Mon, 17 Aug 2020 21:01:13 BST
Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 13, Nausicaa
17 August 2020
“Ulysses is the quintessence of everything he had seen, heard and overheard, consecration and desecration, at once serious and comical, hermetic and skittish, full of consequence and inconsequence, sounds and silences ..” – Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, pp. 93-94.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Nausicaa is a Phaeacian princess who discovers a shipwrecked Odysseus sleeping on a beach, rouses him and enables him to continue his voyage back to his home in Ithaca. In this part of Ulysses Bloom finds himself alone on a Dublin beach where he is aroused by a princess-like figure in the form of Gerty McDowell.
As we turn the page from the Cyclops episode to Nausicaa, the atmosphere changes dramatically. Cyclops concludes at a frenetic pace with Bloom fleeing from an assault by ‘the Citizen’ at the end of a tumultuous visit to Barney Kiernan’s pub. Bloom’s exit is described in hyperbolic terms typical of the language which characterises that super-charged episode of Ulysses. As the Nausicaa episode unfolds, the tone and the language are radically different. Its beautifully-written opening paragraph illustrates this and warrants being quoted in full.
“The summer evening had begun to fold the world in its mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.”
Here we encounter the language of a romantic novel. Joyce described this as his “new fizzing style” and as “namby-pamby, jammy marmalady drawersy”. To prepare himself for writing Nausicaa, he asked an aunt in Dublin to send him some popular novelettes. Had he not harboured loftier literary ambitions, Joyce could clearly have turned his pen to the production of superior-class romances! Many readers will, I think, enjoy the easy-on-the-ear style in which much of this episode is written.
Evening is about to set in as this long June day draws to a close. Seeking respite after his fraught experience with ‘the Citizen’, Bloom has come to Sandymount (site of the Proteus episode where that morning Stephen Dedalus imagines himself “walking into eternity” along Sandymount Strand) at about 8 o’clock having just visited the home of his deceased friend, Paddy Dignam, whose funeral he had attended in the Hades episode. This visit to the Dignam household is a rare part of Bloom’s day of which Joyce gives us no direct account.
As Bloom looks across Dublin Bay, he observes three girls, Cissy Caffrey (who is looking after her younger brothers, Tommy and Jacky), Edie Boardman (who is taking care of baby Boardman) and Gerty McDowell. The three friends had come to “that favourite nook to have a cosy chat beside the sparkling waves and discuss matters feminine.”
As the episode progresses, Bloom becomes aroused as he observes Gerty McDowell behaving flirtatiously (novelist Edna O’Brien has described Gerty as “filled with mutinous longings”). At the nearby Star of the Sea Church, a temperance service is in progress and in an adjoining Dublin suburb a bazaar is taking place (in the Wandering Rocks episode, we have witnessed the Lord Lieutenant on his way to open the bazaar) and fireworks are to be set off. Joyce weaves the sounds emanating from the church and from the fireworks display into his account of a distant, fleeting but intense liaison between Leopold Bloom and Gerty McDowell.
In a case brought by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Nausicaa episode resulted in Joyce’s American publishers, the proprietors of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, being convicted of obscenity by a New York Court in 1921 for which they were fined $50 each. They escaped imprisonment when their lawyer John Quinn assured the judges that Nausicaa was in terms of obscenity the worst episode in the book, although readers of Molly Bloom’s infamous soliloquy (which, however, was not published until the following year) would beg to differ.
Having read Nausicaa, one of the presiding judges described it as “the ravings of a disordered mind.” The judges were offended by Gerty McDowell’s display of her lingerie in an effort, a successful one, to stir Bloom’s interest in her. The Court judgement put an end to the Little Review’s serialisation of Ulysses and made it more difficult for Joyce to find a publisher for his novel. Ulysses was eventually published in Paris in 1922, but an American edition did not appear until 1934.
It may have been fortunate for Anderson and Heap that the judges did not focus unduly on the fact that Nausicaa depicts Bloom masturbating. Even when looked at today, there is something tawdry and unsettling about Bloom’s behaviour which presents him in a different, more ignoble light from the sensible, serious man we have become accustomed to in the novel’s earlier episodes. What was Joyce up to? Was this just an effort to shock, to show that he would recognize no taboos? Virginia Woolf, who thought that Ulysses was “underbred … the book of a self-taught working man” believed that Joyce indulged in “the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows”. (Quoted in Joseph M. Hassett, The Ulysses Trials, p. 177)
It may be that Joyce was dead set on outraging conventional mores, but it seems to me that there is a serious purpose at work in this strange encounter between Leopold and Gerty. While some critics dismiss Gerty McDowell as a one-dimensional devotee of a gushily romantic view of life, it seems to me that she serves an important function in the novel. I see her as a kind of counterpart to Molly Bloom in the way that Stephen is to Leopold Bloom. With Gerty, we come to grips with an immature young Irish woman, and get an insight into her dreams and aspirations. With Molly, in the novel’s closing chapter, we meet a mature woman with a view of the world at least as authentic as that of her wandering husband.
