I’ll begin with a digression. Check the writing credits for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) on IMDb and you’ll find three headshots: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and a bust of Homer. As the opening credits make clear, the misadventures of escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) across Depression-era Mississippi are modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. McGill and fellow escapees Pete and Delmar (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) negotiate an obstacle course of Homeric correspondences including encounters with a blind prophet, the Sirens, and the Lotus-Eaters. The Coen brothers’ version of the cyclops, however, owes as much to James Joyce’s Ulysses as it does to Homer. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew visit a land of one-eyed giants and become trapped in the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus. After Polyphemus eats two of his men, Odysseus manages to get the cyclops drunk on wine, then blind him with a burning stake. In O Brother the cyclops is a one-eyed Klansman named Big Dan Teague (John Goodman). When McGill and his companions don white sheets to infiltrate a KKK rally and prevent the lynching of their friend Tommy, Big Dan, wearing a white hood with one eyehole, recognizes the trio and exposes them. McGill and his friends manage to get away, covering their escape by cutting the suspension cords holding up a giant flaming wooden cross so that it falls on Big Dan and his fellow Klansman. Reimagining Homer’s gigantic one-eyed brute as a large one-eyed bully is natural enough. The decision to make him a member of the KKK is less obvious — unless you have read Ulysses.
The Cyclops episode in Ulysses takes place at 5:00 PM in Barney Kiernan’s Pub, a dark, cave-like nationalist pub frequented by heavy-drinking men embittered by English rule. There are several cyclopes here but a menacing figure (with a menacing dog) referred to only as “the citizen” is Joyce’s Polyphemus. As critic Harry Blamires explains, the citizen has a “one-eyed view, a fanatical, unreasoning nationalistic passion that makes him incapable of seeing any other side to a question.” (Blamires 112) In practice, the citizen (and the pub’s other regulars) mix valid, if shopworn, complaints about British rule with a maudlin idealizing of Irish culture and history that too often finds expression in xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny. Over the course of the chapter, the citizen makes numerous anti-Semitic remarks (mostly at Bloom’s expense), complains about immigrants (“we want no more strangers in our house”), gossips that a married man is a “pishogue” (Irish for fairy), refers to Bloom as a “white-eyed kaffir” (among other slights and insults) and twice blames the inconstancy of women for “all [Ireland’s] misfortunes.” Even the citizen’s attacks on England are often small-minded and overblown. When Bloom quietly (and characteristically) tries to moderate the conversation with a platitude about English civilization, the citizen responds: “Their syphilisation, you mean . . . No music and no art and no literature worthy of the name. Any civilisation they have they stole from us.” Joyce, to be clear, was no supporter of British rule. At the same time, he was critical when he felt Irish nationalism deteriorated to little more than an imitation-by-inversion of English attitudes of racial and cultural superiority.
Fittingly, Joyce uses a first-person narrator — a sharp-tongued raconteur who never gives his name — to describe Bloom’s visit to this one-eyed world. The narrator’s version of events is brutally one-sided and we get a sense of just how brutal he can be when he looks at a newspaper photograph of a lynching in Georgia and thinks, “Gob, they ought to drown him in the sea after and electrocute and crucify him to make sure of their job.” From the moment Bloom “slopes in” looking for Martin Cunningham it is clear he is in unfriendly territory. The narrator disdains Bloom’s wary eyeing of the citizen’s dog even though, just a short while earlier, he had expressed his own wish that “someone would take the life of that bloody dog.’ Bloom’s attempts to join the conversation are seen as tedious and pompous: “if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour and talk steady.” When Bloom briefly excuses himself to check for Cunningham at the courthouse, annoyance darkens to anger as word spreads that “the courthouse is a blind.” Bloom, they believe, has bet on a tip he received that Throwaway would win the Gold Cup “and he’s gone to gather the shekels.” When Bloom returns but does not buy everyone a round of drinks with his winnings, the situation quickly deteriorates until he is forced to leave — but not before finally responding to the citizen’s antisemitic digs by saying, “your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.” The citizen, infuriated by Bloom’s this heresy yells “I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll bloody crucify him” before throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees in a carriage.
“In the kingdom of the one-eyed, the two-eyed man is in considerable danger,” observes Declan Kiberd and Joyce heightens that sense of danger by omitting Bloom’s revealing interior monologues. Instead, the only distance we get from the narrator comes in the form of even greater hyperbole: thirty-three satirical interpolations woven throughout the chapter that, as Harry Blamires explains, are “inflated caricature[s] of the legal, the epic, the scientific, the journalistic . . . each a gigantic inflation of the one-eyed approach.” When the men talk about the citizen’s glory days as champion shot-putter, These parodies allow Joyce to use language to both mock self-important modes of writing and depict the cycloptic mentality. When, for instance, a barroom conversation about capital punishment turns to the lewd fact that a hanged man gets an erection, Bloom’s attempt to offer a scientific explanation for this phenomenon is mocked as pompous by the narrator (“then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon”) and then that dismissal is satirized in an interpolation written in the style of a scientific account: “The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumeduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae. . .”
