by M. Thomas Gammarino
Last year I had the pleasure of blogging here about the first line of Ulysses. This year, I jump ahead a few chapters to the beginning of the novel’s odyssey proper, where we first meet our (not-quite) titular (not-quite) hero dreaming of breakfast:
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
By this point in the novel, of course, the reader’s mind is no blank slate. A page ago, we followed the mind of Stephen, Bloom fils-spirituel, as it cast about Sandymount Strand musing on Aristotle and the fate of a drowned man before arriving at a vision of metempsychosis that is less proto-hippy than post-Nietszsche: “Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.” The sense of revulsion Stephen evinces for the body is typical of his dualistic sensibility. Living bodies, it turns out, don’t fare a whole lot better, and even the brothel becomes for him either a displaced classroom or confessional. He is—to appropriate a phrase from Robert Ardrey—a fallen angel, not a risen ape. Bloom, by contrast, craves urinous offal, and while he is not so beastly as the men who will later repulse him with their eating habits at the Burton Hotel, he enjoys his primate nature in a way that Stephen never could. By and by we witness Bloom enjoying a good bowel movement, and in subsequent episodes we’ll find him masturbating alfresco, and indulging in that rarefied pleasure of sniffing his own toenail. The riches of the intellect are not wholly off limits to him—he’s of an amateur-scientific bent and fantasizes about writing a sketch—but like his mythic predecessor, he delights in the world outside of his skull as well. It’s one of the reasons we delight in him, and Joyce’s masterful juxtaposition orients us this way before we’ve known Bloom for even a paragraph.
And what a paragraph it is! Like the exquisite ending to “The Dead” but in a very different mode, these few sentences showcase Joyce’s synesthetic ear. The words “thick giblet soup,” for instance, mean something, of course, but they also are something, and what they are–sonically, even visually (Gertrude Stein insisted she wrote to please her eyes above all)–is gibletty, the prose equivalent of a few thick gobs of oil paint.
Quick digression: Ferdinand de Saussure may be the single name that looms largest over twentieth-century literary criticism owing to his on-the-surface-pretty-obvious observation that signifiers and signifieds are only arbitrarily linked. Even onomatopoeia is largely arbitrary, which is why a cat might say “meow” in English, “kurnau” in Finnish, and “ngeong” in Indonesian. Recently, however, I’m glad to see a few writers complicating this a bit. Roy Blount Jr., in his book Alphabet Juice, coined the word “sonicky” for words that sound like what they mean in some very physical sense (e.g. “fuzzy” vs. “sleek”), and V.S. Ramachandran in his new book The Tell-Tale Brain gets into the neural mechanisms underlying this sort of synesthesia. Essentially, they tell us that while language is by no means deterministic, it isn’t exactly arbitrary either, which, I’d suggest, is why no man in his right mind would call his girlfriend “pulchritudinous,” even if she is. It’s also why Mel Gibson, being disemboweled in Braveheart, had to cry “Freedom!” and not “Liberty!”—that latter of which, for reasons all but impossible to explain to a non-native speaker of English, would sound perfectly ridiculous.
Joyce was hyper-sensitive to these sorts of textual-textural nuances. He was a musician before he was a writer and in passages like this it’s clear he never really left that other vocation behind. Do this sometime: videotape yourself reading that meaty paragraph and then play back the video without sound. You will find yourself, more or less, chewing. What Joyce gives us here is no less than the music of mastication.
And before I leave cat speech altogether, I’d be remiss not to mention “Mkgnao” (and “Mrkgnao,” and “Mrkrgnao”) which even Ron Rosenbaum in his recent jeremiad against Ulysses (to which I can only say de gustibus non est disputandum) recognizes as felicitous. Cats don’t bend to our orthography and Joyce isn’t one to rest on orthodoxy. By circumventing convention and capturing some of the halting, glottal quality of cat speech, Joyce exhibits what Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 called ostranenie (literally “strange-making,” though usually translated as “defamiliarization”). According to Shklovsky: “Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” I don’t want to overstate my case, but let me anyway: Mkgnao, in its microcosmic way, embodies the governing aesthetic of this whole crazy novel: to take us to the universal by way of the sublimely particular; to make life lifey.
M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of the novel Big in Japan: A Ghost Story and The Abstraction Pool, a nice little piece of flash fiction, if we do say so ourselves.