The Nausicaa episode is broken into two parts, the first devoted to Gerty and the latter part given over to another expression of Bloom’s stream of consciousness. We are treated to a glowing description of Gerty, who was “as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see. .. The waxen pallor of her face was almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity though her rosebud mouth was a genuine Cupid’s bow, Greekly perfect.”
We are given an opportunity to see into Gerty’s inner thoughts and desires, which is a rarity in Ulysses being otherwise reserved for the novel’s three main characters, the Blooms and Stephen. In terms of the attention Joyce devotes to her, Gerty is the fourth most important character in Ulysses.
She fantasises about marrying Reggie Wylie, a student at Trinity College Dublin, and has set ideas about what she wants in her man.
“No prince charming is her beau ideal to lay a rare and wondrous love at her feet but rather a manly man with a strong quiet face .. who would understand, take her in his sheltering arms, strain her to him in all the strength of his deep passionate nature and comfort her with a long long kiss.”
Gerty and her friends notice Bloom when one of the Caffrey boys kicks a ball in his direction and Bloom returns it. The ball rolls down the beach and lands at Gerty’s side. This triggers the passage that disturbed the New York judges as Gerty “lifted her skirt a little but just enough”, deliberately exposing her underwear. She felt “the warm flush .. surging and flaming into her cheeks”. This was because she had started to transfer her amorous attentions from Reggie Wylie to Bloom whose face, “wan and strangely drawn, seemed to her the saddest face she had ever seen.” Gerty perceives that Bloom is looking at her and that “there was meaning in his look.” She senses that “his eyes burned into her” and “read her very soul”. Seeing his dark eyes, Gerty concludes that he is a foreigner with a “pale intellectual face”, one that had “a haunting sorrow” written on it.
She imagines Bloom as “her dreamhusband, because she knew on the instant it was him.” Gerty is impressed by Bloom’s obvious interest in her. “He was eyeing her as a snake eyes its prey. Her woman’s instinct told her that she had raised the devil in him ..”. As the religious service at the Star of the Sea draws to a close and the fireworks display reaches its crescendo, the distant tryst between Bloom and Gerty also comes to a head. “Whitehot passion was in that face, passion silent as the grave, and it had made her his.” And as a roman candle bursts in the sky above the nearby bazaar, Bloom’s excitement reaches its peak.
“O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!”
As Gerty leaves the beach, “Their souls met in a last lingering glance and the eyes that reached her heart, full of a strange shining, hung enraptured on her sweet flowerlike face.” Bloom notices that Gerty is lame. He responds to this revelation in an ungenerous fashion. “Poor girl! That’s why she’s left on the shelf and the others did a sprint. Thought something was wrong by the cut of her jib. Jilted beauty. Defect is ten times worse in a woman. But makes them polite. Glad I didn’t know it when she was on show.”
Why is Bloom so sourly misogynistic? As the episode draws to a close, we learn the reason for his discomfiture. He continues to brood about Molly’s infidelity earlier that day with Blazes Boylan. He realizes that his watch has stopped at 4.30 pm around the time when Molly was entertaining Boylan – “Was that just when he, she?” He wonders if there was any magnetic influence at work in stopping his watch “because that was about the time he.” He reflects that Boylan “gets the plums and I the plumstones.”
As dusk falls, Bloom looks across Dublin Bay at the Hill of Howth and remembers being there in the rhododendrons with Molly many years before and thinks of “all that old hill has seen.” As Bloom writes ‘I AM A’ on the sand, a cuckoo clock sounds from the nearby priest’s house reminding him of his fate. “Cuckoo Cuckoo Cuckoo”. Cuckold!
In Nausicaa, Bloom plays out with Gerty a diluted version of Molly’s infidelity, just as he was doing in his furtive correspondence with Martha Clifford. But Gerty disappears from his world while his obsession with Molly persists. There is a sense in which Ulysses is a great if atypical love story (although not one that Gerty would relish). Bloom accepts his fate as a cuckold and refuses to reject or even confront his unfaithful wife. Nonetheless, after their respective wanderings and infidelities, Leopold and Molly will end up together at their own Ithaca on Dublin’s Eccles Street.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States
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