This certainly wasn’t done by a dog-lover,” said Joyce. “I don’t like them. I am afraid of them. – Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses
James Joyce was a cat person. His brother Stanislaus recalled a family trip to the seaside town on Bray, south of Dublin, when his older brother was attacked and badly bitten on the leg by “an excited Irish terrier.” The wound was bad enough that he had to be taken to a doctor for care. Though he recovered, the memory lasted a lifetime. Joyce took a liking to cats instead. In any case, Joyce transferred his fear of dogs to his literary avatar Stephen Dedalus. In “Proteus,” our young Artist encounters two dogs along the strand at Sandymount – one dead, ensablé:
A bloated carcass of a dog lay lolled on bladderwrack.
The other, alive and spritely:
A point, live dog, grew into sight running across the sweep of sand.
Stephen is forced to confront his fears on the strand, starting with his literal terror of the live dog. To his credit, he stands his ground. Stephen, ashplant in hand, is ready to rumble if this fearsome beast tries any funny business:
Lord, is he going to attack me? Respect his liberty. You will not be master of others or their slave. I have my stick. Sit tight.
As the fear unleashed by the galloping dog churns through Stephen’s psyche, it drags in its wake a multitude of other anxieties, beginning with the gay betrayer himself, Buck Mulligan. Back in the early pages of “Telemachus,” Mulligan had teasingly referred to Stephen as “dogsbody”:
—Ah, poor dogsbody! [Mulligan] said in a kind voice. I must give you a shirt and a few noserags. How are the secondhand breeks?
The kind voice is a mockery, naturally. Stephen has had to borrow his mourning attire from Mulligan because he is too poor to buy his own. No matter how much he loathes the Buck, Stephen is beholden to him for many things, including the roof over his head. Stephen made his first step on the path to freedom and away from the fear keeping him ensconced in the Tower when he made the decision not to return. He is neither master nor slave, a free agent instead. Here, he is psyching himself up with this same notion of freedom as he braces for a fight.
Once the threat passes, Stephen is back to ruminating on the various unpleasant things Mulligan has said to him- terribilia meditans, terrible thoughts. Worse still, Stephen believes that the primrose-waistcoat-clad Mulligan finds amusement in the young Artist’s fears:
A primrose doublet, fortune’s knave, smiled on my fear.
An encounter with two literal dogs’ bodies has brought Mulligan’s epithet to Stephen’s mind. A dogsbody is menial servant (think Baldrick in Black Adder). Mulligan is remarking on Stephen’s lowly status, subtly taunting at the servitude that comes with being on the bottom rung. Of course, Stephen sees Mulligan as a servant as well – buddying up with the Englishman Haines. Stephen has already envisioned Mulligan as a loyal canine companion, the pointer to Haines the panthersahib. If Mulligan is also in servitude, and Stephen serves him, what does that make Stephen? On top of that, as Stephen himself explained to Haines that morning, an Irishman is a servant of two masters, one English, one Italian. It’s no wonder Stephen wanted to flee to France so desperately. How can one blossom into a truth-seeking Artist under such restriction? Not even a stroll on the beach goes uninterrupted.
Thoughts of Ireland’s historic betrayers and pretenders give way to an intense sequence of guilt. Stephen’s internal struggle against Mulligan’s crudeness is always complicated by his apparent humanitarianism. Mulligan has saved men from drowning. No matter how boorish and disgusting he is, there is a part of him that is irrefutably virtuous. Stephen knows that no matter how much he impugns Mulligan’s character in a fit of pique, Mulligan has saved men from drowning. And it eats Stephen alive:
Would you or would you not? The man that was drowned nine days ago off Maiden’s rock. They are waiting for him now. The truth, spit it out. I would want to. I would try. I am not a strong swimmer. Water cold soft. When I put my face into it in the basin at Clongowes. Can’t see! Who’s behind me? Out quickly, quickly! Do you see the tide flowing quickly in on all sides, sheeting the lows of sand quickly, shellcocoacoloured? If I had land under my feet. I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine. A drowning man. His human eyes scream to me out of horror of his death. I… With him together down…
In addition to his fear of dogs, Stephen is quite hydrophobic. He wouldn’t even take a dip in the sea to bathe with Haines and Mulligan that morning. Stephen laments that he could never save lives the way Mulligan has because he is a coward. Dressed in a primrose waistcoat (doublet?), Mulligan wears yellow, the color of cowardice as well as betrayal, but he is no coward. Stephen is the coward, powerless to help those in need. Surely an Artist, bursting with bohemian spirit, must be bold, courageous, heroic? But here’s Stephen, a scrawny kid on the seashore, inert, unmanly, afraid. Joyce artfully portrays the cruel tug-of-war of low self-esteem in this passage.
