.

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