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.
Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement…
Stephen’s association of mathematical symbols with Morris (Moorish) dance leads next to thoughts of two great philosophers from Moorish Spain – Averroes and Moses Maimonides. Both share a strong connection to religion and Aristotle. Their dark “mien and movement” describes the exoticism of Muslim Spain (they were physically dark-skinned; “mien” means a person’s appearance) and the mystery of their philosophical pursuits (movement).
Averroes, pronounced “ah-vare-oh-ease,” was a Muslim scholar from Córdoba, Spain in the 1100’s. He is credited with re-introducing European scholars to the works of Aristotle through his commentaries on the majority of the philosopher’s major works, which earned him the moniker “the Commentator”. As a result, Averroes was enormously influential on Christian and Jewish scholars in Western Europe, introducing many to the works of Aristotle for the first time. Outside his commentaries, Averroes’ writings attempted to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle with Islam. Ironically, his work had little impact in the Muslim world due in part to geography (Córdoba was in the farthest western part of the Muslim world, far from major academic centers like Baghdad) and also because Aristotelian knowledge had been studied extensively by Muslim scholars and was more or less old news by the 12th century.
Moses Maimonides, also of Córdoba, was a Jewish philosopher of the 1100’s who was influenced by the writings of Averroes on Aristotle. We learn in “Ithaca” towards the end of Ulysses that Leopold Bloom considers Maimonides one of the best Moseses in history. His most major work, the Mishneh Torah, is a major focus in the study of Jewish law to this day, earning him the moniker of the Great Eagle. Way cooler than the Commentator. Sorry, Averroes. In addition to his religious works, Maimonides wrote extensively on philosophy, focusing on the works of Aristotle. He hoped to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle with the religious teachings of Judaism through his book The Guide for the Perplexed (great title, Great Eagle).
As an aside, Maimonides’ brother David died at sea, which connects him loosely to the drowning motif scattered throughout the early chapters of Ulysses, particularly to the John Milton poem “Lycidas” which Stephen’s students study a few pages before this flurry of thoughts. “Lycidas” is an elegy for Edward King, a scholar and friend of Milton’s who drowned.
Obviously this is an extremely brief synopsis of these men’s work. If you want a much more in depth discussion of Averroes and Maimonides, I highly recommend the Andalusia series from the History of Philosophy podcast.
…flashing in their mocking mirrors…
Though Averroes and Maimonides now enjoy the high ground philosophically, their works were met with suspicion in their own time, and both were accused of religious heterodoxy, meaning the opposite of orthodoxy. Averroes’ writings on Aristotle were in direct conflict with some major tenets of Islam which lead to the burning of his books and his exile to the town of Lucena. (Read more on this here). While Maimonides was revered during his lifetime, his works on philosophy stirred controversy as well. Several decades after his death, Maimonides’ detractors in France asked the Catholic Church to denounce The Guide for the Perplexed. They obliged, and public burnings of the book resulted. So it goes.
The reference here, the “mocking mirrors,” refers to scrying, a practice of telling the future involving the use of reflective surfaces, such as a mirror. Though I have seen no evidence that either of the men engaged in such occult practices, their heterodoxical philosophies get lumped in with fortune telling in Stephen’s mind, anyway.
…the obscure soul of the world…
I’ll keep this section brief, but this is a topic I’d like to return to in a future podcast and blog post. This phrase is a brief allusion to the works of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher from the 1500’s who, among many, many other accomplishments, was an early promoter of the idea of heliocentrism, meaning that the Earth and other planets orbit the sun and not the other way around. Young Joyce was an avid reader of Bruno’s works and considered Bruno to be the father of modern philosophy. Among Bruno’s other ideas was that of the anima del mondo, meaning “soul of the world” in Italian. To keep it simple, Bruno believed the Earth itself possessed a soul. Bruno’s work was rejected in his time, and he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.
…a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.
This line is an inversion of John 1:5, that’s the Gospel of St. John from the Bible of course, which reads:
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
An inversion of the Word of God can be read as blasphemous, rounding out a flurry of thoughts on great scholars denounced for their blasphemous thinking.
Stephen chafed in the previous episode (“Telemachus”) at the crass blasphemy of his Martello tower roommate Buck Mulligan. Joyce wrote in his private notes that the blasphemy of his friend Oliver St. John Gogarty, the real-life model of Mulligan, “was not the blasphemy of a romantic.” The historic blasphemies present in this paragraph stand as counterexamples to Mulligan’s inane mocking. In the paragraph just before this, the words “He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather” echo through Stephen’s thoughts. These were Mulligan’s sarcastic invitation to their English companion Haines to ask Stephen about this Shakespeare theory, which we readers get to learn about in “Scylla and Charybdis.” Stephen lays out his Shakespearean argument in the style of Aristotelian logic. Stephen’s thoughts in this section are straying to Aristotle because he is gearing up for an enormous intellectual boxing match that afternoon, in which Mulligan will act as rodeo clown. Hope you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.
Though the art of “Nestor” is history, Stephen’s thoughts on blasphemy carry over from the “Telemachus.” Shifting to these great philosophers, the religion of previous episode continues to intermingle with the history in his thoughts, like a tributary flowing into a larger river; it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. This blasphemous Gospel reveals that Stephen is still thinking about his foil Buck Mulligan’s offensive blasphemies of that morning. Mulligan’s middle name, afterall, is St. John, just like his real-life counterpart.
Further Reading and Listening:
Adamson, P. (2013, Nov. 9). Episode 163: Burnt Offering – The Maimonides Controversy. The History of Philosophy [Audio podcast].
Adamson, P. (2013, Nov. 9). Episode 149: Back to Basics – Averroes on Reason and Religion. The History of Philosophy [Audio podcast].
Delaney, F. (2011, Sep. 27). Episode 68: A Trio of Dudes. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].
Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pasnau, R. (2011). The Islamic scholar who gave us modern philosophy. Humanities, 32 (6). Retrieved from: https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/novemberdecember/feature/the-islamic-scholar-who-gave-us-modern-philosophy
Yudelson, L. (2017, Nov. 23). The brother Maimonides. The Jewish Standard. Retrieved from https://jewishstandard.timesofisrael.com/the-brothers-maimonides/