Stephen’s guilt over his cowardice merges into his greater guilt about being unable to support his family. A reference to the sand as “shellcocoacoloured” is echoed much later in “Eumaeus” when Stephen, coming down from his outburst in Night Town, remembers drinking weak, watery shell cocoa with his sister Dilly:
…repicturing his family hearth the last time he saw it, with his sister, Dilly, sitting by the ingle, her hair hanging down, waiting for some weak Trinidad shell cocoa that was in the sootcoated kettle to be done so that she and he could drink it with the oatmeal water for milk…
His mother sent him every last shilling she had so he could pursue his folly in Paris while his sisters went hungry in Dublin.
The paragraph ends with a pronoun shift – “he” becomes “she” as a hypothetical drowned man merges into Stephen’s mother, her lungs filling with phlegm:
I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost.
Her suffering and death are a blip in a long, nightmarish history of Dublin, moving towards one great goal, which will surely engulf the rest of the Dedalus family as well.
It’s hard to stay in a despair spiral long when there’s a dog frolicking on the beach right in front of you.
Joyce believed the dog to be the most Protean animal, a natural “mummer.” The mongrel dog, whose name is Tatters, accompanies two cocklepickers as they make their way up the strand. If Stephen the dogsbody is trapped in a state of involuntary servitude, Tatters the dog is the embodiment of unbridled freedom and joy, gamboling up and down the strand. As a natural Protean, Tatters subtly takes on the forms of half a dozen other beasts. He bounds like a hare. He “halt[s] with stiff forehooves” at the sea’s edge, a buck with a small B. In his mouth is a “rag of wolf’s tongue,” lolling out of his mouth as he “lope[s] off at a calf’s gallop.” Like a fox, he buries his grandmother, and finally he is a fossorial pard “vulturing the dead.”
The belief in pards seems to originate from the Romans not understanding what leopards were. A leopard was believed to be the sinful outcome of relations between a lioness and the mythical pard, a lustful, violent creature similar to a panther. Get it? Leo + Pard = Leopard. The Medievals adopted the creature into their bestiaries, and pards were featured in descriptions of African wildlife into the 1700’s. Stephen describes the pard as “a panther, got in spousebreach,” meaning that the pard is born from an adulterous affair. I don’t think Stephen is going for strict accuracy of archaic taxonomy here, but no worries.
A few paragraphs back, Stephen referred to Haines and Mulligan as “panthersahib and pointer,” and the pard imagery is a callback to that line. A sahib is a Hindi/Urdu “term of respect for a white European or other person of rank in colonial India.” Haines is “panthersahib” because of his dream about the black panther that so rattled Stephen, and Mulligan is his faithful dog, the pointer. The final Protean form of the servile dog (Mulligan and by extension the Irish elite) is the panther (Haines and by extension the English colonialists). Not only do the Irish middle and upper classes kiss the arses of Englishman like Haines, but they are also doing their damnedest to transform into them (see also, Mr. Deasy). This isn’t the first time adulterous imagery has been used to frame the relationship between the Irish and the English, either. Back in “Telemachus,” the milk woman is described as a “lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror [Haines] and her gay betrayer [Mulligan], their common cuckquean.”
In the midst of Tatters’ Protean rambling, Stephen describes him as:
On a field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired.
Never one to shy away from medieval abstrusiosities, Stephen uses the language of heraldry to wrap his mind around Tatters. “Tenney” (also tenné) is similar to “tawny” and means orange. If we stick with tawny, we can imagine this is the sand on the beach. “Trippant” means the walking of a deer or dog. A buck walking on an orange field. “Proper”: natural color and “unattired”: lacking antlers. Typically, a male deer is shown “attired” in heraldry because a stag without antlers symbolizes impotence. However, Tatters, like all dogs, is naturally unattired. Translation: a naturally-colored, unantlered dog-deer walks along a beach. The arms of House Cocklepicker.
