Ulysses: Proteus

Episode 3 of Ulysses takes place almost entirely in Stephen Daedalus’ head. In the first two episodes, the bulk of the “action” is in the dialogue between characters. In this episode, we join Stephen as he walks along Sandymount strand and has more than a moment with his thoughts. The episode name is Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god of the sea. In my opinion, Proteus presents the first major challenge of following the book. Joyce gives us the insights into what Stephen is thinking and, closer to reality than any other book that I’ve read, the thoughts flow from moment to moment with loose association from one to the next.

Early in the episode, he considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house. Then he plays out either a memory or a projection of what the visit will entail along with dialogue from his disapproving father. From here, things start to jump around a good bit.

This episode is particularly interesting to me as someone who is interested in Zen Buddhism. When practicing Zen meditation, called Zazen, the idea is to sit erect and stare blankly at the wall for a period of time. What usually happens is before finding any form of quiet is that thoughts just bounce around. What do I need to do after this? Yes – change the light bulb outside the garage door. Oh but I needed lightbulbs from the store. Darn! How did I forget that? Make sure to add it to the shopping list as soon as this is done. Then in my mind’s eye, I walk into the pantry where bulbs are stored and I look down at the couch, where my daughter routinely leaves partially consumed water bottles. Why can’t she take them with her? Maybe I should just stop buying water bottles. But no, we need them for the sports activities. And so on… The first step to practicing Zazen is to just sit with it. Over time, we become more aware of our thoughts as they’re happening and we can start to limit the damage that our runaway thoughts inflict on us. Eventually, we even begin to find glimpses of quiet.

I started reading Ulysses before I started approaching Zen with any real discipline. Now having practiced for a couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate Proteus more than ever. It is still difficult to follow. But it should be. We’re in the head following the thoughts of a well-educated human being who is thinking of events current to him at the turn of the 20th century.

Themes

In addition to the constant flow from thought to thought, Daedalus shifts from English to French and back again with a smattering of other languages. I will readily admit that I don’t follow all of the references yet; and this is my fourth read. Other lengthy tomes have been written on the content, so I’m touching on some key themes that stick out to me.

  • Mother: Stephen continues to be haunted by the death of his mother. He sees two midwives and thinks of umbilical cords and Eve’s navel-free stomach, which makes him think about his own conception by “the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghost woman with ashes on her breath.” He thinks of the telegram from his father that called him home from medical study in Paris to his mother’s deathbed and Mulligan’s earlier comment, “The aunt thinks you killed your mother.”
  • Irish / Ireland: Stephen thinks of Patrice Egan whom he knew in Paris. He thinks of Kevin Egan, Patrice’s father and exiled Irish nationalist, and the conversations about nationalism they had in a French cafe.
  • Money: “Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.” “By the way go easy with that money like a good young imbecile.” Stephen thinks about the money that he’s recently gotten, his historically bad handling of money, and the savings advice from Mr. Deasy.
  • Hamlet: There were major references to Hamlet in Telemachus, the first episode, and a few in Nestor, the last episode. In Proteus, there is a small call out of Elsinore, which is the castle where the play is set; and Hamlet is again referenced with, “nipping and eager airs.”
  • Father: There is much talk about father and son with reference to Hamlet earlier in the book, but in this episode Stephen’s relationship to his father begins to materialize for the reader. When Stephen considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house at the beginning of the episode, it gives way to a vision that involves his condescending father providing disproving overtones. He thinks about his and other “houses of decay,” which we’ll learn later is a marker for his father’s inability to maintain a consistent family home.

As mentioned earlier, Proteus is the shape-shifting god of the sea. The episode Proteus takes on the shape-shifting characteristics as the topics and language shift like the tendrils of an anemone in the surf. I marvel at Joyce’s writing. To be able to interlace shifting thought and theme in a way that is relatable nearly 100 years after publication is simply awe-inspiring. 

