[Prefatory note #1: The word “scatalogical” is from the Greek skat-, meaning excrement; akin to Old English scearn, meaning dung; cf., Latin muscerdae, mouse droppings]
[Prefatory note #2: Quoted passages, possibly offensive to some, were written by James Joyce, not me.]
[Prefatory note #3: Driven by scientific curiosity as to what it might do to the stats, I thought of captioning this post “Leopold Bloom Takes A Shit,” but chickened out at the last minute, just before clicking “Publish.” It might have drawn a bad crowd, with no intellectual interest whatsoever in that towering masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Ulysses.]
Okay, now we can begin.
Extremely diligent readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Bill and I were planning to sign up for an eight-week course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, scheduled to begin in October. In case you don’t recall, I’m telling you now: that’s what we did. Bill likes the professor, whose lectures we have enjoyed before and who has a jolly laugh, which is why Bill enrolled.
[Bill also has great skill in making thoughtful comments in class which in no way reveal he hasn’t done the assignments. I, on the other hand, overly anal since day two of toilet training, am compulsive about turning every page and — in this case — trying to understand what’s on it.]
I had tried to read Ulysses once before, when I was twenty and still a student at an institution of higher learning, where I eventually produced a fifty-page paper about this big and heavy book, relying greatly on the published critical wisdom of Edmund Wilson and others. I have almost no recollection of what I read, or wrote. In the intervening years, I again tried twice more, on my own, and both times failed, once sinking at section three, the other time a little further along, at section nine. [Both of these sections, I might add, are almost impenetrable to the lay reader.] There are eighteen sections all told, consuming 650 large pages set in very small type, in the latest, approved, Gabler edition.
This time I have armed myself against the reading with James Heffernan’s DVD lectures on Ulysses (previously given to senior honors students at Darmouth), and with a ponderous tome, The Annotated Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, that purports to explain away every geographic, religious, historic, linguistic and mythological complication and complexity in the text — by means of a nearly line-by-line parallel reading which may make things nearly as confusing as plowing on without the annotations.
Why am I taking these heroic measures to meet such a challenge in my dotage? Because, like Mount Everest, it is there. And because I am supposed to be a knowledgeable literary type. (Ha!) And because if I don’t get through it this time, I probably never will. But I will be able to say I gave it everything I had. And if that’s not good enough, I can always fall back on the losing lawyer’s excuse on my deathbed: “You win some, you lose some.”
Yes, I exaggerate; some parts are less hard than others. Some parts are even pleasurable. Or, as the pretty white-haired lady sitting next to me in class mysteriously remarked last time, “delicious.”
Here (for example) is a hard part. It comes from the mind of one of the three main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, as he walks along the beach on the way back from a job as part-time instructor in a private boys’ school. [It’s from the dreaded section three.] Don’t knock yourself out. And please don’t ask. I’m putting it in for purely illustrative purposes.
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and sea wrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver. rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them colored. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.
See what I mean? But after sections one, two and three — which all concern Stephen — we move on to Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year old advertising salesman (married to Molly Bloom, the third major character), whose father was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, yet who is still generally an outsider considered Jewish by the Irishmen he meets at work and throughout the day. If Stephen is cerebral (an understatement), Bloom, although far from stupid, is definitely a man of the body. We are first introduced to him in section four (after 41 pages of Stephen) with this opening paragraph:
Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
I like Bloom. Although I don’t like urine-scented kidneys, I do like the way his mind works and the language in which Joyce accompanies him throughout his day. Bloom is keeping me turning the many many pages in each week’s assignment. He is kind, and feeling, and although he has employment and marital difficulties, he enjoys whatever small (usually earthy) pleasures life may bring his way. That includes his time in the outhouse. (No indoor bathrooms for the lower middle class in Dublin on June 16, 2004.) I even identify with him there. Although I have baby wipes and real toilet paper and a nicely white-tiled bathroom of my own, I too like to read in the john, like Bloom; and hold back to enhance the eventual release, like Bloom; and don’t at all shy away from subsequent aromas arising from the bowl. (Also like Bloom.) And occasionally think, though not very seriously, about making money from writing, just like Bloom does.
Bloom’s pleasures at stool are the first time in English literature since 1400 — when Chaucer included a tale about how to divide a fart in twelve parts in The Canterbury Tales — that we get plain language about where food goes after we ingest and digest it. And since this is a blog about writing and reading and some of the things I’m doing and thinking about as I get old, here’s a choice (albeit abridged) passage about all that from section four of Ulysses — not only for educational purposes, but also to accompany or perhaps even stimulate the beginning, or end, of your day. Besides, I’m spending so much time with Stephen and Bloom this month and next, I might as well wring a post out of them!
The scene: Bloom, dressed for attendance at a funeral later on, has just finished cooking and eating his breakfast in the kitchen. Pork kidney browned — nearly blackened — in a pan with sizzling butter, bread to dip in the gravy, and tea (with milk). The cat gets the burnt bits. She’s already had a saucer of milk.
He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels. He stood up, undoing the waistband of his trousers. The cat mewed to him.
— Miaow! he said in answer. Wait till I’m ready.
….A paper. He liked to read at stool. Hope no ape comes knocking just as I’m.
In the tabledrawer he found an old number of Tidbits. He folded it under his armpit, went to the door and opened it….
He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning….
He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, going his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy lime wash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door windows. The king was in the counting house. Nobody.
Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.
Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?…….
He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.
In the bright light, lightened and cooled in limb, he eyes carefully his black trousers: the ends, the knees, the boughs of the knees. What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.
And then — enough dalliance! On with the day. As we we should be doing, too.