Decoding Dedalus: Omphalos

Daedalus in Ulysses was Joyce himself, so he was terrible. Joyce was so damn romantic and intellectual about him. He’d made Bloom up. Bloom was wonderful. – Ernest Hemingway, “On Writing”

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 “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 37 -38 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “They came down the steps…” and ends “…clotted hinderparts.” 


To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

They came down the steps from Leahy’s terrace prudently, Frauenzimmer: and down the shelving shore flabbily, their splayed feet sinking in the silted sand.

Who are “they”?

One “unhelpful” thing that pops up regularly in Stephen’s stream of conscious is unattributed pronouns. Joyce has enough faith in us, the readers, to figure out who “they” might be. I suppose we should be flattered. In this case, the “they” are “frauenzimmer” descending to Sandymount Strand. Here’s another thing Stephen likes to do – answer a question he posed himself in a foreign language. In German, “frauenzimmer” means either “lady of fashion” or a “nitwit, drab, sloven or wench.” I’m guessing, based on the description that  follows, Joyce intended to conjure the latter image in your mind. Leahy’s Terrace is a street in Sandymount that is no longer near the sea due to development in the area that included extending the shoreline.

Like me, like Algy, coming down to our mighty mother.

“Algy” is poet Algernon Swinburne, a favorite of Buck Mulligan’s. Swinburne’s great contribution to Ulysses is his description of the sea as a “grey sweet mother,” which Mulligan twisted to a “snotgreen” sea back in “Telemachus.” “Algy” is Mulligan’s nickname for Swinburne, and algae is a snotgreen substance commonly found along the seashore. Stephen can’t seem to get Mulligan out of his mind. He doesn’t think of him directly, but the Buck’s mocking tentacles are always there in the background.

Number one swung lourdily her midwife’s bag, the other’s gamp poked in the beach. From the liberties, out for the day. Mrs Florence MacCabe, relict of the late Patk MacCabe, deeply lamented, of Bride Street. One of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life. Creation from nothing. What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool.

Stephen’s imagination and reality begin to weave in and out. I’ve always interpreted this passage as Stephen literally seeing two midwives on the shore and imagining who they might be. While researching this passage, I was surprised to read that several of my sources thought the midwives were imaginary, existing only to angle Stephen’s mind toward  birth and navels and what-have-you. I think the frauenzimmer are really there, though, and serve not only as a symbolic link in Stephen’s stream of consciousness, but also to subtly hint at a grisly aspect of birth and death in early 20th century Ireland. The grim, gothic horror of everyday life was never far, even in a comfortable suburb of Dublin.

“Lourdily” is often taken as a derivation from the French “lourd,” meaning heavy. She’s swinging a heavy midwife’s bag. The other carries a “gamp,” a British slang word taken from the name of Mrs. Sairey Gamp, a midwife who carried a large umbrella in Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Though a man named Patrick McCabe was high sheriff of Dublin in 1902, his widow (relict) Florence was likely imagined by Stephen. Their presence causes Stephen to puzzle over the nature of his own birth as well as  birth as a longer continuum, going all the way back to the beginning of time, when God created the heavens and the earth from nothing.

Stephen guesses the contents of her bag might be a “misbirth,” meaning a miscarriage or a stillborn. Because we’re submerged in Stephen’s philosophical meanderings, we don’t learn what becomes of the bundle of ruddy wool with a trailing umbilical cord. I think the horrific nature of this image is why it’s assumed to be imagined by Stephen. Seeing such a sight in 2019 on Sandymount Strand would be a scandal, but in 1904, the sea might be an appropriate resting place for such a child. A stillborn child would have died unbaptized and therefore couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. Depositing it in the sea may have been a more sanitary method of disposal than burying it in a crowded urban area. If the women were down from The Liberties, an impoverished area of Dublin, as Stephen guesses, there may not have been money for a proper burial of a child not carried to term, who had never lived at all.

There is also the possibility that the child belonged to an unwed mother, which would have carried with it a stigma so deep that the mother could never shake it. Women who conceived children out of wedlock were excluded from society and seen as stained with sin. Their children fared no better, as a child known to be born outside of marriage was thought to carry the mother’s sin for life. Such children were sometimes taken from their mothers and raised by nuns in orphanages or “mother and baby” homes. The form of exclusion varied over time, but the stigma lingered in a deeply Catholic country and only in recent years has it been treated as a scandal rather than a dirty secret to be buried. Though it is gruesome and callous by our modern sensibilities to dump a stillborn baby in the sea, a century ago it wouldn’t have been unthinkable.

