Ulysses Blog: Ithaca, Episode 17: Joyce’s Catechism
News24 February 2021
What has Pete Buttigieg to do with the ‘Ithaca’ episode of Ulysses?
Sometime in the opening months of the year 2020, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg was still a candidate in the primaries to choose a Democratic contender for that year’s US Presidential election, I watched him doing a TV interview from his home in South Bend, Indiana and noticed that the bookshelf behind him displayed a number of copies of Ulysses. This intrigued me until I recalled that he had previously revealed Joyce’s novel to be his all-time favourite. With a little research I discovered that the Mayor’s late father had been a Joyce scholar at the University of Notre Dame. I invited Mayor Pete to take part in our virtual Bloomsday celebration in June. He graciously agreed to do so and duly sent us a video in which he commented: “I’ve come to believe that good politics is about the everyday and so is much of the greatest literature in the English language, most notably Ulysses”. He contributed an excellent reading from the ‘Ithaca’ episode focused on Bloom’s enchantment with water.
“What in water, did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard …”
and so forth (Bloom’s water whimsy gushes on for 2 pages in my edition).
Catechism - why?
This is another unusual piece of writing. The entire episode, all 95 pages in the edition I am using, takes the form of what Joyce himself called “a mathematical catechism” in which “all events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents”1 . Critic Stuart Gilbert wrote about ‘Ithaca’ that “the flesh of sentiment and trappings of style have been stripped till it is little more than a skeleton.”2 There is a lot to this skeleton, even if much of it is buried under an avalanche of extended sentences delving encyclopedically into a diverse set of topics. Joyce told Frank Budgen that ‘Ithaca’ was his favourite episode, although this does not sit all that comfortably with his comment, reported by Budgen, that “it is the ugly duckling of the book”3. It had, he said, given him “fearful trouble”.
There are those who question why Joyce decided to use this curious technique for the climax of his novel. Why not use the ‘stream of consciousness’ found in most of the novel’s episodes and allow his readers direct access to the thoughts of Bloom and Stephen about each other as their father/son nexus reaches its apogee? What we get is their relationship mediated through an opaque prism lit by an overelaborate, mock-scientific prose. There is also a lot of seemingly excessive detail as when the flow of water from Bloom’s kitchen tap is traced back to the reservoir at Roundwood, “a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard ..”. He goes on to trace the route of the water and records the name of the waterworks’ engineer, Mr. Spencer Harty, C.E., and of “the law agent of the corporation, Mr. Ignatius Rice, solicitor ..”. Too much information perhaps!
In Homer, Ithaca is Odysseus’ home place, to which he returns at the end of his Odyssey to be reunited with his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. In Joyce’s ‘Ithaca’, Bloom invites Stephen back to his home at Eccles Street, where he serves him a cup of cocoa and invites him to stay overnight, an offer Stephen declines. He is keen for Stephen to meet Molly and suggests that she might give him singing lessons. They talk in the kitchen and then urinate together in the garden before Stephen takes his leave. Bloom then reviews his day’s wanderings (and calculates his expenditure) and thinks about his daughter Milly before retiring to bed, conversing briefly with a sleepy Molly. He then falls asleep, leaving Molly to her thoughts which will form the substance of the novel’s final chapter. Thus, we have the novel’s three main characters together under the same roof. As far as we know, Molly has not left her house all day although she has hosted an amorous visitor in the person of Blazes Boylan. Bloom and Stephen have been on the go since morning rambling around Dublin haunted in Bloom’s case by his wife’s infidelity and in Stephen’s his family and his artistic ambitions.
What subjects are discussed by Bloom and Stephen?
When they leave the cabman’s shelter on their way to Eccles Street, we are told that they discuss “Music, literature, Ireland, Dublin, Paris, friendship, women, prostitution, diet, the influence of gaslight or the light of arc and glow-lamps on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic (“plants that orient their leaves parallel to incoming rays of light”, according to Wikipedia) trees ..” and on it goes. The number of subjects mentioned seems like a lot of ground to cover on a late-night walk, and we are given little or no information about what was said on most of those subjects. We do learn, however, that both were “sensitive to artistic impressions musical in preference to plastic or pictorial” and that “both preferred a continental to an insular manner of life.” In Stephen’s case, this seems reasonable as he had just returned from Paris to see his dying mother, but Bloom has never ventured beyond Holyhead although, as we know from earlier episodes, he has a vivid imagination when it comes to distant lands.
Bloom and Stephen are described as having “an inherited tenacity of heterodox resistance”. As a result, they “professed their disbelief in many orthodox religious, social and ethical doctrines.” And “both admitted the alternately stimulating and obtunding influence of heterosexual magnetism.” This is consistent with what we have learned of the two throughout the preceding 16 episodes. Both are semi-outsiders in the city in which they live, Bloom on account of his personality and religious background, Stephen on account of the superior artistic manner he exhibits. Both have sexual hang-ups. Stephen’s are those of youth while Bloom’s are associated with his disordered marriage.
There is no great hoopla about this ultimate coming together of two of the novel’s main characters. It is not exactly a display of searing intimacy. Their exchanges are friendly but unemotional, but that’s who they are.
What did Bloom forget?
