Ulysses: Hades

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Book XI is the story of Odysseus and his men leaving Circe’s island. But as a condition of their departure, Circe directs him and his men to Hades to talk to the dead. While in Hades, Odysseus speaks to many different dead characters who add several layers of depth to the epic. Among many others, he speaks to his deceased mother who updates him on the recent happenings in Ithaca. He also speaks to the prophet Tiresias, who offers foreshadowing of adventures to come.

In Ulysses, the Hades episode also breaks the story open. We are treated to a host of new characters who offer a broadening purview of the world outside the perspectives of our main characters, Bloom, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus. Instead of journeying to a mythical underworld for discussions with the dead, Hades in Ulysses sees our characters participate in the procession and funeral service for the recently deceased Patrick Dignam. Bloom rides in the procession inside a carriage with Jack Power, Martin Cunningham, and Simon Dedalus – Stephen’s father. Once at the church, most of the conversation stops and then we switch to the thoughts in Bloom’s head as he watches the Catholic process with detachment. After the service, the men walk with John O’Connell, the cemetery caretaker, to the burial service. Bloom briefly walks around the cemetery and ponders death. Finally, the men disperse.

Themes:

There is a wealth of dialogue in this episode and, as with The Odyssey, the dialogue with the other characters reveals a great deal about the story. We learn that Bloom doesn’t quite fit into this society, as much as he has tried to assimilate. At every jab, Bloom takes the high road. He intimates that he feels responsible for his son Rudy’s poor start to life and untimely death. We also get confirmation that Bloom’s father committed suicide. We get a sighting of Blazes Boylan and come to realize that he is popular with the men in Bloom’s circles. We also get lots and lots of thoughts about death. Bloom considers people being buried standing up, but then thinks better of it because at some point, their heads might pop out of the ground. He reconsiders coffins and how they merely put off the inevitable digestion by insects. He considers the horror of being buried alive and possible solutions, including a phone line and an air hole in the coffin. Aside from the death theme that overrides much of the episode, here are the prominent themes:

  • Anti-Semitism: As the procession passes Reuben J. Dodd – a moneylender – the men scoff and curse at him inside the comfort of the carriage. The men all feel put out by Reuben because they have all owed him money, although it is implied that Bloom has not. In an effort to change the topic, Bloom brings up the story of Dodd’s son falling into the Liffey, which Cunningham rudely takes over. When it is revealed that Reuben paid the rescuer a florin for his son, the elder Dedalus scoffs that it was “one and eightpence too much.” While there is no direct attack on Bloom, who is a Jew, in this episode, the attack on Dodd’s character is left hanging as a slight against the race.
  • Bloom the outcast / inferior: There are several shots across the bow of our man Bloom, both from the crowd and from Bloom himself. He is the last to enter the carriage and the last man to kneel at the ceremony. He sits uncomfortably on the soap in the carriage that he bought at Sweny’s because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He offers up the paper to Simon Dedalus to read Dan Dawson’s speech as Cunningham suggests and Simon turns him down. When the men see Boylan, Bloom wonders what Molly and the others see in him. Jack Power pointedly asks Bloom if he’ll be traveling to Belfast with Boylan and Molly – to whom he refers to as Madame – implying that he knows something of the affair. Bloom remarks that a sudden death is the best death because there is no suffering and the men disagree. When Bloom thinks of Rudy, he quotes a saying that if a male child lives, its because of the mother, if he dies, its due to the father. John Henry Menton doesn’t remember Bloom but remembers Molly and wonders why she would marry him. At the end of the chapter, Menton snubs Bloom after he helpfully tells Menton that he has a ding in his hat.
  • Bloom rises above the slights: In all of the cases mentioned above, Bloom carries himself with dignity. After Power’s “Madame” slight to Bloom, he wonders about the mistress Power keeps, but of course he keeps it to himself. When Power brings up suicide as the worst of all and Dedalus adds, “The greatest disgrace to have in the family,” as well as “They say a man who does it is a coward.” Bloom does not reply, but he observes that Dedalus “looked at me.” He then critiques Simon Dedalus and his drunkard wife who has died, but he leaves it all alone. Bloom is satisfied with the thought, “He looked away from me. He knows. Rattle his bones.” Finally, after pointing out the ding in Menton’s hat and being curtly thanked, Bloom thinks, “Never mind. Be sorry after perhaps when it dawns on him. Get the pull over him that way.” As with Menton, Bloom is paying it forward with all of these men. He does not get into a battle of egos but rather taking the slights in good graces even though he’s armed with the knowledge to fire back.
  • Father and son: Early in the episode we get to compare Simon’s position on Stephen and the Gouldings to what Stephen said it would be in Proteus. Of course, Stephen had his father pegged. Simon is harsh on Stephen but Bloom gives him credit for looking out for him, like Bloom would have done for Rudy. Bloom also thinks about his father and his son, both of which are dead. He repeatedly says “poor papa” when thinking about his father. As mentioned above, Bloom is taking the blame for Rudy’s early death. We come to realize that Bloom’s lineage is over at the moment and he is very much on his own.

