Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The departing wayfarer

"—I'm going round the corner. Be back in a minute. 
And when he had heard his voice say it he added: 
—You don't want anything for breakfast? 
A sleepy soft grunt answered:
No. She didn't want anything. He heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled. Must get those settled really. Pity. All the way from Gibraltar."
-- Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses
Episode 4: Calypso

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: "The Bed"

Continuing my odyssey to illustrate select episodes of Ulysses using famous works of art, this post addresses the 4th episode of the novel, Calypso, where we first meet Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly.

It's about 8 a.m., and the couple are in their house at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin. Bloom is in the kitchen preparing breakfast for himself and Molly; she remains upstairs asleep in their bed.

Bloom decides to take a short walk around the corner to buy a pork kidney for breakfast. Before he leaves, he stands in the hallway and gingerly asks Molly if she wants anything.  She responds with a plaintive "Mn." Nope, nothing.

Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "The Bed" does a lovely job of illustrating the bedroom scene in Calypso. You can almost sense Molly's "Mn" and hear the jingling of the bedsprings as she turns about.

Coincidentally, the painting's colour palette reflects the mood that Joyce likely intended for this chapter.  To assist his friends in understanding Ulysses, Joyce created two guides (known as schemas) summarizing the structure of each episode. In each schema, he indicates the title of each episode, the time it takes place, the predominant colour of the chapter, and various other bits of information. While these guides are not identical, each schema indicates that the predominant colour of the Calypso episode is orange.

Here are links to the Linati and Gilbert schemas.

Next, Bloom leaves his home and sets out on his first journey of the day. The painting below, "Red Virginia Creeper" by Edvard Munch, portrays an image of a man leaving a house. I particularly like the slightly bewildered expression on the character's face as he begins his trek for the day. In the Linati schema, Joyce identifies the meaning of the Calypso episode as "a departing wayfarer" -- and Munch's Bloom-like character in the forefront of Munch's painting fits the bill.

Edvard Munch's "Red Virginia Creeper"
We get full access to Bloom's interior monologue as he takes a short walk on Eccles Street to Lower Dorset Street.  He greets a friend, sizes up the economics of the street, and makes his way to Dlugacz's butcher shop to buy a pork kidney. Ironically, Dlugacz (the person selling the pork) and Bloom (the person buying the pork) are both of Jewish origin. The incongruity of two Jews transacting pork was not lost on Joyce.  So much for keeping kosher. 

Below is a painting by Vincent van Gogh called "A Pork-Butcher's Shop Seen from a Window" which presents an image that fits beautifully with this episode (the shop is even painted orange - the colour alluded to in Joyce's schema). 

Vincent van Gogh's "A Pork-Butcher's Shop Seen from a Window"
Like the writing style of Calypso, each of the three paintings in this post depict relatively clear imagery -- they are not abstract.  Similarly, the Calypso episode is one of the easiest chapters in Ulysses to understand, and the writing style contains enough narrative commentary to provide context to guide the reader through the events.  While the episode does contain a fair amount of interior monologue (to use a phrase from my previous post, the Joyce-o-scope is "in full bloom") -- Bloom's thoughts are far easier to understand than the complex thoughts of the philosopher-poet Stephen. 

After buying the kidney, Bloom returns home and picks up the mail on his doorstep.  He finds a letter from his daughter Milly, and a letter for his wife from Blazes Boylan, the organizer of an upcoming concert tour featuring Molly.  In a subsequent chapter we learn that Boylan clandestinely returns to 7 Eccles Street later that afternoon to engage in a sexual affair with Molly (but we'll save that tryst for another post). 

Upon his return, Bloom heads up to the bedroom and gives Boylan's letter to Molly, who surreptitiously slips it under her pillow.  Bloom and Molly begin to chat, but their discussion is cut short when Molly smells Bloom's kidney burning. After running downstairs to save the kidney, Bloom sits down to eat his breakfast, reads Milly's letter and retires to his outhouse to scan an Irish magazine called "Titbits" (in an extreme, yet unintended, act of literary criticism, he ultimately tears off a page of the journal to use it as toilet paper).

All in all, Calypso is a very accessible and readable chapter.  Most readers who have made it through the turbulent complexity of the first three chapters find it a welcome respite.   


Sunday, 17 February 2013

Shut your eyes and see


"He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth's kiss.  Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets. Mouth to her kiss.  No. Must be two of em. Glue em well. Mouth to her mouth's kiss."

-- Stephen Dedalus writing a poem in James Joyce's Ulysses
Episode 3: Proteus

Pablo Picasso's "Figures at the Seaside"

Since many of the readers of this blog are art lovers, I thought I'd once again feature works of art as visual aids to demonstrate the various writing styles and narrative approaches used by James Joyce in Ulysses. 

