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Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 8: Lestrygonians

Ulysses Blog, Episode 8, Lestrygonians


“For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” – James Joyce quoted in Richard Ellman, James Joyce, p. 520. 

James Joyce said he wanted to get to “the heart of Dublin”. In the eighth episode of Ulysses, the streets of Dublin are at the heart of things. This enjoyable chapter is full of fine writing as we follow Leopold Bloom, eavesdropping on his impressions of the life around him (“the voice of each man’s inner spirit” as John Butler Yeats described what Joyce had conjured up), as he walks from what is now O’Connell Street through some of Dublin’s best-known streets to the National Museum on Kildare Street.  

Although these pages are tame by today’s standards, when first published they attracted the attention of the censors. Ulysses was serialized in the American publication, the Little Review and the edition containing this ‘Lestrygonians’ episode, which appeared in January 1919, was banned by the US Post Office.   

In Homer, the Lestrygonians were cannibals who devour most of Odysseus’s men. There is a lot of devouring going on here and Joyce even inserts a mention of cannibals eating a white missionary: “expect the chief consumes the parts of honour.” This random musing is brought on by seeing potted meat on a shelf. “Ham and his descendants mustered there.” Such is the eccentric drift of Bloom’s thoughts. 

There are lots of references to food and eating, right from the very start.  

“Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugarsticky girl shovelling scoopfuls of creams for a christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies.”  

As Bloom rambles with lunchtime looming, he is gnawed by hunger and thinking of food.  When Bloom looks into the Burton Restaurant on Duke Street, Joyce goes into overdrive with his description of the eating habits witnessed there. 

“Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slop of greens. See the animals feed. .. A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked round him shoveled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: half-masticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it. .. Bitten off more than he can chew.” 

Bloom encounters a diverse group of Dubliners: the misfortunate Mrs Breen who describes her eccentric husband as “a caution to rattlesnakes”, Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell, one of whose affectations is to walk outside street lampposts, and a blind boy he helps to cross the street.  In their different ways, these individuals have been eaten up by the city in which they live. As Bloom approaches O’Connell Bridge, he casts a glance down Bachelor’s Walk and spots one of Simon Dedalus’s daughters outside Dillon’s auction rooms where her father is evidently selling off some family furniture in order to make ends meet. This prompts Bloom to pour scorn on clerical attitudes towards procreation - and food!   

“Fifteen children he had. Birth every year almost. That’s in their theology or the priest won’t give the poor woman the confession, the absolution. Increase and multiply. Did you ever hear such an idea? Eat you out of house and home. No families themselves to feed. Living on the fat of the land. Their butteries and larders. I’d like to see them do the black fast Yom Kippur. Crossbuns. One meal and a collation for fear he’d collapse on the altar. .. All for number one.”  

Two characters from Irish public life are spied by Bloom during his wanderings – John Howard Parnell and the poet/journalist, AE.  John Parnell (1843-1923) had ashort and undistinguished career in public life as a Westminster M.P. for 5 years. In 1904, Parnell was Honorary City Marshal of Dublin. Bloom notices “the woebegone walk of him. Eaten a bad egg. Poached eyes on ghost ... That’s the fascination: the name. All a bit touched.” Joyce’s interest in him had to do with his brother, Charles Stewart Parnell, who dominated Irish politics throughout the 1880s, when he was fervently admired by Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus.  

Parnell’s memory, and the divisions caused by his fall from power in 1890 and his death in 1891, meant that he remained a potent presence in the Ireland in which Joyce grew up. Parnell features in Joyce’s work: in the Dubliners short story, ‘Ivy Day at the Committee Room’ and in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where the controversy surrounding Parnell’s political eclipse (on account of his relationship with a married woman, Mrs Katherine O’Shea), gives rise to a violent argument at the Christmas dinner table in one of Joyce’s childhood homes.  

Joyce’s attitude to Parnell is perhaps best summarized in a piece he published in 1912 in an Italian-language newspaper in Trieste in which he accurately depicted Parnell’s achievement, writing that he “united every element of national life behind him and set out on a march along the borders of insurrection” which ultimately persuaded Gladstone and his Liberal Party to support Home Rule for Ireland. Joyce’s fascination with Parnell stemmed mainly, however, from his betrayal by his erstwhile followers. In his Trieste piece, Joyce caustically observed that the Irish people did not throw Parnell “to the English wolves: they tore him apart themselves.” Thus, for Joyce, a connoisseur of betrayal, Parnell was the lost leader who had been callously spurned by the Ireland that Joyce himself had left behind. 

