Decoding Dedalus: Dark Men of Mien and Movement

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The passage below comes from “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. It appears on page 28 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).


Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

These thoughts traverse Stephen’s mind as he sits to help young Sargent with his algebra. Stephen, distracted as ever, ponders the greater mysteries and histories behind something so seemingly simple as a young student’s algebra problem. However, as you’ve certainly guessed by now, nothing is ever simple in Ulysses. Oh my god, there is so much in this one, you guys.

Let’s dive in.

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors.

Let’s start with the word “morrice.” Usually spelled Morris dance today, this is  a traditional/ historical form of folk dance from England and Wales and, as a result, has had a lot of different spellings over the years. Morris dance does indeed involve a certain amount of mummery and the wearing of quaint caps. Some styles include blackface as part of the costume.

Stephen is slipping into a daydream as young Sargent works his algebra, watching the numbers come alive and dance across the page. It’s sort of like John Cusack in Better Off Dead, except less whimsical and less 80’s. The last line is key here. “The Moors” refer to the inhabitants of medieval Muslim Spain. While the origins of Morris dance are unknown, some believe “Morris” to have evolved from “Moorish.” The costumes of some styles of Morris dance and the unfortunate blackface seem to reflect this to me. Stephen thinks of the Moors in particular, though, because algebra was introduced to Europe by Muslim scholars.

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Weep No More: Lycidas in Nestor

—Tell us a story, sir. —O, do, sir. A ghoststory.
Did you ever have a teacher in school who had a tenuous-at-best grip on their lessons? They were easily distracted or maybe a little too much of a hippie. Maybe they were a substitute who wasn’t too invested in the job. Stephen Dedalus is this teacher, a learner uneasy as a teacher. Stephen’s heart is just not in this job, and it’s clear from the first lines of ‘Nestor’ that he is going through the motions on the surface. His thoughts continually intrude upon his focus as he listlessly carries out his uninspired lesson plan.  Not only does his student Armstrong know less than nothing about Pyrrhus, the rest of the boys are totally disinterested in the lesson and ready to distract their teacher. Stephen grimly realizes,“In a moment they will laugh more loudly, aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.”
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John Milton
When the history lesson doesn’t go well, Stephen leap-frogs to his own area of expertise – poetry. The little scrap of a literature lesson is a few lines recited from the John Milton poem “Lycidas.” The significance of this poem gets glossed over in some annotations, including my favorite Gifford annotation, but it’s worth pausing a moment and considering why Joyce included this poem in particular. Afterall, “’A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” We can assume Joyce chose “Lycidas” for a reason. “Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy, that is, a poem written to commemorate and lament someone’s death, but rather than being direct, the poet uses a variety of classical and natural imagery to express their true emotions. “Lycidas” is considered one of the finest examples of this style of poetry. It was written in 1637 by John Milton, who was hugely influential on Joyce, mostly through his much more famous work Paradise Lost. Milton wrote “Lycidas” (pronounced liss-id-us) to mourn the death of his friend Edward King, a Cambridge scholar who died by drowning. Though it’s a longer poem, the lines found in ‘Nestor’ are as follows:
Weep no more, woful shepherds, weep no more For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…
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Ep. 5 – Sweny’s Pharmacy

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P.J., Kelly & Jack

Kelly and Dermot sit down with P.J. Murphy and Jack Walsh, two volunteers who are keeping the legacy of Sweny’s Pharmacy alive.  Sweny’s, of course, is the location where Leopold Bloom bought his lemon soap. We talk the history of Sweny’s, their Joyce connection and the challenges of preserving Joycean landmarks in 21st century Dublin. P.J. even shares a song at the end. Donate to Sweny’s here.

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Volunteer Brigid Conroy and Senator David Norris at Sweny’s on Bloomsday 2017. (from Sweny’s Facebook page)

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A photo of the former Turkish baths in Lincoln Place, Dublin hangs in Sweny’s.

