Crisis and Criticism and Selected Literary Essays

Alick West


James Joyce: Ulysses


TO illustrate the method of interpreting literature outlined above, I have taken Ulysses, by James Joyce. One reason of the choice is that the book reveals in the creation of literature the same kind of conflict as we have already seen in its criticism.

Owing to difficulties in the book and misconceptions about it, a preliminary statement of the content is necessary.

Ulysses, it is said, makes such an indiscriminate heap of happenings that the only summary of the book is the book itself.

It is true that at first sight the book appears to have for its material the whole life of a whole town for the whole of a day—what happened in Dublin between 8 a.m. on June 16th, 1904, and the small hours of the next morning. The town wakes to life and fills its stomach; the ships sail up the Lifey; business arrangements are made; people are buried and born; they drink, bet, quarrel and make love; the officials of the state and church carry out their functions; till all are in their beds or the grave. According to this first impression, one can say that Ulysses is about Dublin; but one might as well say that life is life.

However, it is impossible for an artist to describe a day’s events without some principle of selection and without expression of that principle. For he is not a passive recipient, but an agent, who distinguishes in terms of his action.

In Ulysses it is very soon obvious that the events described connect directly or indirectly with two characters: Stephen Dedalus, an Irish writer, aged 22; and Leopold Bloom, a Hungarian Jew and advertising agent, aged 38. To take one of the most remote occurrences—the ship sailing up the Liffey: Stephen sees it making the harbour in the morning; Mrs Bloom throws a penny to one of its sailors in the afternoon; Stephen and Bloom meet the same sailor in the early hours of the morning. The apparently indiscriminate mass of events has these two characters as its centre.

But again even from this point of view it seems that the events of the book have no beginning, middle or end, except that given by the


earth’s rotation. Stephen Dedalus does his teacher’s job in the morning and gets paid; has a discussion in the Dublin Library in the afternoon; gets drunk and goes to a brothel in the evening. Bloom prepares his wife’s breakfast, goes to a funeral, sees about renewing an advertisement, drifts about the town, and also lands up in the brothel. They walk to Bloom’s house together and have a drink. Then Stephen goes away, and Bloom to bed. Mrs Bloom lies in bed, thinking. The book ends.

There are, however, two lines in these events where there is particular tension. Bloom discovers that his wife is going to have a visit from her lover in the afternoon, meets him several times before the rendezvous, wonders whether he will go home and stop it, but decides to do nothing. Stephen guesses that the man with whom he lives in a disused Martello Tower is scheming to get the key from him and lock him out, and in the small hours he finds himself homeless. Both series of incidents are, however, thin and fragmentary, in the sense that one moment is separated by scores of pages from the next. They also do not hold the book together.

Nevertheless, the book is held together, and by the following plot. Stephen is obsessed by the memory of his dead mother, at whose bedside he refused to pray. She appears to him at the brothel and tells him to repent. He runs amok and gets into a row with two British soldiers in the street, one of whom knocks him down. This is the first strand in the plot. The second is that Bloom and he have now met, and that Bloom takes care of him after his fight. But there is, of course, much more significance in this plot than the bare statement of it suggests.

In the early morning Stephen and his friend Mulligan are talking on the top of their Martello Tower.

‘You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you,’ Buck Mulligan said. ‘I'm hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you . . . But a lovely mummer, he murmured to himself. Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all. . . . Stephen . . . leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny, black coat sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body with its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. . . .


Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down. Liliata rutilantium te confessorum turma circumdet; jubilantium re virginum chorus excipiat. Ghoul! Chewer of corpses! No, mother. Let me be and let me live.’ [1]

She will not let him live. For it is the vision not only of his mother, but of the Catholic church, which he defied when he refused to pray; and he cannot escape from the church.

The most moving expression of how he is haunted, is through the development of a theme sounded in the above quotation—chewer of corpses.

When Stephen is teaching in the school, he thinks to himself about his mother: ‘She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened. scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.’ [2] What that fox is doing is clear from a riddle which Stephen asked the boys a few minutes before. The riddle was:

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

The boys gave it up. Stephen, ‘his throat itching’, told them the answer: ‘The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.’

This is one of the images that obsess Stephen. When after school he is walking down by the shore, he sees a dog scattering the sand: ‘Something he buried there, his grandmother. He rooted in the sand, dabbling, delving and stopped to listen to the air, scraped up the sand again with a fury of his claws, soon ceasing, a pard, a panther, got in spousebreach, vulturing the dead.’ [3]

In the brothel that evening the riddle comes into Stephen’s mind

1 p. 5 and ff. (all references to 1926 edition. Shakespeare & Company, Paris).

2 p. 28.

3 p. 46.


again, and he says: ‘Thirsty fox. Burying his grandmother. Probably he killed her.’ [1]

Because of this chain of association through 'chewer of corpses’ from his own mother, whom his family say he killed, to the fox vulturing the corpse of his grandmother, whom he has killed, Stephen’s obsession of his mother is also an obsession of killing and violating her. Here also the mother stands for the church. For in the above passage the violator is also called a panther; and according to the legend, referred to later in the book, it was Panther, the Roman centurion, who violated the Virgin Mary and begat Christ.

Another theme is closely linked with this.

After the first conversion with Mulligan, Stephen is walking to the sea with Haines, an Irophil Englishman, who lives with them in the tower. They are talking of freedom. Stephen says he is the servant of two masters, an English and an Italian. Haines asks him what he means. ‘The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.’ [2]

Nothing more is said about the imperial British state at the moment. But just as the obsession of Stephen’s mother and the church is developed through the allusive theme of the fox, so also Stephen’s sense of servitude to British imperialism. Haines, as Englishman, is one of the figures representing the British Empire through the book; and in the previous night Haines had badly frightened Stephen by raving and moaning to himself in his sleep about a black panther. Dog, fox and panther being all interchangeable forms in Ulysses, the line of association from them through Haines to the British Empire means that the obsession and desecration of the church has as undertone a similar feeling towards imperialism. For the fox is interchangeable with the panther; the panther, through the Roman centurion Panther and through Haines’s panther, symbolises the complexes of catholicism and imperialism together; and so the desecration of the church by the fox is also the desecration of the British Empire.

