Corey Dressel

“Absolute Zero”

Corey Dressel
Dr. Buttrum
English 605: James Joyce
December 12, 2012

“Absolute Zero”

The Accurately Incorrect Cryptic Climax in the “Ithaca” Episode

Episode seventeen: “Ithaca,” Ulysses’s penultimate episode, is presented in a pseudo-scientific catechism with a decidedly objective tone. The language creates what is described by Joyce as a “mathematico-astronomico-physico-mechanico- geometrico-chemico” sublimation of Bloom and Stephen (qtd. in Ellmann 501). However, as John Hannay points out “the rhetoric of objectivity leads paradoxically to an exaggeration of human absurdities through unintended puns, metaphors, and emotionally charged parallels” (141). The presentation of this episode in a seemingly analytic style is paradoxically both balanced and upset by the crass act of dual urination by the co-protagonists of this epic tale. At this climactic moment, Bloom and Stephen are brought together in a diametric symbolic scene. The scene embodies so many of the already suggested themes strewn throughout the preceding text, themes that encompass Joyce’s obvious interests and frustrations with the Dublin society of his time. Within the content-mosaic of Ulysses, Joyce’s themes unfold from one-another, stemming from his metaphoric view of Dublin society as a microcosm of universal truths. The every-day minutia of Dublin’s society provided symbols and clues to the history of not just the Irish, but all of humankind; thusly, Joyce embedded these themes symbolically into his various characters, namely (for purposes of this critique) Stephen and Bloom, though certainly not exclusively. Helen Georgi claims that Joyce identifies “life with art;” and accordingly, he “transforms the problems of life into the enigmas and puzzles of his art” (329). Using his creative art form, Joyce presents Ulysses as a riddle, requiring the reader to be an active participant in discovering, not just what the answers are, not just where the clues are hidden, but additionally, what is a clue and what is not.

A profusion of themes presented throughout Ulysses are encrypted in Joyce’s employment of multiple schemas and interpretative lenses#, as well as rhetorical devices acting as illicit persuasion techniques. The resultant narrative contains the commentary and clues that focus on human behavior throughout history found within the covert and overt use of “traditional legend, myth,” and “esoteric lore” (Georgi 330). Underlying Joyce’s focus on human behavior throughout history lies the history of religion and humankind’s response and reaction to religion. Religion encompasses the varying theories of creation, which extends into notions of philosophy. Philosophy offers themes focused on the various theories of self and being. Thus far, these themes contain an historical account of humankind’s teetering balance on the delicate scale that has weighed the importance and existence of spirituality against the ever intruding theories and laws of science. The scientific theme embodies the field of mathematics, physical matter, and psychology. Psychology introduces theories on consciousness and unconscious matter, echoing Stephen’s quandary with the “ineluctable modality of the visible” (Ulysses p. 31, l. 1).

The above mentioned themes encompass the real-life experiences shared by humans throughout time and ultimately Joyce’s experience growing up in Dublin in the late 19th Century. Ulysses is an artistic literary mosaic that suggests the complex interweaving of the microscopic threads that comprise the tapestry of these universals themes.  Woven by a loom constructed from personal experiences, Joyce blends the personal with the universal, transforming them into the imaginative, creating an epic tale that embodies the colorful array of ideas and themes into the minutiae of a single day in Dublin, experienced and primarily portrayed through Bloom and Stephen’s eyes.

The exaggeratedly objective and analytical catechism of the “Ithaca” episode is a sublimation of these themes into the microcosmic time span contained in this penultimate and climactic episode; which, paradoxically, Joyce discusses all of what has ever been. Some of the more important dichotomous themes and motifs that are presented in Ulysses, which reappear condensed and enmeshed in “Ithaca,” include:

Bloom:                                                                                                          Stephen:

science ……………………………………………………………………………… art

unconsciousness………………………………………………….. consciousness

shadow ………………………………………………………………………………….. ego

history…………………………………………………………………………… future

centripetal forces ……………………………………………….centrifugal forces

Bloom and Stephen symbolically embody one side of each of these varying aspects as assigned above. Because the “analytic and metaphoric dimensions to the style of ‘Ithaca’ are personified by Bloom and Stephen,” the climax to Ulysses is appropriately represented by the image of Bloom and Stephen simultaneously micturating amid a cryptic narrative containing a condensed and enmeshed form of their previous scattered symbols and perspectives (Hannay 141). This sublimated narrative is elevated to zenith proportion by its culmination of all of these topics, theories, and queries, all of which are represented in a supposedly objective reality, and coexisting in a simultaneously parallel and paradoxical relationship with each other.

