Joyce’s Homeric Scheme

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle (VI. – James Joyce)

We possess Dublin, seen, heard, smelt and felt, brooded over, imagined, remembered.

Joyce’s handling of this immense material, his method of giving his book a shape, resembles nothing else in modern fiction. The first critics of “Ulysses” mistook the novel for a “slice of life” and objected that it was too fluid or too chaotic. They did not recognize a plot because they could not recognize a progression; and the title told them nothing. They could not even discover a pattern. It is now apparent, however, that “Ulysses” suffers from an excess of design rather than from a lack of it. Joyce has drawn up an outline of his novel, of which he has allowed certain of his commentators to avail them- selves, but which he has not allowed them to publish in its entirety (though it is to be presumed that the book on “Ulysses” which Mr. Stuart Gilbert has announced will include all the information contained in it); and from this outline it appears that Joyce has set himself the task of fulfilling the requirements of a most complicated scheme a scheme which we could scarcely have divined except in its more obvious features.

For even if we had known about the Homeric parallel and had identified certain of the correspondences if we had had no difficulty in recognizing the Cyclops in the ferocious professional Fenian or Circe in the brothel-keeper or Hades in the cemetery we should never have suspected how closely and how subtly the parallel had been followed we should never have guessed, for example, that when Bloom passes through the National Library while Stephen is having his discussion with the literary men, he is escaping, on the one hand, a Scylla that is, Aristotle, the rock of Dogma; and, on the other, a Charybdis Plato, the whirlpool of Mysticism; nor that, when Stephen walks on the seashore, he is reenacting the combat with Proteus in this case, primal matter, of whose continual trans- formations Stephen is reminded by the objects absorbed or washed up by the sea, but whose forms he is able to hold and fix, as the Homeric Proteus was held and vanquished, by power of the words which give him images for them. Nor should we have known that the series of phrases and onomatopoetic syllables placed at the beginning of the Sirens episode the singing in the Ormond Hotel and selected from the narrative which follows, are supposed to be musical themes and that the episode itself is a fugue; and though we may have felt the ironic effect of the specimens of inflated Irish journalism introduced at regular intervals in the conversation with the patriot in the pub we should hardly have understood that these had been produced by a deliberate technique of “gigantism” for, since the Citizen represents the Cyclops, and since the Cyclops was a giant, he must be rendered formidable by a parade of all the banalities of his patriotic claptrap swollen to gigantic proportions. We should probably never have guessed all this, and we should certainly never have guessed at the ingenuity which Joyce has expended in other ways.

Not only, we learn from the outline, is there an elaborate Homeric parallel in “Ulysses,” but there is also an organ of the human body and a human science or art featured in every episode. We look these up, a little incredulously, but there, we find, they all actually are buried and disguised beneath the realistic surface, but carefully planted, unmistakably dwelt upon. And if we are tipped off, we are able further to discover all sorts of concealed ornaments and emblems: in the chapter of the Lotos-Eaters, for example, countless references to flowers; in the Laestrygonians, to eating; in the Sirens, puns on musical terms; and in Aeolus, the newspaper office, not merely many references to wind but, according to Mr. Gilbert the art featured in this episode being Rhetoric some hundred different figures of speech.

Now the Homeric parallel in “Ulysses” is in general pointedly and charmingly carried out and justifies itself: it does help to give the story a universal significance and it enables Joyce to show us in the actions and the relations of his characters meanings which he perhaps could not easily have indicated in any other way since the characters themselves must be largely unaware of these meanings and since Joyce has adopted the strict objective method, in which the author must not comment on the action. And we may even accept the arts and sciences and the organs of the human body as making the book complete and comprehensive, if a little laboriously systematic the whole of man’s experience in a day. But when we get all these things together and further complicated by the virtuosity of the technical devices, the result is some- times baffling or confusing. We become aware, as we examine the outline, that when we went through “Ulysses” for the first time, it was these organs and arts and sciences and Homeric correspondences which sometimes so discouraged our interest. We had been climbing over these obstacles without knowing it, in our attempts to follow Dedalus and Bloom. The trouble was that, beyond the ostensible subject and, as it were, beneath the surface of the narrative, too many other subjects and too many different orders of subjects were being proposed to our attention.

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