Sunday, July 15, 2012

As usual, it's all about ME ME ME. (Sundays With The Classics)

I have to confess, I'm a little bit lost in Ulysses so far.  I think I've followed the plot, such as it is -- Bloom has gotten up, has done some teaching, and as I left off today, was standing outside of a shop thinking to himself that he had to buy some tea.  He also stopped off at home to eat a kidney he cooked up and talk with a woman I'm pretty sure is his wife, and she hid a letter under a pillow and (I think) lied to him about who it was from, which hints at some sort of secret but I'm not sure what.

Also, there's a part where Bloom goes to the bathroom while reading an article or short story of some sort and thinks to himself that he might be able to do that, write a story.  That part goes on for rather longer than it ought to.

I read on some site or other, or maybe in that profile of Joyce that I read in The New Yorker, that Joyce modeled Bloom's day after The Odyssey, that Bloom's walking around Dublin was supposed to be his own Odyssey and that the things that are happening are paralleled in Homer's poem, which might help me understand where the plot is going if I had any idea what happened in The Odyssey, but I never read that poem.  I think we were supposed to read it in high school but I never did.  Maybe I read parts of it.  For some reason, I recall a large-ish textbook with those dual columns of type and a picture of Odysseus lashed to a mast, unable to hear the calls of the Sirens.

That part always makes me wonder, when I think of it: Why did Odysseus have to be tied to the mast -- meaning why did he have to be able to hear?  I should probably go read the poem to have it make sense, because when I think about it, here is what I know:

-- The Sirens lured sailors to their doom by singing songs that made the sailors sail over to them and (I think) crash their ships.

-- Odysseus had to get past there, so he had all his men cover their ears, and maybe blindfold themselves.

-- But he couldn't be blindfolded, etc.,

-- I don't know why that was.

-- But it had to be, and so he was tied to the mast and could hear the Sirens but couldn't go to them.

So was the point, as I think it was, that he could tell the sailors which way to go, when they couldn't hear or see? Because if that was the point, then:

A.  If the sailors could hear him, they could hear the Sirens, and

B.  Why wouldn't Odysseus have simply told the sailors to sail over to the Sirens?

See what I mean? It makes no sense.  I should go look it up, but I'm tired. 

Supposedly, Bloom's traveling around Dublin on the one day the book takes place on mirrors Odysseus' journeys, somehow -- The New Yorker was quite emphatic that there's some part near the end where Bloom has to try to get into his house but he has to climb a wall, or something, and that is supposed to be just like when Odysseus had to sneak into his own house after his journey, a comparison that is lost on me.

So as I'm reading, I'm trying not only to figure out which part of The Odyssey I might be reading (is this the part with the Cyclops? Is this? and so on) but also to decipher Joyce's language, made all the harder that it's from about a hundred years ago and it's sort of Irish-y and if that weren't enough apparently Joyce just makes up words, which I can respect except that it makes it really, really difficult to tell what's going on...

... the clearest part of the book today was when Bloom is feeding the cat a piece of the kidney he bought...

... while still making it incredible to read: as difficult as it is to understand, the book is like poetry, but not: it doesn't rhyme and it doesn't have meter, but instead the words just tumble out and keep on coming, making reading the book for me sort of like looking at a Seurat painting

(Was Seurat the pointilist? If he wasn't, then I mean a pointilist)

in that you have to sort of read each word in isolation and then jumble them all together and then stiep back a bit and think about what you've just read and then maybe it all coheres into a picture

-- Bloom standing in front of a butcher hoping the butcher will hurry up so he can walk behind the pretty lady who just left the shop and ogle her, say --

or maybe it doesn't, but the words are still nice to read.  Here is Bloom musing about tea, which leads him to think about the far East:

Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them.  Wonder is it like that.  Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente not doing a hand's turn all day.  Sleep six months out of twelve.  Too hot to quarrel.  Influence of the climate.  Lethargy. Flowers of idleness.  The air feeds most.  Azotes. Hothouse in the Botanic gardens.  Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air.

Just fun to read, and when I stop and let it soak in, I realize that Bloom earlier mused about walking around the world just ahead of the sun (you'd never age a day, he thinks) and wondered what the Mideast would be like, and had considered an investment in Turkey growing olives but also picked up and read a flyer about becoming a farmer somewhere.  He's restless, apparently, his mind wandering farther than his legs can take him.

Which makes me think of me, again, and may be one of the reasons I like this complicated, dense, hard-to-understand book -- I keep seeing myself in the words.


Liz said...

The Sirens' song was so beautiful that it lured men to their deaths. Odysseus wanted to hear the song, but he didn't want to die, so he had himself tied to the post so he could hear it, but had his men cover their ears so they wouldn't get them all killed.

I think.

I haven't read The Odyssey. But I've subbed in English classes that were reading it, so I've picked up a few things. Here and there.

Andrew Leon said...

Liz is correct. Basically, he wanted to hear the beauty of the song. The men weren't blindfolded, just had their ears plugged.

I didn't know it was supposed to be a parallel; now, I really do want to read it. Sounds more than self-indulgent like a lot of people have said it is.

But I have to catch up on some other reading first...

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I think you should read some Terry Eagleton before you tackle Ulysses.