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First Word; First Person

July 12, 2010 8 comments

I’d like to start out small here, looking at two words from the first chapter: the first word of the novel, “Stately,” and the first-personal pronoun, “I” (as well as its objective-case, “me”). Obviously, this isn’t a lot, but  for me the richness of Joyce has always been how much you can do with a little of what he gives you. 

“Stately” has always intrigued  me as an opening word. Much has been made of it, of course, from the fact that it contains the novel’s final word (spoiler alert: “Yes”) backwards (thanks to M. Thomas Gammarino over at Ulysses “Seen” for reminding me of this in his excellent post about opening lines), to the possibility that it was chosen (at least in part) for its first letter: Gifford points out the the first letters of each of the novel’s three sections (S-M-P) could represent the initials of the three main characters (Stephen, Molly, and Poldy), or perhaps the three parts of a syllogism (Subject, Middle, and Predicate), thus “suggest[ing] a logical and narrative structure, which the reader can grasp but of which the characters in the fiction are essentially unaware.”

All this playing with letters as codes is well and good, but what about the word? Why “stately”? I like the way its grammatical sense is ambiguous: is it an adjective or an adverb? Initially I read it as the former: Buck Mulligan is both stately and plump. This is the way it is generally taken, I think. But what if you read it as an adverb, describing the manner in which Buck “came from the stairhead”? Does that make any less sense? On a certain level it actually adds something: the earliest definition in the OED of “stately” as an adverb reads “With splendid ceremonial or surroundings; in state.” Given that the first thing we see Buck do is intone the opening of a Mass, “splendid ceremonial” doesn’t seem too far off. Also, the use of adverbs is part of the narratorial style of this chapter, as one of our commentors noted, which Bernard Benstock attributes to the focalization of the narrative through Buck Mulligan’s point-of-view (in Hart and Hayman, James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical Essays [U of California P, 1974]). Does it make a big difference which way you read it? No, I suppose not. But I like that Joyce gives us a little taste of verbal ambiguity right out of the gate. There’s more where that came from.

(As an aside, here are the opening words of an early French translation [Auguste Morel with Stuart Gilbert and Valerie Larbaud, assisted by Joyce]: “Majestueux et dodu…” Nice, right? Though [and I know too little French to be sure of this] I think it loses the adverbial possibility. And in German [Georg Goyert, again with the author’s assistance]: “Gravitätisch kam de dicke…” Which sounds like just the kind of polyglottal pun that Joyce would have relished [another opening-line word to watch out for, “relish”]). 

Now what about the use of the first-person? This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Ulysses: the use of various narrative modes (third-person omniscient, free indirect discourse, internal monologue) leaves the reader with the challenge of trying to figure out where various words and statements are coming from (like the oft-discussed “Chrysostomos” on the first page). This first chapter has two main modes: “objective” narration (perhaps focalized though Buck, for the most part) and Stephen’s internal monologue. It is the slide between the two that can be tough to keep up with. (A good rule of thumb for this episode: if it’s gorgeous, confusing, or both, we’re probably in Stephen’s head.) We first hear Stephen’s inner voice (with the possible exception of “Chrysostomos”) on page 5 (line 100 in Gifford):

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coatsleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.   

We aren’t yet in true internal monologue: the pronouns are all still “he,” not “I.” We’re sort of toeing the line between focalized narration and free indirect discourse. It makes sense: Joyce starts us out slow. We have to learn how to read Ulysses, and while he won’t necessarily make it easy, he is here to teach us. However we label it, this paragraph jumps out of the page: clearly we are in a different mode. And we learn right away to associate this mode with memory (not a very pleasant one, in this case).

