DAVID R. SCHWARZ: As soon as we enter into the imagined world of Ulysses, we realize that Stephen is a man in trouble. He is living with Malachi Buck Mulligan, a man he dislikes, and who patronizes him, in a Martello tower which was intended to be a British fortress against the French invasion during the Napoleonic era. Although it is early morning in late spring, a time of hope and promise, the artistic expectations aroused by the ending of a portrait of the Artist as a Young Man remain unfulfilled. By providing a traditional omniscient narrator whose voice is separate and distinct from Stephen's, Joyce uses the opening of Ulysses to propose a critique of the lyricism and the subjectivity of a portrait of the artist. Quote, "Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair head, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor a lay crossed." Unquote.
Stephen cannot escape the Catholic epistemology in which he has been educated. Stephen disbelieves as only a former believer can, for Stephen is deeply offended by Mulligan's sacrilegious behavior. His mocking the Eucharist while his gown is open. And he is exposing himself. Thus, on the opening page, when Mulligan chants the prayer from the early part of the mass, before the priest or celebrant ascends to the altar, Stephen feels himself placed in the position of the acolyte or altar boy, or in terms of the Catholic liturgy, servant or minister to the celebrant. He is tortured by the accusation he attributes to his mother, quote, "Ghoul. Chewer of corpses." Unquote.
The riddle that Stephen asks of his students and nestor shows how far Stephen has to go to communicate with his audience. Quote, "The cock crew, the sky was blue, the bells in heaven were striking 11. Tis time for this poor soul to go to heaven." Unquote. The narcissistic riddle shows us that Stephen is still locked into the quote, "lyrical" unquote, mode of portrait, and that his imagination cannot reach beyond himself.
Given the inpenetrable verse query provided by the morbid and self-indulgent Stephen in the riddle in the episode, nobody could have figured out the answer. Quote, "The fox burying his grandmother under a holly bush" unquote, has no relation to the riddle. But the pathetic disjunction between riddle and solution does engage the reader in a quest to discover what is going on in Stephen's abstruse mind. Stephen's riddle calls attention to the difficulty of reading incomplete and partial texts that do not provide sufficient information for understanding them. Stephen's answer is thinly veiled reference to himself. The grandmother is not only his own mother, but his Irish heritage. Indeed, the old woman of Ireland, for whom to Stephen, the milk lady in Telemachus is a symbol.
Holly, the traditional evergreen of the Christmas season, represents renewal. But renewal with its implication of restoration to a prior state has an ironic aspect, since Stephen is trying to put his past behind him. Perhaps Stephen realizes that the artist must not only be an idealistic romantic, but also a wily and shrewd man. Not unlike the rereader understands, the foxy Odysseus and his 20th century counterpart Bloom.
The opening of the next episode, Proteus, calls attention to the artist's creative mission. Just as Menelaus had to wrestle with the continually changing Proteus, Stephen must wrestle with the protean nature of his experience. Under the tutelage of Aristotle, who went as far as possible in exploring the visible world, he is turning away from the platonism of the church's fathers and the Celtic twilight, and towards the world of experience, which must be the subject of his art. Quote, "ineluctable modality of the visible. At least, that if no more thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read. Unquote.
In Portrait, Joyce oscillates between objectifying Stephen and using him as a thinly disguised autobiographical figure in a fictionalized reminiscence. A reminiscence that contains a quirky combination of Joyce's moral and spiritual autobiography, confession, and artistic credo. Even as it provides an occasion for the stylistic experimentation. From the outset of Ulysses, Stephen is clearly the result of Joyce's conscious effort to dramatize, with some detachment and objectivity, a character within the imagined world of the novel.
Put another way, in the opening episodes of Ulysses, Stephen has become-- in terms of Joyce's theory of genres-- articulated in Portrait, less of a lyrical figure, who can see only in terms of his own needs, and more of an epochal figure who can achieve some distance in terms of seeing himself as other. Like Telemachus, setting out on his journey in search of his father, and ultimately his mature identity, Stephen must be a distinct, objectified character, rather than a lyrical figure who's thoughts and emotions reflect Joyce's. Thus, although Stephen's statute within the imagined world is sharply reduced, Joyce's narrator-- as opposed to Stephen-- has made vast progress towards achieving the artistic goals to finding portrait of impersonality, detachment, and stases.
The richness of these first three episodes of Ulysses depends in part on responding to echoes of prior language and incidents from Portrait. In a process not unlike Pentimento, where images of an earlier and supposedly painted over version peek through the painting that we are examining. Stephen's past, as we know it from Portrait, insists on intruding its shadows upon our perception of Stephen in Ulysses. In Portrait, the narrator had viewed, with gentle irony, both Stephen's concluding dialogue with Cranley and his subsequent diary entries. Here it is Stephen who regards himself with bitter self-conscious irony.
