Lit Crit, number 2

This isn’t an essay. It is literary criticism on a sliver of one of my favorite books. Early in my career online, using one of those old nearly original Macintoshes, not very long after Sir Tim Berners-Lee originated the World Wide Web, I got interested in discussion groups. One I joined was on James Joyce, and one of the main participants organized an online realtime discussion (today it would be a chat room, but back then it was some arcane protocol—about which I had previously known nothing at all, and which I have since then forgotten nearly everything, having never used the system again; it was called Du-MOO, the MOO part being the protocol, I think—from which chat has evolved). The purpose of the group was to analyze and discuss a chapter of Ulysses (the favorite book I mentioned in the opening sentence) a week, with different members presiding over each chapter. The event started in midsummer, and even though I could only get online at school, I volunteered even to host a chapter.

Surprisingly, I got assigned one, the section known as “Lotos Eaters.” I wish I still had a version of the actual chat for my date (it used to be available online when you searched my full name, but I haven’t noticed it turn up for years). What I do have is the text of the e-mail I sent the organizer for my week (he wanted each “teacher” to provide a quick overview of the chapter and raise some points for discussion; he would post our introductions on the discussion group in advance of the chat session). Among all the international collection of actually educated college professors, I felt pretty inadequate (except I knew there were some in the group who knew even less than I, and they showed their ignorance pretty clearly in earlier chats).

I still remember driving up to Andrew in evening dusk to let myself into the school building and then head to my room and fire up that little old Mac. I opened my browser and did whatever it took to get into the discussion/chat mode, keeping my handwritten list of appropriate commands beside the keyboard, as the appointed hour of the session began. I even participated.

As for this particular session, as one might suspect with me, I wasn’t very prompt getting my e-mail off to the organizer… However, it has been published before, if only as a small mass e-mailing.

For those who know nothing about the novel, you might want to use the link to Wikipedia above. It might help a little.


Late and probably inadequate, here is my tardy “Lotos Eaters” introduction. Looking at it now as I’m sending it your way, it strikes me funny that I should have chosen avoidance as the element I noticed the most this reading, since I’m sure I was avoiding facing up to the reality you imposed on me of mentoring this episode. Reader response always comes first, I guess.

Reality Just Keeps Rubbing Away

Avoidance and Confrontation in “Lotos Eaters”

In the mode of the episode, some daydreams and random observations…

Bloom is wandering [drifting even] through this episode. Not much seems to happen, and the commentators seem pretty universal on that. However, Joyce does use “Lotos-Eaters” to present some important themes and details which he plays with and develops through the rest of the book.

Throwaway may be a kind of key. Things which are just thrown out here become significant, or at least persist all day. The wandering soap gets purchased, and Bloom folds up the newspaper baton that will eventually sail away down the Liffey to the sea. Love’s old sweet songs starts recurring, right after what home is without potted meat [also all tied in with the “evidence” of the torn strip of envelope and Boylan’s manner of address on that envelope].

Bloom is set up “walking by” things in the first paragraph [yes, it’s partly geography: we know thereby where is walking]. Is he cruising through or dreamily out of touch? There’s a brutal realism of the poor boy and girl, and Bloom’s “Oh, let him” as his only [but realistic] response to their plights. And he’s off into his imagination about the boy’s life.

Into the post office. The “high grade ha” [realistic, that piece of information rubbed away through everyday wear—like lots of the information in the book?] hides Bloom’s false identity or at least his Henry Flower card. And now we can understand the “quite safe” from Calypso. Bloom indulges in a fantasy of lethargy [when he is really champing at the bit to get his letter from Martha Clifford and read it, as his desire to get quickly rid of M’Coy reveals] and gravity. It’s a pleasant kind of reverie—not being active but acted upon, whereas he must act to hide the shame [?] of his correspondence [“keen glance… No one. In.”].

the cover of the original edition of Ulysses

Sex is in Bloom’s mind still, reviewing the sausage girl from next door, considering the woman getting into the cab [and frustration again], thoughts about Molly [tidbits only of that hard evidence under the pillow], whatever it is he wants from Martha. Again, this is mental, fantasies [and in reality, he doesn’t even catch that shocking glimpse of stocking from the woman climbing into the outsider].

Why a yellow flower? Bloom considers how women like using the language of flowers, but he doesn’t interpret what it says. —By the way, I noticed that he reads Martha’s letter the reverse of Milly’s: closely first, then swiftly [flowered in this case] in bits and pieces.

Considering the pin that held the yellow flower [which he got all wrong, guessing what it might be, until he actually opened the letter]: it’s “common” and that thought comes just after his fantasy of adultery’s “reality”; and in the next paragraph—“Flat Dublin voices bawled in his head.” Bloom has two worlds [at least]. Which one does Martha not like? His fantasies have usually been exotic and the world around him mundane. But—heading by and into the church—religion is an opiate [“Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying… I bet it makes them feel happy.”] Corpus: corpse [two worlds?]. His dichotomy is not the spirit and the flesh, however. After all gravity is one of the passives—falling, falling at thirtytwo feet per second per second, though flowers [opium’s source?] defy gravity by growing toward the sun, the source of oriental warmth and languor…

There are of course a lot of narcotics in the episode: it’s Lotusland. Alcohol—the Guinness flood, the wine at Mass—and drugs. But at the chemist’s Bloom is only buying Molly’s facial mixture and soap. However, getting clean seems tied in with all the dreamy creamy stuff [and smells too].

His accidental tip to Bantam Lyons [after all those calculations on businesses in Calypso] will work against him later. Like the military Bloom considered because of the poster he saw as he entered the post office, he ties sports [and betting] into this complex web of whatdoyoucallit… distractions…

Bloom likes his reveries, his thoughts and imaginings, and seems to wish to avoid realities [although Molly’s day haunts him, like an old sweet song forever on his mind]. He turns the mundane world into exotic thoughtstuff for himself [even Martha’s letter is better wild with flowers], finally foreseeing his bath as a languorous hallucination of idle dreamy delight. If he’s a Ulysses/Odysseus and this is Lotusland, is he trapped in the charm?

“Oh, rocks!” But this Ulysses sees himself languid in water, orientally adrift.

Daydreams escape [are not] the world, but the world [like the tram overhead that incites the imaginary Guinness barrels thumping into motion, popping their corks and spilling out the foamy brown flood that drowns so many in Dublin] stimulates images: thoughts cannot escape reality.

Bloom tries to escape, to avoid attention, throughout the episode. For instance, he does not do anything about the poor boy’s smoking [or anything else about their plight] but merely takes refuge in letting events take their courses. He sneaks into and out of the post office. He shucks M’Coy and ducks into the alley to read his letter, tears up the evidence and drops it behind him, and tries to brush away Lyons with the newspaper. But he cannot avoid impacting the external no matter how he may throw it away.

There you go. For those uninitiated into Joyceana it probably doesn’t make much sense, but here it is. The big issue for me in deciding to post was to admit my James Joyce fixation. I have plans to review a book I just read (which ties eerily into my obsession with media cult personalities driving our culture to extremism) that also happens to criticize from a Jesuit perspective my favorite never-quite-fully-read book—Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

3 thoughts on “Lit Crit, number 2

  1. Ulysses is one of the few books I have started and NOT finished. I don’t know what it is about the book- I even have my own copy and I think I have started it 3 or 4 times. Maybe I will have to take a stab at it again one of these days…

    • I understand on that one, Colleen. It took me years, a decade, I think, to read it the first time, and I took recourse to Stuart Gilbert and many other explanatory books before I finally had read the whole thing. And by then I was really indoctrinated into Joyceana.

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