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Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 12, Cyclops

“He unburdens his soul about the Saxe-Angles in the best Fenian style with colossal vituperativeness” – James Joyce on ‘the Citizen’ in the Cyclops episode (Selected Letters of James Joyce, p. 239)

The Cyclops episode is definitely my favourite part of Ulysses. I relish its over-the-top linguistic flurries and the wild imagination Joyce brought to these pages. Joyce has described the literary style of this episode a “gigantism”! The dialogue is punchy and often funny. It’s a great read, the only difficulty being the inclusion of frequent parodies written in a range of grandiose styles. These are there to be enjoyed for their manifold verbal virtuosity!

This episode features a conflict between Bloom and his nemesis, ‘the Citizen’, and reveals a latent hostility towards Bloom on the part of many of his fellow Dubliners, mainly on account of his Jewish background. Its Homeric parallel is Odysseus’s confrontation in a cave with a one-eyed monster, Polyphemus.

Aside from its enjoyable readability, Cyclops also seems to me crucial in identifying Leopold Bloom as an apostle of tolerance and moderation in a world trending towards extremes.  Bloom defines a nation pragmatically as “the same people living in the same place” and when asked by ‘the Citizen’,  “what is your nation”, he responds defiantly, “Ireland, I was born here, Ireland.” Many of Joyce’s contemporaries tended to view national identity as a compound of cultural, ethnic and religious homogeneities.

At Bloomsday celebrations over the years in Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, London and Washington, I have invariably read from these pages, my chosen piece being the passage that lists “the ancient heroes and heroines of Ireland”, an outrageous litany that includes some classic figures from Irish history – Cuchulin, Niall of the Nine Hostages and Theobald Wolfe Tone - some unlikely Irish heroes – Charlemagne, Julius Caesar and Christopher Columbus - and quite a number of obscure characters – Boss Croker, Peg Woofington and Valentine Greatrakes.  

Richard ‘Boss’ Croker was an Irish American who became rich in New York politics as head of Tammany Hall, and returned to Ireland where he owned race horses and occupied the house in Dublin that is now the residence of the British Ambassador. Peg Woofington was an 18th century Irish actress who had a successful career on the London stage. Valentine Greatrakes was a 17th century Irish faith healer. It is unclear why these particular characters came into Joyce’s head when he was composing this list.  Joyce’s parodic litany does however have a serious purpose for it highlights the tendency of nationalism (and not just the Irish variant) to overstate its nation’s claims and achievements. 

This episode is full of lists: of priests who were present at a debate about the revival of ancient Gaelic sports; the guests at the nuptials of Jean Wyse de Neaulan, Chief Ranger of the Irish National Foresters (this patriotic organisation did exist and was devoted to Ireland’s reforestation) to Fir McConifer of the Glens, all of whom bear the names of trees (the happy couple spent their honeymoon in the Black Forest!); and a list of those present for the execution of a patriotic Irish martyr (based on Robert Emmet). This latter list contains some flowery made up names including “Hiram Y. Bamboost”, “Hi Hung Chang” and “Mynheer Trik van Trumps”!  

Cyclops begins with a chance meeting between the episode’s unnamed narrator, a debt collector, and Joe Hynes, a journalist who has already appeared in the Hades and Aeolus episodes.  In conversations with friends, Joyce referred to this first-person narrator as ‘Noman’. In truth, he is what might be called an unpleasant piece of work, who holds vituperative opinions about those around him, but retains a particular animus towards Bloom on account of his Jewish background.  Noman also has it in for Molly, “a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley.” He has, however, an impressive arsenal of one-liners – “I’ve a thirst on me I wouldn’t sell for half a crown” - and is undoubtedly an engaging narrator for this flamboyant chapter. Some critics have suggested that his lively patter may be based on that of the author’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce.  

Noman and Hynes decide to repair to Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street (an ironic name for an episode that has early 20th century Irish nationalism at its heart) where the rest of the action takes place. Bloom comes and goes during this episode. He is there for the generous purpose of seeking to help the family of the late Paddy Dignam (buried during the Hades episode) by sorting out the insurance policy on his dead friend, but that does not spare him from being the butt of rising resentment on the part of the pub’s customers.