Further, the Empire represents for Stephen the power of authority in general, past as well as present, and the enslavement of the present to the past. This also has its theme, which runs through the book.

Stephen is teaching Roman history. Conscious of how its dead, recorded facts have made impossible all that otherwise might have been, he imagines this strangling power annihilated. ‘I hear the ruin of

1 p. 524.

2 p. 20.


all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.’ [1]

The connection between imperialism and this ruin of space and time is then made more clear and practical. Stephen is remembering an Irish revolutionary he knew in Paris, Kevin Egan, who took part in the attempt on Clerkenwell prison. Stephen thinks: ‘He prowled . . . under the walls of Clerkenwell and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry.’ [2] The repetition of the last significant phrase shows that the bondage of space and time and the past is broken by a revolutionary act.

That he knows himself the servant of these two masters, the Roman church and the British State, and that he refuses to serve them in any form, either in that of his mother or as historical facts—that is the essential quality of Stephen. And the climax of this first element in the plot is when he proclaims this refusal.

This he does in the brothel (this is written in dramatic form, all the ideas, thoughts and allusions of the previous part of the book appearing as fantastic, but real characters). Shortly before, Stephen has remembered the riddle of the morning, and there is a phantom hunt of the fox that killed his grandmother. Then Stephen dances, more and more furiously, and as at the end of the dance he stands with the room reeling, his mother ‘emaciated, rises stark through the floor in leper grey . . . her face wom and noseless, green with grave mould’. [3] She speaks to Stephen ‘with the subtle smile of death’s madness’, calls on him to repent and threatens him with the fire of hell. ‘The corpse-chewer!’ Stephen pants, and as her hand digs into his heart, he shouts: ‘Non serviam.’ His mother still moans on to him in the agony of her death-rattle. He cries ‘Nothung!’ and, as if it were Siegfried’s sword, ‘he lifts high his ashplant with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time’s livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry’. He rushes out into the street.

Bloom squares the damage to space and time by payment of a shilling, and goes out after him. He finds him in an argument with two British soldiers, who accuse him of insulting their girl and want to fight him. But Stephen detests action: ‘(He taps his brow) But in here it is l must kill the priest and the king.’ [4] All he says, however, only

'1 p. 24.

2 p. 43.

3 p. 542.

4. p. 552.


annoys the soldiers more, and one of them lays him out. Stephen lies on the ground, groaning, ‘Black panther vampire’, [1] murmuring fragments of a song he sang to his mother in her illness.

That is practically the end of Stephen. For the rest of the book his mind lies dazed in its own stupor.

But the rise to this climax, when Stephen makes his final defiance of Roman church and British state, is one of the ideas that give the mass of incidents sense and form.


We said above that the other strand in the plot was given by the fact that it is Bloom who now looks after Stephen. The significance of this plot is harder to bring out, and may seem to be mere playing with words; but owing to Joyce’s technique, such analysis is unavoidable. This plot is not independent of the other. It is an indirect consequence of Stephen’s intellectual position, as expressed through the first plot.

Stephen denies every allegiance to church and imperialism. The basis of this denial is individualism. He says to one of the soldiers: ‘You die for your country, suppose. . . . Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me.’ [2] Later he says to Bloom: ‘You suspect . . . that I may be important because I belong to the faubourg Saint-Patrice called Ireland for short. . . . But I suspect . . . that Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.’ [3]

In actual fact, however, Stephen cannot think up to his assertion that Ireland’s importance is belonging to him. The reality of his life is only a negative one: that he will not serve. He depends on church and state, not they on him. He is equally unable to live up to the idea that the reality of the world depends on him, as individual mind. The idea is only something to be played with. In fact, he looks at the world as being there without him, and is obsessed by catholic theology.

But since this individualism is the only basis that he has got (why, will be seen later), he cannot give it up. He works out a kind of compromise. The external world is there all right without him, ‘and ever shall be, world without end’. Yet the relation between him and it

1 p. 569

2 p. 553

3 p. 603


is not mind on the one side and matter on the other. There is meaning in the matter, in all real visible objects; they are ‘signatures of all things I am here to read . . . coloured signs’. [1] To perceive and express the meaning of the signs is to give full reality to the world and himself. Since the world thus depends on him, not indeed for its bare existence, but for the revelation of its meaning, and since this meaning comes from the interpretation which he gives to the coloured signs, there is an indissoluble mental bond between himself and the world. The world is not the world till he has interpreted it, any more than printed notes are music till he has played them.

Stephen formulates this in a discussion on Hamlet, when he says of Shakespeare: ‘He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible.’ [2] Whatever meaning the individual can give to the coloured signs in terms of his own mental world, becomes the reality of the external world. Developing the idea, Stephen goes on: ‘Maeterlinck says: If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. . . . We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

Again in actual fact this does not take Stephen any further. The mystical character of this individualistic idealism is an escape from the position of making the world and society absolutely dependent on him. But Stephen can do nothing with it except talk about it. And Joyce could do nothing with a character who had to remain an individualistic idealist if he was not going to be scrapped altogether, but as individualistic idealist could neither act nor think.

