— O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.
While Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan were sniping at each other over breakfast on June 16, Leopold and Molly Bloom were discussing the idea of metempsychosis (better known as reincarnation) over their morning tea. After toiling through “Proteus,” we’re all familiar with high-minded metaphysical ideas and obscure references sliding in and out of the text of Ulysses. “Calypso,” like the preceding episodes, is full of references a 21st century reader might miss, but in this episode, we find high-minded topics like metempsychosis embedded in pop cultural ephemera that would have been recognizable to people in 1904 but might go over our heads today. Welcome to the mind of Leopold Bloom.
To set the scene, Leopold is serving Molly her tea and toast in bed when she asks him about a word she’s come across in the novel she’s reading — metempsychosis. She struggles to pronounce it, coming up with “met him pike hoses,” though her mispronunciation isn’t fully revealed until a later episode. Leopold tries to explain metempsychosis to Molly, but she wants a simpler explanation, so he explains it again in terms of Greek mythology, inspired by a framed print of a bathing nymph hanging above their bed. His explanation is interrupted when Molly smells burning.
Thus, James Joyce introduces the Blooms’ point of view on one of Ulysses’ most important recurring themes — the eternal, recurring procession of forms, reborn in endless cycles. Stephen Dedalus contemplated the subject back in “Proteus” as he observed the motion of the tide on Sandymount Strand. Whereas Stephen’s approach is metaphysical, Leopold’s approach is didactic, hoping to impart a little culture to his unintellectual wife. She responds to his little “lesson” with, “O rocks! Tell us in plain words!” Anthony Burgess likens his attempt to the Bloomian version of Buck Mulligan “Hellenising wild Irish”. Leopold explains, “Some people believe that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before…. That we all lived on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives.”
Leopold’s concerns about Molly’s lack of culture is a bit ironic. He worries that Molly won’t be able to pronounce the word “voglio” in the song La ci darem la mano from the opera Don Giovanni, a duet in which the titular don attempts to lure the peasant woman Zerlina away from her fiancé. However, he’s misquoting the line himself, which should be “vorrei e non vorrei” (I would like and I would not) rather than “voglio e non vorrei” (I want and I don’t want to). That is to say, I suspect Leopold’s Italian isn’t much better than Molly’s.
Molly came across the word “metempsychosis” not in a book of philosophy like young Dedalus, but instead in a popular novel entitled Ruby: Pride of the Ring about a young woman who is beaten and abused by the “monster Maffei,” a “fierce Italian with carriagewhip.” Molly has finished it and is ready to move on to another novel (“There’s nothing smutty in it.”) Ruby is thought to be based on a real novel from the period called Ruby: A Novel, Founded on the Life of a Circus Girl, which covers similar content to its Ulyssean counterpart. It even contains the image Leopold describes in this passage of “Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent.” The real-life Ruby doesn’t contain the word “metempsychosis,” but no matter. Ruby allows the Blooms to encounter the theme of metempsychosis through popular culture. They understand the basics of metempsychosis but are unlikely to dig deeper into its subtleties. It shows us the Blooms are ordinary people, not unintelligent, but not approaching Stephen’s dizzying intellectual trapeze act in “Proteus” either.
James Joyce was more of a Dedalus than a Bloom on this sort of heady subject matter. As a young man, Joyce was fascinated by the concept of reincarnation. Richard Ellmann recounts a story in his biography of Joyce wherein Young Joyce turned up at the flat of George A E Russell, a prominent Dublin mystic, in the middle of the night to drill him for information on reincarnation and other esoteric subjects. Stephen is asked about his late-night rendezvous with Russell in “Aeolus” under the headline, “A Man of High Morale.” Stuart Gilbert wrote that understanding reincarnation is key to understanding Ulysses as a whole: “the book itself, the record of a day in a man’s life, is a synthetic illustration of ‘life’s little day’, the interval between two periods of darkness and repose.” While we tend to think of reincarnation as originating in Eastern traditions, ancient Greek beliefs and Judaism also allow for reincarnation.
