Posts Tagged ‘ulysses’

“Contemporary” Catechism

August 27, 2010 2 comments

The other day I read a diverting—if argumentationally (Joyce isn’t the only one who can make up words) lightweight—piece by Annie Dillard called “Contemporary Prose Styles,” in which Dillard plays Linnaeus and classifies “contemporary” prose styles (the article is as old as I am) as either “fancy” (or “fine”) or “plain.” She kind of claims that fancier styles are better suited to modernist projects, and that plainer styles are preferable to contemporary readers for their ostensive presentation of the world as it is rather than as a writer arranges it. Those both strike me as naive, or at least unreflective, positions, but Dillard doesn’t seem wholly attached to them anyway, since she goes on to say that basically all writers work somewhere in between the two poles. Which is fine by me, since I don’t even intend to criticize the piece (more); I bring it up for its relevance to our reading of Ulysses.

Dillard marshals Joyce as one of her exemplars of the fancier styles: “I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Beckett, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.” I think she’s right to mention Ulysses and Finnegans Wake—I assume those are “the novels”—as pyrotechnic displays of writing. In at least some respects, that seems to be the point of some of what we’ve been reading these past few weeks. Can we talk about “Oxen of the Sun”?

But what’s interesting to me is when Dillard turns her attention to the plainer styles. She gives a broad characterization that leaped to mind throughout my reading of “Ithaca”:

This prose is not an end in itself, but a means. It is, then, a useful prose. Each writer of course uses it in a different way. Borges uses it straightforwardly, and as invisibly as he can, to think, to handle bare ideas with control[.] … Robbe-Grillet uses it coldly and dryly, to alienate, to describe, and to lend his descriptions the illusion of scientific accuracy. His prose is a perceptual tool[.] … Hemingway uses it as a ten-foot pole, to distance himself from events; he also uses it as chopsticks, to handle strong emotions without, in theory, becoming sticky: “On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time.” (At its worst, this flatness may be ludicrous. Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence, “Paris is a nice town.”)

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect.

This is “Ithaca.” For all its earthiness and democratic range of subject matter, Ulysses retains a peculiar fastidiousness about its characters’ emotions. (At least so far; I don’t remember whether “Penelope” blows this out of the water.) Maybe I’m just not catching what I’m reading—a definite possibility—but to my mind the book mostly lets its characters feel what they feel without, I don’t know, intruding too much. It gives us their thoughts verbatim, but most of the emotional weight is left to us to register on our own. As the final homecoming, the episode when Bloom at last returns to the privacy of hearth and bed, “Ithaca” is the pinnacle of this reserve.

The somewhat detached tone also accomplishes the other goals Dillard names at the end there, creating a fully realized portrait not just of Dublin in 1904 but of the entire universe and all its contingent particularities that make possible this day for this man in this city. Daryl covers many of the fields this episode brings into play; what I love is how comprehensively it establishes what is the case in this world. It runs up the scale to intergalactic space and down to the corresponding space within the atom. It discourses on both physical and metaphysical principles. And it sets a willed positivity against “the apathy of the stars” (17.2226). A few months ago, I went on about Moby-Dick being about everything; I think Ulysses is similarly encyclopedic, but with an entirely different effect. What we see in “Ithaca” is how a regular old day—nothing any more remarkable about it than about any other day—necessarily includes in it everything else that exists. Every moment is entirely conditioned by everything before it (and this is heading toward the kind of understanding of reality that science was also heading toward at the time of Ulysses; Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle in 1927), every day is the sum of all previous days.

And then we follow Bloom into sleep, with Darkinbad the Brightdayler, to recharge the everyman for his next everyday.