Let's start with episode 3: Proteus -- one of the most challenging and dense chapters in Ulysses. 

In Proteus, the brilliant aspiring poet, Stephen Dedalus, walks on the beach at Sandymount strand in southeast Dublin and every thought that flickers through his over-educated brain makes it into this chapter.

Some refer to the technique used in the episode as "stream-of-conciousness," yet Joyce derided the term, saying whenever he heard the phrase he thought of a stream of urine.  A good way to explain this episode's technique is to imagine that someone has invented a machine that could read a person's thoughts and automatically translate them into words on a page (let's call this machine a "Joyce-o-scope").   In Proteus, the Joyce-o-scope is turned on full-force and gives us a remarkable window into the inner workings of Stephen's complex, yet troubled, brain. 

Stephen's mind is packed full of philosophy, languages, paternity, family, relationships, remorse, todo lists, and on and on.  He has flashbacks, picks his nose, gets frightened by a dog, and begins writing a poem (which I've included as the quote at the outset of this blog).  In short, his brain is an intellectual and emotional three-ring-circus; and we have a ring-side seat. 

Don't expect too much in the way of context to frame Stephen's interior monologue.  It is what it is.

Joyce shows exactly how Stephen thinks, and he purposely doesn't make it easy going.  When you begin reading this chapter, don't even try to understand everything Stephen is thinking; just fasten your seatbelt, hold on tight, and enjoy the opportunity to view the unfiltered thoughts of a talented, creative, yet somewhat tormented, artist.

The episode begins with the words:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read..."

This refers to the Aristotelean idea that when we look at something -- say, a horse -- we don't actually see the object in front of us; rather, our minds perceive an image of a horse that we've each built up over the years.  Stephen recognizes that we use mental shortcuts to immediately recognize and categorize forms; we perceive the concept of an object, rather than seeing what actually lies before us.

We learn much later in Ulysses that Stephen had broken his eyeglasses the previous day, so his vision is blurred and he must rely more upon his other senses, particularly sound, to perceive the world around him.  As such, in this episode, Stephen becomes obsessed with the changing face of reality, and struggles to understand how humans conceptualize the world around them using visual and audible clues.

To me, the work of art that best encapsulates Joyce's writing style in this episode is Picasso's "Bathers on the Beach."  
Picasso's "Bathers on the Beach"
As in Joyce's Proteus episode, the scene in Picasso's painting takes place at the seaside and reality is morphed and transformed. Things aren't as they appear -- yet our minds still draw conclusions based on scanty evidence.  The forms in Picasso's paintings have grotesque and misshapen heads, their bodies are mostly absent, yet we somehow see them as humans, expressing emotions and relating to each other. In Proteus, Stephen uses a cane to navigate the seaside, and tries to unlock a series of metaphysical and philosophical problems; and in the painting, one of Picasso's characters wields a key and a cane.  Like the characters in Ulysses and Picasso's painting, we try to unlock and read signatures around us, and discover that reality and our concept of reality are not always the same.  

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The rage of Caliban


"Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen's peering eyes.
—The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!
Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant."

-- Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses

Picasso's Girl before a Mirror

I'm delighted by how many people have told me they've recently picked up a copy of Ulysses and started reading. 

Yet some new readers have told me that they're finding it daunting to grasp everything that's happening in the novel, and they're thinking about giving up after a couple of chapters.  Rest assured, if you're feeling confused after embarking upon Ulysses, you're not alone.  

To those who find themselves stumped by Ulysses, my advice is simple: "Read on...and stop trying to understand everything that's happening. It's impossible to follow every element of the plot on first reading -- don't even try."  

As I've discussed in earlier posts, Ulysses moves away from traditional literary techniques and conventions.  Reading Ulysses is similar to viewing a cubist painting -- it's like you're looking at a reflection through a cracked looking-glass. Take, for example, Man with Guitar by Pablo Picasso:

Picasso's Man with Guitar
Here, Picasso breaks up the image of a guitar player into its constituent elements, and then reassembles the parts into a form that includes a variety of perspectives.  This cubist image has no single point of view.  While there are some identifiable images (like an ear, a nose, a collar, etc.), the entire picture is, on the whole, an abstraction.

Hypothetically, you could try to reconstruct this image back into a traditional perspective and figure out what the guitar player really looks like.  You'd end up with a photographic-like image of a man playing guitar -- but you'd lack the creativity and emotion of Picasso's cubist painting.  