Ulysses: Nestor

In the second episode of Ulysses, we follow the prodigal son Stephen Daedalus to his workplace where he is a teacher. We pick up as Stephen is teaching a History lesson to a class of boys. Class lets out early for field hockey. One of the students, Sargent, hangs back to go over his arithmetic lesson with Stephen. After Mr. Deasy, Stephen’s boss, gets the boys organized on the field, he comes back in to pay Stephen his wages. During the exchange, the older Mr. Deasy doles out several “words of wisdom” to Stephen. Additionally, Mr. Deasy asks Stephen to have a letter he has written about foot and mouth disease printed with his newspaper friends. The two spend some time on the topic and then part ways.

Themes:

Like nearly every other part of Ulysses, the action in the Nestor episode is in the words. Several themes arise for me:

  • Mother: While Stephen teaches Sargent his arithmetic after class, Stephen imagines that no one except his mother loves Sargent. A slight framed runt of a child, Sargent reminds Stephen of himself. As he imagines Sargent’s mother doting on the boy, Stephen’s thoughts float back to his own recently deceased mother, who is haunting his memory.
  • History: At the start of the episode, Stephen is teaching the boys a history lesson. During the discussion with Mr. Deasy, the elder man offers Stephen a history lesson of Ireland, to which Stephen replies, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
  • Teacher vs. Learner: Both Stephen and Mr. Deasy both recognize that Stephen will not be in this job long. Stephen acknowledges early in the episode that the kids don’t respect him and his slack authority with which he holds class. Later, Mr. Deasy tells Stephen that he doesn’t believe he’ll be in the job long, to which Stephen offers up that he is more of a learner than a teacher.
  • Jews and Gentiles: Mr. Deasy offers Stephen several anti-Semitic positions during their conversation as the wages exchange hands. Stephen points out that merchants can be Jew or gentile. Mr. Deasy praises the English for their “pay their own way” spirit but says that the England is caving in from within because of the Jews. He offers up the reason why Ireland has never persecuted Jews because “we never let them in.” This is an interesting foreshadow because the main character of Ulysses, Leopold Boom, will later be revealed as a Jew.
  • Conflict avoidance: In episode one, Stephen gave up the key to the tower too Mulligan and Haines without a fight. In Nestor, Stephen allows the boys to mock one another without asserting any authority. During the conversation with Mr. Deasy, Stephen offers only minor deflections to several incorrect or disagreeable assertions. As we’ll see throughout the book, Stephen abhors violence of any sort and avoids it completely.

This short episode is packed with themes and sets the stage for plenty more depth. I hope you are at least a little intrigued by the book. Now on my fourth read through, I’m enjoying Ulysses more than ever.

Each one of these posts could be at least double the length with additional linkages and historical notes, but I’m keeping it fairly high level. This process is slowing my reading significantly, but I’m finding that it is paying off. With an eye for themes, I’m being more methodical and purposed in my reading. And if I inspire just one eager reader to begin enjoying Ulysses, it will be well worth the time.

Cheers!

Ulysses: Telemachus

It is May, which means it is time for my annual reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Since I’m back to my blog this year and I’ve removed my personal restriction on Quixote Goes from being a travel blog, I thought I’d spend some time introducing my faithful readers to this amazing book.

Before jumping in to the first episode, I want to introduce you to the cult behind Ulysses. First, it took Joyce roughly 5 years to write this book. He first serialized the beginning chapters in The American Review in 1918 and it was eventually published by an American woman named Sylvia Beach in Paris on Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. It was immediately banned in all English-speaking countries for what was at the time far too explicit content. The history of the book is well documented. In fact, there are plenty of books about the book Ulysses, my favorite of which is The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. The book is now celebrated around the world. There are round-the-clock public readings in New York City and a full location-to-location reenactment of the story in Dublin, all celebrated on Bloomsday, June 16.

Perhaps the other thing to note about Ulysses is that it is roughly structured on Homer’s The Odyssey and it switches literary techniques from episode to episode, which makes it a challenging read. Joyce intended Ulysses not to be a story for a million readers, but one a single reader could read a million times. This book is densely packed with multiple layers and plenty of plot connections throughout. Finally, a note about the plot. The book is set in Dublin, Ireland and takes place over one 24-hour period set on June 16, 1904. The Gilbert schema is a great reference to keep track of the times and themes of the book. 