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When I started reading “Ithaca,” I flipped forward after just a couple of pages because I feared that all of the 70+ pages in this batch would follow the question/answer format that opened the episode. I may have groaned audibly when I saw that they would. It was a cute trick, I thought, but who needed 70 pages of it? Who needed 20 pages of it? But as I read on, a neat thing happened that has happened several (though by no means all) times for me in this book: However unsettling the form of the episode was at the beginning, I internalized it somehow and found a way to read past the form, or maybe to embrace it. What had at first seemed an obstacle or a cutesy-pie trick turned into maybe a sort of prism through which to read the content of the episode. I wound up liking this episode very much, and for all my gnashing of teeth at the beginning of it, I was sad to see it end. Of course, it did end rather sadly.

As for what the episode’s structure actually is, or what it is doing, I wasn’t entirely sure until I cheated (as always, after my reading) by looking at the Linati schemata, which suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a (or the?) catechism. Well I’m not Catholic and don’t know much about Catholicism, so while I knew that there was a thing called the catechism, I didn’t really know what it was. So the form of “Ithaca” seemed to me to be like something out of a school room. In fact, Stephen’s fairly rapid-fire questioning of his students in the Nestor episode seems to anticipate the form of this episode, and I took “Ithaca” to be a sort of dialectic (perhaps almost Socratic) lesson formally.

I also found the word “prolusion” rattling around in my head as I read. A prolusion is a preliminary exercise, sort of a hallmark of old-fashioned education, and the prolusions I’m most familiar with are Milton’s. They’re explanatory or argumentative, often quite humorous pieces of oratory spoken before an audience. Several of the answers to the questions posed in this episode struck me as somewhat prolusive. That there are a couple of references to Milton’s “Lycidas” later in the episode kept the prolusion idea in my mind, though I don’t quite mean to posit that Joyce is making reference to Milton’s prolusions. Still, it’s an association that colored my reading. (By the way, if you want to feel really bad about your formal schooling, go look up Milton’s essay “Of Education.”)

In any case, there’s something distinctly lesson-like in this episode. And as I read, I made note of a number of particular fields of study that came up, sometimes with actual brief lessons in the fields (other times merely loaded language). The really obvious ones:

  • geometry
  • physics
  • chemistry
  • civil engineering
  • thermodynamics
  • accounting
  • the paranormal
  • composition
  • numerology
  • comparative literature
  • music
  • astronomy
  • religion
  • linguistics
  • navigation

Bloom has taken a filial interest in Stephen, and so an episode in which a father figure bereft of his own son talks at length with a son-figure (who in the source matter is bereft of his father) may as well be written in a didactic form (“Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue…”). Of course, despite the form, many of the answers are not in fact aimed at Stephen. Certainly the ones after Stephen leaves aren’t.

With Stephen gone, Bloom begins to think about his own station in life. At around page 702, I began to notice a pronounced emphasis on progress and progression (there’s an outlier way back on page 650, with the progression of dates and the “progressive extension of the field of individual development and experience”). First there’s mention of a geometrical progression. Then there are several references to widening of scope (sometimes couched in terms like “what else?”). Maybe it’s an equivocation, but the questioner asks on 707 about consideration of progressive melancholia. A couple of pages later, we’re given successive (progressive? maybe regressive?) modes and examples of poverty. Late in the episode, Bloom considers the progression of men who’ve (he imagines?) cuckolded him; this progression is mentioned more or less alongside parallel lines running to infinity, and the series of men is said to be repeated into infinity. The book is a progression in time. Bloom is on a progression toward sleep. The episode ends by asking “where?” and giving no answer.

The last in my little progression of pro- words that I latched onto in this episode is “prothalamion,” the fancy-pants name for the wedding song genre of poetry. Spenser’s “Prothalamion” is probably the most famous example. These poems are often full of bowers and nymphs and flowers and rivers and repose. How sad the end of “Ithaca” is, as Bloom’s bed and settling into thereof are described as follows:

With circumspection, as invariably when entering an abode (his own or not his own): with solicitude… prudently, as entering a lair or ambush of lust or adder: lightly, the less to disturb: reverently, the bed of conception and of birth, of consummation of marriage and of breach of marriage, of sleep and of death.

