Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Month: June, 2020

Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce’s modern epic of everyday life, which takes place on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who echoes that Homeric hero’s long journey home as he strolls the streets of Dublin.

Ulysses was published on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, but the impulse to celebrate the novel on June 16th seems to have been immediate (in a 1924 letter Joyce mentions “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—June 16”). In 1954 a group that included two Irish writers (novelist Flann O’Brien and poet Patrick Kavanagh) inaugurated the intention (if not the practice) of celebrating Bloomsday by retracing Bloom’s journey across Dublin and re-enacting events from the book—ultimately they settled for accomplishing the equally Joycean feat of getting drunk in a pub. In the ensuing decades, though, those intentions have been realized by Joyce admirers the world over in the form of festivals, walking tours, public readings, radio broadcasts, informal gatherings, and countless tributes on social media.

The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution. Beginning in 2006 with the first chapter, I have paid tribute to Ulysses every Bloomsday, one chapter at a time, by posting an excerpt prefaced by my own commentary and observations. My goal is to share some of the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. All of my previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives.
This year I am focusing on chapter 15, the “Circe” episode, also known as “Nighttown.”

Episode 15 (Circe – “Nighttown”)

With all that is happening at the moment I haven’t had the time or, to be honest, the inclination to immerse myself as fully in this year’s episode of Ulysses as I have in previous years. More important things are happening. Sometimes life and history intervene. As a result, the introductory remarks for this year’s episode will be more cursory than usual.

The “Circe” episode is also known among Joyce enthusiasts as “Nighttown” a reference to the name of the Dublin brothel district in which the episode takes place. “Nighttown” corresponds to the episode of Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus’ men are transformed into swine by the the sorceress Circe. Odysseus is able to resist this transformation thanks to an immunizing herb provided to him by the god Hermes. The name of the herb is often rendered as “moly” in early translations a detail that, in one of Joyce’s most touching flourishes, is echoed by the name of Leopold Bloom’s wife, Molly. Later Odysseus journeys to Hades (the underworld) to visit the shade of the soothsayer Tiresias.

The “Nighttown” episode, the longest in Ulysses, is a tour-de-force of psychological insight and technique. Joyce depicts the transformation of men into beasts in less literal (and more familiar) terms: drunken, lustful debauchery. In particular, Stephen Dedalus, who has been walking across Dublin cadging drinks all day, drinks still more, topping off his efforts with some absinthe. Joyce makes the debauchery of Nighttowns’ denizens nightmarishly visceral by presenting it in the form of a dream play (complete with stage directions) where the objective and subjective realities of the characters are represented side by side. Memory and imagination merge with reality as the fantasies and guilty consciences of Stephen, Bloom, and others bleed into the action. Bloom imagines himself on trial, with witnesses and accusers appearing and vanishing; Stephen relives his guilt over his refusal to pray with his mother at her deathbed, briefly conjures a singing and dancing Edward VII during an altercation with two British soldiers, and then exaggerates that altercation into a hellish vision of the destruction of Dublin. The effect is like a fever dream or hallucination.

The action culminates in this year’s excerpt, where Stephen finds himself on the losing end of a scuffle with two British soldiers, privates Compton and Carr. Private Carr, who knocks Stephen down, is named (in one of the book’s most famous little revenges) after Henry Carr, a non-professional actor Joyce cast in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, who sued Joyce (and was later counter-sued by him) over small matters related to the production. Stephen passes out and the police arrive. Bloom boldly implicates the soldiers and, thanks to the fast-talking efforts of Corny Kelleher (an undertaker’s assistant who organized the funeral in the Hades episode), the police are persuaded to let the matter drop. Bloom turns his attention to Stephen, who is still woozy, and experiences a burst of paternalistic feeling — as embodied by the appearance of Bloom’s son Rudy who died in childbirth but here appears as the eleven year old boy he would have been in 1916. After criss-crossing each other throughout the novel, Stephen Dedalus and Stephen Bloom have finally been brought together — even though they won’t truly connect until the next episode, “Eumaeus.”

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BLOOM: (Shoves them back, loudly.) Get back, stand back!

PRIVATE COMPTON: (Tugging his comrade.) Here. Bugger off, Harry. Here’s the cops! (Two raincaped watch, tall, stand in the group.)