Because we live in comfortable times, it is easy to see birth and death as opposite, but in 1904, they would have been more closely intertwined. We forget today that birth was once perilous for mother and child alike. Joyce was interested in portraying a naturalistic view of Dublin life, and death is part of that life.

The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.

Either real or imagined in the previous passage, the navel cord (umbilical cord) is a potent symbol of nativity. Stephen sees the umbilical cords of all people linking backward through time, an unbroken chain of death and birth. This continuous thread is a common symbol for the endless cycle of death and rebirth, a common link between souls in this incarnation, the previous incarnations and future incarnations. The link in the chain of lives is consciousness returning to a physical incarnation. While death and birth were side-by-side (nebeneinander) in daily life for many people in Dublin, death is the precedent and prerequisite for birth in this world view (nacheinander). This flowing-together of souls is called the “mind stream” by Buddhists (or a “stream of consciousness”) and is often symbolized by the flow of water (a great example can be found in the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse).

The navel has held important mystical significance for a wide range of cultures. Stuart Gilbert cites figures as diverse as the Brahmans, Hermes Trismegistus and Plato as viewing the navel as the location of the soul, a source of “prophetic inspiration” and “the seat of internal divine light.” “Omphalos,” a call-back to Mulligan’s nickname for the Martello Tower, was also used to refer to the Oracle of Delphi (the world’s Omphalos) in ancient times. Mulligan really had high hopes for what the boys might accomplish in that tower.

Gilbert also points out that in Homer’s time, “omphalos” referred to more than the little pit on someone’s belly. As used in The Iliad and The Odyssey, it meant “a round protuberance, a swelling” and could also mean the “highest point,” usually with the connotation of being the central point as well. Crete’s main city was on a hill and was referred to as the “city of the navel.” The Bible referred to mountains as “navels of the earth.” I’m guessing people in antiquity more commonly had “outie” bellybuttons than “innie” bellybuttons in order for this to make sense. This leads Gilbert to interpret allusions to towers in Ulysses as a navel motif rather than a phallic motif, as they are often accompanied by images of birth and reincarnation, like here in “Proteus.”

Mystic monks may gaze into their navels, but Stephen delivers us a much weirder (and grosser) image to accompany his own navel-gazing. He imagines this endless chain of souls as an umbilical phone line stretching from Dublin all the way back to alpha: Eden. The phone number is 001 since it’s the first number issued by the mystical phone company (phone numbers were super short back when only a few people had phones). Stephen Atheist is “skeptical of his own skepticism” as Gilbert puts it, so while at once professing esoteric views, he must quickly turn to an odd little joke so he doesn’t take it too seriously.

Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Womb of sin.

That eternal cord must lead somewhere, to Eve (Heva, or Cheva, in Hebrew). “Adam Kadmon” is the kabbalistic term for the “primordial man.” Eve’s non-existent omphalos is the center or source for Original Sin. It’s because of Eve’s sin that women must now give a painful, life-threatening birth, or so the story goes. Stephen uses flowery language from the “Song of Solomon” and 17th century mystic Thomas Traherne’s description of Eden to ensconce her in a beautiful paradise, but, ultimately, her beauty is corrupted by her commission of the first sin (just ask Mr. Deasy).

One additional use of the term “omphalos” is the 1857 book by English naturalist P.H. Gosse called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie a Geological Knot. Gosse wanted to propose a natural science that required the presence of God (his book preceded The Origin of Species by only a few years). In Gosse’s worldview, Adam and Eve would indeed have had navels, as God created them fully formed, which didn’t require them to have actually used an umbilical cord in order to bear its scar. He also believed that God created the earth with dinosaur bones already buried in it. Even now, this argument is used to explain why Adam and Eve would have had navels. Stephen’s conception of a navel-less Eve is, instead, rooted in mystical traditions such as kabbala. Much like an Eve without a navel, Stephen has abandoned his own Omphalos by choosing not to return to the Martello tower with Mulligan and Haines.

Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten.