Ulysses’ most basic premise – The Odyssey, but all in one day in 1904 Dublin – is what makes metempsychosis such a key theme. Even if you have only a cursory understanding of the novel, it’s likely you’re aware that Stephen, the Blooms, and their friends are updated Irish versions of classical Greek heroes. If you dig deeper, you’ll start finding parallels to Hamlet, Biblical figures, and many others among the main cast of Ulysses characters. This is possible through metempsychosis. Leopold Bloom is not meant to be the literal reincarnation of Odysseus but rather a literary reincarnation. Molly is able to inhabit the position of boththe nymph Calypso and Odysseus’ wife Penelope in the Odyssean narrative of Ulysses as she is not a literal reincarnation of either. This idea fits snugly with Joyce’s interest in the cyclical model of history put forth by Giambattista Vico, in which figures and events recur in cycles, degrading with each repeated cycle.
In “Calypso,” then, Molly is our titular nymph, lounging in bed as she awaits her service of nectar and ambrosia (or as you mortals call it, “tea and toast”). Naturally, the Blooms’ bedroom is scattered with little hints of her Hellenic past life. Take for instance the “orangekeyed chamberpot” next to which her novel has fallen. Anything orange should stand out to us since it’s the correspondant color of “Calypso.” “Keyed” refers to the design on the chamberpot, also known as a meander, that would have been a common decoration on terra cotta pots in Homer’s day. The name Calypso comes from the Greek word meaning “conceal.” In The Odyssey, Calypso hides the message sent by Zeus ordering Odysseus’ release. Our sideways Calypso conceals a letter from Blazes Boylan beneath her pillow. Leopold burns his prized pork kidney while he is distracted talking to Molly about metempsychosis, a sort of burnt offering as one might make to curry the favor of a goddess. Sadly, this sacrifice doesn’t impress his nymph.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the framed art print hanging over the Blooms’ bed. Entitled The Bath of the Nymph, it was a give-away courtesy of a photography magazine called Photo Bits. It was a real magazine, and the photography it featured tended to be soft core pornography – images of nude, bathing women with their backs coyly turned, bathing beauties at the seashore with ankles exposed, reportedly “aristocratic” women draped in “Grecian togas” revealing a tasteful yet titilating amount of skin.
While The Bath of the Nymph seems to be a fabrication of Joyce’s imagination, Photo Bits encouraged its readers to frame its supplemental images with ad copy that sounds suspiciously similar to Leopold’s inner monologue, “Splendid masterpiece in art colours.” The September 1900 issue of Photo Bits boasted of its photo supplement, “They are veritable gems, printed on thick India paper in various art colours and are intended for framing.” In 1905, they promised, “Hung in a bedroom it has a warm, cosy effect.” Our man Bloom is a connoisseur of ad copy; he literally has what amounts to a framed ad hanging over his bed.
Having a framed Photo Bits art print in one’s home wasn’t exactly scandalous, but it does mark Leopold and Molly as solidly lower middle class – pretentious enough to want a classical work of art in their home but not truly cultured enough to see through the cheapness of the print they chose. Photo Bits went through a metempsychosis of sorts in 1909, transforming into the more outlandish and sadomasochistic Bits of Fun, bane of censors. Joyce was a fan, urging his friend Frank Budgen in a letter, “I perceive the editor of B of F… has been before the beak and fined so whatever else in that way you send had better be enclosed in a copy of the Christian Hero or some such paper.”
The bathing nymph from Photo Bits reminds Leopold of Molly, “Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer.” He glances from Molly’s cup of tea to the tea-colored print (“Tea before you put the milk in.) Despite all their soaring rhetoric about art colors, apparently the images from Photos Bits faded fairly quickly. Leopold is inspired by the print to expand his definition of metempsychosis for Molly’s benefit, “Metempsychosis is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” What he says is true: Greek mythology is rife with stories of beautiful nymphs pursued by male sex pests only to be saved at the last minute by being turned into a plant. This isn’t quite an example of the transmigration of souls, but it demonstrates, as Burgess wrote, “the body is a garment the soul can change.”
