Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mornings at Home

Toward the beginning of Episode 4 (Calypso), James Joyce captures what life is like on the occasions when I wake up before my wife:
On quietly creaky boots he went up the staircase to the hall, paused by the bedroom door. She might like something tasty. Thin bread and butter she likes in the morning. Still perhaps: once in a way.
He said softly in the bare hall:
-- I am going round the corner. Be back in a minute.
And when he had heard his voice say it he added:
-- You don't want anything for breakfast?
A sleepy soft grunt answered:
-- Mn.
No. She did not want anything. He heard then a warm heavy sigh, softer, as she turned over and the loose brass quoits of the bedstead jingled.
This book can be so intimidating with its use of stream-of-consciousness and obscure references, that I think it's valuable to point out some of those moments that so sharply reflect human behavior in a way anyone can recognize. In other words, Man, do I not want to wake Kathy up when she's sleeping. But I'd hate to fix breakfast without her, too.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Three Jokes, One Punchline

I'm still rereading the first chunks of Ulysses; I finished the second chapter around a week ago, and haven't had too much to say about it. But here's a bit of a synopsis, I think.

Stephen Dedalus teaches rich schoolkids to make ends meet. He's kind of bored with the job, and a bit resentful of the kids. He mentions Pyrrhus, leading me to suppose he'll have his own Pyrrhic vicotory coming down the pike. Or the pier, as the kids' joke goes. Another allusion the the drowned man?

Stephen tells a nautical ghost story (of Lycidas, another death at sea) and then poses an unusual riddle that I can't make heads or tails of:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

He says the punchline/answer to this riddle is, "The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush." A real knee-slapper, that. I've got no clue what that's about. (Neither do the schoolkids, so there's that.)

Stephen sees himself in an awkward, weakling kid who has trouble with math and is about to be trounced on the sports field. Then he meets with Mr. Deasy.

Deasy gives him his pay, riding him about spending his money wisely and paying his own way through life. This leads Stephen to muse on his own debts.

Then Deasy lectures Stephen on Irish history, about which I'm woefully ignorant. Deasy's a pretty untrustworthy source, it seems to me, anyhow -- his antisemetism and conservative worldview surely color how he tells the history. At several points, he makes allusions to women in classical mythology -- Cassandra and Helen -- calling each a "woman who was no better than she should be." A curious statement, curiously repeated.

Like Haines in Chapter 1, Deasy thinks "England is in the hands of the Jews." (33) He closes the chapter with an antisemetic joke about Ireland being the only country that never persecuted the Jews, since Ireland never let them in in the first place. Ha, ha. Go bury your grandmother under a hollybush, y'know? (Maybe that's the point -- everyone's jokes fall flat to other people in this chapter. There's some social disconnection there.)

There are some terms in Deasy's history lesson (31) that I didn't get right away. "Fenians" are irish nationalists, but who exactly is "O'Connell" that he refers to -- the surname is a little too common for me to wiki. Armagh is a city in Northern Ireland; the "lodge of the Diamond in Armagh" is a mystery. And I've got no idea what he means by "Croppies lie down." (UPDATE: Actually, that phrase googles just fine; it's part of a chorus to an anti-republican folksong. Deasy likes his fight songs.)

This segment is known as "Nestor," for an old warrior in the Trojan war -- he's too old to join in battle, but he gives plenty of advice. Hello, Headmaster Deasy.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Questions on Telemachus

I'll organize these by page number -- I'll use the page numbers in parentheses in the margins.

(6) Who is Algy? I notice he's mentioned on p. (37) as well.

(6) Does hyperborean mean "athiest"? Why?

(8) "I'll bring down Seymour and we'll give him a ragging worse than they gave Clive Kempthorpe." Who are Seymour and Clive Kempthorpe? Seymour shows up again on (22).

(8) What the heck is omphalos? (Okay, Wiki says omphalos stones (a religious artifact) were said to allow direct communication with the gods. There was one at Delphi.)

(10) Why does Buck call Haines "the Sassenach"?

(12) Stephen remembers how he carried the boat of incense at Clongowes. Was he an altar boy? Or is that where his mother's funeral was held?

(14) An unusual euphemism for God, I guess: "the collector of prepuces." (A prepuce is a foreskin or clitoral hood; since the foreskin is removed at a briss, God must have a collection. Naturally, this is Buck's joke.

(16) and (17) Okay, "Agenbite of inwit" has me baffled. Is he a character Stephen and Buck are creating to tell Haines about? Wiki says its a poorly translated piece of prose that gives clues to what 14th century Kentish dialect was like.