But we haven’t hit first-person yet, and that’s what I claimed to be talking about here. (I just wanted to lead up to it with a little narratology, sorry about that). On the very next page we get our first bit of true internal monologue, which interestingly enough comes with our first description of Stephen’s appearance:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too. (1.135-8)

 This paragraph, like so many in these early chapters, starts out in the third person with a character doing something before slipping inside to show us what they are thinking. Here we have our first (narrative, at least, as opposed to spoken) use of the first-person: “As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to read of vermin. It asks me too.” It seems important that the passage is about identity: throughout the book we will see both Stephen and Bloom (and perhaps Molly and others) struggling with identity and its relationship to memory, and we are seeing these themes invoked in very strategic ways right from the start. Gifford tells us that “As he and others see me” alludes to Robert Burns poem, “To A Louse”:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea’es us,
An ev’n devotion!

So, crucially, even Stephen’s first bit of internal monologue, a reflection on identity, is relying on the words of others. We will see this throughout: Stephen’s thoughts, however self-absorbed, are presented through allusion and academic philosophical argument, rather than anything direct and, well, human (as opposed to the very human thoughts of Bloom).  The choice of a poem about a louse is fitting, of course, as Stephen hasn’t washed his “dogsbody” in some time.

But what about “It asks me too”? What asks him? Asks him what?

Stephen’s next reveries are triggered by Buck: first he mentions Clive Kempthorpe, causing Stephen to imagine a scene at Oxford, and then, cruelly, he sings some lines from Yeats’ “Who Goes With Fergus?” (a poem so important to Ulysses that William York Tindall used to make his Joyce students memorize it before they even began the novel). At that moment a cloud passes over the sun (watch out for the same event in chapter 4) and Stephen’s thoughts return to his mother:

Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery. (1.249-253).

Love: another word to watch out for. (Remember Stephen’s first thoughts of his mother: “Pain, that was not yet the pain of love” (1.102): what’s that supposed to mean?)

This is our first encounter with “I”: but Joyce wants the word to trouble us, as it troubles Stephen. In his next reverie he thinks of his school days: “So I carried the bowl of incense at Clongowes. I am another now and yet the same.”(1.310-12). Throughout the book we will be asked to wonder, with Stephen and Bloom: was “I” then the same as “me now”?

And sometimes it’s just not clear who the “I” refers to:

He walked on, waiting to be spoken to, trailing his ashplant by his side. Its ferrule followed lightly on the path, squealing at his heels. My familiar, after me, calling, Steeeeeeeeeeeephen! A wavering line along the path. They will walk it tonight, coming here in the dark. He wants that key. It is mine. I paid the rent. Now I eat his salt bread. Give him the key too. All. He will ask for it. That was in his eyes. (1.627-32).

Here we are in Stephen’s mind: so who paid the rent? Stephen, right? Well, maybe. Historically we know that it was in fact Oliver Gogarty, the basis for Buck Mulligan, who paid the rent. But that’s not conclusive: obviously this is a work of fiction, and Joyce is free to change whatever details he wants (especially if it serves to make him [as Stephen] appear more persecuted). But what about “Now I eat his salt bread”? Gifford tells us this is an allusion to Dante, in Paradiso, where his great-great-grandfather predicts Dante’s future exile: “Thou shalt make trial of how salt doth taste another’s bread,” e.g. you will see how hard it is to live in a home that is not your own. This allusion seems to indicate that Stephen is already an exile. So who pays the rent? One way to read it is that within Stephen’s interior monologue, he is imagining the direct discourse of Buck: “He wants that key. ‘It is mine,’ [he will say]. ‘I paid the rent.’ Now I eat his salt bread.” But there’s really no way to know for sure.

Complicated? Yes. Beyond what Joyce expects of his readers? By no means.

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Poetry

In the first three episodes of Ulysses, I found several striking things that speak to Stephen Dedalus’s sense of himself as an artist. To suggest that Joyce was concerned with such matter is hardly a stretch. He whittled a much longer work down into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the purpose of having that shorter work operate as a sort of preface to Ulysses. Or so I understand it. There is much in these early episodes pertaining to art and artists that I missed (e.g. Buck Mulligan wanting to ride Stephen’s coattails and somehow create in Ireland a Hellenic center of the arts), and it took the annotations at UlyssesSeen to make them apparent to me. Armed with the perspective that site provided, I reread the first three episodes and found other things I hadn’t noticed before. I am no doubt scratching just the surface of the surface here, but the examples that most resonated with me follow.