Leopold’s ultimate conception of reincarnation hews more closely to a kabbalistic maxim (“God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain”) that Stephen approximates in “Proteus” than in the reincarnation of Hinduism or Buddhism. Rather than an unattached soul taking up residence in a new incarnation lifetime after lifetime (a transmigration of souls), Mr. Bloom imagines a procession of shifting physical forms, more of a metamorphosis than metempsychosis. Ellmann calls this quirk a “Bloomism,” defined as “an uneasy but scrupulous recollection of a factual near-miss.” See also: Bloom’s definition of parallax. Let it be noted that while Leopold gets a bit judgy over Molly’s lapses of knowledge, he is guilty of the same (very minor) crime.
In any case, seeing Molly as a nymph allows Leopold to live in his current delusion. Actually confronting Molly and working through the thorny, emotionally-fraught issues that have brought them to their current impasse (Rudy’s death, the last sexless decade of their marriage) has become too painful. A print never changes, never grows old, never gives birth to son who dies, never wants sex that you can’t give, never reminds you of trauma. A print never turns to Blazes Boylan and makes you feel less of a man. She stays the same, year after year, benign and inoffensive. Leopold can look up each night as he and Molly sleep head-to-toe and focus on how that perfect, pristine bathing nymph is just like Molly, rather than reaching out to his imperfect, aging, pissed-off wife a few inches away. Ironically, Bloom’s patterns allow him to conceal himself from Calypso the “concealer.” In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ first challenge is to escape his sexual entanglement with Calypso in order to return to his wife. Calypso confronts him, asking why he would choose his mortal wife over her immortal glory, young and beautiful forever. Leopold Bloom is faced with the same choice, though both options are Molly. His journey is a psychological one — learning to accept Molly as she is rather than imagining her as a nymph rendered in splendid art colors is a first, vital step to real healing. Easier said than done.
Molly, holding onto a similar set of frustrations with her husband, knows that her meeting with Blazes Boylan will be more than just a meeting, foreshadowed by his choice of songs. While Leopold takes refuge in his flights of fancy, Molly seeks physical satisfaction in bed with Boylan. She’s turned off by Leopold’s rambling lecture on the transmigration of souls, but she doesn’t totally ignore it, recalling the conversation in her final soliloquy, “that word met something with hoses in it and he came out with some jawbreakers about the incarnation he never can explain a thing simply the way a body can understand then he goes and burns the bottom out of the pan all for his Kidney.” Just as her husband’s Bloomisms are a window into his mind, Molly’s recall of “metempsychosis” as “incarnation” is telling. The root of the word “incarnate” is a body, something carnal, while “metempsychosis” is rooted linguistically in the psyche.
It is easy to assume that Ulysses is a purely intellectual pursuit, but Joyce saw the body as a key element in his novel. “Among other things,” [Joyce] said, “my book is the epic of the human body…. In my book the body lives in and moves through space and is the home of a full human personality. The words I write are adapted to express first one of its functions and then another…. If [the characters] had no body they would have no mind. It’s all one.” For metempsychosis to occur, both body and soul must be present. Losing touch with one leaves both adrift and unable to overcome burdensome karma, repeating stale old patterns again and again. It’s exactly where we find Molly and Leopold in “Calypso.”
Molly, ever true to her character, reveals in her choice of reading material a possible yearning for her own metempsychosis from Calypso into Penelope. She complains to Leopold that Ruby wasn’t smutty at all and asks for a new book, preferably by Paul de Kock, a name that sounds quite a bit like “Poldy cock.” Molly’s desire for some quality erotica shows that deep down she is ready to make her own return home, to be Penelope to her Odysseus once more. “Reincarnation” literally means a “return to flesh.” It’s Poldy’s flesh she’d like to return to.
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