In this episode we tackle the falling out between James Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the origins of the character Buck Mulligan, what really happened in the Martello tower, blasphemous poetry and how Joyce found his sense of humor.
I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality. – James Joyce
At the close of his lesson in “Nestor,” Stephen’s students ask for a ghost story, so naturally he provides them an unsolvable riddle. Classic Dedalus. The riddle, however, is not only unsolvable for the students of Mr. Deasy’s school, but also for most adult readers of Ulysses. It goes as follows:
The cock crew The sky was blue: The bells in heaven Were striking eleven. Tis time for this poor soul to go to heaven. Answer: The fox burying his grandmother under a holly bush.
To put it nicely, James Joyce was a prickly pear. It’s well known that he left Dublin for continental Europe in 1904, never to return. His exile was self-imposed, but that didn’t stop him from metaphorically backing out of the room with two middle fingers raised. This reaction was simultaneously over-the-top and kind of justified. Joyce struggled to find his place amongst the literary set in Dublin because his own ego was frequently a major stumbling block. In fact, Joyce had a track record of throwing down poetically when things didn’t go his way. Joyce’s angry poetry reveals a lot about his personality and worldview, and since Ulysses is heavily autobiographical, it can help us understand where Joyce’s head was when he was constructing the oft unflattering portrayals of his friends in his novel.
The Holy Office
In order to understand this poem, we need to take a look at Joyce’s relationship with the movers and shakers behind the Irish Literary Revival underway in the early twentieth century. Often associated with people like W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John M. Synge, this movement is associated with a flowering of Irish talent and a promotion of Irish traditional culture and nationalism. Though Joyce’s poetry is arguably in line with the style of the time, he felt that he was left behind by the literary bigwigs of his day.
-We oughtn’t to laugh, I suppose. He’s rather blasphemous. I’m not a believer myself, that is to say. Still his gaiety takes the harm out of it somehow, doesn’t it?
In “Telemachus,” Stephen Dedalus and the boys head down to the sea beside their Martello tower home in Sandycove to bathe in the sea. On the way, Buck Mulligan regales them with a blasphemous tune he’s composed called “The Ballad of Joking Jesus.” Haines, the English student, is amused, but we learn that Stephen is tiring of the “Ballad,” having heard it “three times a day, after meals” for God knows how long.
The inclusion of “The Ballad of Joking Jesus” establishes Buck Mulligan as a low-brow blasphemer – a man whose irreverence has no deeper meaning behind it, unlike that of an artist such as Dedalus. Mulligan is just saying rude things to get a rise out of his friends or maybe a few laughs. He’s basically that one friend who constantly posts edgy memes on Facebook with the comment, “I’m going to hell lol.” Stephen’s rejection of the Church comes from a deeper more philosophic place. Stephen also refused to pray at his mother’s deathbed on principal, so I have a hard time taking his side here.
Mother Grogan pops up a couple times throughout Ulysses. She is a reference to an anonymous folk song called Ned Grogan. I couldn’t find a recording of it, so I suppose it’s fallen out of popularity, but if you’re curious about the lyrics, you can find them here.