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This writeup was originally a paper for a British Literature class last year.

Taking sensei's cue to node your homework to heart, I thought this thing might make a contribution to the clump of Joyce-related nodes on E2. Or maybe not

"He knows you. He knows your old fellow. O, I fear me, he is Greeker than the Greeks. His pale Galilean eyes were upon her mesial groove. Venus Kallipyge. O, the thunder of those loins! The god pursuing the maiden hid.

--We want to hear more, John Eglinton decided with Mr Best’s approval. We begin to be interested in Mrs S. Till now we had thought of her, if at all, as a patient Griselda, a Penelope stay-at-home."

Ulysses, 9.614-617

This short passage from the ninth chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses is rife with plot relevance, thematic references, literary allusions, and characterization data. In this brief few lines, Joyce obliquely touches on many of the central issues pertaining to the plot, theme, and structure of Ulysses. The passage comes from the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter, which takes place in the National Library. Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus are engaged in a discussion with some of Dublin’s literati; Stephen is midway through explaining his astonishing theory of Hamlet, which draws heavily on biographical information about Shakespeare. Leopold Bloom has just entered the library on a mission pertaining to his employment by the Freeman’s Journal. After Bloom’s “dark figure” follows the librarian into the room of “provincial papers,” Mulligan snatches up a card with Bloom’s name on it and begins to speak, having recognized Bloom from the museum, where he earlier saw Bloom ogling the nude Grecian sculptures (Joyce 165).

Up until this point in the book, there has been only the most minimal of interactions between Stephen and Bloom. This passage represents another such “close encounter,” as interpreted by Mulligan. Buck Mulligan, like the Fool in King Lear, speaks largely in riddles, quotations, and nonsensical jabber. However, also like the Fool, his words frequently have the subtle ring of truth—though he himself is apparently not cognizant of it. Thus, although Buck Mulligan’s ridicule of Leopold Bloom seems purely a manifestation of Mulligan’s jejune nature, the careful reader can find a wealth of valuable information implicitly contained within.

“He knows you. He knows your old fellow.” Mulligan speaks these words immediately after turning to Stephen. While apparently simple, they establish important links that are more fully fleshed out later in the novel. First of all, Mulligan both overstates and understates the case. He says that Bloom “knows” Stephen—which is only marginally true. At this point, Bloom is only faintly acquainted with Stephen, and Stephen knows still less of Bloom. However, Mulligan’s simple, powerful overstatement suggests that a deeper sort of knowledge is on the horizon. By the end of the night, Bloom will know Stephen indeed, and will understand him in a way that his father has never been able. This very point brings us to the next line of Mulligan’s: “He knows your old fellow.”

This more precise statement of Bloom’s relationship to Stephen, that Bloom knows Stephen’s father Simon Dedalus, links Bloom in a paternal way to Stephen. Intimations of the possibility of a paternal relationship between Bloom and Stephen have already appeared in the text, notably in the “Aeolus” chapter, when Bloom muses with fatherly solicitude that “young Dedalus” is a “moving spirit” but a “careless chap.” After passing Stephen in the headquarters of the newspaper, he notes that Stephen has a “good pair of boots” on his feet (they are Buck Mulligan’s), having seen him earlier that morning with “his heels on view” (Joyce 120). The gradual assumption by Bloom of a fatherly role, and the wary acceptance of that role by Stephen is a subplot that runs throughout the novel. Underpinning it is the recurrent theme of fatherhood as a primarily spiritual link, rather than a biological one. In light of that theme, it seems logical that Simon Dedalus could be replaced by a man more spiritually connected to young Stephen—and that man turns out to be Leopold Bloom. Thus, Mulligan’s first few words about Leopold Bloom, though they appear to be mere statements of banal fact, seem to point to some of the most vital and profound ideas of Ulysses.

Mulligan continues on, describing Bloom in mock terror: “O. I fear me, he is Greeker than the Greeks. His pale Galilean eyes were upon her mesial groove.” These lines connect Bloom to two mythic figures: Odysseus and Christ. Calling him “Greeker than the Greeks,” Mulligan is more right than he knows, since Bloom is the Joycean reinvention of Homer’s Odysseus. In light of the above father-son allusions, this in turn seems to link Stephen to Homer’s Telemachus.

Mulligan then quotes Swinburne, referring to Bloom’s “pale Galilean eyes,” a quotation that identifies Bloom with Christ (Blamires 85). Again, one must take into account the father-son connection between Bloom and Stephen. If Bloom the father is also Christ the son, Stephen is therefore—what, exactly? The reader should be rightly puzzled, and would do well to take note that Joyce introduces this dilemma of “met-him-pike-hoses” into the midst of a fantastic argument by Stephen about the paradoxical nature of fatherhood, as manifested in Shakespearean drama and in the Christian Trinity. From the comments about Bloom’s person, the reader follows Bloom’s eyes to the “mesial groove” of the statue of Venus, as described by Mulligan. These words recall Bloom’s intentions in chapter eight. At the end of the “Lestrygonians” chapter, Bloom enters the art museum, with the intent of furtively looking at the sculptures of nude female goddesses, principally to ascertain whether or not they have an anus. The perceptive, mocking med student Mulligan catches Bloom in the act, and employs his medical knowledge in lampooning Bloom’s ogling of one statue’s “mesial groove.” Aside from being delightfully funny, the idea of Bloom covertly studying the backsides of the nude sculptures tells us volumes about his character. Bloom’s investigation of the goddesses’ buttocks is an unmistakably Bloomian activity. Part of his motivation is pure curiosity: after musing over the universal processes of digestion and excretion in “Lestrygonians,” Bloom wonders benignly whether or not the gods participate in these processes (Joyce 144-145). This knowledge would not be particularly helpful to Bloom—and that fact too fits his character. After all, Bloom is full of “useless” knowledge, random bits of information that his inquisitive mind gobbles up voraciously. The curious and thoroughly embodied Everyman, he is fascinated by the prospect that gods might excrete in the same way humans do. However, his fascination with the sculpted posteriors of the goddesses does not end at mere intellectual curiosity, and Buck Mulligan’s next words make that point abundantly clear—“Venus Kallipgye.”

