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Composition

I’ve written before about composition from the perspective of Stephen. There’s some more of that in this week’s reading as well, as we get his various asides as he pontificates about Hamlet. (I didn’t much enjoy episodes seven or nine, by the way. Nine was especially irritating.) This week I’m going to write a bit about composition from the perspective of Bloom. Though there may be more/other relevant passages than the ones I’ll list here (time constraints kept me from doing the second readthrough this week), I’ll focus on a few that stood out to me.

The first appears on page 152 of my edition. Bloom is considering how poets write and suggests that they do so by using similar sounds. Then he amends his assessment when he thinks of Shakespeare writing in blank verse; it’s not the rhyme, he figures, but the flow of the language that makes poetry (Milton came to a similar conclusion and advertised it in the argument to Paradise Lost, it occurs to me). The trigger for these thoughts seems to be his somewhat serendipitously pairing the words “rats” and “vats” after thinking about rats in a brewery. He then sees some gulls, thinks back to the story about Reuben J (94) his telling of which was rudely interrupted (the thwarted telling of that story/joke a sort of act of verbal composition in the works; thanks to Paul for calling to my attention this detail, which I had sort of glossed over), and comes up with a little couplet about a gull flapping over the sort of water Reuben J would have pitched into. We have witnessed here an act of artistic creation. It’s no great act, as the couplet is really kind of bad, but the gesture is intact. There’s a moment of discovery (rats/vats) followed by a brief stream of associations followed by a sort of synthesis followed by analysis.

A few pages later, casting his thoughts again to Dignam while trying to elicit sympathy from a female acquaintance he meets (one of the major points of poetry, one might argue), he seems to write another little ditty, this time using an old Robert Burns song as source material (Salinger latched onto the same song, with alterations of his own):

Your funeral’s tomorrow
While you’re coming through the rye.
Diddlediddle dumdum
Diddlediddle . . .

He doesn’t speak the ditty aloud, of course. What he has just spoken aloud is “Funeral was this morning.” Metrically, it’s very similar to the first line of his little stanza; “this morning” and “tomorrow” scan identically, and the larger phrases both include “funeral” at the beginning. He has taken an utterance and turned it into a nubbin of a poem. The first line is rhythmically similar to a repeated line from Burns’s poem — “Should a body meet a body” — and the lines share a body association, so he makes the leap. But he’s distracted by conversation and can’t finish the thought, so he substitutes rhythm placeholders to close out the stanza. I imagine him subtly padding his fingers on his pantleg along with the rhythm he fashions in his head.

The next act of composition that stood out to me appears on page 170. Bloom has gone into a restaurant and, grossed out by the masticatory, slobbery, soppy affair of actually eating elbow-to-elbow with other people (compare to his contemplation of dining upon a kidney alone in episode four), sees a man stuffing cabbage down his throat with his knife. He thinks of the old saying about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth and modifies it to say (to himself) that this man was born with a silver knife in his mouth. Bloom thinks it’s a witty modification. But then he realizes that silver would suggest that the man was born rich, and this man clearly wasn’t. When you ditch the silver association and are left with the knife, you lose the allusion, he concludes. Not so witty after all. (Ahem, Kinch.) Bloom here is composing and revising a witticism he might have been thinking of using later in the day. It’s easy enough to imagine him among friends again trying to cut in (a la the Reuben J story) with an anecdote complete with witty wordplay.

On the next page, Bloom turns his mind to cannibalism (again inspired by the gobstuffing going on around him) and starts putting together a limerick. He rolls it around in his head while ordering food. An acquaintance uses the phrase “Who’s getting it up” (about Molly’s concert series), and the sexual connotation of the phrase, along with his prior speculation that the cannibal chief gets to eat the “parts of honor” of any victims, leads Bloom in a more ribald direction with the limerick. Again we’ve seen here how the germ of an idea takes on the associations that the surrounding events and conversation suggest and results in an act of creative expression.