So Bloom comes on the stage, and the plot through which Stephen and he draw closer together, till Bloom stands protectingly over Stephen’s unconscious form, expresses in action this idea of our always meeting ourselves. Stephen can do nothing positive with it in thought but the plot lives it for him, by showing it in action. The meeting of Bloom and Stephen proves that we do walk through the world meeting ourselves.

How does it carry out this function, which sounds as mystical as the idea itself?

In the first place, each is made into a kind of double of the other. For both are friendless, loveless and socially outcast. Outwardly they

1 p. 37.

2 p. 204.


resemble one another, since both are dressed in mourning. As Stephen is always thinking of his mother whom he is said to have killed, so Bloom is always thinking of his father, who killed himself.

Further, it is suggested that Bloom and Stephen are in some way en rapport with each other even before they meet; what they think, what happens to them, is conditioned by some mysterious bond between them. I will only mention some of the correspondences which are most important.

First, Bloom has his version of the fox burying or digging up its grandmother. Bloom goes to a funeral, and when walking among the graves after it is over, hears a noise in a crypt: ‘Some animal. Wait. There he goes. An obese grey rat toddled along the side of the crypt, moving the pebbles. An old stager: greatgrandfather: he knows the ropes. . . . One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow.’ [1] Some lines later Bloom, thinking of various kinds of perversion, says to himself: ‘And even scraping up the earth at night with a lantern like that case I read of to get at fresh buried females or even putrefred with running gravesores.’ The rat haunts Bloom as the fox Stephen, and with an important similarity of phrase. Drinking in the afternoon after the funeral, Bloom thinks: ‘Chap in the mortuary, coffin. . . . Wonder where that rat is by now. Scrape.’ [2] In ]oyce’s style, the repetition of ‘scrape’, so important in the passage about Stephen’s fox, deliberately conveys the impression of some kind of identity.

Further, when Stephen sees his mother in the brothel and cries out ‘Raw head and bloody bones!’ [3] he is using exactly the same phrase as occurred in Bloom’s thought in a butcher’s shop. [4]

An expression of Stephen’s mother in this scene—‘I pray for you in my other world’—is also a reminiscence of Bloom. He is indulging in a furtive correspondence with a girl, who has written to him that morning, making a mistake on the typewriter. ‘I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world.’ That the phrase of Stephen’s mother is an intentional echo of the letter to Bloom is proved by the fact that Bloom after the passage just quoted about the fresh buried females goes on in his thought. ‘Give you the creeps after a bit. I will appear to you after death. . . . My ghost will haunt you after death. There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote.’ The name of Bloom's correspondent—Martha—is an additional connection, owing to

1 p. 110.

2 p. 272.

3 p. 544.

4 p. 163.


its association with Mary, and hence with the Catholic Church.

Bloom is also the realisation of a dream Stephen had the night before that he was in a street of harlots with a man like Haroun al Raschid, who led him and asked him to come in, and Stephen was not afraid. In the fantastic scene laid in the brothel, Bloom, described as Haroun al Raschid, goes after Stephen when he has run out of the brothel, leads him home, asks him to come in, and Stephen consents.

Numerous other similarities of the same type are used to create the impression that Bloom and Stephen together form a mysterious unity.

The relationship between them is not only so exclusively verbal as in the above instances. There is also an intellectual tie. Bloom shares Stephen’s idea that we walk through the world meeting ourselves. After a peculiar affair with a girl he reflects: ‘When you feel like that you often meet what you feel.’ [1] And a little later: ‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself.’ [2] They are also counterparts in idea in another sense. Stephen’s philosophical conception of our always meeting ourselves, when applied to love, leads to the conclusion of ‘glorified man, an androgynous angel, being a wife unto himself—or, as Malachi Mulligan parodies it, ‘every man his own wife’. This is realised in practice by Bloom, who, owing to his peculiar relations with Mrs Bloom, is ‘his own and his only enjoyer’. In Bloom and Stephen the intellectual and emotional aspects of the same idea meet.

Even more important are the continual hints that Bloom and Stephen stand to one another as father to son. For the problem of fatherhood is one of Stephen’s obsessions, and a variant of his notion that we are always meeting ourselves. Stephen, as Mulligan indicates at the beginning of the book, is ‘in search of a father’—the father of the world. He will not accept God as creator, he cannot stand to the individualistic belief of being himself its creator. Parallel with his exposition of always meeting ourselves, he develops a conception of fatherhood and sonship, which has nothing to do with sex, but is some kind of mystical affinity. Just as the plot which gradually brings Bloom and Stephen together is the mysticism of always meeting ourselves in action, since Bloom and Stephen are one another’s doubles, so the plot strengthens this line still further by making the final meeting of Bloom and Stephen the realisation of this peculiar kind of fatherhood and sonship. Bloom, whose greatest sorrow is that his only son died when eleven years old (the number is probably chosen to recall ‘the clock is

1 p. 352.

2 p. 359.


striking eleven’ and the fox), regards Stephen when they first meet in the hospital with conscious feelings of fatherly affection. When at the end of the brothel scene he stands guard over Stephen’s body, ‘against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven’. Bloom, wonderstruck, calls inaudibly, ‘Rudy!’—the name of his dead son. This vision of his real son, after his fatherly care of Stephen, closes all the previous wild madness of this section. The fact that father and son have now met brings momentary peace. [1]

For this meeting realises that mystical affinity between father and son which was Stephen’s intellectual solution of being unable to accept God as the father of the world, or to feel himself its father. In other words, the whole of the mystical plot in which Bloom and Stephen meet themselves, thus becoming, as Joyce spoonerises it, Stoom and Blephen, is an active demonstration of that mysticism of Maeterlinck’s by which Stephen reconciles the idealist ambitions which he cannot live and the materialist practice—‘there all the time without you’—which he will not believe.