On page 11, Stephen thinks back to some memories and to a dream he had of his mother. As the UlyssesSeen folk point out (see the panel here), there are some nice crisp details in his recollection. It’s pretty easy to imagine this burst of detail as the work of a poetic mind in action, the artist chewing over details of a hard event (emotion recollected in tranquility, anyone?), maybe even preparing them for insertion into his next poem. Then we have the line “Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!” and what appears to be an answer to it: “No mother. Let me be and let me live.” I take the ghoul exclamation to be a projection of Stephen’s of what he figures his mother might say if she knew he were noodling over the facts of her death with his art in mind. I may think this simply because I had a very similar experience when trying to write my way through my own mother’s death a few years ago. I wanted to capture the attendant details and emotions, but I felt like a buzzard picking at her corpose for something I might one day polish up and send in to a magazine for publication. This all brings up the interesting question of where the boundary (if there is one) lies between personal, private expression and consumable, public art.

On page 15, Stephen winces at the sting of the milk woman’s awe of Buck Mulligan. She listens to the man who could take care of her worthless living body and slights the man who could lend her immortality. Self-important much?

As the first episode closes, Stephen is noodling around with the Latin prayer that came to mind as he was thinking about his mother before, and he actually edits it, converting it into verses complete with eye-rhyme. He has to carve out a couple of phrases to make it work. The best I can tell, his rendering changes “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you” to something like the following:

bright as lilies
gather around you
glorious virgins

He basically removes the holy and keeps the earthly, retains the image fit for poetry. I’m reminded here, as often, of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” That the prayer Stephen is editing appears previously in a section in which I take him to be considering images from the memory of his mother’s life and awful death for use in his art seems to me to tie that section to this and to confirm my suspicion that the ghoul comment pertains to his mining her death for his poems.

Catalectic meter is poetic meter that’s missing a syllable in the last foot. Chances are very good that if you’re reading Ulysses, you’ll remember from high school literature (at least) what a poetic foot is. But just in case: it’s a grouping of syllables. An iamb is an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. A trochee is the reverse. A spondee is two stressed syllables. A dactyl is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. So to take Joyce’s example here (and really forcing the recitation of the stresses in the line), we have “WON’T you COME to SANdy MOUNT” — it’s three trochees followed by an orphaned stressed syllable. This is a line of catalectic tetrameter (tetra = 4 feet). Why Stephen talks of iambs I’m not sure. Maybe the lines in question come to mind and register to him as catalectic but he’s searching for (or seeking to write) catalectic iambic tetrameter. At any rate, this is a very self-conscious intrusion of Stephen’s consideration of poetic technique into the text.

About ten pages later (47), he recites (presumably in his head) an old song composed of lines of catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Repeating a fragment of one of the lines, he then follows it with a rhyming sentence that scans more or less with the same meter: “Language no whit worse than his.” It’s not quite right because you don’t in natural speech hit the “no” quite as hard as a stressed syllable demands, and you hit the “whit” a bit harder (but not quite fully stressed). Still, it’s hard not to hear poetry in the resulting implied couplet:

And thy quarrons dainty is.
Language no whit worse than his.

But then go on and read the next two sentences, which I’ll present as an unrhymed couplet:

Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles:
roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets

There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. First, there’s the internal eye-rhyme of “words.” Then there are these weird compound words that Hopkins would have been jealous of. Each line ends on a trochaic utilitarian piece of attire, so while there’s not a phonemic rhyme, there’s a sort of rhyme of category and of rhythm. You have alliteration in “patter in their pockets,” a sort of visual rhyme of double letters in “jabber,” “nuggets” and “patter,” assonance in the adjacent “tough” and “nuggets,” more mid-line assonance in “jabber” and “patter.” There’s even something very nearly onomatopoeic about the beads jabbering on the girdles. But wait, there’s more. These two lines are almost identical rhythmically; take a liberty with the stress on “nuggets” and it’s exact. Finish all that off with the figurative language — “marybeads” for a rosary, “nuggets” for coins — and you’ve got basically a beginner’s guide to prosody and poetics here.