A couple of pages later, Bloom thinks about an idea for a poison mystery story, but I’m not as interested in that as I am in his treatment of a couple of flies he spots. First he thinks the following: “Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.” Later, he observes: “Stuck, the flies buzzed.” Sexual imagery aside (the two thoughts are separated by an explicitly sensual passage), these observations strike me as acts of revision. By the time he reaches the end of the first sentence, he has decided he didn’t like his syntax, and he tacks “stuck” back onto the end. Or maybe it’s not a syntactical revision so much as a syntactical emphasis. Or maybe it’s merely a mistake, a detail added that he forgot he had already specified. In any case, it’s a considered sentence. The later version suggests revisitation of the observation. Maybe he’s not landing on a final syntax here, but he’s thinking again about the flies (was it watching two flies stuck together that called to mind the sensual scene from his memory, much as watching a couple of stuck-together dogs got Molly hot and bothered in an earlier episode?) and about the particular terms in which he’s thinking about them. It seemed to me a sort of glimpse at a way in which associations influence composition.

As I noted initially, we also see behind the curtain of Stephen’s mode of composition. I think the men’s modes are different, though I’m not sure I can explain very well why I think this; it’s sort of a vague sense at this point. Stephen is a composer of imagery around abstract ideas, while Bloom is a simpler compositor of associations. Stephen seems to go from memory to poetry, Bloom from observation to poetry to memory (I’m not at all sure yet that I fully believe this; I’m still considering it). Stephen knows a lot of things and uses poetry to showcase what he knows. Bloom asks a lot of questions (seriously, I’ve written “inquisitive” in my margins a bunch of times), and his private compositions arise in a way out of his trying to locate himself within the world around him. Stephen, maybe, is a dry, sterile Modernist (I’ve touched before on my bias against Modernism), Bloom something either older or newer, something to me more personal and likable, if less accomplished and cerebral.

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  1. July 26, 2010 at 10:30 am

    stephen has 2 major compositions in this section: the theory of shakespeare & the “parable of the plums.” in the shakespeare theory there is a clear reference to the spiritual exercises of ignatius loyola (“composition of place”). this definitely seems to be an influence on stephen’s methods. in “portrait,” when he sits down to write a love poem, he automatically heads the paper with the jesuit motto! but the loyola exercise helps him to involve the audience (“Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices” [l. 8974 in the online concordance].
    he definitely uses the “composition of place” with the parable, & tailors his story to the audience (to an extent – he rejects machugh’s title for his own, but machugh responds by pointing out to o’malloy: “We gave him that idea”).
    i guess the big difference between bloom & stephen, particularly when it comes to composition, is that stephen has had many more influences as a result of his extensive (jesuit) education. but, while he may be a better poet than bloom, he’s a better storyteller than he is a poet. it’s a talent he shares with his father, which is why he wants to reject it, but we all know he’ll come around 😉

  2. July 26, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Ah, I had underlined the “make the accomplices” section and thought that with the mention of local color, it was probably sort of a peek at Joyce’s own method of composition. Forgot about that when I was writing this post, perhaps because I was focused more on Bloom. Thanks for calling it back to mind.

  3. July 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I love this whole conceit that you’re working through. It’s something that I’ve been kind of ignoring and now wish I hadn’t been. Although interestingly the one thing I did note about Bloom’s composition was his “ads.” Not the Keyes thing, which I assume was not his idea, but all of the things he notices and comments on for advertising around the city. His idea of the girls in a clear box is certainly attention getting.

    I also noticed that Bloom mulls things over the whole time. Like there’s the whole bit earlier in the episode 8 where he can’t remember a man’s name
    And then much later he remembers completely in the middle of helping the blind man:

    “…Could he walk in a beeline if he hadn’t that cane? Bloodless pious face like a fellow going in to be a priest.
    Penrose! That was that chap’s name.
    Look at all the things they can learn to do. Read with their fingers…”

    So he never really stops revising, it seems.

    The funny thing to me is that I am more like Stephen than Bloom, and have been to parties where wit is prized over anything, and yet I don’t enjoy Stephen’s sections nearly as much as Bloom’s.