We learn that Bloom and Molly haven’t had sex in over a decade. He gives her what seems to me to be a tender kiss on the bottom and answers her questions about his day. The best I can tell from the descriptions, they lie in bed in something like a V shape. He’s weary, having seen the world in a day (so to speak, and somewhat fancifully to link the story with its nominal source material) and come home to find himself horned. What’s next? Where are they going? Forward? Pro-? This is surely a different scene, a different mood, than the mood that provoked Molly to ask him for a little touch early in the book (and that a distant memory), than the mood that provoked the old acrostic Valentine’s Day poem:

Poets oft have sung in rhyme
Of Music sweet their praise divine.
Let them hymn it nine times nine.
Dearer far than song or wine,
You are mine. The world is mine.

Poor Poldy. Not a word of it seems to be true.

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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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“Hwaet” is an utterance you often see in Old English poetry. It means something like “listen!” and is I suppose the Teutonic equivalent of a drawn-out Hellenic invocation.  (It doesn’t appear in Ulysses so far, but it seemed appropriate; read on.) I don’t know much about Old English poetry, but I do remember that much from a survey course I took in college. I also remember something vague about the common use of “ubi sunt,” which means “where are” in Latin. The translated form is used in lamentations in Old English poetry, to ask things (rhetorically) such as where one’s dead companions-at-arms are. It also happens to appear (well, “ubi” does) in Ulysses (386) alongside other archaisms like “ywimpled” and “yclept.” These forms too I recognized from an English literature survey course, dating I believe to something closer to medieval times. I suspect you find “yclept” (which means “named” or “called”) in Chaucer and possibly as late as Spenser. Early in “Oxen of the Sun” we also find lots of alliteration. It turns out in many cases not merely to be alliteration but to be balanced alliteration. That is, it’s often alliteration with a sort of symmetry of sounds:

Before born babe bliss had.

Within womb won he worship.

Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was.

Light swift her eyes kindled, bloom of blushes his word winning.

The first two examples demonstrate pure symmetry (this is my term, not a technical term), four syllables starting with the same sound in a sentence. The third demonstrates what I guess you might call a-b-a-b symmetry. You have a /k/ sound and a /d/ sound, and then the pattern repeats. The fourth example demonstrates a-a-b-b symmetry, two /b/ sounds followed by two /w/ sounds.

Yet another fact I remember from that old survey class is that Old English poetry was alliterative. It tended to be written in lines that had alliterative syllables split by a caesura, or pause. This is what Joyce is doing for a lot of this episode.

It was really rough going for me at first, but once I grew accustomed to the mode in which he’s writing, I began to really enjoy it. The dense, archaic first part of the episode was in a way easier for me to read than the last part. There are moments that provoked audible laughter. For example: “And the traveller Leopold went into the castle for to rest him for a space being sore of limb after many marches environing in diverse lands and sometimes venery.”

I’m not sure what other modes Joyce sprinkles into this episode. At times it felt briefly Victorian again. At times it seemed later than middle English but not quite modern (I’m thinking of his use of words like “eftsoons,” which means “after” or “again” and appears in English as early as 950 but has many more citations in the OED in the 1400s and later. The paragraph after the opening incantations read to me like modern parodic corporate speak.

It is in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of The Odyssey that Odysseus loses all of his shipmates. The opening of that venerable poem Beowulf plunges us into a tale at the end of which the warrior has lost his comrades-in-arms. One of the standard (alliterative) Old English poems read in survey classes — “The Wanderer” — tells of the loss of friends. All of these address the transitory nature of life. This episode about abortion, birth, and the death of children does the same. Joyce is creating an association. He’s also probably showing off a little, and I think he’s having fun. Although parts of this episode were hard to get into (Sarah notes that my first reaction in a comment to her post on the prior week’s reading was an “arrgh”), parts of it were also very fun for me. But then I’m a language nerd and admired translation into archaic forms. Why I enjoyed parts of this but not the lofty passages a couple of episodes back I’m not sure. Maybe there was more room to stretch my legs and get into the proper mood for it this time around.