The last example I’ll pull out appears on page 40, and it’s another that resonates very much with my own experience. A brief quote:

Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once . . .”

The ellipsis is Joyce’s and not mine. I take this to be a funny little jab at the self-absorbed young writer’s tendency to try to sound lofty. I would have real trouble counting the number of pages of journals I kept years ago on which I attempted this sort of syntactic jugglery in order to distance myself in a way from what I was writing. The idea is that you want to write as if, looking back once you’re famous (which is what Stephen is imagining here — the thems of his sentence are the books he fancies himself having written in the future), you had an inkling that you might wind up being famous one day. And yet you want to do so in a sort of modest or off-hand way. So you throw in goofy references and uncited quotes that betoken the breadth and depth of your knowledge of literature and then you write as if looking back on your youthful writing with sort of a wink and a nod. It’s all very silly. Stephen is attempting such a thing here, and he gets tripped up on his distancing techniques and loses his trail. It’s very funny, if my reading of it fits at all.

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The Odyssey

Contrary to Judd’s advice, I’m reading The Odyssey in tandem with Ulysses (well, partially contrary to Judd’s advice — he suggests familiarity but also figures that a simplified version suffices). I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of the stories and have read quite a bit of Greek mythology to my daughter in the last year (this is a great book to read with little kids, by the way), but I’ve never read The Odyssey through from start to finish. Ten or eleven years ago, I think I checked it out of the library to read on an airplane, but I got distracted and never finished. It’s high time I read the thing, and what better timing could there be?

I’ve already documented how I’ve found Ulysses so far to be anything but transparent. To augment my reading, I worked my way through both the illustrations and the annotations for the UlyssesSeen project, and it was all very illuminating. The fine folk over there note that Joyce is very money-conscious throughout the book, and they bring to the foreground how Mulligan is leaning on Dedalus for money — a striking fact given that Mulligan has more elevated social status than Dedalus, so that you’d think he’d have more money too. Mulligan shamelessly pumps him for rent, for milk money, and for booze money, and he finally asks for the very key to the lodging. Mulligan is quite simply a parasite.

Parasitism turns out to be a major theme of the first two books of The Odyssey. I wonder, in fact, if a simplified or child’s version such as what Judd suggests would highlight the theme. The basic storyline for the opening of the poem is that Odysseus has been away from home (fighting the long battle of Troy and then waylaid on his home journey) for ages. His son, Telemachus, was a youngster when he left but is now coming into adulthood. Penelope (Mom) has been fighting off suitors for several years now. They all figure that Odysseus is dead, and Penelope is apparently pretty hot stuff. What I had never thought of before reading the epic is that it’s not as if the suitors are swinging by one at a time to take her out to The Olive Garden and have her home by midnight. No, all these guys are lounging about drinking Odysseus’s wine, killing and eating his animals, and generally wreaking havoc and making themselves at home on Odysseus’s/Telemachus’s dime. For years and years. After a helpful visit from Athena, Telemachus decides he’s not going to take it anymore, and he tries to give the suitors the boot. Several times he mentions how they’re mooching off of him (this is emerging as a rhetorical device in the epic, by the way, the repetition — often in the same words — of an anecdote or notion) and how he wants them gone.

It takes the visit from Athena to give Telemachus a kick in the pants. Similarly, maybe it takes a visit from the milk woman (credit to UlyssesSeen for the idea) to give Dedalus a kick. The counting out of money must serve as a bitter reminder to Dedalus of what a moocher Mulligan has been. And the first episode of Ulysses ends, apparently, with Dedalus effectively wiping his hands of the tower and of Mulligan.

All this to say that so far, I’m finding a parallel reading of The Odyssey to be of more value than I might have expected given Judd’s comments. It’s certainly not indispensable companion reading, but I’m finding it interesting. It also happens to be pretty entertaining and sort of anthropologically fascinating on its own.

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