“[Focusing in the Homeric parallels] is decorous when the Homeric theme is narcosis, but is apt to occur whatever the Homeric theme, and years of concentration on the large-scale patterns … have fostered an expositor’s Ulysses in which characters sleepwalk through a grand design… and very little happens save the display of eighteen successive tableaux vivants.” – Hugh Kenner
Part of an occasional series on the Homeric parallels in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The Odyssey: Book 9
Odysseus and his men land on an island inhabited by the Lotus Eaters, a gentle people who only consume the fruit of the lotus plant. Those who eat the lotus fruit forget about returning home, preferring instead to hang out on the lotus island and eat lotus fruit. Odysseus drags his sailors weeping back to the ship and ties them to their oars in order to escape the Lotus Eaters’ island.
While James Joyce gave the Lotus Eaters a full episode in Ulysses, Homer only gave them a short mention in Book 9 of The Odyssey, which is mainly about Odysseus’ misadventure with the Cyclops. “Lotus Eaters,” Ulysses’ fifth episode, has a bit of a reputation for being uninteresting, sort of a stop over before we get to some of the flashier episodes, the ones Joycean critics throw around phrases like “tour de force” when describing. Appreciating “Lotus Eaters,” then, is an exercise in appreciating the mundane. In this episode, our modern Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, kills some time between preparing breakfast for himself, his wife and his cat, and the funeral of his friend Paddy Dignam. He goes to the post office, attends Mass, drops in at the chemist, and has a bath. All fairly normal ordinary activities, suffused in an airy haze.
“Lotus Eaters” is notable for the dominance of its Homeric symbolism, at least compared to the preceding four episodes. Certainly, the Homeric angle is present in the earlier scenes, but the imagery of flowers and atmosphere of general languor is particularly prominent in this episode. A reader could get lost on a literary scavenger hunt for all the subtle and not-so-subtle hints that Bloom (even his name is a flower!) has gone astray in Lotus Land. Joyce still has important things to tell us, even in this hour of lazy listless lingering.
First, we must consider the nature of the Homeric Lotus Eaters. They are often associated with drowsy narcosis, but their real evil in the eyes of Odysseus was the forgetfulness their fruit induced in his men. I have a memory of the Lotus Eaters causing Odysseus’ men to become sleepy and lethargic, but in the text of The Odyssey, they only make the men forgetful of their home and the necessity of returning. In antiquity, the lotus flower was associated with forgetfulness, and this is the Lotus Eaters’ great vice. The “lotus” in Homer’s telling is not necessarily the aquatic plant you might see in the pond of a Buddhist temple. Scholars both modern and ancient have debated the proper translation of “lotus,” but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. One of Joyce’s preferred editions of The Odyssey was Victor Bérard’s. Bérard felt that the term used by Homer had a Semitic root, which, it is speculated, added to Joyce’s conviction that his hero must be a Dublin Jew.
Reading this passage in The Odyssey, my initial feeling was that Lotus Eaters don’t sound so bad. Just a bunch of chill, vegetarian stoners and here comes crabby, old Odysseus wrecking their vibe. Odysseus and his crew pretty much spend the rest of the epic being devoured by monsters, but these dudes are happy to just hang out and eat flowers. Doesn’t sound so bad.
But I am not Odysseus. As a heroic figure, Odysseus is loyal and dutiful, putting his home and family before all things. Returning home to Ithaca is not only his heart’s desire, but a duty of the highest virtue. The Lotus Eaters’ evil is interfering with this lofty virtue and turning the wayward seafarers aside with their tainted fruit.
The Lotus Eaters are what Dermot would term “bliss ninnies.” They are focused on their own perceived sense of enlightenment, but their utopia is ultimately hollow, as it serves no larger purpose than their personal satisfaction. To put it another way, it’s fun to hang out with dedicated stoners, but only for a while. Weed will make you feel happy and forget about your responsibilities, but ultimately you’re just kind of wasting your time. Getting stoned is fun for a weekend, but it’s not much of an identity. Obviously individual opinions may vary.
Unlike his Homeric counterpart, Bloom falls under the spell of the Lotus Eaters, though only temporarily. He slides through this episode in a bit of a daze, absorbing the floral and aromatic sensory temptations abounding in Westland Row. He daydreams about the Orient again, but rather than an economically buzzing farm like in “Calypso,” he imagines exotic people lazing about in the heat and humidity of some far-off tropical clime, dolce far niente (“sweetly doing nothing” in Italian).
If religion is the “opiate of the masses,” Bloom samples this anaesthetic, sitting in on Mass at All Hallows Church, watching the parishioners receive an especially symbolic Eucharist and sneaking out before the collection plate is passed. He then treads in the abode of the alchemist, Sweny’s chemist, where all manner of elixirs and potions are brewed to ease the minds and bodies of men. Botany and chemistry are the dual arts of this episode, as they are the originators of all those mysterious potions. Bloom purchases fragrant lemon soap and a lotion for Molly to be picked up that afternoon. Under the influence of the Lotus Eaters, he is forgetful of his return and never makes it back to Sweny’s for the lotion. Lastly, Bloom lolls in the Turkish bath, gazing upon his own flaccid flower.