(18) They call their tower an omphalos. Interesting.

(18) Buck calls Stephen "Japhet in search of a father." Japhet was one of Noah's sons. This is also in the Hamlet discussion. (And come to think of it, this chapter is informally called "Telemachus," and Telemachus was Odysseu's son, who was searching for news of his father.)

(20) I like the wordplay in "Joking Jesus": "What's bread in the bone cannot fail me to fly." Jesus's bones (his body) were, after all, also Bread. (As would Jack of the Beanstalk's, had the giant his way. But that's probably neither here nor there.)

(20) I like that Haines isn't quite sure how to react to Buck's mocking of religion. Mustn't upset the natives. I also like that Stephen says he hears "Joking Jesus" three times a day, after meals... making it sort of an anti-prayer.

(20) I'm a little lost about Stephen's ashplant. Not sure what's going on there. (I think it's mentioned before this page, come to think of it.)

(21) Haines calls German Jews Britain's "national problem." Considering there's a lot of antisemetism coming from a character in the next chapter as well, I'm guessing this will be a recurring motif.

(22) "Says he found a sweet young thing down there. Photo girl he calls her." "Snapshot, eh? Brief exposure." How I love innuendo. I get the impression (from something I read online, can't remember where) that this is Leopold Bloom's daughter. I've only gotten to Chapter 4, so I haven't met her yet, but from what I recall she works in photography somehow.

"Brief exposure." Heh.

(24) The seal is a usurper? WTF?

So those are some questions I had while reading (and rereading) Chapter 1. If you've got answers, toss 'em in the comments (or if they're long, make a post of their own. I'll do some looking into this myself, too, and post what I find.


Monday, May 12, 2008

I Can Read Again!

For a while there, I was really worried.

I mean, I could see the words, and I knew what a good 80 percent of them meant, but somehow, it wasn't coming together. I put four chapters behind me, and had really only a tenuous grasp of what was going on.

And so I didn't blog. I just didn't have much to say. But I didn't read any further, either -- I didn't want to put too much distance between what I was reading and what I was commenting on.

But I had to say something. I started this thing, and it seems like everyone's waiting on me to pipe up. So this morning on my way to work, I flipped through the first chapter to refresh my memory on the few notes I took. And somehow, instead, I started to read the book again.

And suddenly I got it. I understood what was going on at that breakfast a lot better than I had before. I'm sure there's a lot of nuance I'm missing (heck, I haven't even found translation for the Latin yet), but there are things that completely eluded me on my first go-round. The text was too dense (or I was) for me to realize what Haines is doing in Ireland (he's a Brit writer, working on an "among the natives" type piece about the Irish). It seems to me that Stephen is pissed at him, partially because of jealousy (he's a frustrated writer himself -- he's a schoolteacher that Buck keeps calling "the bard") and partially because of a dislike of the egotism of the whole project and archaeological stance. Which is why he feeds him bullshit facts, like when he mentions they pay rent on the tower "to the secretary of state for war," as he says on page 17 (18).* Somehow, the intent and flow of this opening conversation connected with me this time, when it hadn't before.

At least, I hope I'm getting the intent.

So of our three main characters in this segment, we have Buck Mulligan (stately, plump Buck Mulligan) who's a jovial athiest medical student, happily making light of religion whenever he can. We've got his friend Stephen Dedalus, an unreligious man haunted by his denial of his mother's dying wish -- the he pray with her at the end. He's no happy athiest (or hyperborean, as they call it, if I've got that right); he's has no faith, but it bothers him. And then there's Haines, who's looking to make money off of his travels to Ireland. Buck thinks they can make money (or gain some sort of status) off of Haines's work, and wants Stephen to feed him choice insights (such as the cracked mirror of a servant being "a symbol of Irish art"). Stephen knows that whatever the value of these insights are, he won't reap the rewards if he gives them to Haines.

Meanwhile, they have breakfast, and the corpse of a man who drowned nine days ago still hasn't turned up. And Stephen's upset with Buck for being callous about his mother's death, but being callous is simply what Buck does. He doesn't really know any other way. The threads of conversation wind and twist into the background before springing back into view, and it's hard to follow for that reason. But this second reading really clarified things for me.

Not everything, though. Not hardly. I'll list some of the things that puzzled me in my next post.


*Okay, it turns out that might not be bullshit after all. Martello towers were part of Ireland's defenses against Napoleonic armies; it's certainly possible that their rent would go to the war department. That feasibility is certainly why Stephen says it, whether it's true or not.