Happy Warmth

With “Calypso,” we are introduced to Mr. Bloom, and with him to certain tones and qualities in Joyce’s writing which are, if not absent in his earlier work, then generally overwhelmed by more dominant flavors. Against the morbid spectacle of one dog investigating another’s carcass before Stephen’s eyes, Joyce sets the cozy and mundane domestic interaction of Bloom and his cat. “They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive, too. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.” This is Bloom the philosopher of the everyday, sounding like Montaigne without knowing it: “When I play with my cat, who know if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” Later we get his homespun version of Stephen’s reveries on matter and light: “Be a warm day I fancy. Specially in these black clothes feel it more. Black conducts, reflects (refracts is it?), the heat.” But these concerns are not to him what they are to Stephen. Instead, “His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth.”

To some extent, I feel the same way reading this episode. What is new in “Calypso” is this “happy warmth.” It is, of course, neither all happiness or all warmth. But is a relief to be in the company of Bloom after the invigorating yet tumultuous voyage through Stephen’s thoughts. In one fundamental way, Mr. Bloom is distinct from the Joycean protagonists who precede him: Joyce plainly feels affection for him, and wishes for us to feel the same. If in fact there is an attitude of affection toward any of the protagonists in Dubliners, it differs in both degree and kind from the the fondness, at least in this early chapter, evident in the descriptions of this vibrant yet quotidian thinker. And whatever emotions Joyce feels, whatever we are meant to feel, toward the various iterations of Stephen Dedalus – tenderness, admiration, annoyance, sympathy – they are probably not best described in terms of warmth. But Joyce, already in the few pages of our acquaintance with Mr. Bloom, has gone to great lengths to make him endearingly human, as accessible as Stephen is remote. This, and not merely the urge to shock or amuse, is Joyce’s reason for putting us on the toilet with his hero (for the climax of the episode, no less). It is as universal a part of human existence as one can find. By immersing us in this undignified reality of life, Joyce risks alienating his readers from the text in order to achieve precisely the opposite effect: endearing us to Leopold Bloom.

Joyce’s method reminds me a bit of Chantal Akerman’s in her monumental film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which observes in meticulous detail the routine of a single mother across three days: cooking, cleaning, bathing herself, performing other tasks. (It’s 201 minutes long.) Purely from this external behavior, we receive clues to a gradually increasing inner chaos. In one of my favorite scenes, Jeanne finds that her coffee tastes bad. She changes the milk, adds sugar, uses a filter. Nothing helps. From this minor but irresolvable annoyance, we deduce the fractures in her mental state. When Bloom burns the kidney, the obsessive subject of his morning so far, we perceive something similar. His conversation with Molly – specifically their discussion of “metempsychosis” – stirs something in him which distracts him from the one thing on his mind. It’s a subtle crack in the stability and ordinariness of his morning routine, and thus, in his consciousness, his life. It doesn’t take any foreknowledge to recognize from the text that happy warmth is not the prevailing feeling between Bloom and his wife. Even the episode’s title, “Calypso,” reveals to us the double nature of this relationship. Bloom’s residence is both a prison from which he departs this morning and a home to which he will return at night. Molly, I suppose, is both Calypso and Penelope. It is clear that all is not well for Mr. Bloom, but in this introduction to him, as he plays with his cat, eyes attractive women, savors his breakfast, and relieves himself, we can discern one way in which he is radically different from Stephen: he will make every effort to keep his mind off his troubles.

 

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One thought on “Happy Warmth

  1. Will Boogert

    I agree that we are being invited to feel an affection for Leopold Bloom. It’s easy for the reader to imagine Bloom making breakfast for themselves, or to put themselves in the position of the cat to witness his peaceful fondness for it. And I also agree that the bathroom scene is meant to humanize him and make him seem more real. But I wonder if Joyce does this at any expense. What I mean is, I don’t take Joyce for the kind of writer who would have one character be the hero (Bloom) and polarize him against another character who is a more unlikable, cold semi-villain (Stephen). And I don’t think that’s the claim you’re making, but it will be important as we go along to look for the way in which the presence of Bloom illuminates the character of Stephen, and vice versa.

    Reply

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