FIRST WATCH: What’s wrong here?

PRIVATE COMPTON: We were with this lady. And he insulted us. And assaulted my chum. (The retriever barks.) Who owns the bleeding tyke?

CISSY CAFFREY: (With expectation.) Is he bleeding!

A MAN: (Rising from his knees.) No. Gone off. He’ll come to all right.

BLOOM: (Glances sharply at the man.) Leave him to me. I can easily…

SECOND WATCH: Who are you? Do you know him?

PRIVATE CARR: (Lurches towards the watch.) He insulted my lady friend.

BLOOM: (Angrily.) You hit him without provocation. I’m a witness. Constable, take his regimental number.

SECOND WATCH: I don’t want your instructions in the discharge of my duty.

PRIVATE COMPTON: (Pulling his comrade.) Here, bugger off Harry. Or Bennett’ll shove you in the lockup.

PRIVATE CARR: (Staggering as he is pulled away.) God fuck old Bennett. He’s a whitearsed bugger. I don’t give a shit for him.

FIRST WATCH: (Takes out his notebook.) What’s his name?

BLOOM: (Peering over the crowd.) I just see a car there. If you give me a hand a second, sergeant…

FIRST WATCH: Name and address.

(Corny Kelleher, weepers round his hat, a death wreath in his hand, appears among the bystanders.)

BLOOM: (Quickly.) O, the very man! (He whispers.) Simon Dedalus’ son. A bit sprung. Get those policemen to move those loafers back.

SECOND WATCH: Night, Mr Kelleher.

CORNY KELLEHER: (To the watch, with drawling eye.) That’s all right. I know him. Won a bit on the races. Gold cup. Throwaway. (He laughs.) Twenty to one. Do you follow me?

FIRST WATCH: (Turns to the crowd.) Here, what are you all gaping at? Move on out of that.

(The crowd disperses slowly, muttering, down the lane.)

CORNY KELLEHER: Leave it to me, sergeant. That’ll be all right. (He laughs, shaking his head.) We were often as bad ourselves, ay or worse. What? Eh, what?

FIRST WATCH: (Laughs.) I suppose so.

CORNY KELLEHER: (Nudges the second watch.) Come and wipe your name off the slate. (He lilts, wagging his head.) With my tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom. What, eh, do you follow me?

SECOND WATCH: (Genially.) Ah, sure we were too.

CORNY KELLEHER: (Winking.) Boys will be boys. I’ve a car round there.

SECOND WATCH: All right, Mr Kelleher. Good night.

CORNY KELLEHER: I’ll see to that.

BLOOM: (Shakes hands with both of the watch in turn.) Thank you very much, gentlemen. Thank you. (He mumbles confidentially.) We don’t want any scandal, you understand. Father is a wellknown highly respected citizen. Just a little wild oats, you understand.

FIRST WATCH: O. I understand, sir.

SECOND WATCH: That’s all right, sir.

FIRST WATCH: It was only in case of corporal injuries I’d have to report it at the station.

BLOOM: (Nods rapidly.) Naturally. Quite right. Only your bounden duty.

SECOND WATCH: It’s our duty.

CORNY KELLEHER: Good night, men.

THE WATCH: (Saluting together.) Night, gentlemen. (They move off with slow heavy tread.)

BLOOM: (Blows.) Providential you came on the scene. You have a car?…

CORNY KELLEHER: (Laughs, pointing his thumb over his right shoulder to the car brought up against the scaffolding.) Two commercials that were standing fizz in Jammet’s. Like princes, faith. One of them lost two quid on the race. Drowning his grief. And were on for a go with the jolly girls. So I landed them up on Behan’s car and down to nighttown.

BLOOM: I was just going home by Gardiner street when I happened to…

CORNY KELLEHER: (Laughs.) Sure they wanted me to join in with the mots. No, by God, says I. Not for old stagers like myself and yourself. (He laughs again and leers with lacklustre eye.) Thanks be to God we have it in the house, what, eh, do you follow me? Hah, hah, hah!