Stephen, neither master nor slave, desires to be a free agent, but seeing a pure expression of freedom before him is overwhelming. Tatters is the ward of the two cocklepickers, but he doesn’t care. He is master of his own domain. Stephen is a long way from unabondonedly frolicking along the seashore. Cramming the dog’s organic, improvised motion into the formalized language of heraldry allows Stephen to make order of chaos. Stephen longs for freedom, but he’s not one to dive in headfirst.
Freedom means embracing and rolling with the Protean nature of reality, but Stephen is uncomfortable with change. He is stiff, introverted, incredibly self-conscious. The other chaos-bringer in Stephen’s life is Buck Mulligan, who upends Stephen’s tranquility at every turn. Tatters also offers a form of chaos, but in a distant, non-judgmental manner. To put it in terms of Dungeons and Dragons, Mulligan is chaotic neutral while Tatters is true neutral. I believe Stephen sees bohemian inspiration in Tatters. Look at Tatters’ reaction when confronted with a fallen comrade:
The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.
While the thought of a drowned man is enough to disrupt Stephen totally, Tatters is nonplussed by the symbol of his own mortality. Stephen sees his own mortality even in a drowned dog: “Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.” Tatters seeks only to understand, through his senses alone, the nature of this odd discovery. Ineluctable modality of the canine olfactory. Tatters’ encounter with the drowned dog reminds me of the Zen koan about the Buddha-nature of a dog. When asked if his dog possessed a Buddha-nature, Zen master Zhao Zhou replied, “無.” An answer cannot be given. The answer is yes and no. Tatters offers up no answers about the nature of life and death or any other duality. Stephen is lost in a binary worldview of me vs. them, me vs. Mulligan, me vs. dog. Unless he can transcend his dualistic thinking, Stephen will not achieve the artistic enlightenment he seeks.
And what does Tatters do next?
Along by the edge of the mole he lolloped, dawdled, smelt a rock and from under a cocked hindleg pissed against it. He trotted forward and, lifting again his hindleg, pissed quick short at an unsmelt rock. The simple pleasures of the poor.
Urination is a symbolic act of creation, as we learned back in “Telemachus” from Mother Grogan and Mary Ann. This dog is a proper Zen master and artist. After the departure of Tatters, Stephen commits multiple creative acts: writing his poem, producing dried snot from his nose, urinating against a rock. The simple pleasures of the Artist. I can’t think of any such explicit creation on Stephen’s part before Tatters’ entrance.
And because “Proteus” is the most esoteric chapter in Ulysses, we must visit the gods before the end. Tatters speaks to them:
At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.
The roar of the surf is described as “herds of seamorse,” seamorse being an archaic term for walrus. Menelaus was able to sneak up on a slumbering Proteus by hiding amidst the sea god’s herd of seals. The waves on the shores of Sandymount evoke the bellows of a herd of walruses. Why not just call them seals, since Proteus wasn’t napping with a horde of blubbery walruses off the coast of Egypt? “Seamorse” is awfully close to “seahorse,” and you may recall the waves likened to “whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.” Manannán mac Lir is the Irish sea god who drove a seaborne chariot pulled by a horse called Enbarr of the Flowing Mane. Especially foamy waves are sometimes called the “seahorses of Manannán.” Not only are both Proteus and Manannán both sea gods, but they are also both shapeshifters. The key here that shows we’re dealing with a homegrown sea god and not a Mediterranean visitor is the mention of the ninth wave. In Irish mythology, the ninth wave out from land is seen as a boundary between our world and the Otherworld where the gods live. Manannán is the guardian of the boundary, not totally dissimilar to Charon in Greek mythology. Tatters speaks directly to the gods, while Stephen will later cower at the sound of thunder, fearing the rebuke of an angry God. Stephen must learn to be so bold as well if he is to claim his freedom.
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Joyce, S. (1958). My brother’s keeper: James Joyce’s early years. New York: The Viking Press.
Norris, M. (2017). Tatters, Bloom’s cat, and other animals in Ulysses. Humanities, 6(3), 50. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/6/3/50/htm
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Paterakis, D. T. (1972). Mananaan MacLir in Ulysses. Éire-Ireland (quarterly journal of the Irish American Cultural Institute, St. Paul, Minnesota) Vol. VII, 3. Retrieved from https://blossomsandbarnacles.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/57bf6-manannanmaclirinulysses.pdf
Source for photo of Manannán Mac Lir sculpture: https://www.geograph.ie/photo/4107287