This resentment towards Bloom is based in part on the mistaken belief that he had won money on the Ascot Gold Cup but was too stingy to share his good fortune by buying a round of drinks.   Whereas the central event of the novel is Molly’s unfaithful encounter with Blazes Boylan, many of the book’s minor characters are chiefly concerned with the result of the Gold Cup, an event in which Bloom has no interest. Most Dubliners seem to have wagered on the favoured horses, Sceptre and Zinfandel, but the race was won by a 20 to 1 chance, Throwaway!

Much of the colour in this episode is provided by ’the Citizen’, who is accompanied by his dog, Garryowen, said to have the gift of being able to write poetry!  Here’s the over-the-top way in which ‘the Citizen’ is described when we first encounter him:

“The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.” 

 We know that Joyce based this character on Michael Cusack (1847-1906) who is renowned in Ireland for having helped found the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884.  Aside from the independent Irish State, the GAA is probably the most durable Irish achievement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in that it remains to this day the country’s premier sporting body. Cusack was by all accounts an eccentric character, who only remained at the helm of the GAA for a few years. Joyce’s portrait of Cusack is, of course, an unfair lampoon in which ‘the Citizen’ is used to represent a brand of nationalism that flourished in the early 20th century.  

While Joyce would not have shared the noisy attitudes of ‘the Citizen’, he was at heart an Irishman of his generation.  Articles he wrote for newspapers in Trieste contain a fairly conventional set of Irish nationalist opinions from that time. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that Joyce’s brand of politics lay somewhere between the aggressive parliamentarianism of Parnell and the more advanced but non-violent nationalism of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin. Joyce saw Griffith’s United Irishman as “the only newspaper of any pretensions in Ireland.”  In an implicit rebuke of the British Empire, during his years in Trieste he came to admire the Austro-Hungarian Empire on account of its diversity. “They called it a ramshackle Empire”, he once said, but “I wish to God there were more such Empires.” (Dominic Manganiello, Joyce’s Politics, p. 149)

The type of nationalism Joyce satirises in these pages was not confined to Ireland. Indeed, the rival Imperialisms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that culminated in the First World War were in essence aggressive brands of nationalism.  Joyce wrote Ulysses in three European cities in the years during and after that cataclysmic war.

The dialogue in this episode explores many of the themes prevalent in the politics of nationalist Ireland in the early 20th century, the revival of Gaelic Games and of the Irish language (the Gaelic League had been founded in 1893 and was growing rapidly around 1904) and the views of Arthur Griffith who went on to found Sinn Féin the following year. In 1904, Griffith had published a book called The Resurrection of Hungary in which viewed in securing a measure of independence within the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy as a model for Ireland’s political advancement. Joyce has fun in this episode by having John Wyse Nolan and Martin Cunningham credit Bloom with inspiring Griffith’s Hungarian ideas. By the time Ulysses was published in February 1922, Griffith was one of the leaders of the fledgling Irish Free State.

In his fiery manner, the Citizen recalls the full slate of Irish nationalist grievances against British rule – the curtailment of Ireland’s economy, reducing the country’s population through emigration, even deforestation – and exaggerates Ireland’s past glories.

As the episode wears on, the Citizen becomes increasingly intolerant of Bloom and more openly anti-Semitic. I don’t know if Michael Cusack was personally guilty of anti-Semitism, but there was a lot of it around in early 20th century Europe. The Citizen’s baiting of Bloom eventually produces a reaction. Bloom puts his cards on the table:  

“But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.

-- What? says Alf.

-- Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.”

I see this appeal to transcend force, history and hatred as a key statement of Bloom’s and Joyce’s credo.

The episode ends in a flourish with a heated argument between Bloom and ‘the Citizen’ in which Bloom defends his Jewish heritage and ‘the Citizen’ retaliates by throwing a biscuit tin at him as he departs. This parallels Polyphemus throwing a boulder after a departing Odysseus.

In keeping with the many parodies that decorate these pages, Cyclops ends in fine style, with some grandiose biblical language to mark Bloom’s exit.

“And they beheld Him in the chariot, clothed upon in the glory of the brightness, having raiment as of the sun, fair as the moon and terrible that for awe they durst not look upon Him. And there came a voice out of heaven, calling: Elijah! Elijah! And he answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe's in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.”

Thus Bloom escapes from his altercation with ‘the Citizen’ and we next meet him in a calmer mood on Sandymount Strand for an episode written in a completely different style, and with a very different theme, from the rambunctious Cyclops.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States

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