Herein, the reader finds Bloom and Stephen standing in the yard outside Bloom’s house, which symbolically stands on their one side while the gate that leads out to a lane on the north side of Eccles Street lies on their other side. While standing in Bloom’s garden they urinate simultaneously while looking up at the glowing light coming from Molly’s bedroom where she sleeps. Coincidentally, their elevated contemplations simultaneously behold a shooting star that arches across the waning night sky. A primal biological excretion of bodily waste simultaneously occurs with a phenomenal celestial act at the apex of Bloom and Stephen’s prophesized meeting. This apex of absolute dichotomous juxtaposition of a moment in time and space, wherein the reader is witness to apogee and perigee congruently, reminds us that Bloom and Stephen’s relationship has been persistently compared and contrasted through the themes of time, space, flux, and language, since the beginning of the novel (Heusel 136). When these chance congruencies of a bifurcated nature entwine, they embody the collision of Bloom and Stephen’s symbolic centripetal and centrifugal values.

The distinct dichotomy of themes and motifs is simultaneously blurred and reinforced by the methodical use of paradoxical language employed by Joyce, which frames the episode in a parallactic structure. Clearly the reader’s comprehension, more specifically, interpretation of the text is complicated by Joyce’s conjunction of overtly antithetical language in parallel form. The “Ithaca” episode is dense with this paradoxical language-use. Consider, as an example, a response to one of the questions in “Ithaca,” which reveals—by way of this particular method of language-use—that Bloom had explicated one of the buried mysteries within the text with “indirect and direct verbal allusions or affirmations” (p.576, l. 1179). Herein, indirect and direct are diabolically opposed as are allusions and affirmations. Joyce’s conjoined manipulation of language, in these instances, has enmeshed the literal language# (signifier) with the intended meaning of the utterance (sign), a literary annexation or melding of langue and parole.

In the micturition scene, Bloom’s stream of urine is described as being “in the incomplete form of the bifurcated penultimate alphabetical letter,” while Stephen’s is “more sibilant” (Ulysses p.577 ll. 1193-94, 97). Using the concept of the visible versus the audible, Joyce is claiming that each represents a distinct and significant meaning. Both physical forms of the sign, the literal visual and the literal audible, transform into the literary; therefore, as Popov claims, this amounts to “the first—intuitive and conjoint-definition of literature and the literary: that which is made of letters” (1-2). Though seeming to be unnecessarily simple, this definition becomes important when an author—as Joyce has repeatedly done in Ulysses—returns to the origins of literature and therefore the origins of why literature has significance in society. Mallarme adds a spiritual meaning to the relationship between words and the literature, considering the “miracle, in the highest sense of the word” of:

words led back to their origin, which is the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, so gifted with infinity that they will finally consecrate Language. Everything is caught up in their endless variations and then arises out of them in the form of the Principle… The book [is] a total expansion of the letter. “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument.” (qtd. in Popov 2)

The relevance of this relationship is significant when one considers that the “sliding of the literal into the figurative is crucial for a proper understanding—and translation—of any metaphor” (Popov 3). Therefore, as Popov suggests, in order to properly begin to understand the meaning of Ulysses, a written text that contains references to these dichotomous elements of language, literature, and meaning, one needs to be aware of the peculiar, paradoxical, and elusive outcomes when the literal and the literary cross.

The literal slides into the figurative wherein Joyce has included absurd language# such as, “theirhisnothis fellowfaces;” in such instances (which there are many in “Ithaca” alone) meanings become distinct from their sign through the presentation of multiple points of view, which are represented in and by the language (Joyce 577, ll. 1183-84). The reader’s awareness and his or her ability to decode or decipher the cryptic text is somewhat illusively sought as Joyce’s methodology is ambiguous. Heusel claims that due to the ambiguous nature of Joyce’s narrative, “we never know for certain the outcome of the meeting between Stephen and Bloom, but we are convinced that the novel by its very structure reveals the difficulty of perception and, therefore, the complexity of viewing life” (135). Heusel’s article, “Parallax as a metaphor for the Structure of Ulysses,” goes on to point out that Joyce insisted that:

[…] viewing life with one eye (Stephen’s, the artist’s) and then the other (Bloom’s, the common man’s) causes one to grope blindly, as the reader does in the middle of the novel. When, however, two eyes work in conjunction, as they begin to do when the points of view are superimposed near the end of “Ithaca,” the penultimate chapter, one experiences a fuller or more correct vision of life. (135)

Heusel is claiming that Ulysses comes to us on a three-dimensional platform offering what she calls “a parallactic phenomenon,” which forces the reader to synthesize Bloom and Stephen’s shifting perspectives with their own speculations and contemplations on the text (135). This directive is found wherever the language suggests multiple points of view converging, such as in the complete sentence that the opening quote was pulled: “Silent, each contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces” (Joyce 577, ll.1183-84).

