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WTF?

I came very close this week to writing a post whose text was only something like “I have nothing to say.” Circe challenged my stamina, and as it bore on and on without apparent aim, I began to feel like I was the butt of a practical joke. I won’t quite say I skimmed the last half or so of the episode, but I can’t say I did a whole lot better than skimming. I’m reading without a guide and frankly don’t know that I would have gotten through this week’s reading and a guide both (I’ve been chasing Ulysses with some rather more palatable Flannery O’Connor instead). So I don’t really have much coherent to say. I suppose that’s fitting. A few scattered observations follow, though.

I find a way to see Thomas Hardy everywhere. On page 469, we find a passage from Bloom about the suffering poor and (I guess) the privileged classes. In it, he uses the phrase “casting dice” and the word “purblind.” Hardy’s poem “Hap” (which oddly is the Hardy I always manage to see in other works) uses forms of each of these words and bemoans the lack of meaning in suffering. It also includes the distinctive word “unblooms” (!).

Gender is an obvious preoccupation of this episode. From the first time I read the name Virag in a prior episode, I thought of the archetype called the Virago (basically an Amazon), who makes a late, brief, named appearance in Circe. Bloom crosses the aisle and is (ill-) treated as a woman and referred to with feminine pronouns. He has a very deep vagina. The Bella we first hear from also changes genders and takes on the masculine name Bello. It’d be interesting to see what a feminist reading of this episode would be, especially given Bloom’s frankly sort of predatory activities earlier in the book. I wonder also if cross-dressing in Elizabethan theater was on Joyce’s mind and whether or not it was something he was playing with here.

As viewpoints and genders meld and swirl together in Circe, it’s pretty tempting (and probably not all wrong) to think of metempsychosis, or at least of the physical equivalent transmogrification, which is of course central to Homer’s story of Circe (along with temptation and decadence).

Is this episode a rewrite or adaptation of some play that I ought to be recognizing? There are echoes of all kinds of things (not least of all earlier bits of Ulysses), but I wasn’t able in my frustrated and sometimes careless reading to find any correspondence to a play I knew. I half suspect it’s a rewrite of Hamlet that I’m too dim to have picked up on.

There’s an interesting moment on 548 in which Bloom and Stephen do some age reconciliation. Bloom got a scar when he was sixteen, 22 years prior. Stephen is 22 now. I felt for a moment almost as if Bloom and Stephen somehow spectrally occupied the same space in a way, almost in the way you discover one day that you have become your parents. The episode winds down with a sort of tender fatherly moment between Bloom and Stephen and ends with the crushing appearance of little Rudy as — like Stephen — a sort of scholar (he’s reading something in what I assume is Hebrew, so not exactly beach reading), another sort of joint occupancy of familial role.

I often found myself thinking that Pynchon owed something to Joyce. I think of Slothrop following Red down the toilet for his harmonica, for example, and of the coprophilia and other kink so prevalent in Gravity’s Rainbow. I think of the songs and what I can only describe as set pieces, of which there are many in Circe (how Rob is going to illustrate this one I can’t imagine).

Last, WTF is this episode? It obviously isn’t actually happening, though some parts of it seem as if they could be. I began to think of it as a dream, but it seemed to me that if it was a dream from Bloom’s perspective, he had at times access to things I didn’t think he’d have access to (e.g. Stephen’s memories of his mother). The Linati schemata, which I always refer to after my reading (the closest thing to a guide for me, I guess) suggest that the episode may be a hallucination, but the same limitations that apply to dreams would apply to a hallucination, I think. Maybe it’s a group hallucination, or a meandering walk through a series of overlapping hallucinations taking place as patrons at the brothel become increasingly incapacitated on whatever they’re consuming and peppered with interjections of real events. Other thoughts? Anybody in the know wish to provide enlightenment?

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  1. crazymonk
    August 16, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    I’ve been reading with a guide, and I can attest to the fact that it was difficult to keep up with both the readings and the guides this week. (Although it helps that my chaser is a little more lightweight: the graphic novel Y: The Last Man. I’ve started on Eumaeus and it’s clear that Joyce built in his own chaser as well.)

    With my additional knowledge, I have to say that you didn’t give yourself enough credit here in terms of grokking this episode. The Stephen/Leopold correspondences, the gender role reversal, the tender moment at the end — these are all crucial elements of the episode, I think.

    As for whether or not the episode references specific works, Faust’s Walpurgisnacht (ah, Pynchon) and the German novella Venus in Furs (ah, Pynchon!) came up a lot in the various guides.

    My own take is that I generally liked this episode, but found that the hallucinogenic parts dragged on a bit long. The Leopold-Bloom-this-is-your-life trial stuff at the beginning I didn’t mind, but then it really dragged in the middle once he found his way into Bella’s brothel, although I understood the import of Bloom suffering his cuckoldry fully. I had this odd moment when reading Elijah’s street-preacher speech during one of the hallucinations that it read exactly like a scene out of David Milch’s defunct show “John from Cincinnati.”