Bloom, therefore, is introduced to get Stephen out of his intellectual impasse. Bloom and Stephen together must exemplify the mysticism which in Stephen alone is sterile. This account necessarily implies that Stephen’s problem was Joyce’s problem, and that by changing over to Bloom he helps himself out of his own difficulties. Such is the case, which may be seen from ]oyce’s development, as described by himself in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce’s own statements leave no doubt about the autobiographical character of this novel).

Joyce grew up in Ireland at a time of increasing tension. Power was in the hands of British capitalism. Against it were the same forces as in every other country, and in addition Irish capitalism. As Ireland came out of its industrial backwardness, the fight grew fiercer between Loyalists and Home Rulers, English capital and Irish, Anglo-Irish capital and labour, with the Catholic Church now fighting English capital and church, now joining up with them in fear of the common

1 This paternity relation is also expressed through the parallelism constructed by Joyce between Ulysses and The Odyssey: Bloom is Ulysses, Stephen is his son, Telemachus.


enemy—an Irish national movement that might become an Irish workers’ movement.

Joyce himself gives an excellent picture of how single families were tom by dissension. In The Portrait of the Artist he describes the Christmas dinner ending in a political fight, because Stephen’s aunt champions the Church for having broken Parnell. ‘No God for Ireland!’ a friend of Stephen’s father shouts at her. ‘We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!’

Joyce was brought up under conditions that forced him to feel the bittemess of the fight, all the more because he was strictly educated at a Roman Catholic college. He was there captured by catholicism to the extent of its becoming a manner of thought from which he could never free himself completely. But the forces opposed to catholicism, intensified by a general discontent with the social world due to the decay of the family fortunes, were sufficiently strong to turn him from the Church as a career for everyday life.

Joyce broke away from catholicism on the intellectual principles which he states through Stephen, when the latter refuses to become a priest: that the first sacred duty of the individual is to himself, to realise and express life in his own freedom.

This ideal, as originally formulated by men like Pater and Wilde (whose influence on Joyce’s style is strong), had, however, a different sense. For them, in the eighties of the previous century, aesthetic individualism had an element of real revolt against capitalism. But when Joyce, strengthened by their thought, had rejected catholicism, the twenty years’ development after their time faced him with a new position. The very attempt to maintain the earlier aesthetic ideal in its

original form would mean denying what was most vital in it. It was possible in the eighties to be an aesthete and to preserve a good measure of intellectual integrity and strength. It was not possible in the beginning of the 20th century, because the forces and the issues of the class war had changed.

Joyce nevertheless made the attempt. He had said to the Catholic Church: Non serviam—I will not serve. Now, at the National University of Dublin, the Irish National movement came to him and asked him to serve it. Again Joyce said: Non serviam. Why? That was the question he avoided answering.

He puts it perfectly clearly. In a passage in The Portrait of the Artist a petition has been got up at the university for general disarmament, arbitration in case of international disputes, and in favour of ‘the new


gospel of life which would make it the business of the community to secure as cheaply as possible the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number’. One of the students (drawn after a man who became a Sinn Fein leader and was shot by the English) asks Stephen to sign.

‘The affair doesn't interest me in the least,’ said Stephen wearily. ‘You know that well. Why do you make a scene about it?’ ‘Good!’ said McCann, smacking his lips. ‘You are a reactionary, then?’ ‘Do you think you impress me,’ Stephen asked, ‘when you flourish your wooden sword?’ 'Metaphors! said McCann bluntly. ‘Come to facts.’ Stephen blushed and turned aside. McCann stood his ground and said with hostile humour: ‘Minor poets, I suppose, are above such trivial questions as the question of universal peace.’

Stephen, and Joyce himself, had no answer. The only one given anywhere in the book is a flimsy excuse—that the Irish have always let their leaders down, and Stephen will see them elsewhere before he gives them the chance to let him down.

The energy of Joyce’s refusal to identify himself with the Irish National movement comes neither from indignation at Irish treachery, nor from the desire to preserve his artistic integrity. It comes from the fact that Joyce’s original attachment to the Catholic Church was so strong that even after he broke away, the basic content of his intellectual life was the knowledge that he had broken away. He believed in God by negation. Identification with the Irish National movement, whose hero Parnell had been smashed by the Church, meant saying with Mr Dedalus's friend, ‘Away with God! We have had too much God in Ireland!’ The negative hold of catholicism was too strong. And therefore Joyce rejected nationalism. The reason he gave himself was that he was continuing in loyalty to his artistic ideal: ‘I will serve nothing but myself.’ But Non serviam now meant Serviam. For by rejecting nationalism he was serving catholicism and imperialism. And Stephen knew it when he blushed.

The real fight against catholicism was being carried on by the fight against capitalism, not by the repetition of Satan’s challenge. But Joyce kept on repeating it; for otherwise he could not say to the Irish movement: Non serviam. And that he had to say, because his negative belief in catholicism made it impossible for him to serve it.

One of the truest remarks in Ulysses is the comment on Stephen by Mulligan. ‘Kinch, the loveliest mummer of them all.’ [1] Joyce parades

1 p. 5.


Stephen as the modern Lucifer; but his defiance of a hell which nobody believes in, is in reality an act of service to the Church, because it justifies refusal of service to those who are now the Church’s real enemies. There is a great air of revolt; but in the real revolt he would do nothing. ‘Etiquette is etiquette’, as Mulligan goes on, when Stephen refuses the offer of a pair of Mulligan’s bags because he is in mourning. ‘He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers.’

