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Leopold Bloom, An Everyman Seduced by Science

For a century, Leopold Bloom and young Stephen Dedalus have woven intersecting paths through Dublin during Thursday, June 16, 1904, and into the wee hours of the next day.  Their peregrinations, traced in the densely rich pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first saw the light of day for us to enjoy with the publication of the novel in 1922.  Pictured below is number 302 of the 1000 numbered first edition copies published by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company.  (This image was taken by Geoffrey Barker.  Available from Wikimedia Commons, it is reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.)

The scaffolding of the novel is Homer’s Odyssey; its episodes track with those experienced by Ulysses in his quest to return from Troy to his home in Ithaca and to his wife Penelope.  Beyond the title, our knowledge of the embedded road signs to the Homeric structure are the product of Joyce's own schema and the extensive scholarship that the novel has supported for a hundred years.  Joyce would have had it no other way, having said his masterwork would “keep the professors busy for centuries.”  [Later edit:  I rewrote this paragraph after posting it because I misstated things in a way worthy of Bloom.]

I made several failed attempts over the years to read the novel’s nearly 800 pages, but, this year, I succeeded, prompted by the occasion of the centenary of its publication and by my decision to follow a particular approach to tackling this masterpiece:  go with the flow, read primarily for the plot, and don’t sweat all the myriad details.  This approach was inspired by JoAnn Greco’s article Unlocking Ulysses (Johns Hopkins Magazine, Volume 74, Number 1, Spring 2022).  In it she quotes Douglas Mao, chair of Johns Hopkins University's English department, "I think basic comprehension is what first-time readers want."  And so, in his classes, he focuses on "sticking to the text and understanding what is happening in the story."  Of Greco's own first reading, she admits "I slogged and skimmed when things got tedious."  Mao posits that a first reading is just preliminary to re-immersing for the second and third readings.  Well, maybe later.

I came to this foray equipped with the complete edition of the novel published in 1961 by Random House, an edition tied page-by-page to an excellent guide to the book’s obscurest references, Ulysses Annotated:  Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman (1988).  I was helped by Edward A. Kopper, Jr.’s Cliffs Notes on Joyce’s Ulysses, (1981) which well defines the broad contours of the events of the novel.

Ulysses’ “hero” Leopold Bloom is a complex character and, as my companion for experiencing the events of June 16th and early June 17th, I found him:

gentle, often charitable, generally well meaning, loquacious, opinionated (about everything and often wrong), unintentionally comic, very sensitive of being an outsider, frustratingly passive, furtive, and sexually driven.

What a wonderful creation.

Connection of Bloom to this blog?  With this reading, it came clear how much Bloom seeks to demonstrate to himself and those he encounters in his travels that he is privy to the mysteries of science (writ large).  He wants to don the mantle of the scientific cognoscenti, despite having only a limited and fragmented understanding of what he propounds.  It’s hard not to laugh at him as he remembers and misremembers scientific principles, misapplies them, attempts to expound some scientific explanation only to lose the thread.  In finding this amusing, I’m laughing at myself and my own bumbling aspiration to scientific mastery.

In episode 17 (Ithaca), a fascinating section featuring a series of questions with answers about Bloom and Dedalus, one stood out for me:

What two temperaments did they individually represent?

The scientific.  The artistic.  (p. 683)

Bloom’s is the “scientific” temperament.  I should note that it doesn’t take until this late point in the narrative to recognize that Bloom and Dedalus are like chalk and cheese, and to appreciate the nature of Bloom’s scientific temperament.

Here’s a telling example of how Bloom manifests that temperament.  Very early in the novel, he sets out walking from his house en route to Paddy Dignam’s funeral.  He pauses before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company store.  Its display leads him to think about, among other subjects, Ceylon, tropical heat, lethargy; his mind comes to rest on a mental image of someone floating on his back in the Dead Sea reading a book.  Bloom thinks:

Couldn’t sink if you tried:  so thick with salt.  Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body in the water is equal to the weight of the.  Or is it the volume is equal of the weight?  It’s a law something like that.  Vance in High school cracking his fingerjoints, teaching.  The college curriculum.  Cracking curriculum.  What is weight really when you say the weight?  Thirtytwo feet per second, per second.  Law of falling bodies:  per second, per second.  They all fall to the ground.  The earth.  It’s the force of gravity of the earth is the weight.  (p. 72, "fingerjoints" and "Thirtytwo" are as Joyce penned them.)

How funny, how real, how familiar.

In episode 16 (Eumaeus), late at night, Bloom and Dedalus walk to a cabman’s shelter (a structure where the cab drivers can get hot food and tea).  Among the topics of their conversation (in which they talk past each other) is the human soul.  Dedalus says that others call it a “simple substance and therefore incorruptible.”  (p. 633)  Bloom (Joyce notes he is “a bit out of his sublunary depth”) is compelled to respond, focusing on the adjective “simple”:

—Simple?  I shouldn’t think that is the proper word.  Of course, I grant you, to concede a point, you do knock across a simple soul once in a blue moon.  But what I am anxious to arrive at is it is one thing for instance to invent those rays Röntgen did, or the telescope like Edison, though I believe it was before his time, Galileo was the man I mean.  The same applies to the laws, for example, of a farreaching natural phenomenon such as electricity but it’s a horse of quite another colour to say you believe in the existence of a supernatural God.  (p. 634, "farreaching" - sic)

Bloom so wants to be able to interact with Dedalus on the latter’s artistic and intellectual level, but he cannot.  He’s out of his depth regarding nearly everything under the moon on that June night.  But he cannot not engage Dedalus in conversation, regardless of how little of substance he has to offer.

Bloom, a decidedly social creature, must offer, whatever the situation, an opinion or an explanation, even if he only has only the barest inkling of what’s relevant or what’s wanted.  The people around him recognize this and, in the course of the novel, comment on it.  For instance, earlier in the day (episode 12 (Cyclops)), as Bloom goes in and out of Barney Kiernan’s pub, he is clearly not welcome.  Still he feels the need to engage in the discussions of a group of raucous, angry, disgruntled men, led by the anti-Semitic, Irish nationalist character identified as "Citizen."  At one point, the conversation turns to record distances of shot put throws.  The narrator of this episode (quite acerbic in his comments) observes:

So off they started about Irish sport and shoneen games the like of the lawn tennis and about hurley and putting the stone and racy of the soil and building up a nation once again and all of that.  And of course Bloom had to have his say too about if a fellow had a rower’s heart violent exercise was bad.  I declare to my antimacassar if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom:  Look at, Bloom.  Do you see that straw?  That’s a straw.  Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour so he would and talk steady.  (p. 316, Gifford in Ulysses Annotated notes that a shoneen is a “would-be gentleman.”)

This need to engage and expound, coupled with a faulty grasp of the science, is a recipe for disaster, as it would be for any avocational science lover.  Bloom, a comic hero, is human to a fault, and, in his mangling of science, proves he is truly an Everyman seduced by, but not master of, science.  I can relate to that, having been there more often than I care to admit (and certainly, at times, in the posts of this blog). | Impressum