  4. crazymonk
    July 26, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Another difference, perhaps so obvious that it goes without saying, is that Stephen is self-aware of his composing process, always working toward getting his words down on paper or publication. Bloom, on the other hand, is merely composing his thoughts and doesn’t seem to have any intention to make the next step to be a writer — he is “merely” a thinker (and doer). One reason I personally find Bloom so much more interesting than Stephen (besides the fact that I don’t particularly like poetry nor academic Shakespearean theories) is that I am not skilled enough to be a writer by trade, but I like to flatter myself that my thoughts would be fascinating if they could be perceived directly by another. With Joyce as the medium, I can so far appreciate Bloom over Stephen as the better “writer.”

    • Ezekiel Crago
      July 28, 2010 at 7:24 pm

      I first read this novel as a 21 year old man who wanted to be a writer. I identified with Stephen and found Bloom a bit of a pedestrian bore. Now, 16 years later, with a degree in literature, I find myself enjoying Bloom for how creative he is about the quotidian aspects of his life. Stephen seems to live in a self-made Inferno, like the character Hamlet, vacillating and over-thinking everything. But Poldy greets life with “relish”, as an adventure. He creates poetry in his head just for fun. I think this may be Joyce’s way of showing how creative everyone is, that we’re all artists.

  5. July 26, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Paul, the ad writing as composition had occurred to me as well. Early in the book, Bloom thinks something about his writing desk, and in this week’s reading, he comes back a couple of times to something he read (I think it’s something he read) about somebody wanting a lady to assist in literary endeavors. So I think there is some degree to which he is aware of himself as a writerly type, though as crazymonk suggests, I certainly don’t think he’s thought it through or is very serious about it. I love the delayed detail such as the Penrose find you mention. We see this sort of delay a lot in the way he comes back to Rudy as well, and it’s one of my favorite techniques to run across in writing. Crazymonk, I get what you’re saying, but it’s horribly put. (I kid.)

    Paul, regarding parties and wit, have you read The Recognitions? I forget. It’s been years since I read the whole thing (I interrupted a reread to do 2666), but lately I’ve been thinking of Stephen as a precursor of the main young character in Gaddis’s book — both are learned, sort of tortured artists. And there’s lots of cocktail party type stuff in TR. I wonder how you’d identify with that character. I’d shave my own corneas before going to the kind of party you mention, but I’m the shy, unconfident type.

    • Judd Staley
      July 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

      There’s an interesting early (for Gaddis crit) essay by Bernard Benstock on the relationship b/w Ulysses and The Recognitions. Here’s the citation:

      Benstock, Bernard. “On William Gaddis: In Recognition of James Joyce.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 6 (Summer 1965): 177-89.

      It’s in JSTOR, if you have access to that.

      • Judd Staley
        July 27, 2010 at 10:33 am

        Of course, Gaddis denied having ever read U., so…

        Kind of like Joyce claimed to hate Freud, and then wrote one of the most “Freudian” books ever (not this one, the next one).

      • July 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

        Wow, I’m totally calling bullshit on Gaddis never having read Ulysses. The debt is so clear not only in The Recognitions but in JR too, even in something as surface as the way he sets off quoted speech (and the way he flows between speech and thought and POV).

  6. July 26, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I have a terrible blind spot for Gaddis. Meaning I read one of his books, and I honestly don’t recall which one it was (this was back around when IJ was published and Gaddis was the precursor,so why not). I clearly need to re-read the book (I feel like it was the Recognitions–I’m sure I’ll find a spine-cracked book on the bookshelf). But I’m daunted at the thought. However, having all of these big books under my belt, Gaddis doesn’t seem quite so daunting!

  7. July 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    about the “lady to assist in literary work” – as far as i know, that was his ad looking for martha clifford. if so, & even if not, since he does have that correspondence with martha, we can conclude that while stephen’s biggest act of prostitution-thru-writing is trying to get money out of haines, bloom’s personal acts of writing actually work toward getting him off (so to speak). i’m glad crazymonk pointed out stephen’s self-consciousness about it tho, & bloom’s unconscious, automatic method.
    i’m trying to remember the poem bloom entered into a contest when he was a kid (i think it’s in ithaca). it was fairly clever & really adorable!