Joyce tried to answer McCann by making Stephen, in spite of his refusal to sign the petition, think of his poetry nationally. He asks himself what he could do to shock ‘the sleek lives of the patricians of Ireland’. ‘How could he hit their conscience or how cast his shadow over the imaginations of their daughters, before their squires begat upon them, that they might breed a race less ignoble than their own? And under the deepened dusk he felt the thoughts and desires of the race to which he belonged flitting like bats across the dark country lanes, under trees by the edges of streams and near the poolmottled bogs.’ This is the note on which The Portrait of the Artist closes: ‘I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’

But Joyce was too well trained in self-examination by the Catholics not to recognise the self-deceit if he said it was his mission to ennoble the Irish nation, but refused to take part in any action.

Because Stephen incorporated a question of social action to which Joyce had no reply, he became for him, as Mulligan says, ‘an impossible person’. The refusal to serve the Catholic Church, the body which holds the keys of heaven and hell, had become service of the Catholic Church, the ally of British capitalism on earth; for it provided the justification of reaction. But as long as Joyce continued to write through Stephen, he had to go on repeating the proud defiance of the Church, for that was Stephen’s only reality. He could not develop this defiance of hell into a defiance of capitalism, because he believed in the Church and God by negation. He knew that if he went on defying God without defying British capitalism, it was he who was using the wooden sword, not McCann. So in Ulysses Joyce begins to get rid of the conflict by getting rid of Stephen.


But this introduction of Bloom is not simply an ingeniously evolved method of escape from an impossible position, although there are no


limits to the mind’s ingenuity in discovering such escapes. There is also a more positive force in it: what made joyce write of Stephen that ‘he blushed and turned aside’. That colouring of his cheeks was the recognition that McCann was right. Bloom is the positive recognition that Stephen had become a mummer, as well as an escape from him.

Joyce was prevented from accepting directly and openly the ideas of socialism by his individualistic denial of, and his negative belief in, catholicism. But the socialist movement is at work everywhere, in every field of action and thought. Though Joyce rejected it when the issue was clearly put to him in terms of action, he felt the movement very strongly, and took active part in it, when it did not bear the name of the movement to socialism. Joyce has been profoundly sensitive to the development of the basis of socialism and the contradiction between that basis and the old capitalist relations; and he has realised and hastened the corresponding change in our attitude, intellectual and emotional. His work is an attempt to find an expression for that change, while remaining within the old tradition. It also is a significant demonstration of where such an attempt leads.

This is particularly visible in his technique. The changes in the economic basis of society also affect the novel as a form. In the 19th century, when the antagonism between socialisation of production and capitalist relations had not reached the acute stage, when capitalism still seemed to be permanent, the novel in its general construction deals with the direct relations of a limited number of people within bourgeois society, seen from the standpoint of what these relations mean for the hero and the heroine. The plot develops a situation affecting the hero and heroine in their hearts and their pockets, carries it steadily forward, and brings it to a definite, generally satisfactory conclusion. For that is what most interests the average member of the bourgeois class in the leisure moments for which the novel is intended.

This is the involuntary self-expression of an exploiting class which does not care about the rest of society as long as it is happy. With the change in production and the advance of socialism this form ceases to be adequate. It does not express the growing knowledge and feeling that the individual’s world is not within the four walls that protect money, board and bed. His world is his society. Part of the significance of Joyce’s style is that it does express this new realisation.

Let us see how Joyce works the otherwise traditional theme of the relations between Bloom, Mrs Bloom and her lover Blazes Boylan. It is the hour, as Bloom knows, of the appointment between Mrs Bloom


and Boylan. He is sitting in a public-house, where Boylan dropped in for a moment and then went off to Mrs Bloom. The following typical passage occurs: ‘Lydia on Lidwell smiled. Tap. By Larry O’Rourke’s. . . . Boylan swayed and Boylan turned. From the forsaken shell Miss Mina glided to her tankard waiting.’ [1]

Lydia is one of the barmaids, and Lidwell a customer. ‘Tap’ is the motif of a blind boy, whom Bloom helped to cross the street earlier in the day. The next sentence describes Boylan on the jaunting—car as it turns round a comer on the way to Mrs Bloom. Then the scene comes back to the public-house, and the other barmaid lays down a shell she has been holding to her ear to hear the noise of the sea, and goes back to serve.

The traditional style would have given a continuous presentation either of Bloom or of Boylan, omitting everything that did not describe them in relation to the love affair. Joyce, however, in the space of a few lines shows Boylan in the same plane as three other occurrences, which have nothing to do with the love interest. They break the traditional unity further by involving a change of imaginary standpoint from the public-house, to the uncertain position of the blind boy in the Dublin streets, to some other point in the streets, then back again to the public-house, but with the change from Lydia to Mina.

In contrast to the traditional style, Joyce shows the individual action within the totality of relations existing at the moment. The traditional unity is broken; in its place is the unity of Dublin.

A similar effect is obtained within a single sentence. Bloom is dropping off for a nap on the seashore. ‘Mr Bloom with open mouth, his left boot sanded sideways, leaned, breathed. Just for a few. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo.’ [2] The ‘cuckoos’ are the striking of a clock in a house. There is no relation to Bloom (except that ‘cuckoo’ ‘mocks married men’).

The technique, in this aspect, comes from a new vision of society growing out of its new social basis. Reality is not what is perceived as such by members of the bourgeois class because of its direct effect on their financial and emotional affairs. Reality, as expressed through this technique (the statement will have to be considerably modified), is the sum of all social relations, whether directly connected or not. This technique is an expression of those forces to which Marx gave formulation when he said that society is the totality of relations.

1 p. 270.

2 p. 364.


Hence there is not only a continual jumping from one line of action to another, between which on the old basis there is no connection whatever; there is also a change in the conception of the individuals performing these actions. They also are conceived in terms of relation, not of distinct demarcated consciousness. What they stand in relation to, is a part of their being. Bloom is not himself without Stephen, nor Stephen without Bloom.