At the close of this episode, I am inclined to forgive Bloom his trespasses for carrying on with a flirtatious pen pal and to pull for the hero to rise above his troubles. With no father and no son, and certainly cast as an outsider in the group, the episode leaves us with a distinct impression of vulnerability for Bloom. We know his wife is headed for an affair with Boylan and that Boylan is a man about town. Death is on his mind and we know that his father – who Bloom says was in pain – committed suicide. There are so many thoughts and impressions in such a little space. Hail to the master, James Joyce!

What Is Your Legacy?

Father’s Day. At this point in my life, it is admittedly a little bittersweet. My children are mostly grown. I have two younger and very dear to me step-sons, but their top-notch biological father is very much in their lives. My own two “kids” are 22 and 18 and are rightfully moving on to their own lives. My father and grandfathers have all passed away. In fact, today marks the two-year anniversary of my father’s passing. For this Father’s Day, I’m going to focus on legacy. What is the legacy we’re leaving behind as it stands right now?

Stephen Covey made this concept very popular. One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he called it “Begin with the End in Mind.” Covey’s concept doesn’t have to pertain to the finality of life, it could simply mean “think about what this project will look like at the end” or similar. But today I’m focused on the legacy we leave behind. I also want to be very clear that this has nothing to do with money or accomplishment. I know the word can get tied up in “legacy funds” or buildings with people’s names on them to commemorate their legacy. Rather, the legacy that I’m considering here is, “what mark are you leaving on those around you?”

As I remember my father today, I think of what his legacy is for me. While a few bullets would never do it justice, here’s what I’ve got:

  • My dad taught me about politics. I don’t mean the silly show that plays out 24-7 on the hyper-media loop and twitter-sphere. I mean real life working with people. I still need reminders from time-to-time, but Dad helped me understand the imperfections of the world around me.
  • He taught me about the merits of hard work. Dad finished his college degree while working as a janitor in an office building. After he got the degree, he got hired on at GTE (later became Verizon) and had a long successful career. As our major bread-winner, he worked to give my sister and me a nice home and a great start to life.
  • Dad also inspired me to fight my own demons. Dad helped me see that we’re often our own worst enemies and that the single best thing to do in life is to come up with a method that works for us. For that, I couldn’t thank him enough.

Unexpectedly, I was blessed with a rare quiet moment with my 22-year-old son this morning. He lives at home and commutes to college, but he also works almost full time and has his own set of friends so I don’t get to see him that much. I warned him that I was going to put him on the spot with a deep question. He inhaled as if to say, “Oh crap.” I then asked him what is my legacy for him? I also asked him to not sugar coat it; give me the bad with the good. As a people, we’re capable of being very direct, and that’s what I am looking for. However, things have been quite smooth for a while and we’re sitting in the same room, so I readily recognize that there will be a positive bias. But alas, I’ll take what he gives. Here’s what he offered up:

  • You are always available when I need help
  • You taught me determination
  • You taught me how to think for myself
  • You taught me how to find my own happiness

As my family woke up or stopped by home, I continued to ask the cringe-worthy questions. Here are the subsequent answers proffered. In all cases, I asked for the “yeah but” or the “what should I be working on?” Again, I recognize the unlikelihood that a younger person would be so bold. But it honestly is how I parent. Give it to me straight gov’na.

From my 18-year-old daughter:

  • Fantastic Dad
  • Funny; you consistently spread the joy
  • Wise; really good at framing life lessons
  • Supportive
  • You taught me the importance of finding my people

From my 12-year-old step-son:

  • Good guitar player
  • Understanding

From my 10-year-old step-son:

  • Good soccer player
  • Pretty great person

From my better half, wife, life coach and zen master:

  • You’re my favorite person to spend time with
  • You embody Continuous Improvement – as in, you’re always trying to get better. And I don’t mean that you’re trying to grapple for what’s next; I mean you’re always trying to be a better person, a better role model and help others get better too.
  • However, your attitude toward Continuous Improvement can make you come off as judgy. You do great with people who are striving to get better, but you can be impatient with people who feel stuck or trapped.

Obviously, I’m flattered. Given that I get to run around in my own head all day, I wouldn’t be so universally positive. I also think my wife was spot on. I need to work on my ability to be patient with people who aren’t ready to develop. But instead of focusing on that at the moment, I’m taking what I’m given because that’s what people offered up.

As I wrap up this post, I’ll ask you some of some of these same questions.

What is your legacy as it stands today? What would the people close to you say about you?

Or if you’re more inclined, please let me know what my blog says about me? What impressions has it made on you? And please, feel free to give me the goods, gov’na. I won’t get better unless I hear it straight.

I close with gratitude and a genuine wish for a Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there!

 

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.