Kelly and Dermot talk about page #1 of Ulysses, taking a deep dive into the symbolism of the Catholic Mass in the opening scene. There’s lots of talk about blasphemy, transubstantiation, saints and why Kelly was a terrible altar server back in the day. We finish off with wild speculation about why kids don’t learn Latin and Greek these days.
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.
Dermot and Kelly discuss the connections between Ulysses and The Odyssey. We take on the Gilbert schema, how to market a book like Ulysses, what exactly happens in the opening chapters of The Odyssey, and how it corresponds to the “Telemachus” episode of Ulysses.
—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way. … I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?
This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and break it down line by line.
The passage below comes from “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 30-31 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).
A guide to pre-decimal currency can be found here.
Mr. Deasy’s quote above is meant to be the pride of the English – being so sensible (or just wealthy, let’s be real) that you live your whole life without debts. It’s worth recalling that in “Telemachus,” Haines the Englishman said to Buck Mulligan, “Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?” just moments before Mulligan underpays the milkwoman for her milk, an underpayment on owed money. Stephen, most unEnglishly, also has his fair share of debts, of which he takes mental stock after Mr. Deasy extolls the virtues of lacking debt. Stephen’s debt mirrors the financial realities of James Joyce himself at a similar age.
Much like Stephen, Joyce had returned from medical school in Paris, his family in disarray following his mother’s death. His father, John Joyce, was selling off their household items to patch holes in the family’s dire financial situation while coping with the strain through alcohol. Though James could have hypothetically worked to support his family, he was dead set on making his mark as an Artist. This sometimes took the form of all-day writing sessions and other times sleeping until four in the afternoon following an all-night drinking session. In Joyce’s mind, one justified the other.
I am now writing a book based on the wanderings of Ulysses. ‘The Odyssey,’ that is to say, serves me as a ground plan. Only my time is recent and all my hero’s wanderings take no more than 18 hours. – James Joyce, 1918
For a discussion of this topic, check out our podcast episode here.
Welcome to the first post in an occasional series in which I read The Odyssey, break down the references in each of Ulysses’ eighteen episodes and pull out the ancient Greek parallels. Ulysses has its basis in Homer’s ancient Greek epic, so exploring the journeys of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus side by side seems like an obvious route. However, a word of caution: while The Odyssey is present in the text of Ulysses, knowing and understanding the Homeric parallels in Ulysses will only take you so far and will sometimes present you with “false friends” – apparent parallels where there are none. It’s kind of like the Spanish word embarazada. It looks a lot like a familiar English word, but using it to mean embarrassment might lead to… well, embarrassment.
Just so we’re clear on terms – “Homeric parallels” are the ways in which Ulysses is modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. “Ulysses” is the Latin name for the main character (Odysseus in Greek) after all. If you’ve used a reading guide or annotation to Ulysses, you’ve likely noticed that each episode in the novel is given a title corresponding to The Odyssey. The first chapter about Stephen and the boys in the tower is called “Telemachus,” for instance. Although these designations are common coin amongst Ulysses enthusiasts, they never appeared in any published edition of the book. They were popularized by Stuart Gilbert after they appeared in his 1930 book Ulysses – A Study. Joyce provided Gilbert with a schema outlining his novel as well as prominent themes and parallels in each episode. If you use an annotation that lists the corresponding organ, color, art etc. for each chapter, these also have their roots in Joyce’s schemata.
To hear a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.
Part of an occasional series on Catholic allusions found in Ulysses.
In 2017, I was a founding member of the Ulysses Support Group at T.C. O’Leary’s pub in Portland, Oregon. Our goal was to read the entirety of Ulysses aloud between two Bloomsdays. On the first night, as we started analysing the opening lines of the novel, I pointed out that Mulligan’s actions atop the Martello tower were a blasphemous mockery of the Catholic Mass. One of the other participants blurted, “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??” It caught me off guard, but another member deftly responded, “Joyce was Irish. Of course it’s about Catholicism!”
I was raised Catholic in a small town where most people were Catholic. I went to Sunday school (called CCD) every week. Monty Python and the Meaning of Life was banned in our house because of the “Every Sperm is Sacred” song. One thing I learned through our book club is that a lot of the religious references and imagery don’t necessarily stand out for those of us who didn’t grow up steeped in Catholicism. I also notice a lot of reading guides and annotations for Ulysses assume the reader’s familiarity with Catholicism. In this post and many posts to come, I hope to answer the question of Book Club Dude: “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??”
Today, I’m taking on that very first passage of Ulysses about stately, plump Buck Mulligan.
Continue reading “Ulysses CCD: Mulligan Mocks Mass”
-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.