AE, the penname of George William Russell (1867-1935), was a more formidable presence in Irish public life than John Howard Parnell would ever be.  Poet, painter and mystic, AE became involved inthe Irish agricultural cooperation movement, first as a rural organizer and from 1904 onwards as editor of the movement’s journal, The Irish Homestead, where he published Joyce’s first short stories that later became part of Dubliners. Despite Russell’s generosity to the young Joyce (who was no admirer of the ‘Celtic twilight’ poetry AE wrote), in Ulysses he is subjected to a gentle mockery as in this episode where Bloom spots him on his bicycle and wonders what AE stands for. “Albert Edward, Arthur Edmund, Alphonsus Eb El Ed Esquire.” Then Bloom, in tune with the culinary theme running through this episode, speculates about the origins of AE’s “dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic” poetry and suggests that it might have something to do with his vegetarianism.    

“I wouldn’t be surprised you see if that kind of food produces the like waves of the brain the poetical. For example one of those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts; you couldn’t squeeze a line of poetry out of him.” 

Although Bloom possesses a detached, sceptical cast of mind, he is fully plugged into the political currents of early 20th century Ireland. He conjures up the image of Sinn Féin’s founder Arthur Griffith as “a squareheaded fellow, but he has no go in him for the mob”. In 1904, Griffith was a dogged polemicist arguing for Irish abstention from the Westminster parliament and an Austro-Hungarian-style dual monarchy for Britain and Ireland. By the time Ulysses was published in 1922, however, he was President of the nascent Irish Free State. 

Bloom recalls the day he got caught up in a riot after British Government Minister and Home Rule opponent, Joseph Chamberlain, had been conferred with an honorary degree by Trinity College Dublin. Bloom speculates that some of those “young cubs yelling their guts out” in support of the Boers (Irish nationalists were strongly pro-Boer during the turn-of-the-century conflict in South Africa; Chamberlain was a dedicated Imperialist) would end up as magistrates and civil servants.  

In Davy Byrne’s ‘moral pub’, Bloom orders a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich. He meets Nosey Flynn, a consumer of Guinness and gossip. Flynn mentions Molly’s impending concert tour and with faux innocence asks Bloom “who’s getting it up?”  Flynn adds to Bloom’s discomfort when he remembers that Blazes Boylan, “a hairy chap”, is involved. It is evident that many of those Bloom meets around Dublin are aware of Molly’s relationship with Boylan. Molly is on Bloom’s mind throughout this chapter as he reminds himself of Boylan’s visit to her at 4 o’clock that afternoon. He even worries that Boylan might infect his wife with a venereal disease. “If he … O! Eh? No .. No. No, no. I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t surely.”     

Mellowed by the “glowing wine” that “on his palate lingered”, he recalls his first amorous encounter with Molly on the hill of Howth years before, a day to which Molly will memorably return in the rapturous closing pages of Ulysses.  

“Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth. Below us bay sleeping sky. No sound. The sky. .. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweet and sour with spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy.” 

Yes, this was the passage that bothered the American censors in 1919!  

After Bloom has left the pub, Nosey Flynn slyly suggests that he is a Freemason, a member of the “Ancient free and accepted order. .. I was told that by a, well, I won’t say who.” This is an example of the suspicious attitude towards Bloom exhibited by many of his more conventional fellow Dubliners.  We also hear more about one of the day’s sub-themes, the Ascot Gold Cup, when Bantam Lyons reveals that Bloom had given him a tip for a horse in the race, Throwaway, although we know from ‘The Lotus Eaters’ episode that this was a misunderstanding on Lyons’s part. The ‘Throwaway’ issue will resurface with a vengeance in the later ‘Cyclops’ episode.  

Bloom’s preoccupation with Boylan continues after he leaves Davy Byrne’s. Heading for the National Library he catches a glimpse of him. “Straw hat in sunlight. Tan shoes. Turnedup trousers. It is. It is.”  In a panic to avoid him, Bloom swerves into the National Museum where he is “Safe!”, at least until Boylan next invades his thoughts later in the day.  

The reader may wonder why Bloom is so obsessed with, and yet strangely passive about, Molly’s looming encounter with Boylan. The fact is that Bloom, for all of his frustrations and disappointments, is broadly satisfied with the life he lives and seems not to have the urge to confront his wife’s infidelity. As Davy Byrne, the observant publican sums him up, “he’s a safe man, I’d say”.  For his part, Joyce described Bloom to his friend, Frank Budgen, as “a complete man, a good man.” Good and safe – and poised to continue his day’s wanderings through the streets of Dublin.  Next stop, the National Library, for a very different slice of early 20th century Irish life!

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