Transcendence through the Material and Ethereal in Joyce’s Ulysses
"…my son, I caution you to keep the middle way, for if your pinions dip too low the waters may impede your flight; and if they soar too high the sun may scorch them”
If a philosophical spectrum stretched from earth to heaven, then the reader, upon reading Joyce’s Ulysses, would find John A.E. floating on the clouds, Stephen Dedalus drifting awkwardly a little below, Leopold Bloom just scraping the ground with his feet and Buck Mulligan squatting in the mud. In his novel, Ulysses, James Joyce plays at the reconciliation of material and ethereal realms of art. He represents the extremes of low and high philosophy through the sensual cynic Buck Mulligan and the Plato applauder A.E. while using Bloom and Stephen to mediate somewhat between the two, their names already alluding to the tendencies they represent. “Dedalus” brings to mind Greek legend, myths and literary tradition itself perhaps. The reader recalls the legend of an aerial boy with his head too caught in the clouds to heed his father’s advice. Airy and high flown like the son of his namesake, Stephen Dedalus veers closely to A.E.’s Platonism. Leopold Bloom, on the other hand, connotes a lower and more earthly existence: flowers, gardens, shrubs and plants, with their roots tangled in the ground. Bloom’s name is itself a modification of his father’s original surname, “Virage”, meaning “flower”. The association is appropriate to Bloom who, although a sensual materialist like Buck, finds more beauty in the mud.
Although Bloom and Stephen come from very different sides of the spectrum Joyce places them in an analogous context—both in their artistic/fathering roles and in their potential for reconciliation. Bloom himself is struck with a vague sense that they have an underlying commonality: “Though they didn’t see eye to eye…a certain analogy there somehow was, as if both their minds were travelling…in the one train of thought” (656). Bloom and Stephen fall into the category of non-realized artists and fathers as they both understand reproduction and recreation of the self as a way to transcend limited individual experience. The roles of artist and father are nearly synonymous. Bloom and Stephen negotiate these roles in the context of the bodily-material vs. literary-ethereal, thereby giving complexity and analogy between the extremes of A.E. and Buck.
The ninth section of the novel entitled Scylla and Charybdis explores Platonic, materialist, and Aristotelian philosophies. Thornton argues:
Philosophically, the polarity within the episode is not—as has been claimed—Plato versus Aristotle, but rather A.E.’s Platonic idealism versus Mulligan’s materialism, with Aristotelianism representing a via media. The complementariness of these two figures is hinted by A.E.’s departing about one-third of the way through the episode, Mulligan’s arriving with about one-third still to go, with Stephen trying to strike a course between them. (86, Thornton)
Stephen uses Aristotle as a middle ground (…middle sky) but doesn’t ultimately uphold his own position with conviction. When asked whether he actually believes what he has argued Stephen replies simply, “no” (214). Joyce uses Stephen to challenge Platonic and materialist extremes rather than provide a third clear and alternative answer.
Russell is the first to posit Platonism as ideal. He discounts the importance of the historical Shakespeare and his experience and identity in the natural world. Rather, whoever the actual figure was, that figure was nothing more than coincidental channel to the world of Truth and high ideals. He implies the same is true of the “historicity of Jesus” (185). “Art”, Russell states, “has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a well of life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas” (185). The “well of life” does not consist of individual and lived experience of the material world. Rather, it springs from ethereal truths that make individualism irrelevant. “Our mind” implies one human consciousness not separated by bodies. The notion that art reveals “formless spiritual essences” renders bodies and the materiality of bodies and art to be at best shadows of the ideal or dirty inconvenient windows through which the ideal is seen.
When Stephen comments that “The schoolmen were schoolboys first…Aristotle was once Plato’s schoolboy” A.E. responds by saying, “And has remained so, one should hope” (185). While Stephen points to Aristotle’s origins and potential surpassing of Plato A.E. makes his defense of the latter clear. Stephen elaborates on Aristotelian philosophy when he brings in his “idea of Hamlet” asked of by Haines earlier that morning (17). Stephen argues against Platonic thought that lived experience itself is necessary for art. Thornton states, “Through his Shakespeare theory Stephen is trying to understand how a writer’s works can arise out of…experiences without being mechanically ‘caused by’ those experiences. How…can such works achieve transcendence of their origins?” (Thornton, 86). Stephen argues that Shakespeare’s personal life undergirds the play Hamlet—Shakespeare transforms himself into the character of Hamlet’s ghost father and transforms his actual son, Hamnet, into the character of Hamlet. Stephen emphasizes personal and material existence rather than the world outside Plato’s cave as the source of literary creation. The successful author—material and living—fathers literature made in his own image. The author’s literary creation then lives on as an eternal ghost of the original and bodily author. Eternal truths reflect existence—rather than the platonic notion that existence reflects eternal truths.