Similarly, Joyce intentionally wrote Ulysses from various perspectives and points of view.  It should be no surprise that the reader would feel some confusion and discomfort. Ulysses isn't meant to be read like a traditional novel; rather, it's meant to be reread....and reread.  After each reading you gain more context, find new links and better understand how the pieces fit together.  If you're seeking to grasp every element of the plot of Ulysses in one reading, you're in for a rough ride.  

* * * * *

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that context isn't important in Ulysses.  The book becomes infinitely richer as you fill in the blanks and understand how everything fits together.  What I'm saying is that reading Ulysses is a process that entails looking first at the broad canvas and then, ultimately, bearing down and appreciating the fine brush strokes.

Here's an example of how context reinforces the power of Ulysses: in the first chapter, Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus have this conversation:
Laughing again, [Mulligan] brought the mirror away from Stephen's peering eyes.
—The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!
Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.
-- James Joyce, Ulysses

Joyce assumes the reader is familiar with Caliban: the slave in Shakespeare's The Tempest whose name is synonymous with "monstrous" or "beastly."   Joyce also assumes that the reader is familiar with Oscar Wilde, as the Caliban quote comes directly from the Preface of Wilde's book The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Here's an excerpt from Dorian Gray that puts the Mulligan comment in context:
"The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
-- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Wilde's quote, in isolation, is a clever comment on how art reflects the spectator as much as it reflects the subject.  Yet, once you consider the other references in Ulysses, you see that Stephen's comment has bite.  Stephen says that the Irish look at themselves through a distorted mirror -- and are really a Caliban-like race that serves the British.

That's powerful stuff for a book written almost a century ago!

But you don't get the reference unless you understand the context.

Bottom line: at first, it's okay not to understand every plot twist in Ulysses; at the outset you can let go of the details and concentrate on the big picture.  But, ultimately, the revolutionary power and pleasure of Ulysses intensifies as you gain insight and attain context -- and that takes time.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Happy Birthday, James Joyce!


"Do fish ever get seasick?"
―  Leo Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses

What's the deal with Ulysses?

Happy Birthday, James Joyce!

Joyce believed that birthdays were important.  To make this birthday joyful, I thought I'd write a short and sweet post focusing on humour in Ulysses.   

I've often compared Ulysses to Seinfeld.  When you peel back Ulysses's creative writing styles and analogies to Homer's Odyssey you won't find any hidden meaning -- it's a book about nothing.

Below are a few of the random musings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses...just imagine Seinfeld delivering these lines in a comedy bit about food and you'll get the picture.

* * * * *

"Do fish ever get seasick?"

* * * * *

"...why is it that saltwater fish are not salty? How is that?"

* * * * *

"All the odd things people pick up for food....out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years."

* * * * *

"That archduke Leopold ... used to eat the scruff off his own head? Cheapest lunch in town."

* * * * *

"...what about oysters. Unsightly like a clot of phlegm.  Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out?"

* * * * *

"Swans ... swim down here sometimes to preen themselves. No accounting for tastes. Wonder what kind is swanmeat. Robinson Crusoe had to live on them."

* * * * *

Sound like Seinfeld?  It's not -- it's all Joyce's main character: Leo Bloom. Joyce created the observational humour routine decades before Seinfeld was born.

- - - - - - - - - - - - 

And while we're on the subject of Seinfeld, at the outset of Ulysses, Joyce makes reference to the "scrotumtightening sea."  If you're a Seinfeld fan, you know what he's talking about: "shrinkage."  Here's some dialogue from the Seinfeld episode that, many believe, first exposed shrinkage:

"Do women know about shrinkage?"
"What do you mean, like laundry?"
"Like when a man goes swimming... Afterwards..."
"It shrinks?"
"Like a frightened turtle."
"Why does it shrink?"
"It just does."
"I don't know how you guys walk around with those things."

-- George, Elaine and Jerry, in "The Hamptons" episode, Seinfeld

James Joyce called it "The scrotumtightening sea"

Most everyone assumes Seinfeld broke new ground with the "shrinkage" episode.  But the truth is: Joyce had already been there -- done that. Generations ago.

* * * * *

And to emphasize the point that Ulysses is about nothing, here's one of my favourite quotes from the book.  Bloom is in a brothel and starts fantasizing about giving a speech in Hebrew.  Yet he only knows a few odd Hebrew words, so he just says whatever comes to mind.  The result is this meaningless and hilarious melange:

"Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith."

-- Ulysses, James Joyce 

Believe it or not, it's an actual word-for-word quote right out of the pages of Ulysses. Go figure.

* * * * *

And finally, if you're still not convinced that Ulysses is a book about nothing, check out this quote from Joyce:

"The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it."

-- James Joyce to Djuna Barnes, 
in an interview published in Vanity Fair (March 1922)

Cue the Seinfeld theme, and fade out.