Episode One – Telemachus

In Telemachus, who is the son of Odysseus in The Odyssey, we meet several characters – none of which are the main character. We start off with Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, the boisterous, blasphemous, fast-talking “friend” of Stephen Daedalus. We also meet Daedalus, who Joyce introduced us to in an earlier work titled, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As that book title suggests, Daedalus represents Joyce. He is incredibly well-educated, but pensive and brooding, and certainly not one for hygiene by modern standards, as we learn about his monthly bathing policy. We’re also introduced to Haines, an Englishman who is “hanging out” in Dublin and has latched on to Mulligan and Daedalus for some exposure to Ireland and the Irish. The trio are staying in the Martello Tower on the Sandymount Beach looking out onto Dublin Bay.

This episode is based on real-life events in which Joyce, his compatriot, Oliver Gogarty (note the syllabic match to Malachi Mulligan), and an Englishman stayed in the tower. The book version doesn’t exactly match the facts available, which are well detailed in many other resources available, so I’ll stick to the plot of the book.

Over the course of the chapter, we learn that Stephen Daedalus has harbored an offense that he took when he overheard Mulligan tell his mother that Stephen’s mother was “beastly dead.” We also get introduced to the memory of Stephen’s dying mother and a sense that her death haunts Stephen. Stephen has raised societal eyebrows himself because he refused to pray over his mother when she asked him to do so as she lay dying. Like much of Ulysses, the action here isn’t very action-based. It is a book of dialogue – both outer and inner. We read the spoken words of the characters as well as the unspoken thoughts all without quotations and – as mentioned earlier – it can be a difficult thing for a new reader to sort out. 

The three young men – Daedalus, Mulligan, and Haines – have breakfast, interact with the milk maid, and then go to the bay where Mulligan has a swim. The episode ends when Mulligan demands the key for the Martello Tower and money from Daedalus. Stephen gives up the key and some money and then decides he will not return to stay there. It ends with Daedalus thinking / muttering the word “Usurper.” Several themes come out for me in the opening chapter.

  1. Ireland / the Irish people – There are several references to Ireland throughout Telemachus. Haines speaks the Irish language to the milk maid, but she – a poor Irishwoman – at first thinks he’s speaking French because she doesn’t speak or understand it. Daedalus mentions that the “cracked looking glass is the symbol of Irish art.” And in defense of his infrequent bathing habits, Daedalus remarks, “all Ireland is washed by the Gulf Stream.” Finally, and most demonstrative, Daedalus remarks to Haines about having two masters, and a third “who wants me for odd jobs.” When Haines inquires about the masters, Daedalus quips, “a crazy [English] queen, old and jealous” and “the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” There’s plenty of commentary here about Ireland at the time: the politics of language, English rule, and the influence of the Catholic church. 
  2. Mother – I mentioned earlier about Stephen’s mother and her untimely death; as well as Stephen’s refusal to pray over her as she lay dying. This will be brought to the fore in later chapters. Mulligan was speaking to his own mother when the “beastly dead” comment was made. There is also a passage about the sea being “our great sweet mother.”
  3. The Greeks – The chapter title is Telemachus. Stephen’s last name is Greek; in mythology, Daedalus was the father of Icharus, who famously flew too close to the sun. Mulligan mentions that Daedalus “must learn Greek, so he can read the classics in the native language.” For me, the reference to the word “usurper” harkens back to Homer’s The Odyssey, in which several suitors come to Odysseus’ house and effectively usurp his lands and livestock as they set up camp and try to marry his wife Penelope while Odysseus is away.

I’m sure there are more themes than what I’ve called out. I’m sure the academics will say that I’ve gotten the major themes wrong. But that’s what I love about this book. Ulysses is for everyone who is brave enough to have a go. It is written between the lines so everyone will take different things from it and learn a little more with each new read. I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on the first Episode. I’ll continue to share as I make my way through the book with this – my fourth annual reading. I’m hoping to be done on Bloomsday (June 16), but I’m off to a slow start. Now for the questions!

Have you read Ulysses? What are your thoughts about my review of Telemachus?

Is there another book that you can read over and over?