In place of the ebullient brilliance and confidence in his role as an artist, which we saw in his dialogue with Cranley, that precedes the diary entries in Portrait, Stephen reveals in his opening dialogue with Mulligan self-hatred, loneliness, and cynicism. Quote, "You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought." Unquote. Not completely undeserving of Mulligan's diagnosis, quote, "general paralysis of the insane", unquote, Stephen is paralytically self-conscious. Looking in the mirror, he thinks, quote, "As he and others see me, who chose this face for me, this dog's body to rid of vermin," unquote. When we recall the euphoric expectations of the penultimate diary entry in Portrait, we realize that Stephen's artistic career has become stalled, quote, "Welcome, O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience, and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race", unquote.
It is as if the liberation of the concluding pages of Portrait, in which he defined himself as a priest of the imagination who would discover the conscience of his race, had not occurred. Because the reality of experience in the form of passionate feelings and empirical knowledge of life is what he lacks, Stephen is not yet ready to be the writer of the epic that Ireland requires. Before Stephen can write an epic of modern Ireland, he must turn his back on various forms of asceticism that preached quote, "Art for art's sake," unquote, and glorified a separation between life and art.
In his 1922 Ulysses, Joyce's rejecting the asceticism and solipsism of Stephen's credo in the 1916 Portrait, where he wrote, quote, "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only alms I allow myself to use. Silence, exile, and cunning." Unquote.
Unlike his mythical namesake, Daedalus, who has adopted the arts to the reality of experience, Stephen is lost in the world of his own dreams. Unlike Daedalus and his son Icarus, who are imprisoned by Minos in a labyrinth, Stephen is imprisoned in a labyrinth of his own making. He is an Icarus figure who has flown too near the sun, rather than like his namesake Daedalus, a man who has flown successfully. With its emphasis on drowning images, the first episode, Telemachus, underlined Stephen's ironic position here as an Icarus figure, rather than as a Daedalus figure that he had defined as his model in Portrait.
For some time, Stephen seems to have exceeded to Mulligan's patronizing dominance. He had returned from his exile in Paris for his mother's death. But it is not clear why he remains in Dublin. Morbidly saving his own misery, he has been wearing black since his mother's death 10 months ago. And is still locked in bitterness, self-pity, and melancholy. Like Hamlet, with whom he identifies, Stephen realizes that he is paralyzed, but he does not know what to do about it. Like Claudius, Mulligan is a false father who would usurp his affections, were Stephen, like Hamlet, not intent on rejecting him.
Stephen's awkward relationship with Mulligan, in which Stephen is displeased with himself, and always on guard, explains his need for an alter ego to help him overcome loneliness and a sense of isolation, a need which explains his later responsiveness to the kindly, sympathetic Bloom. Stephen desperately needs an empathetic other. Someone who will provide the response of consciousness that earlier generations found in a prayerful relationship with God.
Our response to the morbid, humorless Stephen would be different, and less sympathetic, had we not read Portrait. But because we have responded to the development of his creative imagination, we do not so readily abandon Stephen, and at least in part, see him as a victim of an indifferent father, insensitive, and at times predatory friends, and a narrow-minded and repressive culture. And by the second half of the second episode, Nestor, Stephen does become more sympathetic in the conversation with the bigoted and myopic Daisy, and her Orangemen, who represents the mediocre and materialistic English culture that is infesting Ireland.
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A Professor of English and the Stephen H. Weiss Professor of English, I am the Joyce specialist at Cornell where I have taught generations of students for 35 years. I have taken particular pleasure teaching Ulysses at Cornell not only because of the world class Joyce collection in the Rare Book room of Olin Library, but because Ithaca is the place to which Ulysses yearns to return and name of the episode in Joyce's novel in which Bloom returns home.
Because of its difficulty, Ulysses is best read in a community, whether it be a class or a reading group. It is also best read over the course of a semester as the one book in a course, so that students can wrestle with it, savor it, learn the how to read it, reread it, and have it become part of their lives. Read this way, Joyce's masterwork will accompany them as long as they are sentient. Using Molly Bloom's response "O Rocks . . . .Tell us in plain words" -- to Leopold Bloom's explanation of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls), I shall stress that Ulysses is a readable novel rather than an elaborate puzzle or a Rosetta Stone or a hieroglyph.
This video is part 2 of 9 in the Reading James Joyce's Ulysses series.