Had we but world enough, and time
Early in this week’s reading, I scribbled in the margins of my edition of Ulysses a brief set of notes and arrows attached to the line “Hurry up, damn it. Make hay while the sun shines.” Bloom thinks these thoughts as he contemplates the hams of the voluptuous girl he wishes to follow out of the butcher shop. My notes read more or less as follows:
carpe diem —> typically a vitality genre, often full of senses —> Calypso is Odysseus’s chance to get moving
The middle note bears some explanation. I had noticed that Joyce’s Calypso episode seemed unusually full of sense descriptions, from oddly accurate onomatopoeic representations of a cat’s meow to the pissy tang that Bloome finds appealing in kidneys. There are odors galore (in one of the annotations at UlyssesSeen, we’re told that Joyce was one of our great smell writers) — water scented with fennel; a bar squirting out whiffs of ginger, teadust, and biscuitmush; fresh air; “the lukewarm breath of cooked spicy pig’s blood,” the recollected perfume of citrus fruit; the smell of breath; and of course the stench of feces. Each of the other senses is represented as well, some of them very vividly.
The Calypso episode begins with eating and ends with death. In between, there’s more eating, thoughts of sexual activity, and evacuation. It’s an episode very much about the details of living, told with the specter of death in the background. I began to think of it as something of a carpe diem piece. “Enjoy even the most basic, prosaic things about life to the fullest,” it seemed to me to say.
Then The Lotus Eaters episode continued the venial theme and did so with a floral motif. In The Odyssey, the adventurers who consume the troublesome flower are stopped in their tracks by apathy and a lack of any desire to continue their journey home. The flower in the old story represents the suppression of desire. Joyce turns that representation on its ear. Bloom — masquerading in print as Henry Flower (both floral names, note) — writes titillating letters back and forth with one Martha. Bloom can’t even notice the horses he passes without thinking about the fact that they’re gelded. We see various references to pins (tiny phalluses), including one bawdy song with the refrain “To keep it up.” There’s a passage on page 78 about the eucharist that uses very suggestive language about women bowing their heads and having things put into their mouths and drops shaken in. He imagines the old popes as eunuchs. He contemplates (I believe) masturbating in the bath, and the episode ends with Bloom considering the languid floating flower of his genitals and pubic hair floating in the bath. There’s more that I haven’t catalogued here and no doubt more that I missed. Toward the end of the episode, Joyce writes “Always passing, the stream of life, which in the stream of life we trace is dearer than them all.” Here too I made a margin note of “carpe diem.” In an episode very much about desire and filled with floral associations, it bears keeping in mind that flowers are perhaps nature’s most overtly sexual beings, with their colorful organs ever on display, the smell of their sex valuable to people (Bloom goes to the chemist’s for a scented lotion) as a perfume.
Our third section for the week addresses death more frankly than it does life and sex and sensation, but it’s not drained wholly of these matters. Bloom thinks about his daughter’s blooming as she reaches her mid-teens, for example, and there’s much made of heirs potentially ruined (Stephen) or already dead (Bloom’s dead child Rudy). Joyce writes of “love among the tombstomes.” “In the midst of death we are in life” he writes. Rather touchingly, he writes of Bloom’s ill-fated son’s conception:
My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be. From me. Just a chance. Must have been that morning in Raymond terrace she was at the window, watching the two dogs at it by the wall of the cease to do evil. And the sergeant grinning up. She had that cream gown on with the rip she never stitched. Give us a touch, Poldy. God, I’m dying for it. How life begins.
I begin, as I chew on these episodes a bit, to think of Calypso as a chapter about appetite and desire generally. It’s so full of senses, and yet it is not bawdy or often explicitly sexual, and so it seems to me to be a chapter about living life in general to its fullest, about enjoying even the tiniest things like a remembered scent of oranges and citrons. Lotus, then, is an amplification of the particular desire for sex. But it is still a chapter about desire more than about fulfillment of desire. The titillating letters are ever about a future meeting and not about a successful tryst. Hades, then, is in some way about long-past fulfillment of desire (see the passage quoted at some length above) and contemplation of the inevitability of death; it’s about regret and loss (as it is in Joyce’s source material).
I don’t think I’m quite ready to declare that this week’s reading assignment constitutes a formal, intentional member of the carpe diem genre, but certainly with all its desire and sexual innuendo (and nuendo?), its direct statements in the carpe diem vein, and its preoccupation with the finitude of life, it can be read with the carpe diem genre very much in mind.
Which brings me to the title for my post, which I take from the opening stanza of Marvell’s exemplary carpe diem poem “To His Coy Mistress”:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Ulysses is, of course, a book obsessed with time. It details a day’s activities and thoughts painstakingly, often with nods to the time of day. It is also a book obsessed with place, and it is a pedestrian book, by which I mean not that it is boring or usual but that it is a walking book. So Marvell’s opening lines work nicely as a sort of epigraph as I consider this week’s reading through the filter I’ve here described rather disjunctively. Had we but world enough and time to walk and pass our long love’s day, we might instead read Ulysses.