My Mother is My Hero

My lovely Mom and me

My mother is the nicest person I know. She has kind words for everyone and she would give away her last loaf of bread. But she isn’t a pushover either. She’ll probably blush if she ever reads this, but one of my fondest memories of my Mom is this: After some completely unreasonable lady was yelling at her for something completely silly in the parking lot of our local soccer fields, my Mom flipped the lady the middle finger and spun out in the gravel parking lot. As a frame of reference, this had to be 1980 or so and my Mom would have been in her late 20’s. As we pulled away, she paused and said to me, “That wasn’t very nice. I shouldn’t have done that.” Oh, but the memory was sealed. She’s a sweetheart, but no pushover.

My mother is wise. She is discerning and knows when something isn’t right. But she chooses her words carefully to deliver the right message at the right time. There are so many examples to list, but I’ll pull from a more recent conversation. After the dust had settled from my Dad’s death and some of the hurt had started to subside, my Mom and I went out to dinner in a lovely little town of Delaware, Ohio. We met up and went to a local pizza shop for an absolutely fantastic dinner. This was an adult conversation about the past and the state of things today. When the conversation turned to Dad, Mom and I were both kind but realistic. Simply put, Dad didn’t have the tools to deal with his demons. We both articulated our understanding of this fact in our own way with all due respect. We both know that all of us have our burdens to bear. Neither of us blamed Dad for reacting in the way he did – even if we didn’t agree with it at the time. With complete and unconditional love, we celebrated my Dad that evening while looking out at life without him. I had always known that my Mom was wise, but that evening she showed me the depth of her human wisdom.

My mother is quietly confident in her faith. My mom was the backbone of our family’s adherence to Christian virtues. She took us to church when we needed it most. More importantly, she took herself to church when she needed it most. She became a Sunday school teacher, she stood up in front of a large congregation and sang her heart out, she taught my sister and me right from wrong; but treated us with kid gloves when we didn’t get it quite right.

My mother is able-bodied. Now a widower, Mom has bought her own condo, moved herself in and continues to chip away at the unpacking. She recognizes that she’s got a long life to live and a lot to contribute. Instead of throwing in the towel and pursuing her own interests, she serves her family, her community, and her church.

My mother just wants to help. If something needs done, Mom will be there. It doesn’t matter what she has going on or how she feels, service comes first. She gets value and purpose out of helping. Although I ask her not to, she still wants to give money to people on the street. She helps my sister with her school-aged children. She helps me with my not-so-school-aged children. She’s happiest when she’s helping, so give her something to do.

My mother gets buyer’s remorse before she buys something for herself – and then puts it back. My dad was the one who pointed this out. She will go shopping and buy for others happily. On occasion, she’ll find something she likes. It might go into the shopping cart. While she wheels around the store, her wheels are turning. Before she goes to the checkout, she puts it back. Its a sight to see. Dad used to – on occasion – go back and get the item and make the purchase himself. Now that I’m somewhere like her in my own ability to shop. I don’t think its actually buyer’s remorse. I think Mom is happy and she recognizes that stuff is just stuff. She recognizes that getting new stuff is a short run satisfaction at best and that in the long run, what really matters cannot be found on a shelf at a department store.

My mother is a saint. During my dad’s darkest times, he was tough to live with. In my own words, his behavior bordered on self-torture from the inside out. That came with health ramifications. Even when my dad wasn’t in and out of the hospital, there was a lot to clean up after. My mom handled it. I honestly don’t know how she did it. I went through a period of darkness in my first marriage and I wasn’t able to see it through. But Mom is tougher than me and that’s why she’s a saint.

My mother isn’t perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I know Mom isn’t perfect. She had and has her foibles just like all the rest of us. But if anything, that’s another reason to put her on the pedestal on this Mother’s Day. She accepts herself for who she is, she contributes with everything that she can, and for that and everything else that I’ve listed, my mother is my hero.

I love you Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

My Wife is a Zen Master

We’ve been doing a lot of travel lately. Since March, we’ve been to Ireland, Montreal, New York City, we ran a 150 mile relay race in Southern Ohio, and last weekend, we went to New Orleans. At first, I expected to write some travel-related posts about these trips, but as you might imagine, home life has kept me pretty busy in between. I mean, we have to work during the week to foot the bill for this Instagram lifestyle. Honestly, we’re a bit tired. We wouldn’t have chosen to do all of that travel in such a short period of time, but several of the trips were not really our plan. In fact, almost all of these trips were to celebrate birthdays of other people. We’re all for celebrating other people. But with so much travel and none of it really specific to our plans, I can get knocked off my game.