Stephen presents a philosophy closer to the earth than Russell and A.E. but not nearly as low as the materialism Buck embodies. While Stephen presents the material as the root of the ethereal Buck Mulligan discounts ethereal emanations altogether. Buck saunters in on the conversation and deflates Stephen’s lofty musings with the comment, “You were speaking of the gaseous vertebrate, if I mistake not?” (197). For Buck the possibility of transcending material existence is laughably ridiculous. The literary ghosts Stephen elaborates on become scientifically anatomized “gaseous vertebrate”—a scientific impossibility. Buck uses the philosophical conversation as a source of entertainment and a place to insert bawdy innuendo, never showing any genuine interest for issues of transcendence from material life. Buck has previously stated that “[death] is a beastly thing and nothing else” (8) He later jokes that he will establish a kind of breeding center where any woman who wishes to reproduce may come to him who (kindly, and free of charge) will help her fulfill her material duty to procreate before death (402). Buck’s biting humor is sarcastic, irreverent, and ironic because, to him, life itself is an ironic humorous tragedy in that men live like beasts dying hopelessly and finally—and are yet aware of their condition.
Although Stephen moderates between Platonism and materialism with Aristotle he sides closer to the etherealists, both in his concluding flat denial of belief in his argument and in the way he lives his life. Stephen plays with the defense of bodily existence he takes none of his own argument all that seriously. Stephen lives with almost entire disregard for his body and detaches himself from bodily existence as much as possible. He eats little substantial food and prefers liquids (635), showers perhaps once a year (673), can’t hold a job and doesn’t stay in touch with his family. He relishes his vague, uncomfortable, and darkly abstract thoughts with emo-masochistic and melodramatic pleasure. He drifts along, unable to justify his actions, negating much, affirming little, and producing hardly any art. Stephen spends more time thinking about the potential benefits of material experience than he does actually living in it.
Leopold Bloom is similar to Buck in that both are deeply invested in the material world. However, Buck’s irreverence is replaced in Bloom with reverence and love for the material and a sincere longing for something more. A potential namesake for Leopold Bloom is the poet Leopardi.
Emotionally and sentimentally Leopardi is fully aware of the beauty of life around him; logically and philosophically, he sees that it is a waste of time to go on living. Nature is so beautiful, but nature is a hidden force interested only in the perpetual destruction of things and indifferent to whether humanity is happy or melancholic. Leopardi’s search for a purpose in life led him deliberately to create great poetry, in which the love-hate relationship with nature and the inner struggle between logic and emotion are dominant themes
Bloom’s conflicting logic and emotion relating to the material world can be seen in his characterization as compassionate scientist. On the one hand, Bloom is a bit utilitarian. He attempts to read Shakespeare for practical life solutions in the same way one might read “Dear Abby” columns (677). He self congratulates on the potential practical benefits of having Stephen for a friend: “…To cultivate the acquaintance of someone of no uncommon caliber who could provide food for reflection… intellectual stimulation as such was, [Bloom] felt, from time to time a useful tonic for the mind” Even Bloom’s “literary” job and aspirations have material ends. He works in advertisement which concerns itself with manipulation of consumers for the distribution of products. When he thinks of writing fictional stories he thinks on the prize money. Every action must have a material, justified, logical and practical end. The catechistic voice on p 667 is also scientific. Perhaps everything perceived as evil can be logically and scientifically explained away: “All those wretched quarrels…bump of combativeness or gland of some kind” (643)
On the other hand, Bloom’s sentimentalism often conflicts with or exceeds his attempted logic.
Walking back from the bar (and in the midst of attempting friendly small talk with the inebriated Stephen), Bloom’s attention is caught suddenly by a tired cart horse dragging a sweeper to remove manure from the streets. Bloom gains nothing concrete from his pause and consideration for the beast, but he is still struck by the animal’s physicality and sentience, albeit dull. What is this thing called a horse? The word “horse” is insufficient. The creature is a “fourwalker, a hipshaker, a blackbuttocker, a taildangler, a headhanger” (662). This massive conglomeration of body parts is lower even than the manure-sweeping man who drives him, “the lord of his creation” (662) yet Bloom is “sorry he [hasn’t] a lump of sugar”—constituting a veritable “emergency” for the “good poor…noodly…horse” (662). Poor thing, Bloom muses in this mental cooing of the horse, it wasn’t the horse’s decision to choose his body and lot in life. Bloom’s underlying and impractical feelings move him far away from the reproduction-center-desiring Buck. “Bloom, what quality? [Answer:] That operative surgical quality but that he was reluctant to shed human blood even when the end justified the means” (674).
Bloom’s confliction with materially justified life is further seen in his response to various life cycles. Through these Bloom continues to embody Leonardi’s “love-hate” relationship with nature
A few of these cycles include the eclectic categories of soap, tea, food, compost, and sons. In each of these categories one form of material life passes on to nurture, sustain or create life in another material body. These cycles are ways that Bloom tries to reconcile his love for material life with its more uncomfortable aspect, death.