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While I haven’t done a full survey of “Nausikaa” for references to precious metals and superstition, I certainly found myself underlining them a number of times. The episode reads at the beginning very much like a Victorian novel of manners (complete with an opening marked by the picturesque, which I believe was not merely a descriptive mode but more a cultural phenomenon in the period), and so I initially took some of the girlish superstitions to be simply part of (what I took to be) the Victorian flavor of the episode’s opening. I finished the reading early last week and didn’t go back to it until tonight. As I went back through my annotations, I began to think maybe there was more to the convergence of superstition and precious metals, and the more I think of it, the more I become convinced that this convergence is central to the novel.

Alchemy is broadly known to be the (attempted) practice of turning base metals into gold. It is an unscientific, superstitious practice, and it stands in stark contrast to the rational, inquisitive (a word that I’ve written in my margins many times) way in which Bloom investigates the world. So the  appearance of superstition in the lovely seaside girls contrasted to Bloom’s ever-present scientific view of things alongside the appearance of many metals (base and otherwise) made me think of alchemy.

I was also struck in this chapter by a concern with appearance vs. reality. On page 342, for example, we’re told how Gerty learned to draw an eyebrow line to give herself a haunting expression; we’re told on 355 that Cissy fusses over the boys to make herself look attractive (this is also petty jealousy on Gerty’s part, of course). The episode is all about perception at a distance and the reality of internal monologue. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that it’s about the alchemical reaction that takes place as you seek to fashion from the lead lump that is your dreary reality a golden future or vision to aspire to. Or maybe that’s too fanciful.

I do think there’s more going on here, though, for the notion of social alchemy also runs through the episode. Cissy is seen as tomboyish and crude, gipsylike (her eyes, admittedly). She’s described as having a nigger hat and nigger lips; she has “golliwog curls,” which I discovered referred to a set of stories with lots of racial (think minstrel-show) baggage. This is all set up next to Gerty’s refinement, her “languid queenly hauteur” (more in this vein on 341). On page 346, we’re told that worshippers are gathered without regard to social class. A page or two later, someone is said to be a gentlemen who looked a thorough aristocrat. A bit further on, Gerty’s interior monologue describes Cissy’s little brothers as common. Joyce here invites consideration of class difference, which lends itself well enough to the alchemical metaphor. The Victorian novels certainly covered the topic of social alchemy. Wallowed in it, even.

The church intrusions puzzled me a little bit as I read this episode. It’s not clear to me whether there’s simply a church nearby enough that services can be heard or whether there’s a service taking place on the rocks. There is explicit mention of the Sacrament, which — the conversion of bread and wine into the actual blood and body of Christ (gross) — is itself a sort of Alchemy, which is a matter of doctrine that I imagine has often been at play in religiously divided Ireland, and which seems to rub up against another consistent theme of the novel, metempsychosis. Transubstantiation. Changing from one thing into another. Bloom ponders the matter on 370 and thinks of the stories in Greek mythology in which people were changed into trees from grief.

Since this is a quickish blog post and not a scholarly article, I don’t have a tidy conclusion, but I do think these associations may be worth considering in the larger context. The ongoing metempsychosis thread can hardly be ignored. Consubstantiality of the father and the son (and of Hamlet and company; and of Telemachus/Stephen, Ulysses/Bloom) is central. Maybe a sort of alchemy is afoot.

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August 8, 2010 2 comments

Howdy, Zombies! My mother (neither beastly nor dead) came ’round, and my time she flew by. But I’m honor-bound to make it all up, and while it would make sense to jump aboard where the boat is now, I feel I must backfill. That is, what I have to say on “Aeolus” and “Scylla and Charybdis” echoes forward, and I can’t hark back to what I haven’t said.

(I wasn’t kidding about how reading affects my writing.)

To begin, I admit I’m a sucker for scenes behind the scenes in publishing. It’s what I do, and it amuses me. So I enjoyed Bloom at work in “Aeolus,” and felt fondly for Nannetti in his reading closet. But I also think a place where texts are made is a fertile literary setting; events and meanings seem to bloom and multiply. (Paging Adso of Melk.) That’s certainly the case here in Ulysses—indeed, texts themselves start overgrowing their espaliers and covering the style we’ve learned how to read in the first six episodes.