Stephen considers his own origin. The key here is “made not begotten,” a reversal of the Nicene Creed, which states, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”

The difference between “begetting” and “making” for Stephen is where he starts analyzing his relationship with his own father through the doctrine of consubstantiality, the Catholic belief that God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit are all equal parts of the same entity. In the dictionary, “beget” and “make” mean more or less the same thing, but they are religiously distinct. In the book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes it well:

To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds…. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Son’s of God in the sense that Christ is. They may be like God in certain ways, but they are not things of the same kind.

And the mother?

By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will.

The man and ghostwoman are Stephen’s parents, and they TOTALLY DID IT to make Stephen, by which I mean they “clasped and sundered.” Stephen is distancing himself from his father Simon, who simply becomes “the man with my voice and my eyes.” This echoes the goddess Eidothea’s description of her father, the sea god Proteus, in The Odyssey, “He is, men say, my father, who begot me.”

From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about Him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial?

Swapping around “begotten” and “made” puts Stephen more in line with the heresiarch Arius’ views on consubstantiality. We covered Arius before on the podcast and the blog when he popped up in “Telemachus,” but as a quick refresher, he was a bishop-turned-heretic in the 300’s A.D. who believed that God the Father and God the Son were not equal members of the Trinity, as God the Father came first, meaning that the Son could not be consubstantial (made of the same stuff).

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas believed that a man’s semen (“divine substance”) turned a woman’s flesh into a new human being, diminishing a woman’s role in the creation of life (as Lewis’ description above also does). It also means that every son is consubstantial with his own father. In the Trieste notebook, Joyce wrote “the dove above [Jesus’] head is the lex eterna which overshadows the mind and will of God.” In his book Ulysses and the Irish God, Frederick K. Lang ties these strands together by suggesting the dove, often the symbol of the Holy Spirit, is a “spermatozoon with wings.”  The son receives his father’s essence through the Holy Spirit, which is, once again, semen. (And no need for icky girls).

Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality.

Stephen directly invokes the name of Arius the heresiarch. In “Telemachus,” Stephen describes Arius “warring his life long upon the consubstantiality…” but here we get this monstrous portmanteau. Lang does a great job pulling it all apart. Con- and -tantiality are remnants of consubstantiality, now impregnated with -transmagnificandjewbang-. Magnificand- refers to the Magnificat, wherein Mary rejoices at being chosen as the mother of God’s Son, apparently at the idea of God -trans-forming part of her flesh into a Son. Lang says -jewbang- is Mary and Joseph’s intercourse, which is just a bummer of a term. Altogether, it alters consubstantiality to imply that the Son is not eternal, but rather came into existence at the time of His Incarnation, which is in line with Arian thinking.

Illstarred heresiarch. In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts.

This final section deals with the end of Arius’ life. Legend has it that Arius traveled to Constantinople to meet with the bishop there and was granted passage by the Roman emperor Constantine, against the bishop’s wishes. When Arius arrived at the church to meet with the bishop, he stepped into the “throne” due to “the necessity of his guts” (he went to the toilet to go poo), but he fell suddenly once there, falling face first on the floor and exploding at his middle (his “omphalos”). Funnily enough, this story of Arius’ “clotted hinderparts” went unmentioned until several decades after his death, when it was spread by a rival bishop named Athanasius. Athanasius employed a tactic familiar to anyone who was ever a teenage girl – he told his friends, “I have this amazing secret, don’t tell anyone,” and then proceeded to tell EVERYONE. Athanasius was kind of a bitch. It seems unlikely that 20 years would have passed without anyone mentioning the man who turned into an exploding poo-bomb. Apparently the rumor traveled all the way down the eons on the umbilical phone line until a young poet picked up the call in 1904.

Further Reading:

Barry, D. (2017, Oct. 28). The lost children of Tuam. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/28/world/europe/tuam-ireland-babies-children.html

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.

Lang, F. (1993). Ulysses and the Irish God. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y3k5kxnq

Muehlberger, E. (2015, May 1). The legend of Arius’ death: imagination, space and filth in late ancient historiography. Past & Present, 227(1), 3–29. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtu042

O’Loughlin, E. (2018, Jun 6). These women survived Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. They’re ready to talk. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/world/europe/magdalene-laundry-reunion-ireland.html

Switek, B. (2009, Nov 10), P.H. Gosse’s failure to untie the geological knot. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2009/11/p-h-gosses-failure-to-untie-the-geological-knot/

 

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