The “Circe” episode reminds me irresistibly of the dazzling sequence in 8 1/2 (a film I love enormously) where our hero Guido, a philandering and narcissistic film director (portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni but in fact a self-portrait of Federico Fellini, director of 8 1/2), imagines himself as the lord of a harem populated by all the women of his erotic fantasy life, including those buried in the recesses of his unconscious memory. Guido is something like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom folded into one: a mass of sexual obsession, religious guilt, haughty arrogance, rich humor, flighty imagination, and fetal artistic urges. Many of his fantasies and dreams in the film suggest “Circe” (as when he imagines his dead father and mother, who undergoes a Freudian transformation into his wife), but most important is the episode of the harem, in which the women of Guido’s imagination move from servile, exaggerated adulation to militant, emasculating revolution. This scene helps me to imagine the intended tone of parts of “Circe,” for it is similar to the trial of Leopold Bloom, and the various crises and permutations of identity which he experiences. It’s also one of the most hilarious moments ever put on film, both as an outrageous lampooning of the “battle of the sexes” and as self-criticism, a nicely-polished looking class which Fellini holds up to himself, both exposing and skewering his own tendency toward masculine self-aggrandizement, as well as his objectification, theatrical manipulation, and (perhaps most pertinent to Ulysses), his fear of women.
Virginia Woolf pretty memorably described the effect of Ulysses upon a reader as that of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” It is not difficult to imagine that one element of her objection to Joyce was perceived naivete in his portrayal and understanding of women. (Let me stress that I don’t mean to suggest this to be the sole or primary basis for her complaint. To shoehorn Woolf, a complex artist, into this box of gender politics would be unfair, reductive… and very male.) We’ve mentioned that the book has a predominantly masculine atmosphere and flavor, but it is something more to say that it has a myopic, limited, or simply misogynistic perception of women, which at times may appear to be the case. Because I like Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom, I have an impulse to attempt to defend both from charges of sexism, but it’s worth acknowledging that this impulse originates in my fondness for the text and character, because it seems this very tension is part of Joyce’s intent and meaning. Dr. Latham suggested that Joyce grew less concerned with asking us to “like” or identify with Bloom as he continued to write the novel. Certainly something of this kind occurred with Stephen Dedalus. Joyce, in Ulysses, seems to have moved beyond the desire he showed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to secure our sympathy for his alter-ego. It seems to me that a reader who grows to dislike Leopold Bloom in the course of Ulysses most likely does so on the basis of his lecherous attitude toward women. And indeed the “Nausicaa” episode threatens to completely alienate us from him (and probably does, if one is not already among Mr. Bloom’s admirers by that point).
In “Circe,” still more serious charges are brought against Bloom. I suggested in class that some of these are accusations describe transgressions committed only in fantasy. I doubt that Mr. Bloom actually openly lauded Mrs. Bellingham’s nether extremities, or sent The Honourable Mrs. Mervyn Talboys an obscene photograph. By suggesting that these particular cases of misbehavior may be imagined, however, I do not wish to dismiss the genuinely troubling questions raised by this section, or to minimize Bloom’s sexual assault of Mary Driscoll (as he attempts, weakly, to do). What interests me is the fact that I want to salvage and forgive Bloom, the fact that I am upset by certain things that he does or thinks, because I now have an investment in his personality. This, it seems to me, is the means by which Joyce, like Fellini, answers the charge of sexism: by confronting it in an honest, comically self-effacing manner which denies us the luxury of moral complacency or pure identification. More directly than any of the other episodes that we’ve read, “Circe” demands that we grapple with the gendered limitations of Bloom’s consciousness, and perhaps of Joyce’s artistry as well, casting us as the jury in Bloom’s psychic trial. In addition to his intense erotic fascination with them, Bloom both fears and feels alienated from women. But Ulysses, even as it weaves this attitudes into the text in a way which threatens to repel readers, also responds to them, and continually works toward compassionate, nuanced portraits of women. (Obviously the largest such attempt, the one most concerned with inner life, is still to come). All the while, the book acknowledges the author’s uncertainties about precisely how to imagine female subjectivity, as well as his wish to transcend these uncertainties. This is where the atmosphere of sexual experimentalism, metamorphosis, and polyvalence in “Circe” comes from. Bloom is transformed – temporarily, imperfectly – into a woman just as Joyce is working (with his deflations of masculine pretense and illusion, his portrayal of Gerty, his revelations of sexual guilt) toward imagining his way into the undiscovered country of a feminine consciousness (that of Molly Bloom), thereby crossing the unbridgeable gulf felt between Gabriel and Greta Conroy in the conclusion of “The Dead.” I believe that this is an important aspect of Joyce’s artistic project in Ulysses. I suggest that Bloom’s lechery, and his self-absorbed fear of women, exposed so thoroughly in “Circe,” are not merely unpleasant traces of authorial misogyny, but part of Joyce’s own confession, just as Stephen’s sinfulness was in Portrait. And that the partial sacrifice of our sympathies for these men is part of Joyce’s ongoing urge to go beyond his characters, to expand his own range of vision. In “Circe,” we sense the author’s striving toward metamorphosis, the transcendence of identity – sexual identity included.