Judd mentions David Hayman’s idea of the Arranger, which I’m not familiar with but sounds right on. Stipulating the Arranger’s existence, then (and the fact that I’m talking out of my hat; any ridiculousness here is my lookout, not Hayman’s), what I’m specifically sniffing after is the way It takes textual models and mashes them down onto the story of this day in Dublin, sometimes pressing so hard that the “original” material gets squeezed into some odd configurations to make room.

In “Aelous,” the arranging is largely a matter of editing and editorializing. It takes work to learn how to sort through Stephen’s and Bloom’s thoughts, and then just as we’ve had three episodes of each to grow accustomed to their styles, Bloom’s newspaper suddenly grabs hold and starts to run away with the book. It’s funny, for sure (“K. M. R. I. A.”), but the heds also create this peculiar space between the narrative and itself, so that what had seemed disorienting but still reasonably straightforward is now doubled and deeply suspicious. The prose that had perhaps pretended to psychological transparency is now making hay of its printedness (and the Arranger is making fun of the characters, at least some of the time). Most striking, I think, is that the arranging here doesn’t clarify anything. Whatever the Arranger’s goals, they do not appear to include simplifying. Instead, It unfolds a whole new broadsheet of meanings and structures between us and what we had taken to be the pages we were reading.

Outside of maybe the Dickensianly vigorous grotesquerie of all the eating, my hobbyhorse here hops right across “Lestrygonians,” but it strikes down hard in the Strait of Messina where dwell “Scylla and Charybdis.” We lay our scene in a library—a book hoard!—and people it with very many texts: Wilhelm Meister, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Lovesongs of Connacht, King Lear, and so on, plus all the songs and snippets I won’t look up because one of the Ulysses guidebook writers must already have done. Stephen performs an absorbing (if, in my eyes, wrongheaded) demonstration of the biographical fallacy to prove that Shakespeare was in fact one of his own characters; he even hauls in Will’s will’s second-best bed. The Arranger grows impatient with him, and lets Its attention wander: First It reproduces a snippet of notated Gregorian chant, then at line 684 It takes short inspiration from the Shakespearean subject and versifies the matter. Ideas appear to flit across the Arranger’s awareness, sometimes momentarily sticking together to produce name changes like “Mr. Secondbest Best,” “Eglintonus Chronolologos,” and “Sonmulligan.” (Quick leafing shows only “Puck Mulligan” repeated.) It goes all in, formatting just over a page as a play, gives up again, and finally ends with (almost) the end of Cymbeline.

I know I said the Arranger isn’t interested in clarity, but it’s notable that It isn’t blotting out the story It’s interfering with. There’s enough left recognizable that we can even in some sense distinguish what it might have been like “before” the Arranger got Its mitts on. (I know this is a fraught way of thinking.) Post hoc, it seems inevitable that a newspaper office and a library would inspire such shenanigans, but I think that’s only because we begin to discern the Arranger’s concerns through the bizarre palimpsests It makes of these episodes. Now of course we ask the questions that all start with “why,” but I shall take the Arranger’s own authority and defer: Sufficient for the day is the post therof.

Ten, Eleven, Twelve

I found episode ten to be in some ways almost filmic as it jumped back and forth among a number of interactions taking place at close proximity to one another. Another way I thought of it was as a giant clockwork, almost as if the gears of one scene turned and rotated it out of view for the next to be hauled into view. The close proximity of the scenes stood out to me; there were many small interactions occurring separately but at times also bumping into and influencing one another. A study of how the various scenes flow would be fascinating, but it’s not something I had time for this week. Reinforcing this idea of the mechanical in this episode are things like the tram, ticking watches, a factory, some powerhouse dynamos, and whatever disc/groove apparatus we see references to a couple of times (a record player?). I always wait until after I’ve read an episode to consult Joyce’s schemata, but I was gratified this week after making note of these mechanical things to see that he had mechanics in mind as he wrote this episode. Maybe this book isn’t entirely beyond my grasp after all.

