“Stately, plump”: the first line of ULYSSES

“Stately, plump”: the first line of Ulysses
by M. Thomas Gammarino

(author of the novel BIG IN JAPAN: A GHOST STORY)

First a caveat:

Ulysses is my favorite novel. I’d just as soon it be something else—I dislike bandwagons as much as the next serious reader—but Ulysses, which routinely tops the best-novel-ever lists, happens to be the one book which has most provoked and inspired me, and it’s one of very few novels I intend to reread regularly until I die. By way of evidence, I’ll cite the pilgrimage I made a few years back to the Martello Tower so that I could better feel the first chapter. And I might mention also that my own first novel, Big in Japan, pays homage to Ulysses throughout.

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And so Stephen walks away from Mulligan and Haines, ostensibly going off to work, but also having determined that he cannot come back.  He is no longer comfortable there, and really no longer welcome.

As he walks away the prayer for the dying comes back to him (“Liliata rutilantium…”),  the prayer his mother wanted him to say at her bedside while she was dying . Why?  Perhaps because of the priest he saw swimming, and Mulligan’s sign of the cross… or perhaps his decision to not return to the tower is a decision to not submit to Mulligan, in the same way that he refused to submit to his mother’s or his family’s will.  The latter reason would also explain why he thinks that he also can’t go home, to his family’s home.

In the Odyssey, Telemachus knows exactly why he’s leaving Ithaca, and he knows what he needs to do, and he knows where to go.  He doesn’t know where his father Odysseus is, but Athena has told him how to go about learning what happened.  He has a plan… where Stephen’s plan is less clear. He has a job to go to, he has a date for drinks later (he won’t go, by the way). What can we say Stephen is leaving to find?

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Well, alright. More Nietzsche, then, as Mulligan closes the loop on his Zarathustra-inspired teaching.  One of the ways Friedrich’s term “ubermensch” has been translated is “superman.”  Whether Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had the German philosopher in mind when they invented the noblest superhero of them all is a matter of debate, but I think Rob might be having fun with it here.  Certainly our stately, plump Buck Mulligan is quite a spectacle in flight.

Stephen’s thoughts, in the black boxes, come from an old Irish proverb (according to the great Gifford): “Beware of the horns of a bull, of the heels of a horse, of the smile of an Englishman.”  Stephen has been sensing trouble throughout the chapter, and things are no different here.

Mulligan proposes meeting at “The Ship,” which was a Dublin pub, but also has a nice overtone of the ship Telemachus uses to leave Ithaca, and the ship Antinoos uses to try to catch him.  Joyce must have liked the tidiness of the reference.

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The unwanted suitors in Ithaca (in Homer’s Odyssey) are described as eating and drinking up all the wealth of the household, as they wait for Penelope to make a decision about whether to remarry.  Mulligan has no compunction about living off the charity of others, which is even more galling when you consider that he’s clearly from a higher social class and greater family wealth than Stephen.  That Stephen is asked for the key and the two pence for a pint is his final indignity of the chapter.

For any of you interested in money, rest assured that Joyce keeps careful track of it throughout the novel.  Whether it was part of his quest for verisimilitude or just his own cash consciousness, the novel frequently mentions prices charged and amounts paid. There’s even a (more or less) complete budget of Leopold Bloom’s spending at one point.  In this chapter, we’ve seen the milkwoman already perform an elaborate calculation of the tower’s milk bill.

Mulligan’s priestly quote is a travesty of Proverbs 19:17 “He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord,” done in the manner of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.  By taking Stephen’s money, Mulligan is, in a sense, stealing from the poor indeed.

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They key thing that happens on this page (so to speak) is Mulligan asking for the key to the tower.  We know that Stephen has paid the rent, we know that he’s the real intellectual, we know that Mulligan has been overplaying their friendship to Haines for the sake of squeezing some money out of the Englishman, we know that Mulligan’s real interest in Stephen pales in comparison to his more craven or conniving plans.

By giving up the key, Stephen is relinquishing control of the tower to an untrustworthy friend.  As he does so, he knows it’s a turning point in his relationship with Mulligan and in his life.  By handing over the key, he is freeing himself from the “third master” who wants him for the “odd jobs.”

And of course, Haines, the Englishman, prudently shows himself to be afraid of swimming on a full stomach. Or maybe the sight of naked Mulligan disheartened him.

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This conversation with the unnamed man serves a few purposes — one is to set up a surprise about the “photo girl” you won’t really get until Episode 4– but it also showcases Mulligan’s alpha personality, and  the eagerness with which others approach him with the latest news.

Mulligan’s miming the sign of the cross might seem a little unclear. One reason is that there is a swimmer we’ve left out of the comic — an old man who climbs up a rock next to Mulligan and who is likely a priest, so Mulligan may be signalling that to the swimming man. He may also be making a joke (as several people do during the day) about Stephen’s mourning dress and hat making him look like  a priest.