Again something similar is attempted in the single sentence. Lydia and Lidwell, mentioned above, become Lidlydiawell.

Bourgeois individualism is abandoned for a new social vision. Joyce hastens the advance to socialism to the extent to which he hastens this change of outlook. To that extent, the introduction of Bloom, with whose appearance in the book this new technique becomes dominant, is not an escape from McCann’s ‘Come to facts’; it is coming to facts.

The emotional manifestation of this change in the growing desire for conscious identification of oneself with social movement is also expressed through the plot of Stephen and Bloom. Stephen is isolated, self-centred, interested in nobody’s welfare, recognising no bond with anybody. Bloom is the opposite. They are both sitting with the drinking party in a hospital, where a woman is in the third day of labour. The talk is running on sex, and Stephen says that ‘once a woman has let the cat into the bag . . . she must let it out again or give it life, as he phrased it, to save her own’. [1] Bloom answers him: ‘At the risk of her own.’ Stephen sees action determined by love of self; Bloom, by sacrifice of self. And he lives up to his principles to the extent of being ready, within limits, to do anybody a good turn. The climax of the book is his fatherly care of Stephen.

The whole change of technique accompanying the entry of Bloom into the story, with its emphasis on the town, not the individual alone, as reality; the character of Bloom himself; the fact that Stephen’s mystical idealism is no longer lived by himself alone, but by him and Bloom in conjunction—all this is an attempt to give release for that ‘free, expansive emotion’ of social identification, which in Stephen is inhibited.

Joyce, however, exemplifies the typical difficulties of intelligent, sensitive members of the bourgeois class. He has the sense of change, he wishes to take part in it; but he is unable to decide for any particular activity. Through his individualism and negative belief in catholicism, he is attached to capitalism, and therefore cannot satisfy his desire for

1 p. 400.


social action by joining the workers. Yet he knows the decay of catholicism and capitalism.

The desire for social identification is thus forced into abstraction, for there is nothing with which active identification is possible. The principle of reality in the world as he shows it is a disguised symbol of the capitalist order of society with which he has in fact identified himself through the daily acts of living in it without conscious social criticism of it and himself. He silences McCann by the increasing abstractness of the symbolisation. He expresses the symbol in a style which removes it from the critique of that practical thinking we use when deciding questions of action. He thereby makes such thinking irrelevant to the reality of the symbol. He defends the symbol against it, as Dr Richards defends emotional attitudes against science. And as Dr Richards’ principles would atrophy our power of enjoying literature, so there is finally nothing left for Joyce but the disintegration of literature into deformed words.

The evidence of how, in spite of his sensitiveness to the advance of socialism, he remains attached to capitalism, is partly in his selection of the social relations to be described. As we have already said, the statement that reality, as expressed through Joyce’s technique, is the sum of all social relations, needs considerable modification. For we see people eating, drinking, making love, arguing; they go after money, or they drift about; the churches and pubs fill and empty; and all this is felt happening simultaneously. But there is no sign of the productive activity without which none of this could happen. As a part of this organised production, there is not a worker in the book—at most, an occasional cab-driver, and a string of sandwich-board-men. We walk through the world meeting ourselves, and we meet our relations and-—so Stephen says—ostlers; but no industrial workers. Joyce shows just as little of the relations of production. There are no disputes between employers and labour, no struggles for wages, no strikes. The nearest approach is when Bloom in the brothel scene, dressed in an alderman’s gown, makes an oration: ‘The poor man starves while they are grassing their royal mountain stags or shooting peasants and phartridges in their purblind pomp of pelf and power. But their reign is rover for rever and ever and ev . . .’ [1] The reality of Joyce’s social world is not its production and the conflict in that production; it is numberless acts of consuming, spending, enjoying of things that are

1 p. 453.


already there. His selection of the social relations to be described is that of the consumer.

More important still is the idealism, in the philosophical sense, in the plot of Bloom and Stephen. That mystic bond which makes them one another’s Doppelgänger, is purely immaterial. For they are thinking one another’s thoughts before they ever meet. They are in touch with one another prior to any physical contact. They are a spiritual séance.

This spiritual world in which they meet, pervades the book. This is effected partly by the extended use of the inner monologue. Pages on end are reproduction of the thought in Bloom’s mind. Though in itself a valuable element of technique, it begins to hypnotise the reader into the feeling that this kind of consciousness is the only thing that is real. ln addition, the distinctness of consciousness and the external world is further blurred by peculiarities in the use of the inner monologue. In the first place, a material object is introduced into the inner monologue so suddenly that at first it is taken as an object of thought. For example, Bloom thinks at a funeral: ‘Paltry funeral: coach and three carriages. It’s all the same. Pallbearers, gold reins, requiem mass, firing a volley. Pomp of death. Beyond the hind carriage a hawker stood by his barrow of cakes and fruit. Simnel cakes those are, stuck together.’ [1] The first tendency is to read the sentence ‘Behind the hind carriage . . .’, partly on account of its pronounced ceremonial rhythm carrying on the idea of ‘pomp’, as a continuation of the inner monologue. Even when one has put the man back on earth, he still retains something of the mental atmosphere.

A similar blending of the material into the mental is accomplished by the opposite process: the introduction of a phrase of inner monologue or of a mental association into a description of material reality. For example, the following sentence occurs: ‘By Dlugacz’ pork-shop bright tubes of Agendath trotted a gallantbuttocked mare.’ [2] This refers to Boylan on his way to Mrs Bloom; he is just passing a pork-shop near Bloom’s house. The ‘bright tubes of Agendath’, however, has nothing to do with Boylan, but refers to a prospectus which Bloom had been reading when going to make a purchase at the shop that morning. [3] The phrase is therefore a mental association with the pork-shop in Bloom’s mind. This mental association is disembodied and inserted, on the same plane of reality, into a sentence describing the real Boylan.

