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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Poetry in Ulysses: White Thy Fambles, Red Thy Gan

[Rogues] have their several Wenches, and several places of meeting, where whatsoever they unlawfully obtain they spend, and whatsoever they spend is to satisfie their unsatisfied lust; wallowing in all manner of debauchery, converting the night into day and the day into night, damning and sinkling being four parts in five their discourse…  – Richard Head, 1673

For all posts on music and poetry in Ulysses, visit this page.


Near the end of “Proteus,” Stephen encounters a couple of cocklepickers “shouldering their bags” and walking along Sandymount Strand. The proceeding description, found on p. 47 in my copy of Ulysses (1990 Vintage International), becomes less and less intelligible as it goes on. At first glance, it’s hardly recognizable as English at all. Consult an annotation or reading guide, and you’ll be told it’s Gypsy speech but not much else. I think we should honor the art of “Proteus” – philology – and pick this one apart word by word.

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