    The Circe connections here are also rather interesting: there are various references to swine and Bloom’s potato (briefly taken) acts as Ulysses’s moly against Circe’s magic — in the end he gets it back and gracefully stands up to Bella.

    I got more out of Circe on my first read than with Oxen, but I think both episodes have made me quite glad that I’m reading this novel with the help of this group and of the various guides. This is a tough book.

  2. Leroy
    August 16, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    As I understand it, the style Joyce chose for this episode was surrealism. I’ve always thought that the overt excuse for the surrealism was the absinthe consumed at the end of Oxen of the Sun, which would contribute to the hallucinatory aspect of the chapter. The idea of going beyond the real would also explain why Joyce feels free to ignore reality concerning what information Bloom is privy to. Certainly many of the events in the chapter are real because they are referred to in subsequent chapters while others, like the trial, are clearly imaginary.

    I’m an actor and director of live theater and I’m not aware of any specific play being parodied here, but some of the more elaborate stage directions remind me of similarly unstageable ones in Strindberg’s “A Dream Play” which preceded Ulysses and Artaud’s “Jet of Blood” which followed it. (Aside: my favorite of problematic stage direction comes from Tennessee Williams who says of Big Mama, “All of human experience passes over her face”. I think all of human experience passes through Ulysses.)

  3. Judd Staley
    August 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    The first time I read this episode, I thought it was totally surreal, basically just a phantasmagoric hallucination on the parts of various characters. With time, you begin to see how the phantasy is just that, in the dreaded Freudian sense of the term: the working-through of various issues dwelt on throughout the day by Stephen and Leopold. But on my most recent reread (before this one), with Eddie Epstein, I found that it is not really as fantastic as I thought: a lot of what seems unbelievably weird (the opening, for example) is mostly surreal because of the way Joyce presents it: it is, in fact, very *realistic*, in the Joycean manner.

    One thing I will say, Daryl: I find Ulysses to get better every time I return to it. I find the opposite to be the case with Flannery O’Connor.

    I hope to get back to my own posts soon. Doing this reading did not fit into my summer schedule nearly as well as I had initially hoped. But I’m still here, in case anyone was wondering.

    • August 17, 2010 at 9:06 am

      Judd, I imagine you’re right about Joyce and O’Connor. There’s probably so much more to discover in Joyce with each reread because it’s so dense, where O’Connor is fairly spare, so that rereading her becomes more an act of critique than of discovery. That said, I suspect it’ll be a while before I reread Ulysses. I’m really running out of steam here at the end, I’ll confess. It’s a capital-G Good book, but a lot of it is turning out, for me, to be like taking bad medicine.

  4. Hunter Felt
    August 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    It is a hallucination/dream sequence, but it’s not Bloom’s or Stephen’s (as there are things in both they don’t have access to them), it’s the hallucination/dream of the book (the arranger as Judd calls it).

    My best description of “Ulysses” is that it’s a Victorian novel that has taken acid, that sort of starts relatively normal and it starts to bore (at the same time) inside the mind of the characters (the stream-of-consciouss moments) and outside the novel (the arranger, the parodies, the metafictional context).

    Again, this seems like a contradiction, going inward and outward at the same time, but it’s the kind of cosmic consciousness that one gets deep in religious/philisophical/scientific/spiritual moods. It’s “as above, so below”. Much like how in “Scylla” where there’s a debate between Aristotle and Plato, the end result is that whether you focus on the particulars or the universal, they are just two ways to get to the same “truths”.

    “Circe” is the peak of the trip, so EVERYTHING in the rest of the novel is thrown out at the same time, progressing in a way that is not rational in the slightest, but following some type of internal logic that is impossible to follow unless you fully dive in (and risk madness).

    If there’s any precedent, I’d say it would be Goethe’s “Faust 2” which I haven’t read so I can’t comment, but you’re very right about Pynchon taking the wilder “stage directions” as the impulse to his most absurd segments of “Gravity’s Rainow”.

  5. Hunter Felt
    August 16, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    I also am not sure if the text is too gender obsessed, the crossdressing and gender switching seems to be more about the concept of the fluidity of the self (metempsychosis) and the “everyman and no-man”/”If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep” concept of there not being a lot of true distinction between the individual and the environment.

    In the text, Stephen struggles to maintain a very solid, rigid personality/persona and suffers for it, while Bloom sees both sides of nearly every situation, and “goes with the flow” both in his life and in his thoughts. So when he goes through the many transformations in “Circe” he makes it through without much damage where Stephen gets clocked out and Bloom has to save him with his wits, quick thinking, and his eager-to-please (although not pliant, as the Cyclops episode shows) personality.