There is an orgy of this blending of the materially real and the

1 p. 97.

2 p. 268.

3 p. 58.


mentally real in the scene in the brothel. Whatever a character thinks or has thought, is as real as objective reality.

The climax of this is reached when Bloom and Stephen are going home together, and the process of walking through the world and meeting ourselves has been completed. Consequently, all division between mind and objective reality is wiped out. They have passed a car for sweeping up refuse, and the following passage occurs: ‘The driver never said a word, good, bad or indifferent. He merely watched the two figures, as he sat on his low-backed car, both black—one full, one lean—-walk towards the railway bridge . . . and looked after their low-backed car.’ (Joyce’s italics.) 1] Perceiver and perceived are a mystical identity.

This spiritual reality, as expressed through the plot of Stephen and Bloom and the inner monologue, constitutes the final unity of the book. This substitute for catholicism is the abstract symbol of the social order with which Joyce identified himself in practice.

The way in which it is expressed—‘He sat on his low-backed car and gazed after their low-backed car’—is the result of having to defend it against the practical thought of action. For such thought necessarily revives the conflict of social alternatives about which Joyce could not decide, and the rottenness of the capitalist order to which through this idealism he remains bound. Therefore it is cut out. Just as one element in the introduction of Bloom is the escape from Stephen, so one element in the corresponding style is the escape from knowledge.

Through Bloom and through the style, Joyce is thus able to give expression to his sense of the growth of the new social order and his desire to be an active part in it, and yet to remain within the capitalist tradition of individualism and idealism.

But what mental activity does this abstract symbolism afford him?

It is accompanied by a bitter attack on the social order from which Joyce could not free himself. The attack is made through Stephen’s defiance of priest and king, through the passages of obscenity and blasphemy, through showing the Dubliners as not much better than animals interested only in eating and sex and acquiring the necessary money. The breaking of the bourgeois form of the novel and of the single sentence carries out this function also.

There is a still more bitter attack on that ideal of artistic individualism through his fixed adherence to which Stephen had become the loveliest mummer of them all. Stephen is down on the

1 p. 622.


shore in the morning, his mind going round and round the question of reality. He thinks to himself: ‘Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, blue-silver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane.’ [1] Bloom is also

on the shore in the evening. He imagines the tide coming in and forming a pool: ‘Bend, see my face there, dark mirror, breathe on it, stirs. All these rocks with lines and scars and letters. O, those transparent!’ [2] The ‘letters’ recalls ‘signatures of all things I am here to read’; ‘those transparent’ corresponds to ‘diaphane’ (of which it is an English translation). But now ‘those transparent’ are the transparent drawers of a girl, who has been seated on a rock a little way off from Bloom; she has no interest in life except her lingerie, and she has purposely leaned back so far while watching some fireworks that Bloom was able to see ‘those transparent’. Bloom is made to parody materialistically Stephen’s idealism, to degrade it. But that which is degraded, remains the reality of the description. That is true of all Joyce’s patiently accurate description of objective reality. It is a form of vengeance on matter and his own inability to see it as mind. Matter is made into a grotesque negation of mind.

But it is only when Joyce attacks that he is able to think concretely. Otherwise, he has no line except the mysticism of the low-backed car and the verbal formalism through which it is expressed.

It is important to note the increasing abstractness and disintegration of Joyce’s thought, as the social situation develops. The book was begun in 1914 and took seven years. The style of the first part is still similar to the end of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1916 was the Easter Rising in Dublin, I917 the Russian Revolution, 1918 and 1919 revolutions throughout Central Europe, then war in Ireland. Why was he refusing service, as he had refused it to McCann, when his countrymen, whose uncreated conscience he had said he would forge, and the workers of all Europe were fighting his declared enemies—‘But it is here that I must kill the priest and the king?’ To silence this question, he broke more and more the bourgeois forms, while in the need of some support outside himself the mystical realities became more religious and, as a defence against the thinking of action, more abstract.

As the situation drove Joyce away from concrete social reality, the need of identification with society increased. When he was writing, he was nearing the mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, where the road dips and

1 p. 37.

2 p. 363.


a man gets tired of walking alone and defying; he begins to want the company of his group, not its enmity. This also is why Joyce prefers to live through Bloom rather than Stephen. Bloom is compassionate, tolerant, and a little tired. He likes to sit a while longer whenever there is a chance. With him there is no need to mount the high horse of Promethean defiance, which is already known to be only a hobby-horse. Bloom has no strenuous ideals, only the kindly impulse to help others, a friendliness towards decent folk, a tribute of honour to the women who risk their lives for us, and a longing for a son.

He may be pleasanter than Stephen, but the intellectual quality of his life is infinitely lower. That is the result of Joyce’s decision to stand aside ‘neither for God nor for his enemies’. For that means cutting oneself off more and more, as the social situation sharpens, from the social experience without which thought cannot be developed. The counterpart to this is Joyce’s final choice of symbol: Woman. In the last section, Mrs Bloom, the flesh that affirms even if the spirit can say neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, is transformed into a kind of mother goddess, and the weary man-child sleeps.

Joyce is an extraordinary illustration of the penetration of Hegel’s remarks about the last phase of romantic art, and Marx’s acute observation of his boredom. Content means nothing to Joyce, because he has nothing to do. He is attached to a social order which is itself doomed, and through that attachment he is unable to decide for any particular activity. Hence the only way in which he can satisfy his growing need of social identification, is to sink himself in the feeling of words, in words as the result of the previous activity of the social organism, in their sound and in the sum of all their possible meanings, echoes and puns. But words as sense, not as the result of activity in the past, but as instruments for organising activity now, mean nothing to him. For he has nothing to do with them. Joyce does not construct a private language; he plays with the social language in order to sleep secure in the feeling of the past, and safe from the sense of the present. Work in Progress—where to?