Textual trivia. In the Rosenbach Manuscript of Ulysses, the line “red-headed women buck like goats” is followed with “and all creation simply gloats.” Now you know.

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Stephen identifies with the drowned man.  In contrast, Mulligan is irrepressibly vital.  Joyce puts Mulligan’s disrobing and his getting ready to swim at the center of the narrative frame — which Rob picks up here.  As the chapter winds into its close, we see Mulligan asserting his dominance and power over Stephen, sealing Stephen’s determination to escape him and thereby sending Stephen on his journey.

Mulligan’s physical energy connects him with Antinoos, the chief of the suitors pursuing Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.  The unnamed man in the water seems like a supplicant to Mulligan–which seems even clearer from Rob’s representation.  Their world, with its gossip and hierarchy, is a trap for Stephen–one of the masters he serves.

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Haines has been tentatively probing Stephen, trying to learn something about his religious beliefs, his thoughts about Shakespeare, his thoughts about Mulligan — anything that will help him understand the strange Irish intellectual and perhaps be able to use him in his work.  Stephen has no interest in this, however, and the questions just make him feel more and more isolated.

In these panels, Stephen concludes that he cannot stay any longer at the tower, that he cannot be a part of Mulligan’s bankrupt intellectual project, even though he paid the rent on the tower. [n.b. — in real life, Mulligan’s counterpart, Oliver St. John Gogarty, was the one who paid the rent.]  He accurately guesses that Mulligan will ask him for the key, and he will become displaced and homeless.

Stephen’s dragging his ashplant, or walking stick, behind him further accentuates his feelings of powerlessness and impotence.  He calls it his “familiar,” like a magician’s assistant, calling his name.  Everything around Stephen seems to be crying out for him to take action, like his Odyssean counterpart Telemachus.  Even Haines reminds Stephen that he has the power to be his own master, but Stephen doesn’t see it yet.

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Having finished his song, Mulligan runs down to the sea, where he and Haines will bathe.

Haines lingers behind with Stephen, trying to figure out how to react to Mulligan’s funny, if blasphemous song.  By doing so, he is also probably trying to learn something about an Irish intellectual’s relationship to religion generally and the Catholic church specifically.  A Hibernophile Englishman, Haines plays the role of an amateur anthropologist, absorbing everything he can about the peculiar habits of the natives.  Mulligan both encourages him and mocks him for this — Stephen keeps it at a distance.

There’s a conspicuous classical reference here–Mulligan’s flapping hands are associated with “Mercury’s hat.”  Just a few moments ago, Mulligan referred to himself as “Mercurial Malachi.”  When I first noticed this, I thought it was a direct link back to the Odyssey, imagining that Mercury visited Telemachus in Ithaca… but it’s Athena who visits him.

Mercury is the god of travellers, businessmen, messengers and the like. He’s not a bad match for Mulligan, as he is also associated with trickery and deception, particularly around money. Joyce’s schema for the chapter doesn’t say anything about Mercury, but he seems to be here anyway. Joyce’s first readers didn’t really know how closely the parallel to the Odyssey was built, though the title gives a pretty big clue. References like this one would have provided other reminders to the reader to keep Homer in the back of your mind as you read.

So if Mulligan is being associated with Mercury… what of it?  What message is he bringing here?

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If you look up “Joking Jesus” on YouTube today, this is what comes up first.

With all of the talk about Hamlet and Gogarty and Irish history and Dublin, etc. etc., it’s easy to lose track of the power that this blasphemous little verse can have.  As we were saying about Mulligan’s parody of the mass at the beginnng of this episode, the blasphemy here would have been fairly shocking to pious people.

Does the song make sense to you so far?  If you haven’t had a lot of churchin’, it might not.  On the last page, for instance, when Mulligan sings “My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird,” he’s referring to the story of the Annunciation

The Annunciation by Francesco Albani

The Annunciation by Francesco Albani, collection of The Hermitage

So Jesus’ mother Mary was a Jew. We can start with that. And Jesus’ father… well… our future friend Leopold Bloom will have some theories about that in episode 12 (“Cyclops”), but suffice it to say that Jesus came into human form through the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is often represented as a bird. A dove, I think.  Well, at the risk of killing all the jokes in such a clever way, you can just go here to learn more about the Annunciation.
In this panel — I’ll just assume that you know already that Jesus is described turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  “Plain” in this context means plain stout, as in a “pint of plain.” And yeah, it’s gross, but the joke here is that Jesus says “If you don’t think I’m the Messiah, you aren’t getting any of the wine I make–you’ll have to wait until I have to piss & hope it comes out beer.”  Which isn’t going to win you any points with the churchgoers. There’s more to come.

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