Ulysses & The Odyssey: Proteus

This episode contains practically no action. Nothing happens…. – Stuart Gilbert, on “Proteus”

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

The Odyssey: Book 4

Telemachus and co. find their way to the home of Menelaus, the jilted husband of Helen of the Troy, the “face that launched a thousand ships” and started the Trojan War. Menelaus tells Telemachus about his travails returning home from the war. He found himself becalmed on the Egyptian isle of Pharos, home to the sea god Proteus, who was upset that Menelaus had failed to honor him with proper sacrifices. Eidothea, Proteus’ daughter, reveals to Menelaus that Proteus can answer his questions, but only if he can restrain the sea god. However, Proteus is a shapeshifter, and Menelaus must restrain the god as he changes from beast to plant to water to fire. Menelaus succeeds, and Proteus tells him where to find Odysseus. Menelaus passes this information on to Telemachus. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Penelope realizes Telemachus is gone and doesn’t take it well.


If you’re reading Ulysses for the first time or fiftieth, there is a complacency that accompanies the completion of the first two episodes. Something along the lines of, “That wasn’t so bad. I don’t know why everyone says this book is so hard.” And then, “Proteus.”

Menelaus and Proteus; 1574, Giulio Bonasone

“Proteus” is the first “hard”  chapter of Ulysses, however you define “hard.” It’s a stream of consciousness tour de force that mixes a handful of foreign languages in with the obscure historical and literary allusions. What’s more, there’s no narrative to the episode. It is pure, unadulterated Stephen-musings. The “action” amounts to Stephen walking up a beach, seeing some people at a distance, being frightened by a dog and later peeing on a rock. Fin. What characterizes “Proteus” is the virtuosic use of language, which provides the rhythm and flow of Stephen’s meandering psyche. The art of “Proteus,” according to the Gilbert schema, is philology, the old-timey term for linguistics. It’s time to brush off your high school French, dear readers.

In Stuart Gilbert’s Ulysses: A Study, the author identifies three directive themes in “Proteus” – Homeric parallels, esoteric doctrines and philology. This post will focus on the Homeric parallels, but it’s both difficult and unnecessary to separate these three entirely, so the other two will creep into the discussion of Homer. If the discussion of those two other topics feels a little thin in this post, don’t worry – I’ll develop them in upcoming posts over the coming months.

Typically, the characters in Ulysses correspond to characters in The Odyssey. Stephen corresponds to Telemachus, for instance, which presents us with the first challenge: Stephen is the only “on-screen” character in this episode, but Telemachus plays a fairly passive role in Book 4 of The Odyssey, which mainly consists of Menelaus’ narration. Gifford’s annotation says that Menelaus corresponds to Kevin Egan, the “wild goose” Irish exile Stephen meets in Paris. Telemachus (Stephen) visits two men, Nestor (Mr. Deasy) and Menelaus (Kevin Egan) on his peregrination, and the latter is able to deliver the wisdom he seeks. The other major player in Book 4 is the titular Proteus, that shape-shifting sea god. This is where things get interesting. Proteus’ correspondence in Ulysses is primal matter according to Gifford.

The cubes in this emblem represent prima materia; 1617,Michael Maier

“Primal matter” can refer to a variety of concepts from different cultures. In the alchemical world, prima materia refers to the primitive base substance that makes up all matter, a concept sometimes tied to the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The term “iliaster” was coined by Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus and means roughly the same thing as prima materia. In Eastern traditions, “akasha” was the name for the basic essence of things. This term was adopted by 19th century Western occult groups, notably the Theosophists (we’ll get back to them much, much later) as the adjective “akasic.”   

In esoteric writings, the name Proteus applied to this primal matter. It’s easy enough to pick out the prefix “pro-” and guess this name relates to the first of something. Since primal matter came before all subsequent matter, it has come to express itself in many forms in the universe. While it is the stuff of life, it us also elusive. You’d have a hard time pointing it out in your environment or giving it a meaningful description. Again, possessing of many forms. However, in order to find answers to fundamental questions, it is necessary to interpret this natural force.

Gilbert also stresses the importance of reincarnation a major theme throughout Ulysses, and though it won’t be mentioned by name until the fourth episode of the novel, it is in the bloodstream of “Proteus.” The repetitious natural forces Stephen encounters, notably the cycle of tides along Sandymount strand, are a stand-in for the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Shape-shifting Proteus’ resistance to Menelaus can be thought of as a rapid procession of reincarnated forms.

The cyclical nature of reincarnation echoes back to the brief mention in “Nestor” of Giambattista Vico (“Vico Road, Dalkey”). Vico wasa political philosopher who wrote that history unfurled in cyclical ages rather than along a linear path (we’ll discuss this in more detail in the upcoming tenth episode of the Blooms and Barnacles podcast ). Certain events, things and people are repeated during each cycle, though they don’t always appear in quite the same form. Thus spake Gilbert:

References to the eternal recurrence of personalities and things abound in Ulysses and many of the obscurer passages can be readily understood if this fact be borne in mind.

As for philology, the term “protean” means “changing easily or frequently.” Could anything be more fundamentally protean than human language itself? The language of “Proteus” slides suddenly from recognizable, albeit opaque, English to German to French to Latin and beyond. Mixing language in this manner was a common feature of epic poetry originating in Asia Minor, which includes Homer’s epics.

Stephen’s mind shifts from topic to topic seamlessly, as well. We’re already familiar with his wandering, rambly thoughts interrupting his daily routines in “Telemachus” and “Nestor,” and here the ramblings intrude upon the ramblings. While they are not formless or meaningless, it is an especial challenge for the reader to keep up. Stephen muses on change itself, changes of space and changes of time, all those ineluctable modalities he keeps contemplating. Anthony Burgess says:

The speed with which Stephen’s mind rushes from subject to subject, the links of association often being well-submerged, is appropriate to a chapter celebrating the quicksilver elusiveness of Proteus: Proteus is the mind, as well as the phenomenal world which the mind seeks to comprehend.

Proteus emblem; 1531, Andrea Alciato

The elusiveness is the key here. Proteus is repeatedly called the “old man of the sea who never lies” in The Odyssey. Yet, he is also a master of disguise, hiding his true form in order to avoid helping visitors to his island. Truth is quite slippery, it seems. Stephen’s poetry is the world as he sees it, thoughts transformed into words expressing a world that has passed through a biased lens. A sensitive young man like Stephen seeks knowledge and truth, but he struggles with the harsher truths of his life, twisting into various guises (teacher-learner-poet-Catholic-not Catholic-Irish-expat-Hamlet-son) to avoid confronting them head on. For all his philosophizing, he doesn’t know which form is his true form.

Poetry can reveal truths, but words can also obscure the truth. Burgess argues that language is man’s attempt to bring order to the primal chaos, but language itself is similarly protean – ever-changing to meet the needs of the current place and time. A master of language, in Burgess’ view, becomes the master of man’s vision of the world through the manipulation of language. It is language, then, that pins down the chaos, makes sense of it and forces the chaos to reveal its secrets.


Further Reading:

Atura, A. & Dionne, L. Proteus – Modernism Lab. Retrieved from https://modernism.coursepress.yale.edu/proteus/

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.

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.

Homer, translated by Palmer., G.H. (1912). The Odyssey. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.



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