Ulysses 1 (Sections 1-4)
Every piece of literature is trying to illuminate the reality of human experience, and thus in choosing a narrative form, an author asserts how and where that illumination is best found. Eliot observed her illuminations by assuming the perspective of a divine-eye, and searched over great distances and times to capture the truth of human experience through the most commonly real of responses to situations. Proust dove exclusively into the past to find those illuminations, and found them by veraciously submerging himself in and recounting the past of his character’s lives. Joyce searches for these illuminations in the present moment, and in Ulysses he attacks it with the same veracity with which Eliot attached the realistic and Proust attached the past.
Thus Ulysses asserts from its beginning that the truth of human experience is to be found in the present moment. Through its style, form, and narrative, it searches for the truths of literature and life in the present moment, and indeed tries to find all those truths in a single day. That is the self-asserted frame of the novel, beginning on page one. And so from page one onward, we are lead to judge the characters in the novel by its framework: we are lead to judge them by their responsiveness to the present moment. The first character we enter the present and the book with is Steven Dedalus, and we immediately find that he is obsessed with the past, particularly the past of Ireland and Christianity. The world through his eyes, as we see in the first three sections, is a world full of images of crosses and green stones in seas of silver. The first image we get is that of a razor and a mirror lay crossed on a bowl of lather. This is an almost impossible image for us to imagine, but one that comes naturally to the stream-of-consciousness of Stephen Dedalus, because that is the type of allegorical world in which he is submerged. To Stephen, this allegorical world of the past is a nightmare he cannot escape, causing him to fear looking at the realities of the present moment, afraid that he might be back-kicked by that night-MARE.
In the first section of the book, Haines asks Steven, “Are you a believer in the narrow sense of the word? I mean, creation from nothing and miracles and a personal God.” To which Steven replies, “It seems to me there’s only once sense of the word.” But Haines, the Englishman, does not understand the Irishmen’s meaning, then hands him a cigarette from his green-jewel-encrusted silver cigarette-case – a clear symbol of Ireland being handed to the Irishman from the Englishman – and says to Steven, missing the irony entirely, “You are your own master, it seems to me.” To which Steven replies, “I am the servant of two masters: an English and an Italian,” referring to the English imperialists and the Catholic Church.
Haines, understanding only the first half of Steven’s response, says, “I can quite understand that…And Irishman must think like that, I daresay. We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly. It seems history is to blame.” Though Steven must be annoyed with the passiveness of this response, he does buy into it as we see in the second section of the novel, when he asserts that history cannot be thought away, as Blake would have you believe, but asserts the Aristotelian view that history is the lodging of one possibility into the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted.
Steven believes this, yes – he accepts that view of history – but he still yearns – in fact dreams – that it weren’t so – it is after all a nightmare that he wishes to escape, a tapestry, as he sees it, that needs to be unwoven. And to escape or unweave the past, to accept the present as the novel urges, one must embrace the future, which we see Steven trying to do at the end of the second section, when the Jewish question comes up between Mr Deasy and him.
“Mark my words,” says Mr Deasy. “England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press (interestingly, the exact position of Bloom: an advertisement agent). And they are signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength (or vitals, as Joyce will show Bloom doing). I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here, the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.”
To this, Steven’s eyes open wide in vision and he stares sternly across the sunbeam in which he halted – a rare romantic moment in Joyce. This is because in the Jews, as Steven sees a way to escape his nightmare, old England. Steven does not want the old Irish language back, he does not want old English rule back, he sees this Jewish future as a potentially bright one as he stands in his sunbeam. “Life is the great teacher,” he says, a clear foreshadowing of Bloom – Bloom the Jew is the great teacher, for Dedalus and us. And as Mr Deasy said, Ireland is the only country to never persecute the Jews, because they never let them in, because they never let in the Jews or the teachings of Bloom, the acceptance of gross human truths that the Catholic Church suppresses as immoral.
