Tuesday, July 22, 2008
"Ulysses" James Joyce
The Eumaeus chapter. What on earth is going on here? After the mad Irish rhapsody of the Circe chapter, which goes on, on and on, piling madness on madness, image on image, the reader longs to return to a slightly more normal prose environment where the laws of the universe apply, and some recognizable reality holds sway: some nice 19th century realism, for example. The mind can only deal with so much unreality. It either threatens to become boring, or to become meaningless. Joyce has judged the distance perfectly. In the relationship between the Circe and Eumaeus chapters, the whole nature of fiction is put in the balance: Circe makes us long for a realistic world, Eumaeus gives it to us in all its bathetic banality.
But something is wrong with the prose. It sags, it’s lumpy, full of absurd tautologies: the eyes were surprised at this observation, because as he, the person who owned them pro. tem. observed, or rather his voice speaking did: All must work, have to, together; platitudes: Probably the home life, to which Mr Bloom attached much importance, had not been all that was needful and cliché: a magnificent specimen of manhood he was truly, ..with sentences that ramble on and on getting lost in their digressions. It is a model of inept writing: slightly disturbed in his sentry box by the brazier of live coke, the watcher of the corporation, who though now broken down and fast breaking up was non other in stern reality than the Gumley aforesaid, now practically on the parish rates, given the temporary job by Pat Tobin in all human probability –from dictates of humanity, knowing him before- shifted about and shuffled in his box, before composing himself again in the arms of Morpheus.
What is Joyce trying to do here? In the Odyssey, Eumaeus is the swineherd who stays at home to look after Odysseus’s realm while Odysseus goes off to Troy. The tautology and over-precision of the discourse at which we mock, is the result of a mind that has had lots of time to ruminate, but not much matter on which to ruminate, the mind of someone who has stayed at home, in other words. Also the mind of one who is old and tired (at this stage in the cabman’s shelter, it’s one o’clock in the morning and Stephen and Bloom are both the worse for wear for drink), the thought processes spinning out, repeating themselves, digressing, the language careless, unreflecting, unremembering of what it has just said. One would expect the language to get in the way, for this type of writing to be boring and untransparent, and yet, miraculously, the growing relationship between Stephen and Bloom comes through with surprising clarity.