Decoding Dedalus: A Dedalus Never Pays His Debts

—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.

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James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan

Poetry in Ulysses: The Ballad of Joking Jesus

-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.

joyce ulysses buck mulliganThe 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.

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Joyce Ulysses Sandycove Martello Tower

Say ‘Hello’ to Martello Towers

–Rather bleak in wintertime, I should say. Martello you call it?

— Billy Pitt had them built, Buck Mulligan said, when the French were on the sea. But ours is the omphalos.

 

Ulysses opens with a scene familiar to anyone who has lived in a too-small apartment with roommates – Stephen Dedalus chafing at the harsh banter of Buck Mulligan and the too-eager curiosity of Haines the English Hibernophile in their shared chambers in a seaside tower. Ultimately, Stephen decides not to vacate the tower; a literary “Screw you guys, I’m outta here.”

The Martello towers’ design is based on a tower held by the French in Mortella on the island of Corsica. It took British ships years to breach the tiny cylindrical tower even though it was only manned by a small crew. Seeing as how it managed to keep them out, the British decided the same design could be used to keep foreign invaders out of their empire as well. Roughly 50 were built in Ireland, mainly along the east coast. 15 were commissioned between Dublin and Bray in 1804 to prevent a French invasion during the Napoleonic wars, and we have to assume they worked because the French never invaded Ireland. They were unable to protect the coast from a more malevolent force, however, as Bono once resided in the Bray Martello tower.

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