A Sea Change

The ordering of the episodes of Ulysses does not correspond precisely to the chronology of Odysseus’ adventures, but there is a unifying element of the last three episodes which we’ve read which makes sense of their placement together in the book and has implications as to how we should understand their function. Scylla and Charybdis, the Wandering Rocks, and the Sirens are all perils encountered at sea, rather than on land, which makes them unique among the episodes represented in Ulysses. (Though the disaster of the winds occurs at sea, Aeolus himself is encountered on land.) Further, the Wandering Rocks, as we’ve discussed, are a danger which Odysseus chooses not to face. As a result, it stands apart from the rest of the novel (as far as we’ve read, at least) by not centering on Bloom, Stephen, or any other particular figure. The expansiveness of its design and the multiplicity of perspectives described mirror the absence of this episode from the Odyssey.

Although “The Wandering Rocks” exists somewhat apart from the rest of the novel, representing as it does a hiatus in the odyssey of Leopold Bloom, I believe it is part of a larger transitional phase along with “Scylla and Charybdis” and “The Sirens.” Like a man on a perilous sea voyage, these sections find Joyce, and Ulysses, in a state of flux, journeying toward an uncertain destination. They seem to represent the before, during, and after of a radical metamorphosis of the book’s technique which leads us into more experimental later episodes. After “The Sirens” we are quite certain that all bets are off, narratively speaking. This is because, as Dr. Drouin has noted, the text gradually assumes a life of its own in these episodes. There is an almost minute, but intriguing and noteworthy shift which occurs in “The Sirens.” “Mr Bloom” suddenly becomes simply “Bloom,” with very rare exceptions. Glancing ahead, I’ve found that this seemingly arbitrary change seems to hold true through the remainder of the novel. Why would Joyce suddenly drop this commonplace honorific from his standard way of referring to his hero? One reason may be that the continuing indignities visited upon Bloom – the women’s cruel references to his appearance, the inescapable manifestations of Blazes Boylan, the casual degradation by his friends – have made him feel less of a socially secure and established person. Throughout this episode, Bloom feels sad and alone, unable to escape distressing and melancholy thoughts which threaten to reduce his sense of self. More than this, however, I think Joyce institutes this change as a subtle signal (if one were needed) that a new narrative voice has taken over the text. We are no longer primarily in the mind of either Stephen or Bloom, but in that of a playful extra-diegetic narrator. In fact much of the “action” of this section is extra-diegetic, residing in this narrator’s presentation rather than in actual narrative events, or even the thoughts of the characters. This is one of the ways in which “The Sirens” employs a “fugal” technique: the layering of a self-aware, metafictive narrative voice over the two primary layers of diegesis which we have so far encountered, material action and inner monologue. It seems that the “technique” of most if not all individual episodes is in fact a sort of condensed, microcosmic display of a technique which Joyce layers and develops throughout the novel (this layering itself, the “fugal” technique, being among them). In “The Sirens” the text’s self-awareness, which seemed to by mystically activated by Stephen in “Scylla and Charybdis,” becomes the prevailing voice, the top layer of the fugue. The voice of the conscious entity Ulysses, which regards “Mr. Bloom” as merely “Bloom” and all names as subject to alteration at any time, develops from the voices of Stephen and Leopold and has access to them but is also something beyond them, something musical and sardonic, self-amused, sometimes conversational but often deliberately mysterious. It presents to us the paradox of how a novel of such a rigorously schematic mechanical design can also be so vibrantly metamorphic and animated, so organic. A persuasive illusion of a spontaneous living consciousness (when of course it is, in fact, Joyce’s carefully preserved and presented consciousness) as the Sirens are persuasive illusions of beautiful women, this narrative voice is Ulysses‘ own siren song, luring us seductively into its ever murkier depths.

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