On page 250 (still in episode ten), we read of young Dignam’s sense of fractured identify (at least that’s the note I took). “That’s me in mourning,” he says, as he turns in the mirror and looks from one side to the other of himself. It’s an act almost of discovery or unexpected self-recognition. This is picked up at a couple of later points in this week’s reading as well. For example, as Bloom sits in a pub on page 280, he thinks of the deaf(ish) waiter named Pat and figures that if you painted a face on the back of his head, he’d be two. This eleventh episode seems to be split between two venues as well. According to Joyce’s schemata, we’re in a concert hall, though it seemed to me like we were in two separate pubs. Perhaps there are different drinking chambers in the concert hall, or maybe Bloom and the single drinking companion in his vicinity are simply far across the room from the more boisterous crowd we hear from. Or maybe Bloom is in a pub and the other people are in the concert hall. At any rate, I was aware of a sense of separateness but proximity. Bloom could hear the others singing, but they were willing enough to speak aloud about him, suggesting either that he couldn’t hear them or that they didn’t think he could. So what we have is a sort of fragmented viewpoint of the area these two groups of men occupy. This episode seems a zoom from multiple angles of a smaller part of town, where the prior episode was a longer shot of a broader set of actions and places. Maybe it’s worth considering that the episode is named for the sirens, who may be said to represent another sort of fracturing (of expectation, perhaps of anticipated identity), in that they sing beautifully but lure men to their deaths.

It’s no surprise that an episode corresponding roughly to Homer’s story of the sirens is full of sound words, among them onomatopoetic sounds, references to music, various sounds in the environment, poetic things like alliteration and assonance and rhyme, and simple phonic word play.

In a comment on a prior post in which I brought up William Gaddis, Judd remarked that Gaddis claimed never to have read Ulysses. Gaddis was obsessed with mechanics and music, with a particular interest in the player piano and what mechanization and reproducibility mean to music (and by extension to art in general; he treats of this by way of forgery in The Recognitions). On the basis of episodes ten and eleven, I have to call bullshit on Gaddis’s claim. A passage from page 278 in my edition reads as if it could have been lifted straight from the head of Gibbs in JR:

Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. Two multiplied by two divided by half is twice one. Vibrations: chords those are. One plus two plus six is seven. Do anything you like with figures juggling. Always find out this equal to that. Symmetry under a cemetery wall. He doesn’t see my mourning. Callous: all for his own gut. Musemathematics. And you think you’re listening to the etherial. But suppose you said it like: Martha, seven times nine minus x is thirtyfive thousand. Fall quite flat. It’s on account of the sounds it is.

Instance he’s playing now. Improvising. Might be what you like, till you hear the words. Want to listen sharp. Hard. Begin all right: then hear chords a bit off: feel lost a bit. In and out of sacks, over barrels, through wirefences, obstacle race. Time makes the tune. Question of mood you’re in. Still always nice to hear. Except scales up and down, girls learning. Two together nextdoor neighbours. Ought to invent dummy pianos for that.

I think episode eleven has probably been my favorite so far (though there’s clearly a lot I don’t understand about even the basic setting), and I wish I had had time to do the second read-through this week. This might be a chapter I come back to at some point.

Episode twelve was largely uninteresting to me. I read it in a hurry and may have missed a bunch as a result. Formally there’s some interesting stuff going on in terms of narrative framing and the overlapping of voice. We have a set of colloquial conversational voices alternating with a sort of lofty, mythologizing, epic voice that seems often to retell in epic terms what has just been told us via conversation. Sometimes it’s funny. Other times it’s just kind of irritating logorrhea.

As time constraints this week and what seemed a very long chunk of sometimes dense reading resulted in my giving this week’s reading pretty short shrift, I await with great eagerness the insights my fellow bloggers will provide.

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