Form of Forms

It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things. – Aristotle, De Anima

I am absolutely indebted to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the book Allwisest Stagyrite: Joyce’s Quotations from Aristotle by University College Dublin professor Fran O’Rourke for the contents of this essay.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, I must open this post with a confession of guilt: I’ve avoided writing about Aristotle as much as possible on this blog because I really don’t understand him. I’ve been laboring away the last few months fully aware that I purposely skipped over the following sweet, juicy chunks of philosophy on page 25 of “Nestor” because not only did I have no idea what they meant, but I had no desire to do the research to find out:

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms.

I thought I got away with it, too. No one emailed me to ask why I skipped over that “form of forms” bit, so I thought my soul was free of the weight of guilt brought on by my own neglect.

But then, I came across this passage on page 44 of “Proteus”:

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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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Averroes, Maimonides, Ulysses, James Joyce

Decoding Dedalus: Dark Men of Mien and Movement

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 page 28 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.


Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

These thoughts traverse Stephen’s mind as he sits to help young Sargent with his algebra. Stephen, distracted as ever, ponders the greater mysteries and histories behind something so seemingly simple as a young student’s algebra problem. However, as you’ve certainly guessed by now, nothing is ever simple in Ulysses. Oh my god, there is so much in this one, you guys.

Let’s dive in.

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors.

Let’s start with the word “morrice.” Usually spelled Morris dance today, this is  a traditional/ historical form of folk dance from England and Wales and, as a result, has had a lot of different spellings over the years. Morris dance does indeed involve a certain amount of mummery and the wearing of quaint caps. Some styles include blackface as part of the costume.

Stephen is slipping into a daydream as young Sargent works his algebra, watching the numbers come alive and dance across the page. It’s sort of like John Cusack in Better Off Dead, except less whimsical and less 80’s. The last line is key here. “The Moors” refer to the inhabitants of medieval Muslim Spain. While the origins of Morris dance are unknown, some believe “Morris” to have evolved from “Moorish.” The costumes of some styles of Morris dance and the unfortunate blackface seem to reflect this to me. Stephen thinks of the Moors in particular, though, because algebra was introduced to Europe by Muslim scholars.

Continue reading “Decoding Dedalus: Dark Men of Mien and Movement”