  8. Cathy Hand
    July 26, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Paul Debraski :
    The funny thing to me is that I am more like Stephen than Bloom…and yet I don’t enjoy Stephen’s sections nearly as much as Bloom’s.

    Isn’t Stephen Joyce’s alter ego? And Joyce was married to the earthy (Bloomier than Bloom?) Nora (who supposedly never read Ulysses). So maybe Joyce, too, liked Bloom better than Stephen. Later episodes should reveal more along these lines.

  9. July 26, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Paul, Gaddis is outstanding. If you want to dip your toe in, read Frolic. It’s his easiest longish book and gives you a sense of his humor (among other things). JR is his best in my opinion, though I suppose most figure The Recognitions is his best. I always thought there was more of Gaddis than Pynchon in Wallace.

  10. Hunter Felt
    July 26, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    My life has been kind of in chaos here, but hopefully I’ll have something on the library scene before this week is through. It’s the intellectual heart of the book, something close to the birth of metafiction.

    I will admit that the Stephen sections are much colder than the Bloom chapters, and they are probably appreciated best when you’re younger or in an academic setting. That’s actually by design, so that the audience’s empathy shifts from the protagonist of “Portrait” to Leopold Bloom. Although Stephen is in the B plot, he still thinks it’s his story, that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from.

    Stephen thinks he’s Ulysses, but he’s really Telemachus. That’s the punchline of “Scylla and Charybdis”.

  11. July 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    hmmm… i don’t see how stephen thinks of himself as ulysses; even tho he feels dispossessed by his father & his mother is dead, he does see himself as the son figure throughout (hamlet, jesus, etc.). the punchline as i see it is that he sees himself as all these various son figures, but misses the one that is obvious to us (telemachus).
    cathy, stephen is obviously joyce’s fictional self, but i think bloom is too. he’s the mature version. one of the things i think the audience wants to happen in the final analysis is for stephen to befriend bloom so he can guide him to be more bloom-like (ie. mature, accepting of the nature of life, less angry, more positive, etc.). as for “maybe Joyce, too, liked Bloom better than Stephen,” i can tell you after many reads of portrait (side note: i hated portrait in high school, & even tho i’ve come to appreciate it i read ulysses for pleasure more often; i read portrait so often because i teach it to high school students), at least one of those reads led me to believe that the book is a total mockery of joyce’s youth, & we’re meant to be laughing at stephen throughout. later reads have made me feel that’s NOT so, but i do think the whole book can be read that way. again, it’s never either/or with joyce, or any modernists i can think of, for that matter.

    • July 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm

      @Stevie and @Cathy: The question of to what extent, if at all, we think of Stephen (or, perhaps, Bloom) as somehow stand-ins for Joyce himself is rather vexed. Stevie, in suggesting that Portrait may be a “total mockery of Joyce’s youth” echoes some of questions raised by Wayne Booth’s excellent essay on Portrait and the problem of aesthetic distance.

      While it seems beyond argument that many of the details of Stephen’s life are direct transcriptions from Joyce’s own youth (just as the citscape of Ulysses, and the news-worthy events, are literal transcriptions from contemporary newspapers, maps, and inquiries to his brother, etc), moving beyond that seems perilous indeed. I only comment here to mention some of what I think are the most interesting points Booth raises; for, if we take Stephen as a proto-Joyce, what do make of Stephen’s own aesthetic production. While Joyce collected some poems in Pomes Penyeach, and wrote a drama, Joyce is a novelist. Stephen, with his Parisian affectations, seems much more of a Symbolist poet. And what do we make of his villanelle or aesthetic theorizing (in Portrait), or the glimpses of his poetry in Ulysses. While Stephen’s consciousness may be fascinating, my sense is that his own production as an “artist” is… less so.

      Returning to the Dedalus/Icarus thematic: Stephen’s attempt to “fly by those nets” and leave Ireland (announced at the close of Portrait), when we meet him in Ulysses seems to have failed. Joyce’s did not.

  1. July 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm
  2. July 27, 2010 at 12:07 pm
  3. August 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm

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