These conflicts between catholicism, capitalism and the new social forces are the substance of the book. The question still remains of the aesthetic value of their expression.


As we have already seen, this conflict in the movement of society from one form of organisation to another is not merely stated to exist or to be desirable; it is shown directly as the conflicts of the individuals who are that movement. The reader relives them, and the content becomes significant for him, because it is thereby related to the essential conditions of his own life.

The alternations in Stephen and Bloom between energy and hopeless inertia, the sense in both of being outcast from society and their discovery in one another of father and son; the contrast between Stephen’s attempt to give his sense to objective reality and Bloom’s disillusioned acceptance of the world as it is; the impression, conveyed through the innovations of style, of movement from the old individualistic world to the new social unit of the whole town—these themes make the reading of the book a profound social experience; for participation in society, in its work to make a human world, and in the changing of the organisation of that work is the essence of our lives. Through Joyce’s use of these themes the particular content of the book becomes the object of our heightened social energy.

One of the most striking characteristics of the technique through which this experience is conveyed is an extraordinary power of concentrating significance in detail. For example, in the scene where Stephen is down on the shore in the morning, the following passage occurs: ‘Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily. A porterbottle stood up, stogged to its waist, in the cakey sand dough. A sentinel: isle of dreadful thirst.’ [1] Previously, the sea, as ‘our great mother’, and the shore as ‘the coloured signs’ Stephen is there to read, have already been associated with Stephen’s main questions—the Catholic Church and his mother, and the relation of the external world and his own mind. Thus the physical impression of the sandflats and Stephen’s wary movement gives a bodily feeling of the fundamental problems of the book. The bottle suggests grotesquely his desolation, the heavy senselessness and inert futility of everything; it prepares the following descriptions of the Dubliners as nothing but human animals, and also arouses an undefined feeling of tension (which is also in the waiting sandflats) between all these animals caged up in the isle and the single sentinel.

There is a similar concentration and tension in a passage at the end of this scene. Stephen has been sitting on a rock, and thinks: ‘Behind.

1 p. 41.


Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.’ [1] Again, his looking over his shoulder, in response to the irrational feeling that there may be someone behind him, conveys a sense through bodily movement of his chief preoccupation—that desire for escape from social isolation, out of which comes this belief that there is someone behind him. What he then sees, is an objective reality, described with objective exactness (‘her sails brailed up on the crosstrees’); but through the associations of ‘crosstrees’ with cross and so with the Catholic Church, and through ‘homing’—for Stephen is in search of a father—the objective world is transformed into Stephen’s world. This silent movement of the ship is like a musical chord, which continues to sound through the book (it was already mentioned how Mrs Bloom throws a penny to a sailor from this ship), and at the end it is resolved, when Bloom and Stephen having met they listen to the Odyssey of this same sailor in the cabmen’s shelter.

This seems to me the strength of Joyce’s technique: his power to make us feel the content through bodily movement, to show the world as it is and yet in its human significance, and to give the sense of some indefinable, imminent event, as symbolised here by the silent movement of the ship.

The slow charging of the atmosphere through the tensions described with the expectancy of some impending change is, I think, the valuable effect of Ulysses. And it is done with a marvellous command of language.

But the book brings no satisfaction to that sense of change. We are stimulated, and then nothing comes but barren mysticism, insincerity and coldness. Joyce does not throw his whole heart into anything: not into Stephen, because he knows this lonely challenger of God is miles behind the fight; not into Bloom, because he is partly a rest from Stephen and a parody of him. He plays off one against the other, and does not believe fully in either. Neither singly nor in conjunction, do they represent anything which the social energy Joyce arouses can identify itself with.

Similarly in the style. What Joyce spends most care on, is the formal side, watching that a phrase used on one page has the right echoes with phrases used on fifty other pages. But this sovereign importance of the verbal phrase is in contradiction to the life of the book. For it implies

1 p. 50.


that the fabric is stable, and that its surface can be decorated with the most subtle intricacy, like the Book of Kells (the heraldic suggestions of the phrase ‘rere regardant’ in the passage quoted above are characteristic). It assumes something as permanent as the Church was for its monks. Yet Stephen and Bloom are both drawn as symbols of humanity in the eternal flux. On the other hand, the sense of change in the book is so strong that this static formal decoration is felt to be a mechanism of defence against the change, and only valuable to Joyce as such defence. Joyce seems to play with the two styles of change and stability, as he plays with his two chief characters. He plays with the contradictions; he does not resolve them. Where in Milton there is advancing movement, Joyce only shifts from one foot to the other, while he sinks deeper into the sandflats.

For, as we saw, Joyce cannot identify himself with any particular phase of social movement. The book is partly an act of vengeance on the social forces, as a part of which he could find no satisfying activity—on catholicism and capitalism, on his own ideals, on the new form of organisation whose development he sensed. Everything is annihilated in universal meaninglessness: he sat on his low-backed car and looked after their low-backed car. But at the same time all these forces are also used to develop an activity—this particular way of writing—which will be satisfying to the weary man-child. Resentment and weariness seem to me the fundamental mood of Ulysses.|The social activity embodied in the content, to which the social energy awakened in us by the form of expression is directed, is partly destruction, partly exploitation of forms of intellectual and emotional life, created by society, at a lower level of activity than that which created them. Consequently the book does not organise social energy; it irritates it, because it gives it no aim it can work for.


SOURCE: West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism and Selected Literary Essays, foreword by Arnold Kettle, introduction by Elizabeth West (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975 [Originally 1937]), Chapter 15, "James Joyce: Ulysses," pp. 104-127.

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