Still, we know Bloom well enough from previous chapters to see how unfair the version of him we get in this chapter really is. We know for a fact that Bloom was oblivious to the Gold Cup and that the rumor he had inside information is based on a misunderstanding. The reader is left to wade through a sea of bluster, exaggeration, narrow-minded conjecture, and outright lies, not only to find the Bloom we already know but to understand how the noble goal of freedom could result in stunted men like the citizen. For all their narrow-mindedness, we occasionally hear echoes of lost potential in their voices. Throughout Ulysses Bloom struggles whenever he tries to express his nuanced ideas out loud. The citizen and the narrator have no such problem. While it is tempting to attribute the ease with which they speak their minds to their monolithic thinking, it would be unfair to overlook their skill and confidence. The name Polyphemus, it should be remembered, means “abounding in songs and legends.” There is real tragedy in these men who, like the chapter’s thirty-three interpolations, have been reduced to self-parody. “There’s no one as blind as the fellow who won’t see,” the citizen says to Bloom, “if you know what that means.” Ironically, it is the citizen who doesn’t understand his own words, who doesn’t see. It falls to the reader to see the citizen and his fellow pub-dwellers more fully than they see themselves. The cyclops may be a one-eyed creature but the reader of Ulysses cannot afford to be.
This year’s excerpt takes place during a heated exchange between Bloom and the citizen, an exchange that leads to Bloom’s passionate, if somewhat clumsy, expression of one of the novel’s central themes: the redemptive power of love. During an exchange about how to define the word “nation,” Bloom’s suggestion that a nation is “the same people living in the same place” is met with mockery. Inevitably, the citizen presses Bloom, asking “what is your nation?” to which Bloom, the son of Hungarian Jews, honestly answers, “Ireland . . . I was born here. Ireland.” The citizen’s only reply is to clear his throat and spit “a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.” We join the scene a few moments later when Bloom, after still more pints of Guinness have been distributed, resumes the topic and eventually makes his earnest but sentimental plea for a world ruled by love rather than hate. Bloom then excuses himself to look for Martin Cunningham at the courthouse and the citizen takes the opportunity to overtly cast aspersions on Bloom in his absence. A brief, one-paragraph, parody interpolation, reduces Bloom’s call for universal love to the sort of graffiti you’d find carved in a tree or scrawled inside a schoolbook. (The citizen’s odd pivot at the end of this excerpt from Bloom’s plea for love to the atrocities of Oliver Cromwell’s troops in Ireland may call to mind another character from a Coen brother’s film portrayed by John Goodman: Walker Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, who somehow manages to bring every topic back to the Vietnam War.)
As usual, I’ve included an audio clip of the excerpt from the 1982 RTÉ full-cast production of Ulysses. The distinctly Irish voices in this chapter are beautifully brought to life in this recording.
—Shove us over the drink, says I. Which is which?
—That’s mine, says Joe, as the devil said to the dead policeman.
—And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.
Gob, he near burnt his fingers with the butt of his old cigar.
—Robbed, says he. Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up his fist, sold by auction off in Morocco like slaves or cattles.
—Are you talking about the new Jerusalem? says the citizen.
—I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.
—Right, says John Wyse. Stand up to it then with force like men.
That’s an almanac picture for you. Mark for a softnosed bullet. Old lardyface standing up to the business end of a gun. Gob, he’d adorn a sweepingbrush, so he would, if he only had a nurse’s apron on him. And then he collapses all of a sudden, twisting around all the opposite, as limp as a wet rag.
—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. I must go now, says he to John Wyse. Just round to the court a moment to see if Martin is there. If he comes just say I’ll be back in a second. Just a moment.
Who’s hindering you? And off he pops like greased lightning.
—A new apostle to the gentiles, says the citizen. Universal love.
—Well, says John Wyse, isn’t that what we’re told? Love your neighbours.
—That chap? says the citizen. Beggar my neighbour is his motto. Love, Moya! He’s a nice pattern of a Romeo and Juliet.
Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair genteman. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschoyle with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.
—Well, Joe, says I, your very good health and song. More power, citizen.
—Hurrah, there, says Joe.
—The blessing of God and Mary and Patrick on you, says the citizen.
And he ups with his pint to wet his whistle.
—We know those canters, says he, preaching and picking your pocket. What about sanctimonious Cromwell and his ironsides that put the women and children of Drogheda to the sword with the bible text God is love pasted round the mouth of his cannon? The bible!