With Mr Deasy’s disturbing joke resonating in our heads we move to Book 3, where we are almost entirely focalized through Steven’s inner-monologue. Here we find a barrage of Steven’s esoteric metaphors and philosophical discussions, making it hard for us to get our bearings. But his thoughts are not just disguising his human actions from us; they are an attempt to hide his human actions from himself. Here, the narrative technique is showing us the problem with Steven’s reality – it is too far removed from physical reality. His esoteric rants remove him and us-the-readers from what is actually going on. We only catch glimpses of it in passing, and when we do, we see them as markers for what is actually going on in Steven’s temporal, real world. And he is doing temporal, real, bodily things. He is pissing, he is picking his nose, he is ogling a woman, and he is hungry. But he suppresses all those things in his rants: to himself, to us, and to the people around him. While he is doing all these things, he is worried that he will be seen. He does not want to be seen, he wants to be the seer, because he thinks that artists are bodiless voyeurs, that writers are bodiless voyeurs: Ineluctable, to use his word. But no-one is ineluctable, as he keeps reminding us: peeing when he sees a dog pee, thoughtlessly thinking of women, “What else are they good for but sex,” picking his nose, and imagining the decay of the body thus, “Bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine. A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy titbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly. God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a ruinous offal from all dead.” Here, ‘pants’ are a symbol of man’s removal from a primitive state. But no matter how tightly a man’s trouserfly is buttoned when he dies, the minnows will flash through the slits and castrate him, dethroning the God on whose image he is based. Steven realizes this, and tries to imagine himself taking part in this primordial feast, devouring a ruinous offal of all dead, but he is still just imagining, he still cannot escape the odd mix of Aristotelian and Blakean past in which he believes.
Mr Leopold Bloom, on the other hand, eats with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. And thus we get the second character of the novel to be judged by its framework, of the truth lying in the present. We quickly learn that Bloom’s obsession is righting as well, but righting r-i-g-h-t-i-n-g, as opposed to Steven’s writing w-r-i-t-i-n-g, as Leopold is in the act of picking up Molly Bloom’s under things when we meet him. Like Steven’s world, Bloom’s is also a world of metaphors, but a world of much simpler, more immediate metaphors, such as, “Stamps: sticky pictures.” These are the most esoteric Bloom’s thoughts get because he is fully engaged in the practical things he must attend to, most importantly his bodily desires: the present moment. Bloom first rights Molly’s things, then his things – the slip of paper beneath his hat – then his first bodily need of hunger as he – the jew – goes to pick up a pork liver.
At the pork market, his thoughts of food become immediately intertwined with sex, as he becomes obsessed with moving through the check-out line quickly to follow the “moving hams” of the woman in front of him. This obsession runs through Bloom’s mind unabashedly. He connects women with animals throughout the chapter, noting that Molly’s breasts look like large soft bubs, reminiscent of a she-goat’s udders. This is a much more thorough image of the similar one conjured by Steven in section one when he realized that the milk the milk woman had brought was, “Not hers, saggy paps.”
Thus we see that Bloom has a much greater capacity to pick up on the immediacy of the world in front of him. In every sense of the word, he is better at righting it than Steven: it is perfectly reconciled to him, and thus he can forge more pure sentences and thoughts from it. Despite the frequent vulgarity of his humanity, he can often draw beautiful thoughts from his impulses, such as: “Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh.” And when Bloom finishes the chapter he began eating by defecating, we not only see that he is the character, out of all we have met, who is most true and unabashed about the body, We get the complex thoughts that arise from that ability. When pondering on the nature of decomposition, just as Steven had done in the last chapter, Bloom, thinking of manure, moves beyond eating death, to passing it on, to growing more life, even if he has reached this thought through much simpler terms.
Again with Joyce, as in Portrait, a simple idea, executed perfectly, becomes great art. In Ulysses the idea is to examine his characters relationship to the immediate moment by wholly focalizing on them. We see how perfectly this is executed when we don’t hear Molly say metempsychosis because Bloom does not listen to her say it, but we do hear what is important to Bloom, and we see that it is something much different than that what is important to Steven. And that is the framework of the novel after we have met its first two characters within the larger framework of one day in Dublin, where Joyce will probe, like every writer before him, for the illuminating moments of human experience.