“Sirens” and the Fugue Method

There’s a pretty obvious link in this episode between its overwhelmingly auditory character and the story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy are the two sirens who perch in the hotel bar, the watering hole, as men flock inside from the streets of Dublin to see what they have to offer, both in drink and in company. Somehow, I think that the fugue technique that Joyce employs here is supposed to imitate the sounds of the sirens as Odysseus is tied to the mast. Bloom hears their voices and the music that Simon Dedalus and the rest play, but he is tied to his seat having dinner with a friend of his. He is also tied to his seat because he has seen Blazes Boylan, who is on his way to Eccles Street, and so cannot return home because he refuses to interrupt their tryst. The barmaids’ behavior only serves to remind him of his wife’s sensuality, also. The only ones immune to their charms are himself and the deaf waiter, and it’s not clear why Bloom does not act like the other men do in fraternizing with the women.

As for the fugue technique, one might expect the sirens themselves to narrate this chapter, speaking as they do in their call-and-response manner. However, as carried over from both Scylla and Charybdis and The Wandering Rocks episodes, there is an unseen and yet omnipresent narrating agent present who is manipulating these words as they pass through its language-filtering consciousness: it would be easiest to call this agent Joyce himself, as it is he who is finally responsible for the words we read. But in terms of who is narrating the story within the story–to my mind it’s the English language itself, or maybe the universal language-aspect center of the brain which can take a story, scenario, or scene and transmute it through the wringer of history, literature, language, and the entire past of human experience to pump out a logically consistent (in that each new section builds upon the knowledge which appears in the previous ones) but cross-tangled “story”, a retelling of the story (which is one way of interpreting the mythic method). This transmutation process, I think, has as its analog in music the fugue. Joyce’s prodigious power over languages ancient and modern is predominantly what makes this process possible.


2 thoughts on ““Sirens” and the Fugue Method

  1. jsdrouin

    OK, but how does the transmutation process have an analog in the musical fugue? What is it about the structure or technique of a fugue that resonates here?

    1. Will Boogert Post author

      One example I think is the existence of a sort of sub-plot structure on which the episode rests–a certain basic story that is being told that just involves the action and movement of all of the scene’s constituent parts, mostly people and the words they say. This is the basic theme on which the rest of the “music” of the episode is built: for instance, parts where a character’s name changes slightly to mimic a phrase or a sound that has just come up. The same basic idea (that there is a character being referred to by their name) is repeated, but the instantiation or rhythm of that idea (the spelling or form of the name) changes in accordance with the rest of the ‘melody’, so that the entirety of the piece remains in a harmony of self-communication and self-balancing.

      It reminds me of Chomsky’s (or maybe someone else’s idea) about there being a deep structure and a surface structure to language, that there are multiple ways to express a single “thought”. Joyce is sort of preceding that by experimenting with all of the different ways in which the basic substantive parts of a narrative (the plot, the action) can be shuffled around, inverted, and otherwise reconstituted once the more linear, progressive method of storytelling is abandoned. The result is somewhat Cubist, in a certain sense, in that we’re seeing multiple angles of a single ‘object’ within the same storytelling ‘plane’, and also Impressionistic, I think, but I don’t know who I would say is having the “impression”, in that case.


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