In Book IX of Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are blown off course by a terrible storm and arrive at the land of the lotus eaters. In need of supplies, the men disembark and interact with the locals. The people do them no harm, but offer them their local food, which is derived from the lotus flower. The powerful narcotic makes the men sleepy and lackadaisical about heading home. Ultimately, Odysseus ushers his men back onto the boat and they are put back on their journey. This book is about lazy intoxication.
In Ulysses, The Lotus Eaters episode is “action packed” in the midst of the mundane. Bloom has left his house a good bit early for Dignam’s funeral and walks to the post office. From the post office, he walks into a church service and from there he walks to Sweny’s pharmacy to order Molly’s lotion. Recall from Calypso that Bloom, who is willing to bring his wife breakfast in bed, is painfully aware of her impending affair with Blazes Boylan. Aside from his sexual objectification of the neighbor lady in the butcher shop, he seems like a practical, stand up man. The reader is drawn to pity him. We all have the occasional stray thought and it wasn’t as if he was actively pursuing the neighbor lady. In The Lotus Eaters, we catch another side of Bloom. We learn through his trip to the post office that he is carrying on at least a written flirtation with another woman under a pseudonym. His pseudonym, Henry Flower, would indicate that his actions are premeditated. Our hero is in fact a flawed man.
Outside the post office, while Bloom is trying to focus on the letter from his naughty pen pal Martha Clifford, Bloom’s acquaintance McCoy stops for a chat. The stream of consciousness dialogue can be difficult here because Bloom is carrying on his thoughts while McCoy is talking and then Bloom spots a sexy upper class woman across the street. We’re exposed to the inner and outer man simultaneously. The dialogue of McCoy, Bloom’s annoyance of McCoy, Bloom’s wandering thoughts, and Bloom’s desire to see more of the woman across the street are all intermingled.
During the dialogue, McCoy asks Bloom about his wife, Molly, and the discussion turns to singing engagements. McCoy’s wife has gotten a gig and he’s eager to share the news. We again see multiple sides of Bloom here. Internally he scoffs at the comparison between McCoy’s wife and Molly, as he views Molly as the superior. With regards to the sponsorship and organization of Molly’s singing engagement, we also read the first asking of the question, “Who’s getting it up?” With an obvious sexual overtone to the question, Bloom can never bring himself to give the straight answer, which is Blazes Boylan. He gives McCoy a complex round-about answer because he cannot bring himself to verbalize the connection between Boylan and his wife.
After reading the naughty letter from Martha, Bloom goes into a church during mass. Through is inner dialogue as he observes the service, we get his thoughts on the Catholic machinery. He thinks about the whole process with complete detachment and analyzes its effectiveness on the masses.
From the church, Bloom heads over to Sweny’s pharmacy. He realizes that he has left the recipe to Molly’s lotion along with his house key in his other trousers. The chemist is able to pull the recipe from the records. The lotion will be ready for pick up later, so Bloom takes a bar of lemon soap on credit and moves to leave the pharmacy. He then runs into Bantam Lyons who asks to see Bloom’s newspaper to get a tip on the day’s horse race. In another effort to be left alone, Bloom offers his newspaper to Lyons while internally casting judgement on him and the others who seem to be caught up in a recent gambling frenzy. Lyons mistakes Bloom’s statement that he was going to throw the paper away as a tip on a racehorse and rushes off. Bloom is then left to his thoughts and he drifts to thinking about a bath and a massage.
The connection between Ulysses and The Odyssey in this episode didn’t quite hit me over the head at first. The lotus eaters are satisfied in their lazy stupor, not striving for anything. While this period for Bloom is essentially killing time between the morning and Dignam’s funeral, I was attempting to find the at-rest inertia of the Dublin locals to connect to the Greek lotus eaters. It didn’t seem to be there. McCoy has ambitions, as does his wife. Lyons is in a rush to bet on the horses. Only after considering the themes did I get it. The lotus eater here is Bloom. He doesn’t want to be at home in the face of Molly’s affair and he doesn’t have any particular place to be. He’s free to wander about. As he observes the world around him and his thoughts wander, we are keyed into some of the themes.
- Intoxicants: Bloom thinks of the Far East as a lazy intoxicating place. He observes the stupefied horses drawing the tram. He considers the calming narcotic effect of smoking a cigar. At the chemist, Bloom thinks about alchemy and sedatives.
- Marital Infidelity: Molly is forever on Bloom’s mind even though he has left home for the day and essentially knows that Molly will have an affair. Bloom sexualizes an upper class woman across the street and hopes to catch a glimpse of her legs. We also learn that Bloom is carrying on a secret correspondence with another woman who knows he is married. She asks, “Are you not happy in your home?” and “Tell me, what perfume does your wife wear?”
- False Cordiality: In both cases of Bloom’s interaction with people he knows, he is cordial but – because we’re treated to his thoughts – we see that he is being false. He tries to avoid McCoy but is accosted. During the conversation, Bloom only marginally focuses on what McCoy is saying. His interest is piqued when McCoy tries to compare his wife to Molly, at which Bloom internally scoffs. At Sweny’s, Bloom considers the shortest way possible to get rid of Lyons. Ironically, Lyons takes Bloom’s castoff comment as a tip on the horse race, which we’ll revisit later.
- Criticism of Catholicism: There is scarcely any other way to interpret Bloom’s objective evaluation of than catholic mass than as critical. By this point in Joyce’s life, he has had a full crisis of faith. Given his treatment of the mass in this lotus eating episode, I would be remiss if I didn’t connect back to Karl Marx’s assertion that “[religion] is the opium of the people.” It is never stated, but that’s not Joyce. He shows the reader rather than telling them.
As I close, I am sitting in marvel at the literary giant that is James Joyce. In giving us the flawed hero with a flawed wife who lives in a flawed community, and whose adventure spans 24 hours of an everyday middle class life in early 1900’s Dublin, Joyce essentially stopped the clocks and examined life at a depth rarely glimpsed elsewhere. If nothing else, Ulysses is intensely human.