Monday, June 24, 2013

A Blooming Physicality

At our June meeting, some of us discussed Joyce’s choice to devote most of Ulysses to Leopold Bloom instead of Stephen, his alter-ego. We speculated that Joyce recognized the limitations of his youthful self-absorption and intellectualism and developed Bloom’s character in order to represent human existence more broadly and deeply.

Contemplating Joyce's intentions for the character of Bloom it may be helpful to consider an idea from a writer Joyce read in college1, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche makes the following pronouncement in his book The Will to Power:

Art reminds us of states of animal vigor; it is on the one hand an excess and overflow of blooming physicality into the world of images and desires; on the other, an excitation of animal functions through the images and desires of intensified life—an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it.
These words, in conjunction with a brief passage from the “Hades” chapter, suggest the artistic significance of Leopold Bloom in the novel.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). German philosopher and cultural critic.

In the “Hades” chapter, as Bloom’s carriage reaches the graveyard (on page 97), Bloom watches the “toiling plodding tread” of the horses conveying the coffin and attunes himself closely to the animal vigor of these beasts. He sees one of the horses looking back at the coffin with his “Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a blood vessel or something.” Bloom identifies with these animals so fully that he can even imagine their minor pains. His sympathy does not stay on the level of animal sensation, however. In fact, his thoughts about the horses lead naturally into an intensified reflection about death. He wonders if the horses have any idea of what they pull, then thinks that there must be twenty or thirty funerals held every day. This comment on the pervasiveness of death then evolves into a remarkable realization of the varied communities who must deal with their dead. Bloom, a Jew at a Catholic funeral, thinks “Then Mount Jerome for the Protestants. Funerals all over the world every minute.” The physical world of the pained horses has bloomed into his internal world and heightened his awareness of the situation, allowing him to universalize the gloom of the graveyard and to sympathize with people all over the world who bury their dead.

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Setting for the "Hades" episode of Ulysses.

Bloom, the amateur artist, takes his raw materials from the external world around him, in this case from the animal suffering of horses pulling a coffin. “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring,” a character will later assert, in the “Scylla and Charybdis” chapter of Ulysses (177). How deep is Bloom’s life? We need only look at the results of Bloom’s musings for the answer. Bloom imagines gravediggers everywhere “Shovelling them under by the cartload doublequick. Thousands every hour. Too many in the world.” His observation of the physical world leads him to a remarkably deep sense of pathos, a brief but tender realization of the human cost of the deaths that occur all day every day.

As Nietzsche notes, the influence of the physical on the internal world of images and desires works in reverse, as well. Sharpened internal thoughts enhance our perception of the external world. Thus, in the next paragraph, Bloom progresses from a reflection on death in the aggregate to a keen observation of the sadness of a grieving woman and girl. He sees their pain in the “leanjawed” face of the woman with her “bonnet awry,” and in the girl’s face, “stained with dirt and tears . . . looking up at her for a sign to cry.” He has moved from the particular to the general and then back again, thus stimulating the emotions of the reader, enhancing and stimulating the reader’s feeling of life, a la Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s note goes on to contemplate “the artist’s victorious energy which has become master of ... ugliness and awfulness.” Bloom brings this victorious energy into Joyce’s novel, taking the ugliness and the awfulness of a gloomy graveyard scene and imbuing it with the rich human emotions of empathy and grief.     

1According to Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, cited in Hugh Kenner’s Ulysses.

Frank K.

1 comment:

  1. Reading these chapters, I am certainly happy that Joyce mostly got rid of that arrogant, self-absorbed Stephen. Bloom is also sometimes self-absorbed, but never proudly. He contemplates his floating flower without pride or shame. He is one with the horses without arrogance or aloofness. He is not trying to be intellectual; he is sincerely musing on his daily life and its vital moments. I like Leopold--so far at least. He is sometimes pathetic (a bit of a Prufrock in places), but in a pathos way. He is not irritating or pompous. And he is a lot nicer than Odysseus.:-)