When they arrive at Bloom’s home, he realizes that he has forgotten his key. This irritates Bloom “because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.” Unwilling to wake Molly, he decides to enter through the basement kitchen. While Joyce was completing this episode, he wrote to his Aunt Josephine Murray to ask if a normal person could climb over the railings at No. 7 Eccles Street and drop down to the ground without hurting himself.4 Such was Joyce’s obsession with exactitude as he laboured over the final stretch of his 7-year writing marathon.
What does Bloom do when he enters his home?
He lights a fire in his kitchen or rather kindles the “best Abram coal” at “three projecting points of paper with one ignited lucifer match, thereby releasing the potential energy in the fuel by allowing its carbon and hydrogen elements to enter into free union with the oxygen of the air.” At Eccles Street we are invited to inspect Bloom’s bookshelf with its impressively eclectic collection including Thom’s Dublin Directory, which Joyce made use of when writing Ulysses, and his desk drawers containing, among many other things, a copy of his father’s suicide note.
What do we learn about Stephen’s personal hygiene in this episode?
That he is a hydrophobe, who had his last bath nine months before. He dislikes “aqueous substances of glass and crystal” and distrusts “aquacities of thought and language.” Bloom considers offering his young friend some advice on hygiene but holds back because of “the incompatibility of aquacity with the erratic originality of genius.”
How do Bloom and Stephen differ in their attitude to literature?
Quite a bit. For Bloom, it is a source of “instruction rather than amusement”. He had more than once referred to the works of Shakespeare “ for the solution of difficult problems in imaginary or real life” although he had only derived “imperfect conviction from the text.” For his part, Stephen sees in literature “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man”, but that is a bit too airy-fairy for Bloom’s taste as he possesses a scientific temperament in contrast to Stephen’s artistic one.
What do we get to see in Bloom’s kitchen dresser?
Joyce goes into considerable detail about its contents – crockery, olives, tea, cocoa, “white invalid port” and a jar of Irish Model Dairy’s cream. Included is an empty pot of Plumtree’s potted meat, which we have come across in Davy Byrne’s ‘moral pub’ where it elicits a fine Joycean pun, “Ham and his descendants mustered there”.
Have Bloom and Stephen met before the 16th of June 1904?
Yes, on two occasions. First, at the home of Matthew Dillon in 1887 when Stephen was 5 years old, and second, five years later in the coffee room of Breslin’s Hotel. And there was a third link between them in the shape of Mrs Dante Riordan. Readers of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will recall the Christmas dinner scene in which Mrs Riordan engages in a flaming row with Stephen’s father about Charles Stewart Parnell, in whose fall from grace she revels, while Simon Dedalus defends Parnell to the hilt. Mrs Riordan was a friend of the Dedalus family and had also been a neighbour of the Blooms’ for a couple of years in the City Arms Hotel, where Leopold had paid great attention to her in the hope of being written into her will.
What do we find out about Bloom’s political outlook?
Today, he would be called a progressive who “desired to amend many social conditions, the product of inequality and avarice and international animosity.”
Do I have a favourite passage in this episode?
Yes, and it’s a short one, a rarity in this very wordy part of the novel. It occurs when the two go into Bloom’s garden and find “the heaventree of stars hung with nightblue fruit.”
What evidence of Blazes Boylan’s afternoon visit to Molly does Bloom uncover?
He notices “two lacerated scarlet betting tickets” connected with that day’s Ascot Gold Cup. We know from an earlier episode that Boylan had placed a bet on the race on behalf of a lady friend. There is also a music score for Love’s Old Sweet Song, which Molly had rehearsed with Boylan (the promoter of her upcoming concert tour) that afternoon. When Bloom goes to his bed, he detects on the “new clean bedlinen .. the imprint of a human form, male, not his.”
What transpires between Leopold and Molly when they are reunited?
She asks him about his day to which he offers an incomplete account, omitting the embarrassing bits such as his infatuation with Gerty McDowell and his visit to Nighttown.
What do we learn about Bloom’s response to Molly’s infidelity?
We can hardly avoid being struck by the equanimity with which he deals with Molly’s infidelity. He nis either angry, vengeful nor resentful. He takes the whole affair in his stride, expressing a philosophical acceptance of his fate as a cuckold. He lists Molly’s putative lovers ending with “Hugh E. (Blazes) Boylan”, “a bounder”, “a billsticker”, “a bester” and “a boaster”. He envies Boylan’s sexual energy and is jealous of his attractiveness to Molly. He then goes on to concede that Boylan’s transgression was a “natural act”. In the grand scheme of things, it was not “as calamitous as a cataclysmic annihilation of the planet in consequence of a collision with a dark sun”. It was “less reprehensible than theft, highway robbery, cruelty to children and animals ..” and so the list of crimes more serious than adultery goes on. Whereas in Homer, Odysseus and Telemachus, on their return to Ithaca, slay Penelope’s suitors, Bloom, who eschews violence, dismisses the option of assassination, as “two wrongs did not make one right”, and duel by combat. Instead, he relegates Molly’s suitors by highlighting the cosmic irrelevance of their antics, pointing to “the apathy of the stars”.
There cannot be many men, in literature or in life, who would respond to infidelity and adultery in this calm, collected manner. Our Leopold is quite an extraordinary, even unique, Everyman. So exceptional is he that he could almost be considered the ‘Noman’ who pops up from time to time throughout Joyce’s novel.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States
1Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected letters of James Joyce, p. 278.
2Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce’s Ulysses, p. 369.
3Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Bloomington, Indiana, 1960), p. 258.
4Ellmann, Letters, p. 286.