Mulligan here refers to the title of the statue, which is a reproduction of Venus Kallipgye. This title is generally translated as “Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks,” the epithet coming from the combination of the ancient Greek words kallistos (very beautiful) and pyge (buttocks or thighs). From the name of the sculpture, the reader infers that Bloom’s not-so-subtle staring has been well deserved—that the statue’s posterior is well worth a long gaze. In the Greek tradition, Aphrodite’s buttocks are among her most beautiful assets, admired by artist and poet alike—an entire cult was dedicated to Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks (Schork 46-47). In his way, Leopold Bloom carries on a one-man instantiation of this cult—an admirer of “opulent curves,” he is truly a worshipper of beautifully buttocked Venus. Indeed, the figure of Venus resurfaces in later chapters as an object of Bloom’s admiration and desire.

Finally, although this reference will not become clear until later, Venus Kallipgye pre-echoes the amply curved, voluptuous Molly Bloom. Bloom’s reverence for the plump female posterior appears once again at the end of “Ithaca,” when he climbs in bed with Molly and kisses the “plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump” (Joyce 604). Since Molly is the lodestone of Bloom’s thought and action throughout Bloomsday, Bloom’s ogling of the statue now emerges as an instance of Molly-worship.

The idea of Bloom worshipping the Venus-Molly goddess is inverted by Mulligan’s next words, “The god pursuing the maiden hid.” Here Buck Mulligan continues with his references to Swinburne, quoting the Chorus of Swinburne’s poem Atalanta in Calydon. The full sentence of the poem is as follows:

And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

Clearly, Bloom is the “god” that Mulligan refers to, pursuing the stone “maiden” of the museum. Yet again, Mulligan’s mocking comments have more truth in them than he realizes, foreshadowing Molly Bloom’s reflection that “theres many a true word spoken in jest” (Joyce 625). After all, the reader knows that Bloom is engaged in another pursuit, a journey that will eventually lead him back to his “maid,” ironically named Marion (though called Molly by most). As the reincarnation of Homer’s Odysseus, Bloom quests to return home to the arms (or arse) of his wife. Mulligan’s speech ends with the lingering image of the maiden “hid”—implying that Bloom has not yet completed his quest.

And yet, the leaves of Swinburne’s poem simultaneously “screen from seeing and leave in sight.” Joyce loves a paradox, and this one suggests that while Bloom remains physically and sexually separated from his “maiden,” his constant recourse to Molly in his thoughts always keeps her in sight. Further, this contradiction relates to Molly’s imminent act of adultery with Blazes Boylan. While Bloom does not witness the encounter—he prefers to keep it “hid”—it remains all too clear in his mind’s eye, surfacing again and again throughout the day.

After Mulligan finishes speaking, Mr. Eglinton pipes up, eager to hear more of Stephen’s theory about Ann Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife. He says, “We begin to be interested in Mrs S. Till now we had thought of her, if at all, as a patient Griselda, a Penelope stay-at-home.” The mention of Penelope should stand out like a red flag to the expectant reader. The novel’s reincarnation of Penelope is Molly Bloom. And upon the surface, Molly is very much a stay-at-home—over the entire course of Bloomsday, she never once leaves the house at 7 Eccles Street. Yet “stay-at-home” does not merely denote a person who remains in the house; rather, the word connotes a person whose chief mode of activity lies in that “staying.” Further, it implies not only a physical “staying at home,” but a metaphorical “staying” as well. Though she has many suitors, Penelope, the Homeric model of marital fidelity, stays steadfastly at “home,” never breaking her promise to Odysseus.

But clearly, while this connotation does fit Homer’s Penelope, it poorly describes the other female figures to which the reader attaches it: Ann Hathaway and Molly Bloom. Ann Hathaway, Stephen explains at length, is the very model of infidelity, having committed adultery with Shakespeare’s own brothers. One might condemn Molly to the same fate. After all, she is only a few hours from her sexual encounter with Blazes Boylan, and she is well known around town as a “gamey mare” (Joyce 193). However, Molly Bloom is neither of these women—and she is also both. Like Ann Hathaway, she is an unfaithful wife to a (very mildly) unfaithful husband. However, like Penelope, she finally decides to “stay at home,” reaffirming her love for Bloom in her overwhelming monologue that makes up the “Penelope” chapter, ending with the repetition of the word “Yes,” her response to Bloom’s proposal of marriage (Joyce 644).

This passage might be viewed a curious microcosm of the entire novel. It begins with tenuous connections between Stephen and Bloom and develops the idea of Bloom’s Ulyssean journey while hinting at the future concord between the two men. It then introduces the complications of Molly Bloom’s infidelity and Leopold Bloom’s mild sexual strayings. It ends with the return to Molly, who encompasses both the figures of Ann Hathaway and Penelope, embodying their traits yet defying categorization. Like Ulysses, the passage is firmly rooted in the grimy details, the actual physical minutiae of “dear dirty Dublin.” Yet it takes flight in its symbolic and mythic underpinnings, which propel the mundane, the profane, and the commonplace to Olympian heights.

Sources:

  • Blamires, Harry. The New Bloomsday Book. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
  • Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
  • Schork, R.J. Greek and Hellenic Culture in Joyce. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.
  • Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

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