Decoding Dedalus: Signs on a White Field

Actuality and the material world demand a winnowing down of facts to one linear story which serves one party, is the shout of the victor. In Ulysses, the human form is allowed to be infinite; no fact is considered unhistorical, no victory will be dismissed as pyrrhic. Everything is included because Ulysses is the epic of recovered time and redeemed space. – Alistair Cormack

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 47-48 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “His shadow lay…” and ends “… the more the more.”

Finally, we find ourselves in the closing pages of “Proteus.” Stephen has found his creative spark and begun composing his poem – his main artistic output of June sixteenth. As readers, we find ourselves on the downslope on a mighty hill, but remember, reaching the summit of a mountain is only half the climb. We still have to find our way down. 

His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. 

Here we see Stephen, in the grips of the poetic muse, bending over an ersatz table made of rocks on Sandymount Strand, jotting down the lines about the pale vampire traversing the seas on his bat-winged ship. Stephen sees his own shadows and ponders its limit. Of course, he’s not thinking only of his literal shadow, but also the shadow cast by his genius and the acclaim he hopes to achieve. Keep in mind, this is the same young Artist who requested his works be sent to all the great libraries of the world upon his death (including the long-ago-burned Library of Alexandria) in order to preserve his memory (a request that James Joyce made in real life of his brother Stanislaus).  rZSuJjadWhen Stephen asks, “Why not endless till the farthest star,” he is asking why can’t his “shadow,” his legacy extend to the far reaches of the universe? The thought of “the farthest star” leads to thoughts of the stars visible from Earth, hidden by the brightness of the midday sky. He recalls his earlier inversion of the Bible verse John 1:5, “darkness shining in the brightness.” 

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Ep. 25 – Proteus

Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_36
The cubes in this emblem represent prima materia; 1617, Michael Maier

The time has come for Blooms & Barnacles to tackle Ulysses‘ third episode – “Proteus”! This is Ulysses‘ first “difficult” episode – jam-packed with multiple languages and obscure references. This week’s podcast gives an overview of many of the themes found in “Proteus,” including its connection to The Odyssey, the influence of esoteric doctrines on the text and Joyce’s love of writing in multiple languages. With guest star, Emma the cat.

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Averroes, Maimonides, Ulysses, James Joyce

Ep. 17 – Averroes and Moses Maimonides

Kelly and Dermot tackle the reference to Averroes and Maimonides in “Nestor.” Not only does this episode cover these two philosophers and their connection to Aristotle, there’s also plenty of discussion on Morris dance, Giordano Bruno and the thematic importance of goth kids.

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La Vie de Léo Taxil

—Qui vous a mis dans cette fichue position?

—c’est le pigeon, Joseph.

Midway though “Proteus,” Stephen reminisces on his time as a medical student in Paris. Amongst those reminiscences, two names are nestled. First, on page 41 (Vintage International Edition):

But he must send me La Vie de Jesus by M. Leo Taxil. Lent it to his friend.

And later (pgs. 43, 50):

And Monsieur Drumont, gentleman journalist.

There’s not indication in the text of the link connecting these two men – Léo Taxil and Édouard Drumont. Though they have become obscure in the 21st century, their public personas likely shaped the worldview of a young Stephen Dedalus (and James Joyce).

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Mahamanvantara

I wouldn’t be [Joyce’s] Messiah for a thousand million pounds. He would always be criticising the bad taste of his deity.” – AE Russell

Hello, dear readers. Let’s have some fun with Sanskrit today. We’re in the thick of it now, deep into the darkest reaches of “Proteus,” the point where you think you’ve got a handle on things and then BAM. Sanskrit. The art of “Proteus” is philology, so I think we should embrace James Joyce’s penchant for linguistic whimsy and dive in. This one gets weird.

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Houses of Decay

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.  – H.P. Lovecraft

James Joyce had a penchant for nesting obscure references in his writing that are indecipherable to nearly anyone who isn’t James Joyce (have you noticed?). There’s something appealingly stubborn about this style of writing – the writer communicating to their reader, “Look, I’m not going to throw you a branch. Either learn how to swim or enjoy drowning.” If you do learn to swim, though, there are rewards. Tucked into Stephen’s inner monologue in “Proteus” is a passage, obscure at first (naturally), that reveals the story of a Christian mystic, a W. B. Yeats short story and an obstinate young Artist:

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