Sunday, June 16, 2013

Heroes: Bloom and Odysseus

Milo O'Shea as Leopold Bloom
In calling his novel Ulysses, James Joyce asks us to compare Leopold Bloom, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century middle-aged Irishman, with Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” hero of the Trojan War, king of Ithaca, favorite of the goddess Athena, the master tactician and brave warrior who dispatches over 100 suitors to reclaim his throne and his marriage bed. On the surface of it, we might think that the comparison can only be to Bloom’s detriment, that the novel must be a satire on the weakness of modern man and how pathetically he has fallen from the heroes of our venerable myths.

Louis Menand, however, suggests that Joyce may have had something else in mind:

He thought that, from some vast superhuman distance, the people in Ulysses are just like the people in Homer. They are tracing the same patterns, walking through the same roles, struggling to work out the same sets of relations. . . .

I think this idea offers an interesting interpretive window into the novel: a way to view Bloom as a hero instead of a butt of a joke (even though he does become the butt of jokes multiple times in the novel itself). Bloom’s feats clearly don’t measure up to those of Odysseus, who endures shipwrecks and travels to the underworld, survives bouts with six-headed monsters and malevolent witches, and speaks eloquently and strategically with princesses and kings. Bloom’s adventures so far have been much more humble: moving his bowels, burning his breakfast, buying some soap, carrying on an epistolary affair, attending a funeral, chatting up an acquaintance in the street.

But Menand’s point makes me think that Joyce wants us to see Bloom as a hero despite the quotidian (and literally pedestrian) nature of his exploits.

The back cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey describes the poem as “literature’s grandest evocation of everyman’s journey through life,” a formulation which has always seemed wrong to me. Odysseus is everyman? He’s a king, endowed with extraordinary talents, beloved by some gods and hated by others—but a special person regardless, someone whose life is debated on Olympus. And yet, from another perspective, Odysseus is not a very good guy: he sacks cities, killing men and stealing their wives and riches; he is such an inveterate liar that even when he is reunited with his own father he can’t help but dissemble one last time and “cut him to the core”; he brutally slaughters over 100 men and orders the execution of the serving women who have been their lovers. Yet it’s clear throughout the Odyssey that Homer wants us to side with his eponymous hero and to admire his endurance, his craftiness, his devotion to his kin, his skill with language.

Similarly, Joyce, in his own grand evocation of an ordinary man’s journey through one day of life, clearly wants us to side with Bloom, despite his foibles. Bloom’s attentiveness to the details of the world, his joy in physical sensation, his empathy with the creatures and people around him, his thoughtfulness—all of these qualities make Bloom, like Odysseus, more than simply a man like every other, but instead an embodiment of the values Joyce embraced just as Odysseus embodies the values Homer embraced. Why else would Joyce devote an epic (and a considerable portion of his own time and energy) to the stream of this particular man’s consciousness, if not to suggest that it is to such a human, modern consciousness that we must look for the heroism, inspiration, and cultural meaning that Homer’s listeners once found in his tale?  

Frank K.

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