Soap is perhaps the least obvious. The reader is aware of the soap Bloom carries within his pocket throughout the day as Bloom’s own thoughts continually turn to it. Bloom is comforted by an envisioned soapy bath yet also disconcerted by the nature of soap’s production: “He foresaw his body reclined [in the bath]…in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained” (86) Later he muses less warmly on how soap is made: “Tomorrow is killing day…all that raw stuff, hide, hair, horns. Dead meat trade. Byproducts of the slaughterhouses for tanneries, soap, margarine” (98).
When Bloom envisions the comfortable bath he simultaneously imagines another lovely yet potentially disconcerting image of bodily life’s transfer. In the soapy tub he sees, “his navel, bud of flesh: and…the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” (86). The bathtub phallic imagery is beautiful at least to Bloom. The potential to sexually procreate comforts him as it is presented in the midst of nurturing and botanical imagery. The imagery is also potentially religious, as “father of thousands” connotes a parallel to Abraham. The body laved and sustained by byproducts of animal life can create and sustain new life in children. Just as soap is wonderful yet disconcerting the production of children is as well. He parallels the conception of his own son with the action of two nearby dogs in an alley doing “evil” (89). “How life begins” (89) Bloom wonders. Bloom struggles to justify his religiously tinged love for production with his parallel of action to the dogs. Is the religious love he feels for the beauty of procreation discounted by the fact that procreation is a bestial fact of life?
Bloom tries to justify death by these cycles: “There remained the generic conditions imposed by natural…law, as integral parts of the human whole: the necessity of destruction to procure alimentary sustenance: the painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence, the agonies of birth and death…the fact of vital growth, through convulsions of metamorphosis from infancy through maturity to decay” (697). Although each cycle is difficult to justify due to its inherent pain the cycle of fathers and sons is especially important.
Stephen like Bloom is preoccupied with questions of parentage, origin and reproduction, but not as much the literal sense. “[Stephen] is more characterized by sterility at this point. His boast about being the ‘giver of life’ to the ‘ghosts’ who will ‘troop to my call’ is rebuffed by Lynch who says, ‘That answer…will adorn you more fitly when something more, and greatly more, than a capful of light odes can call your genius father’” (101) Although Stephen fathers aspirations, not art, his Aristotelian philosophy of creation renders the author/father greater than God. For, while God is “Word become flesh” the author is “Flesh become Word”. The word, though it arises from the flesh, transcends and it greater than the flesh because it outlasts the flesh. Stephen is very interested in how physical actions can be made eternal and immortal through their transformation into word. Although Stephen does not succeed entirely as artist he still experiments with the ways this can be done. The narration, echoing Stephen’s thoughts, attempts to replicate his experience of listening to the waves through words. The words don’t just describe the actions which occur but the words also take on the characteristics of the subject and action they describe: “In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases” (49). The harsh consonant sounds of the words and increased punctuation mirrors the jerkily slopping water. The words are tightly restrained in the speakers’ mouth just as the water is “bounded in barrels”. The loosely flowing words that follow continue to echo the action of the water: “It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling” (49) The soft “f’s”, “l’s”, “w’s” and the lingering “ing’s” mirror the calmer flow which follows the jilting movement. The water takes on agency as the readers’ mouth creates “wavespeech” and becomes the “vehement breath of waters” (49). Water transforms to words not just in catalogued action but also by investing the words themselves with its characteristics. Water lives on in the word.
These very different positions are trying to answer the same question. Whether literally materially or literature-ally reproduced—how does man live on? Does he? What is the best way to live? Escape death and transcend individual experience? The novel is in many ways preoccupied with the ability to effectively procreate. Not a single chapter fails to mention some aspect of childbirth and many of the mentions betray anxiety for the life of the child. Some of the children have already passed (the miscarriage disposed of on the beach (37), the child in the funeral procession (96)). Some are in danger of passing (The child in Bloom’s story nearly drowned (95), the children of the deceased Dignum in financial straits). Some barely make it through (Mina Purefoy’s child who makes it through three days of labor (159)).
Procreation and transcendence is tied somewhere between A.E. and Muligan—and more specifically between Stephen and Bloom. Perhaps the synthesis of positive qualities portrayed by Joyce in Stephen and Bloom gives a vision of Joyce’s artist—in conflict between ethereal and material. Buck and Stephen begin to moderate the extremes and lead the reader to question if there should not perhaps be further moderation, compromise and balance found between the two. It might be a stretch to say that characteristics of Stephen and Bloom together constitute the “ideal man” As mentioned in class—who would want to be either of them? There is, as the myth of Dedalus and Icarus suggests, perhaps a middle and moderated route—a danger in flying too high and a danger in flying too low.
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