During the trip to New Orleans, we met several other couples to help one of my wife’s college friends celebrate her 40th birthday. We casually knew most people involved, but this wasn’t exactly a close-knit group for us. How bad can it be? We’re flexible and congenial and can get along with most anyone. Well… at least my wife can. I on the other hand, seem to invite controversy. When I talk to people about my past and the amount of arguments, threats of physical harm, and actual fist fights I’ve been sucked into, people are astonished. In fact, I wrote a whole other post – nearly 2000 words – about this topic but I have opted to scrap it because it sounded like a bit of a sob story. I’m not one for that. But suffice it to say, if a street bum is going to pick out someone from a group of 10 people and start messing with them, it is going to be me. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly.

OK, we get it, you seem to have a tractor beam for aggressive-types; so what’s this bit about your wife being a Zen Master? I’ll get there. So let’s say the trip to NOLA was not without its controversy. I actually handled it in stride during the trip. I took the grief I was given and offered myself up for a bit more. In the midst of the grief-handling, my daughter called me while crying because her car had broken down on a fairly busy community road. She and I worked together to sort it all out, and the bill was going to be in the $1200 range. I’ll come back to this in a minute. So, fast forward to Monday and people at work asked me how my trip went. I started giving one person some of the details about the grief I got and he was aghast. He said, “if that was me, I probably would have ditched the group and gone to the Jazz Fest on my own.” While I was rehashing the story, my Mom sent me a text. Over this same weekend, she took a break from the move into her new condominium, went to a casino for a couple of hours and won $1200 on the slots. I congratulated her good fortune but thought a bit more about it. I sent my wife the following text, “I spent the weekend as a social pariah and it cost me $1200 on our daughter’s car. My Mom played the slots for a few minutes this weekend and won $1200. She is definitely living righter than me.” I was mostly being funny, but many a true word is spoken in jest. My recap of the weekend to some of my co-workers had set the wheels of self-pity in motion.

At first, the Zen Master who is my wife played my comment down as funny. But then she said that I wasn’t a social pariah. What? You were there! I was incredulous. I began to recount to my wife the events of the weekend as if she hadn’t experienced them first hand. How could she say that I was not the outcast? She let me moan on for a bit all the while saying “OK” and “Sure.” If a man wants to dig a hole, there’s no point in standing in his way I guess. After I had more or less exhausted my digging, she hit me with this: “I don’t know why you’re upset now. You’re a nonconformist and you’re fine with the attention that it brings. I thought we had a nice weekend together.” She was right of course. We had a great breakfast at a lovely little French cafe. We had an incredible dinner at an Italian restaurant. We hung out together at a rooftop bar while the sun set. The weather was perfect. We held hands and walked around the French Quarter. I was down there for her, and here I was picking at the tiny dark spots on an otherwise amazing weekend. I let it go.

That evening, I was re-reading Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, and about 10 minutes into my reading, the following passage hit me squarely between the eyes:

We try so hard to preserve the very thing that’s making us miserable. We cling hard to our pain because we mistakenly think that that pain is who we really are. We define ourselves by what we don’t like or we define ourselves by what we like. Either way we miss the truth. We harbor some inexplicable fear that if we start to enjoy everything about life without picking and choosing we might cease to exist.

– Hardcore Zen, Kindle Edition; location 2089

So my wife is now doling out the same advice as an ordained Zen Master. That psychology degree is starting to pay off. All joking aside, this is one of the multitudinous reasons why I profess my undying love for this woman. She makes me a better person.

If you’re wondering, I was able to simply let go of the “pain” I was holding onto. While my wife triggered my letting go, it is my study of Zen Buddhism and practice of Zazen that has helped me to shorten the the cycle of letting go. I’ll focus an upcoming post on how a middle-class kid from conservative and deeply Christian Southern Ohio wound up nosing around a Japanese “non-religious” tradition and how it might help you be a little happier. But until then, let’s make with the questions from this post… 

How does your significant other make you a better person?

Are you holding on to some pain that feels like it defines you? What might letting go of that pain look like?