BLOOM: (Tries to laugh.) He, he, he! Yes. Matter of fact I was just visiting an old friend of mine there, Virag, you don’t know him (poor fellow, he’s laid up for the past week) and we had a liquor together and I was just making my way home…

(The horse neighs.)

THE HORSE: Hohohohohohoh! Hohohohome!

CORNY KELLEHER: Sure it was Behan our jarvey there that told me after we left the two commercials in Mrs Cohen’s and I told him to pull up and got off to see. (He laughs.) Sober hearsedrivers a speciality. Will I give him a lift home? Where does he hang out? Somewhere in Cabra, what?

BLOOM: No, in Sandycove, I believe, from what he let drop.

(Stephen, prone, breathes to the stars. Corny Kelleher, asquint, drawls at the horse. Bloom, in gloom, looms down.)

CORNY KELLEHER: (Scratches his nape.) Sandycove! (He bends down and calls to Stephen.) Eh! (He calls again.) Eh! He’s covered with shavings anyhow. Take care they didn’t lift anything off him.

BLOOM: No, no, no. I have his money and his hat here and stick.

CORNY KELLEHER: Ah, well, he’ll get over it. No bones broken. Well, I’ll shove along. (He laughs.) I’ve a rendezvous in the morning. Burying the dead. Safe home!

THE HORSE: (Neighs.) Hohohohohome.

BLOOM: Good night. I’ll just wait and take him along in a few…

(Corny Kelleher returns to the outside car and mounts it. The horse harness jingles.)

CORNY KELLEHER: (From the car, standing.) Night.

BLOOM: Night.

(The jarvey chucks the reins and raises his whip encouragingly. The car and horse back slowly, awkwardly, and turn. Corny Kelleher on the sideseat sways his head to and fro in sign of mirth at Bloom’s plight. The jarvey joins in the mute pantomimic merriment nodding from the farther seat. Bloom shakes his head in mute mirthful reply. With thumb and palm Corny Kelleher reassures that the two bobbies will allow the sleep to continue for what else is to be done. With a slow nod Bloom conveys his gratitude as that is exactly what Stephen needs. The car jingles tooraloom round the corner of the tooraloom lane. Corny Kelleher again reassuralooms with his hand. Bloom with his hand assuralooms Corny Kelleher that he is reassuraloomtay. The tinkling hoofs and jingling harness grow fainter with their tooralooloo looloo lay. Bloom, holding in his hand Stephen’s hat, festooned with shavings, and ashplant, stands irresolute. Then he bends to him and shakes him by the shoulder.)

BLOOM: Eh! Ho! (There is no answer; he bends again.) Mr Dedalus! (There is no answer.) The name if you call. Somnambulist. (He bends again and, hesitating, brings his mouth near the face of the prostrate form.) Stephen! (There is no answer. He calls again.) Stephen!

STEPHEN: (Groans.) Who? Black panther. Vampire. (He sighs and stretches himself, then murmurs thickly with prolonged vowels.)

Who… drive… Fergus now
And pierce… wood’s woven shade?…

(He turns on his left side, sighing, doubling himself together.)

BLOOM: Poetry. Well educated. Pity. (He bends again and undoes the buttons of Stephen’s waistcoat.) To breathe. (He brushes the woodshavings from Stephen’s clothes with light hand and fingers.) One pound seven. Not hurt anyhow. (He listens.) What?

STEPHEN: (Murmurs.)

… shadows… the woods
… white breast… dim sea.

(He stretches out his arms, sighs again and curls his body. Bloom, holding the hat and ashplant, stands erect. A dog barks in the distance. Bloom tightens and loosens his grip on the ashplant. He looks down on Stephen’s face and form.)

BLOOM: (Communes with the night.) Face reminds me of his poor mother. In the shady wood. The deep white breast. Ferguson, I think I caught. A girl. Some girl. Best thing could happen him. (He murmurs.)… swear that I will always hail, ever conceal, never reveal, any part or parts, art or arts… (He murmurs.)… in the rough sands of the sea… a cabletow’s length from the shore… where the tide ebbs… and flows …

(Silent, thoughtful, alert he stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)

BLOOM: (Wonderstruck, calls inaudibly.) Rudy!

RUDY: (Gazes, unseeing, into Bloom’s eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauve face. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet bowknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.)