Bloom is surrounded by Lotus Eaters in Westland Row. Naming them all would make a tedious blog post, but let’s look at a few notable examples. Have fun re-reading your copy and trying to spot more! As the lotus’ narcotic effect is associated in part with its perfume, aromatics abound in “Lotus Eaters,” including the lemon soap in Sweny’s and the question of what perfume Molly wears. Along with the heady scent of incense, the soothing music and unintelligible Latin of the Mass, could lull one into a holy stupor. If it’s oral fixation you’re after, “Lotus Eaters” is filled to the brim with booze, tea, cigarettes, the Eucharist, and even some oats for the horses.
Bloom observes Lotus Eaters in the forms of inert soldiers on a recruiting poster, passive cricket spectators (apparently Joyce has an interest in cricket), the incapable M’Coy, gelded horses and imagined eunuchs. As readers, we can pull back one order of magnitude greater and imagine that many Irish men of Bloom’s time period were Lotus Eaters of a sort. Having spent so many years under British rule, they had become forgetful of their homeland and had lost their cultural identity under colonial oppression. Many were listless, out of work, and overcome with alcoholism.
Joyce described the “technic” of “Lotus Eaters” as “narcissism,” which might seem a little uncharitable to Mr. Bloom. In modern parlance, the term is often associated with narcissistic personality disorder, a psychological description involving extreme self-centeredness and a lack of empathy. To me, calling someone a narcissist feels fairly damning. However, Joyce refers to narcissism in the classical sense, related to the myth of Narcissus, a man who fell in love with his own reflection. Bloom’s narcissism is characterized by self-indulgence rather than self-aggrandizement. He certainly has at least an enjoyment of this myth, as he keeps a statue of Narcissus in his kitchen that renders “departure [to his bedroom and a sleeping Molly] undesirable” at the end of his long day.
“Lotus Eaters,” then, is also an episode about the wounded male ego, and wounds require anesthetic as well. Bloom knows that Molly is going to “make music” with Boylan that afternoon, so he rather ineffectually retaliates by reading a flirtatious letter (with flower enclosed!) from his sexy penpal Martha Clifford, which he receives under the pseudonym Henry Flower (everything’s a flower!). He reads her titilating letter, tears it up and keeps the scentless flower as a reminder, but never responds to her letter. His affair is totally self-indulgent, existing in this episode to help him lick his wounds and convince him he’s “still got it” no matter who Blazes Boylan is shtupping. As the correspondent organ of “Lotus Eaters” is the genitals, Bloom fully intends to indulge his own organ in the Turkish bath at the close of the episode, though if you’ve read ahead to “Nausicaa,” this desire goes unfilled as well. He is left questioning and doubting himself as a man and a husband, symbolized by the fact that his path through the neighborhood roughly makes the shape of two question marks when plotted on a map. Bloom is in need of a salve for his uncertainty.
Apart from Martha, who exists only on the page, Bloom has trouble connecting with the two acquaintances he meets during “Lotus Eaters” – M’Coy and Bantam Lyons. Bloom finds M’Coy tedious and is annoyed by the unanticipated stop-and-chat when they happen upon each other in the street. Bloom is only half-listening to M’Coy’s small talk as he engages in some morose delectation, trying to glimpse the ankles of an upper class woman across the street. Bloom is distracted and his ogling is interrupted, which he blames on M’Coy’s blathering.
Bloom also fails to understand Bantam Lyons’ questions about the Ascot Gold Cup race that afternoon. Bloom isn’t a gambler like many of his peers, so there’s room for miscommunication, but if Bloom had asked a few clarifying questions of Lyons, perhaps he could have headed off the Throwaway debacle that leads to a violent altercation later in the day. Rather than blame the victim, we can also observe Lyons’ self-involvement in scrambling to check the race’s odds in Bloom’s newspaper rather than express himself more clearly. Either way, we see two men talking past one another and not connecting, each lost in their own narcissistic lotus.
As readers, we too must be wary of losing our way in a haze, forgetful of our destination. Don’t be deceived by an “easy” episode, less impressive than its showier cousins. Though it is chock full of symbolic titbits, “Lotus Eaters” is at its heart a character study of a lost man, with Bloom’s inner-life at its heart. It’s gratifying to chase down all the references and symbolic correspondences, but these too are lotuses, helping us feel like we’ve gotten to the heart of the matter when really they allow us to better understand the packaging rather than the deeper psychology and revelations beneath the surface. Let us take a moment to keep our wits clear and appreciate this deceptively simple episode and avoid miring ourselves in symbolic gratification. Take it easy on those lotuses, friends.
Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Ellmann, R. (1972). Ulysses on the Liffey. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.65767/page/n39
Findley, A. The Lotus Eaters – Modernism Lab. Retrieved from https://campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/the-lotus-eaters/
Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.
Herring, P. (1974). Lotuseaters. In C. Hart & D. Hayman (eds.), James Joyce’s Ulysses: Critical essays (71-90). Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/wu2y7mg
Homer, translated by Palmer., G.H. (1912). The Odyssey. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.
Kenner, H. (1987). Ulysses. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=Ajlz5rzPBOkC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA19#v=onepage&q&f=false
Williamson, A. The Lotus Eaters. Modernist Commons. Retrieved from https://modernistcommons.ca/islandora/object/yale%3A454