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Part of an occasional series on Catholic allusions found in Ulysses.
In 2017, I was a founding member of the Ulysses Support Group at T.C. O’Leary’s pub in Portland, Oregon. Our goal was to read the entirety of Ulysses aloud between two Bloomsdays. On the first night, as we started analysing the opening lines of the novel, I pointed out that Mulligan’s actions atop the Martello tower were a blasphemous mockery of the Catholic Mass. One of the other participants blurted, “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??” It caught me off guard, but another member deftly responded, “Joyce was Irish. Of course it’s about Catholicism!”
I was raised Catholic in a small town where most people were Catholic. I went to Sunday school (called CCD) every week. Monty Python and the Meaning of Life was banned in our house because of the “Every Sperm is Sacred” song. One thing I learned through our book club is that a lot of the religious references and imagery don’t necessarily stand out for those of us who didn’t grow up steeped in Catholicism. I also notice a lot of reading guides and annotations for Ulysses assume the reader’s familiarity with Catholicism. In this post and many posts to come, I hope to answer the question of Book Club Dude: “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??”
Today, I’m taking on that very first passage of Ulysses about stately, plump Buck Mulligan.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei.
Buck Mulligan play-acts an absurd mockery of a Catholic priest performing Mass in the opening paragraph of Ulysses. This is clear because of a variety of symbols present in this paragraph.
The bowl of lather stands in for a chalice of wine used to celebrate Mass, while the razor symbolizes Mulligan as a false priest, a butcher according to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated.
The date Ulysses takes place – June 16 – also figures in the trail of breadcrumbs Joyce scatters in this opening paragraph. June 16 is the feast day (an annual celebration of a saint) of St. John Francis Regis, a Catholic Saint and member of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits). Stephen Dedalus and Joyce himself both received a Jesuit education.
Because Mulligan’s “Mass” occurs on a feast day, the color of his priestly vestments would reflect this. On feast days, Catholic priests wear white and would have the option to include gold. Mulligan’s “vestment,” – his dressing gown – is yellow, however, not gold. Yellow has some negative symbolism attached to it in Catholicism, being the color of treason, deceit and degradation. Gifford states that not only were medieval heretics required to wear yellow, but that Judas, Christ’s betrayer is often depicted wearing a dingy yellow garment in paintings. Joyce goes out of his way to connect Mulligan to both betrayal (Stephen refers to him directly as a “usurper”) and with Photius, the 9th century bishop whose clashes with the Church lead to a major schism.
Mulligan’s dressing gown is ungirdled, which implies he is violating the priestly vow of chastity, since all God gave him is billowing in the wind atop a Martello tower.
Holding the bowl of shaving cream aloft also mimics the actions of a priest performing Mass.
And the Latin?
“Introibo ad altare Dei,” taken from Psalms 43:4 (42:4 in the Latin Vulgate), translates to, “I will go up to God’s altar.” In the Latin Mass, it would be recited by the priest in the opening of the Mass and responded to by a minister or server. Notice Mulligan calls Stephen up the stairs immediately after intoning the Latin.
In the following paragraph, as Mulligan is gurgling and making the sign of the cross in the air, Joyce describes his hair as “untonsured.” If your hair is tonsured, it means you have shaved away part of it, as practiced by some medieval clerics as a sign of religious devotion (think Friar Tuck in Robin Hood). A fairly pointed description considering “untonsured” was the standard hairstyle in 1904, as it is now.
For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns.
This line is a parody version of the Last Supper, as described in Matthew 26: 26-28. This passage describes how Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples the night before he died. In it, he declares that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. A re-enactment of the Last Supper is the centerpiece of the Catholic Mass. Catholics believe, through the mysteries of the Mass, the bread and wine used in the ceremony are literally turned into Christ’s body and blood (this is referred to as the doctrine of transubstantiation).
Mulligan refers to the “Christine,” or a feminized Christ as part of his mockery. This reference extends to the Holy Eucharist, the ceremonial wafer, also known as the Host, that is used in a Catholic Mass, and is quite blasphemous as such. The feminisation is also considered a reference to the Satanic Black Mass, in which a woman’s body is used as an altar. “Blood and ouns” is a medieval epithet for Christ’s blood and wounds and was quite blasphemous in its time.
Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.
The “white corpuscles” referred to here are blood cells. In other words, Mulligan is having trouble transubstantiating his bowl of lather into Christ’s blood and is asking the “congregation” to bear with him.
…his even white teeth glistening here and there with gold points. Chrysostomos.
Buck Mulligan’s teeth reveal much more than period dental work. “Chrysostomos” means gold mouth in ancient Greek and can be used to refer to an eloquent person. In Ulysses, it might be a reference to a Greek master of rhetoric Dio Chrysostom (certainly an eloquent man) or St. John Chrysostom, an early Church father whose sermons are included in the Mass for the feast day of St. John Francis Regis. Additionally, Pope Gregory I, also known as Pope Gregory the Great, was given the epithet “Grigoir Belóir” in the Irish language. Meaning roughly “Gregory Goldenmouth” in English, Gregory I is only known by this name in Ireland.
Since Stephen is feeling “displeased and sleepy” as he “coldly” watches Mulligan’s ludicrous display, we can assume Chrysostomos is thrown out sarcastically. While I, at least, feel Mulligan has a certain eloquence, it is unappreciated by Stephen from the moment he appears “on screen” in Ulysses.
Two strong shrill whistles answered through the calm.
At the top of this paragraph, Mulligan gives a “long low whistle of call,” and here receives an answer. The origin of the whistles is not totally clear, but it does parallel the Catholic Mass (you guessed that already, though didn’t you?). During the Mass, the priest consecrates the Host and wine that will become Christ’s body and blood. To mark this moment in the Mass, a bell is rung. Those two strong shrill whistles heard by Stephen and Mulligan are the seaside stand in for the bells rung at Mass. They mark here the “transubstantiation” of Mulligan’s shaving lather, and thus, the end of his “Mass.”
Go in peace now to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
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. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=fE9mkomQHEQC&pg=PA13&lpg=PA13&dq=color+of+vestments+feast+day+st+john+regis&source=bl&ots=HLEIKtz9xu&sig=v6GjGyCB5luLkGF68y_Ql2E33Qg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjH1IGJ8K7dAhUIrVMKHfGMBw4Q6AEwFHoECAIQAQ#v=onepage&q=color%20of%20vestments%20feast%20day%20st%20john%20regis&f=false
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