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Discovering God through the Arts – James Joyce’s Ulysses – by Melanie Newbould

Discovering God through the Arts – James Joyce’s Ulysses – by Melanie Newbould

Continuing Melanie Newbould‘s occasional blogs on faith and the arts.

Ulysses

I read Ulysses by James Joyce only about 10 years ago or so—and it was really that book that convinced me that Christianity might be the right path for me. It is a difficult book (at least for me); I don’t think I could have managed to read it without the assistance of a guide (I used The New Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamires).  Now it might seem strange that I found inspiration for pursuing Christianity from such a source—for Joyce famously divorced himself from, at any rate, the Catholic Church, in part because he felt it deprived people of individuality and thereby contributed to what he viewed as a decadent society.  However, he knows a great deal about it and Christianity in general.  Christian symbolism and imagery follow Stephen, Leopold Bloom and Molly throughout the day on which the novel takes place (16th June 1904).

The novel is basically about three people and what they do on the said day.  Stephen is aged 22 years, a poet and thinker.  Leopold is an ad-canvasser aged 38 years and he is married to Molly, a concert singer; they had two children, a girl (Milly, who is alive and well) and a son, Rudy, who died in infancy. Leopold was born into a Jewish family (called Virag, meaning flower), but he has never observed his family’s religion.  He has converted to Christianity in the past and has been both a Protestant and a Catholic, but practices neither. Basically Stephen and Leopold wonder around Dublin throughout the day, thinking, talking and experiencing what is a male life separately (they meet finally at 11pm) and Molly lies in bed all day, at one point entertaining her lover. In the end Leopold returns home and gets in bed with his wife and they sleep-  a still point of the turning world (to quote TS Eliot).

The title refers to the fact that the novel is a retelling of the Odyssey. Stephen and Leopold meet various situations that parallel those that Ulysses faced, though at a comically bathetic level. However lying beneath the banality of their day, there is a quest for a more profound meaning. Joyce originally gave chapter headings that indicated the parallels with the Odyssey, but removed them and in the published version of the novel one has to work them out (or use a guide, as I did). Basically, Leopold is Ulysses, Stephen corresponds to his son, Telemachus and Molly represents Penelope, Ulysses wife. However, on another level they represent God the father, God the son and the Virgin Mary; not for nothing is Molly’s birthday 8th September! Of course, this is an enormous and rich text filled with many images and allusions to mythology and the Christian story and everyone will take different things from it. It is obviously impossible to even start to do it any sort of justice, so I am giving just a few of my personal feelings here.

Joyce starts as he means to go on; the novel starts with a parody of the Mass, cerebrated by Stephen’s  friends (they live in a Martello tower by the sea). It becomes clear that Stephen’s mother is dead and that Stephen disappointed her by rejecting the Catholic Church. Stephen’s obsession with mothers, fathers, Hamlet and lost religion (and the connections between these various  strands of thought) emerges in the conversation and, indeed, throughout the novel.

What to me is one of the most thrilling episodes comes slightly after this. In Proteus (the original name of chapter 3), Stephen walks along Sandymount Strand, thinking.  The story is originally about Menelaus tussling with Proteus, god of the sea, but Stephen’ struggle is with philosophy and poetic creativity.  At one point, Stephen feels there is someone behind him and turns—he sees a three-master ship silently passing. This is what he sees:

It is an image of the Crucifixion (and also, the Trinity) that he cannot escape. For Stephen, this is partly concerned with his guilt over his mother’s sadness at his choice to reject the Church, but for me it was a moment that made me realise that it might apply to all of us; perhaps we are all pursued by God and perhaps we sense Him standing by us sometimes.

Another particularly significant episode occurs towards the end; the Circe episode takes place in a brothel, after Stephen and Leopold have met.  Stephen is drunk and is confronted by a vision of his dead mother, becomes Siegfried for a moment (crying Nothung—the name of Siegfried’s sword), he smashes the chandelier with an ashplant he is carrying (which is also his cross), leading to an altercation. This is Stephen’s crucifixion, he loses consciousness. It is also the point at which both Stephen and Leopold are both completely shattered and can be put together again.  Leopold (with his longing for a son following death of his own son in infancy) goes to help Stephen (and thereby effects his resurrection). Stephen is wounded (he has hurt his hand, his side and has shaking legs). Bloom is also everyman—takes Stephen (symbolising the risen Christ) to his home (7 Eccles Street) and they drink cocoa, talking about philosophy and theology. Stephen leaves, and Leopold is back with his wife at home.

There then follows Molly’s amazing monologue.  The day has been spent in the male world with Stephen and Leopold; this is intellectual and arid.  But now we get into the world of a flowing river, the Mystical Body, which is the mind of Molly Bloom. Molly menstruates during the course of the monologue, symbolising Redeeming Blood.  Leopold can only enter into this Mystical Body  following his encounter with the risen Christ/Stephen. Though not all is perfect, there is a feeling that something has been healed; this is signalled by Leopold telling Molly that he will have two eggs for his breakfast!

To me, this ending seemed significant.  Though other works of art had convinced me that my feelings about God were experienced by others, it wasUlysses that really made me think of Jesus and Christianity.  Of course I still only have the vaguest idea as to what it all might mean, but this was when I started to think.

2017-06-22T09:14:02+00:00

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