Bloom and Stephen’s meeting in “Ithaca” is preceded by a strategic placement of parallax images that eventually build-up to the climactic urination scene.  When Bloom first considers the meaning of parallax, he is wandering the Dublin streets, “contemplating the method of calculating time by referring to stellar space” (Heusel 136): “After one. Timeball on the ballastoffice is down. Dunsink time. Fascinating little book that is of sir Robert Ball’s. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him. Par it’s Greek: parallel, parallax” (Joyce 126, ll.109-12). Much earlier in the text, in the “Proteus” episode, Stephen also considers the perception of time and space as he strolls along Sandymount Strand contemplating the ineluctable modality of the visible and the audible through his own existence . He concludes, “I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the Nacheinander” (Joyce 31, ll.11-13).

Images of water surround both these references as these images also infiltrate the totality of Ulysses from beginning to end. Just prior to the first textual mention of parallax, Bloom compares life to the running water of the Liffey: “How can you own water really? It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream” (Joyce 126, ll.93-95). Bloom’s life is a stream metaphor immediately triggers him to think of urination: “All kinds of places are good for ads. The quack doctor for the clap used to be stuck up in all the greenhouses [public toilets]” (Joyce 126, ll.96-97). The connection between perceptions on the flux of time and space permeate the text alongside a multitude of water images, leading to the climax wherein all three foci of the novel are pulled together: “Bloom asks how can one own water, reminding us that Stephen asks how can one get hold of protean reality and that we ask how does one absorb such a protean novel?” (Heusel 137).  In “Ithaca” we discover how Bloom and Stephen can make their own water, water that is created by their biological life force, water that is their own. The description of Bloom’s micturition reveals the changing nature of his stream, which is “less irruent […] who in his ultimate year at High School (1880) had been capable of attaining the point of greatest altitude against the whole concurrent strength of the institution, 210 scholars” (Joyce 577, ll.1193-96). Within this scene, we also are told that “the trajectories of their, first sequent, then simultaneous, urinations were dissimilar” (Joyce 577, ll.1192-93). The remaining dimension belongs to the reader, who, at this point, may or may not have figured out how to absorb this protean novel and solve its riddles with all its mysteries and hidden clues.

If a reader is hoping to arrive at answers, Hugh Kenner says, “’Ithaca’ abounds in detailed revelations that refocus what we had thought we knew and substantiate what we only guessed” (141). However, not all critics agree with Kenner’s optimistic outlook for the reader hoping to find conclusions and resolution; in fact, Nicholas A. Miller says, “on the contrary, to such a reader, facing the voluminous and unrelenting force of the episode’s textual abundance, ‘Ithaca’ resembles less a rock of narrative solidity than a gushing textual cataract” (211). Patrick A. McCarthy offers a sort of ironic marriage of these opposing views when he points out “the central problem (and the central strength) of the chapter: its tendency to set up a surface of straightforward factuality and to trick us into trusting a narrative point of view which at times turns out to be not altogether reliable” (606). There are so many mistakes in the “Ithaca” episode that McCarthy insists that “error is itself a major motif in the chapter” (606). These references to error recall Stephen’s adamant response in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode to the suggestion that Shakespeare may have made a mistake: “—Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery” (Joyce 156, ll.228-29). In a letter Joyce wrote to Frank J. Budgen, dated February 21st, 1921, he seems to support Stephen’s ideology:

I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism. All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical, etc. equivalents […]so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze. (qtd. in Ellmann 501)

If we are to take Stephen’s word as a guide, than we must approach “Ithaca” as a complex enigma, containing portholes of discovery in every buried clue and these clues might be hidden within the textual errors.

One of the major riddles of Ulysses involves the mysterious significance of Bloom and Stephen’s relationship.  As each symbolically represents a diametric element of the universe—unconscious and conscious, science and art, history and the future, ego and shadow—they require the other for completion, for, what Carl G. Jung calls, Individuation, or wholeness. Separately they walk through Dublin, destined to meet, yet all the while undergoing archetypal transformations encrypted into the various themes of the novel and revealed as coded polar magnetisms. Georgi points to “Joyce’s broadest hint that ‘doubling’ is essential” when she quotes Joyce from Finnegans Wake: “’I am more divine like that when I’ve two of everything.’” She claims that this hint “lies in the sound of Joyce’s mythical city, Dublin” (332). Georgi says that this “relates to [Joyce’s] consistent use of dichotomies and pairs of opposites” (332). Twice and in close proximity, Stephen comments, “—There can be no reconciliation, if there has not been a sundering” (Joyce 160, ll.397-98). Joyce offers his readers a hint at the beginning of Ulysses that there would be a need for reconciliation between Bloom and Stephen through a prophecy buried in Stephen’s dream:

After he woke me last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell. That was the rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who. (39, ll.365-69)

But there is an important clue that Joyce gives no hint at, but one which frames the journey these two characters undergo in their quest to unite in “Ithaca:” it is the sounding of the bells of George’s church.