Music

Noir – S Strong & Boogie Belgique

Pyrrhus: A Disappointed Bridge

In the Gilbert schema, the art of ‘Nestor’ is listed as history, so it is fitting that the episode opens with Stephen delivering a history lesson. The topic is Pyrrhus, an ancient Greek king mostly remembered by the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” The basic facts of the battle are there, but let’s indulge in the art of history ourselves and expand on the details the young student Cochrane lays out in his recitation.

First, a definition: a Pyrrhic victory is a victory in which the victor incurs such heavy losses that it may as well be a loss. You can drop this phrase in conversation at fancy dinner parties to sound smarter when talking about politics or sports. I’m assuming. I don’t go to a lot of fancy dinner parties. Pyrrhus, as mentioned above, was a military leader in ancient Greece fighting against an early but ascendant Rome. Tarentum, as recalled by Cochrane, was a Greek city in the instep of the boot of the Italian peninsula. Pyrrhus’ army, which included several dozen war elephants because PETA didn’t exist back then, helped push the Romans out of Tarentum in 280 BCE.

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James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan

Ep. 4 – Introibo Ad Altare Dei

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Giotto di Bondone, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas), 14th c.

Kelly and Dermot talk about page #1 of Ulysses, taking a deep dive into the symbolism of the Catholic Mass in the opening scene. There’s lots of talk about blasphemy, transubstantiation, saints and why Kelly was a terrible altar server back in the day. We finish off with wild speculation about why kids don’t learn Latin and Greek these days.

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On the Blog:

Ulysses CCD – Mulligan Mocks Mass

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Further Reading:

Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Turner, J., & Mamigonian, M. (2004). Solar Patriot: Oliver St. John Gogarty in “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly,41(4), 633-652. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478099

Trieste Notebook:

http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/JoyceColl/JoyceColl-idx?type=div&did=JOYCECOLL.SCHOLESWORKSHOP.I0013&isize=text 

Music

Noir – S Strong & Boogie Belgique

James Joyce Ulysses Mr Deasy Nestor The Odyssey Homer

Ulysses & The Odyssey: Nestor

   Mulligan will dub me a new name: the bullockbefriending bard.

Part of an occasional series on the Homeric parallels in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Odyssey, Book 3:

Telemachus and Mentor (Athena in disguise) find themselves in Pylos to meet Nestor, a wise king who fought with Odysseus in Troy. Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t know what became of Odysseus on his journey home. Athena reveals herself by transforming into an osprey. Nestor is so impressed with Telemachus’ divine companionship that he sacrifices a heifer in Athena’s honor. There is much feasting upon the sacrificial heifer before Telemachus sets off to meet Menelaus, still in search of Odysseus.


Nestor’s biography is fairly exciting. He was the grandson of Poseidon and an Argonaut who fought centaurs and went to war with Odysseus and friends in Troy. When we meet him in The Odyssey, though, his salad days have gone and he is the wise old king of Pylos. His parallel in Ulysses is Mr. Deasy, who oversees his school from a dusty office stuffed with relics from the past, such as his collection of Stuart coins and seashells. Mr. Deasy’s CV is less impressive than Nestor’s (the only thing we know about him is that he is the headmaster of the school where Stephen works), but he is happy to rest on the laurels of his lofty ancestors, particularly Sir John Blackwood who died in an attempt to vote for Ireland to join the United Kingdom. This sort of parallel will arise again and again as we look at Nestor and Deasy. Mr. Deasy believes he is a vaunted wiseman like Nestor, but in truth he is all talk.

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6 Reading Guides for James Joyce’s Ulysses

*To hear a discussion of some Ulysses reading guides, check out my interview with Tom O’Leary here.


I love Ulysses, but it can be a beast to get through. It’s a rewarding beast, but it’s nice to have a companion by your side while facing such a beast. It’s not necessary to have a reading guide if you’re reading Ulysses for the first time, but it’s very likely you will encounter references or full passages that are completely inscrutable. I created Blooms and Barnacles in part because I hope it can be a resource for people who need some help making sense of Ulysses’ tough bits.  Googling “Ulysses reading guide” will provide you with a plethora of options, in online, audio and dead-tree formats. If you’re shopping around for just the right guide, I have some suggestions.

Continue reading “6 Reading Guides for James Joyce’s Ulysses”