    He’s not afraid to indulge in his feminine side, he is not ashamed or bothered by it, and that’s part of his immense psychological strength (his firstborn is dead, he attends a funeral, gets insulted because of his religion and reminded of his father who commited suicide, and he no longer has relations with his wife whom he knows has cheated on him THAT day, among other unpleasant events, but yet he soldiers on without much complaint).

    I just think it’s a little too easy to think too much about the crossdressing/gender transformation scenes vs. the other types of scenes in our gender/sex-obsessed society, but my take on such things might be a little biased.

    • Ezekiel Crago
      August 31, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      I read the gender switch as a reflection of Boom’s Agenbite of Inwit. He feels guilty about cheating on Molly, and that guilt is performed, but, as a sensitive man of timid courage, he carries with him a guilt for being a man. He becomes a “woman” and suffers for it as retribution for being a man. He also suffers for the sins of the Fathers, and a history of female subjugation.

  6. August 18, 2010 at 1:34 am

    The Circe episode was the most difficult for me so far. But after I read the chapter about it in the New Bloomsday Book, I went back to Joyce, and it came to me much more clearly and I even enjoyed it. I guess that is the point of guide books, eh? And the best one can hope for from them. Others spoke of the difficulty of keeping up with both Joyce and the supporting texts in this episode, and I agree — I didn’t make it through all the annotations this time. But the New Bloomsday made Joyce flow better.

    Overall, I do have to make an effort, quite a bit of effort, to find Joyce a joy — often I am with you, Daryl, about feeling like it’s taking medicine you don’t much like. OTOH, I also see it as being like a travel tour where you see a bunch of places for the first time and for a short while and then must hurry on without fully appreciating them. But, as with a tour, I am finding out where I want to return and spend more time even as I’m moving to the next area. I do plan to read Ulysses again soon. But maybe will tackle Finnegans Wake first.

  7. August 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I enjoyed Circe quite a bit (even though I didn’t understand it all). There’s an interesting discussion going on at my site about it (which I’ll link to, rather than restating what I said there).

    The gist being a more Freudian look at gender.

    Hunter, a little quibble, but I believe Rudy is not his first born.

    And Cathy, hoo boy on Finnegans Wake. I loved “Circe” but I’m terrified of the Wake!

  8. August 18, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Paul Debraski :
    And Cathy, hoo boy on Finnegans Wake. I loved “Circe” but I’m terrified of the Wake!

    Well, me too, Paul, and although it will be harder without the support of a group like this (unless this group decides to read it next, which somehow I doubt), I plan to avail myself of as many supportive explanatory books as I can handle, and charge ahead regardless.

  9. Leroy
    August 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    When I talk about Finnegans Wake I generally only claim to have passed my eyes and attention across every word of it in order, rather than claiming that I’ve read it. Once you delve into it, though, you’ll consider the problems raised by Oxen of the Sun and Circe to be trivial.

    A good guide book can be very helpful (as can Finnegans Wiki). I’ve also found some articles by Robert Anton Wilson in his books, “Illuminati Papers” and “Coincidance” (sic) very useful in learning how to dissect the Wake’s language for its multiple meanings.

  10. August 18, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    I thought that the view of the gender change was negative. It is degrading and humiliating to be female. Whereas in Homer’s Circe incident the men are changed into swine (animals), here Bloom is changed into a woman, dominated and controlled by a woman who is now a man.

    In the film, Bloom, based on Ulysses this sequence is given a lot of time and treated very much as a series of dreams or fantasies. The trial is funny; the rest gets tedious.

  11. Hunter Felt
    August 18, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Paul D.: Yes, I meant to write “firstborn son” there, because it’s clear that Rudy, had he lived, would be eleven, and Milly is college-aged.

    Silverseason: Yeah, the gender-switch scenes in “Circe” are mostly examples of transvestite fetishism where guys get off on being humiliated by being forced to dress like women.

    I don’t understand this in the slightest and I think that with “Penelope”, Molly Bloom makes a case that she’s a stronger and wiser human being than both Stephen or Bloom.

  12. August 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    @Leroy i think “When I talk about Finnegans Wake I generally only claim to have passed my eyes and attention across every word of it in order, rather than claiming that I’ve read it.” is an excellent way to put it. I find it a lot of fun to do that, but trying to “read” it doesn’t interest me… yet.
    @everybody, re:Circe; i’ve always found bloom’s gender-switching tedious & indulgent, & the trial too to some extent. but the stephen stuff in this chapter really works for me. the last time i read it (or one of the last times) was with a group of high school students, & we took turns reading it round-robin style. an absolute blast!

  1. August 16, 2010 at 9:15 pm
  2. August 24, 2010 at 8:05 am

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