At approximately (or precisely) 8:45a.m., as episode one is drawing to a close, Stephen is found walking “along the upwardcurving path” and the following Latin lines come to his mind: “Liliata rutilantium. / Turma circumdet. /a Iubilantium te virginu.” (Joyce 19, ll.735-38). Don Gifford attributes these lines as “one part of Prayers for the Dying and quotes the Layman’s Missal as saying, “In the absence of a priest, these prayers for commending a dying person to God, may be read by any responsible person, man or women” (19). Gifford offers the following translation of the Latin phrase: “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you” (19). This symbolic frame is established when at that very same time, Bloom hears the “Heigho! Heigho!” of the tolling bells of George’s church (Joyce 57, l.546). And with these images, the reader ascends upon Ulysses.

In, what is so frequently referred to as the penultimate episode, “Ithaca,” the frame is completed with the early morning tolling of these very same church bells signifying the near completion of a whole day:

What echoes of that sound were by both and each heard?

By Stephen:

Liliata rutilantium. Turma circumdet.

Iubilantium te virginum. Chorus excipiat.

By Bloom:

Heigho, heigho,

Heigho, heigho. (Joyce 578, ll.12-28-34)

According to Gifford, “Stephen alters the meaning by leaving out the phrase te confessorum [you, of confessors] and by altering the punctuation: ‘Bright [glowing] as lilies. A throng gathers about. Jubilant you of virgins. Chorus rescues [releases, exempts or receives]’” (586). This time, as Stephen takes leave of Bloom, his mind does not hear confessors, but rather, a chorus that rescues, releases, exempts, or receives. Stephen has undergone a transformation.

“All riddles end in cosmic harmony,” says Georgi, “accompanied by planetary music” (339). This was precisely Joyce’s conquest: to intricately weave the main symbolic transformation into the literary tapestry of Ulysses: “the change of Stephen and Bloom into heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze” (Fleishman 377).  The core meaning of archetypal content, “which ‘may be circumscribed but not described,’” Jean Kimball explains, “expresses itself, ‘first and foremost, in metaphors,’ and ‘even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language’” (205). “Words, phrases, situations, and characters become charged with additional meanings,” adds Stephen Whittaker; “These accumulated energies fire both the artist and his audience and supply the force to sustain areas of intricate or ambiguous significance” (36). The “Ithaca” episode concludes with the folding and unfolding of clues whose representative language offers a mathematical catechism; yet, this seemingly objective language ends up producing symbols, which are translated into metaphor, weaving for the reader the material necessary for the intricate creation of a literary riddle in epic proportions.


Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford, 1982. Print.

Fleishman, Avrom. “Science In Ithaca.” Wisconsin Studies In Contemporary Literature 8.3 (1967): 377-391. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Georgi, Helen. “Covert Riddles in Ulysses: Squaring the Circle.” Journal of Modern Literature. 13.2 (1986): 329-339. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

Gifford, Don. Ulysses Annotated. Berkely: U of California, 2008. Print.

Gould, Eric. “Condemned To Speak Excessively: Mythic Form And James Joyces’s Ulysses.” Sub-Stance: A Review Of Theory And Literary Criticism 8.22 (1979): 67-83. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Hannay, John. “Coincidence And Analytic Reduction In The ‘Ithaca’ Episode In Ulysses.” Journal Of Narrative Technique 13.3 (1983): 141-153. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Hart, Clive. Structure And Motif In Finnegans Wake. London: Faber, 1962. Print.

Heusel, Barbara Stevens. “Parallax As A Metaphor For The Structure Of Ulysses.” Studies In The Novel 15.2 (1983): 135-146. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print

Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.

Kimball, Jean. “Jung’s ‘Dual Mother’ In Joyce’s Ulysses: An Illustrated Psychoanalytic Intertext.” Journal Of Modern Literature 17.4 (1991): 477-490. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

McCarthy, Patrick A. “Joyce’s Unreliable Catechist: Mathematics And The Narration Of ‘Ithaca’.” Elh 51.3 (1984): 605-618. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

Miller, Nicholas A. “Beyond Recognition: Reading the Unconscious in the “Ithaca” Episode of ‘Ulysses’.” James Joyce Quarterly 30.2 (1993): 209-218. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

Popov, Nikolai. “The Literal and the Literary.” The Iowa Review. 32.3 (2002): 1-25. JSTOR. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

“Signifier.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2012. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

Whittaker, Stephen. “Joyce’s Umbrella: The Pattern Of Created Things.” Studies In The Novel 18.1 (1986): 36-50. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

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