Ulyssses-Filter: Trying to come to grips with Circe
March 30, 2015 7:15 PM   Subscribe

I belong to a Ulysses (James Joyce) book club, we do a chapter a month. We've been doing very well. But now we're at Circe, the chapter that's part random hallucination, part stage play, part ????. What I'm finding though is that the writing is not as brilliant as the earlier chapters, and the randomness seems pointless when it goes on for so many pages. Am I missing something? Do you know of an analysis that brings out the rewards of this chapter? Also if Circe is your favorite chapter, tell me why!

This chapter is unlike the others we've gone through. The earlier chapters rewarded in-depth study. (I have the Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford, and the New Bloomsday guide, as well as Ulysses: Critical Essays). This chapter however seems to be a reiteration of previous themes jumbled together in random ways, an exploration of sexual boundaries and a climactic point near the end (when Stephen confronts his mother's ghost). I've come across all kinds of opinions about what certain things mean in the Chapter, but they seem to be mostly speculations rather than something intrinsic to the novel.
posted by storybored to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
random hallucination, part stage play, part ????

Walpurgisnacht. And they're drunk: everything is blurred and slurred. There's a dissociation between character and direction. The RTÉ reading from 1982 is pretty good at teasing out what Joyce is doing here, because a lot of it (like a lot of Joyce) benefits from being aloud.
posted by holgate at 8:16 PM on March 30, 2015

And they're drunk
Stephen and Lynch are definitely blitzed but Bloom isn't. In the previous chapter (Oxen of the Sun), Bloom dumped his drinks into someone else's glass. As well we are told he is the classic teetotaler.

I have the RTE reading, it's great! ....except again for Circe at least the last time I listened to it but perhaps i should go back and do another listen.
posted by storybored at 9:23 PM on March 30, 2015

Bloom wasn't drunk, but he's not a teetotaler. He had a glass of wine with lunch, didn't he?
posted by mr_roboto at 9:35 PM on March 30, 2015

Hey, yes, mr_roboto, you're right. I misremembered - it's Bloom's acquaintances who describe him as a teetotaler. He had a glass of burgundy at Davy Byrne's pub.
posted by storybored at 9:49 PM on March 30, 2015

The other mystifying thing about the chapter is that in Bloom's and Stephen's hallucinations, there are things that are happening that neither of them should know about. So, for example, during Bloom's mock trial, J.J. O'Molloy comes out with a florid defense using the same words he used during the Aeolus chapter....except that Bloom wasn't there when JJ spoke those words originally. Same thing with Stephen, when he sees his mother's ghost, some of the words she speaks are that of Martha, Bloom's secret love-letter correspondent.
posted by storybored at 9:53 PM on March 30, 2015

The hallucinations in Circe aren't meant to be read as literal hallucinations that the characters are experiencing. It is hallucination as a literary device.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:09 PM on March 30, 2015

What did Circe do to sailors? Turned them into pigs. It's been a long time since I read Homer or Joyce, but I think there was emphasis in Homer on the horror of men being deprived of speech, only being able to grunt. Perhaps the chaotic nature of the chapter is meant to echo this motif?
posted by thelonius at 6:15 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you can, try and get your hands on Nabokov's book, Lectures on Literature. He has a really good essay about Ulysses in it, and he said something about Circe that I have always liked: in that chapter, the book itself is dreaming.
posted by colfax at 10:05 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ok, I think I'm getting it, Mr Roboto and Colfax. Thanks! I just read the Circe commentary in Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. The book is having a dream! Love it. Can't wait to read the rest of what he has to say about Ulysses. (It is interesting how short his comments on Circe are in comparison with some of the earlier chapters.)
posted by storybored at 10:22 AM on March 31, 2015

To expand on my earlier comment...

The style of Circe serves two purposes. First, it's a distancing device. Since Nausicaa, Joyce has been pushing the reader away from the narrative. The style of the book (always in the forefront) is becoming more and more what the book is about. Ulysses is never purely experimental literature, but these three central chapters (N, OotS, C) are when its experimental qualities become most prominent. By Circe, formal narrative has been abandoned. It's no longer clear exactly what is going on in the "real" world of the novel, since hallucination and narrative are mixing freely in a highly stylized format.

This resort to pure style is of course a hallmark of modern novels... perhaps the signature of the novel becoming High Art.

One of the things that makes Ulysses a great book, however, is that even in its most distant, stylized, and experimental passages, it never abandons its characters. The second purpose of the style of Circe is to provide insight to the inner worlds of the characters. It is in this chapter (even more so than in Hades) that the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, and both central characters need to face their ghosts. Bloom faces his Rudy and his Rudolph; Stephen faces his mother (and his motherland?).

In this context, the purpose of this chapter is conventional--we all learned in high school that the protagonist of a novel must undergo a journey that changes him. It is in Circe that Stephen directly confronts the crisis that must force him to change. Look through every mention of his mother previous to this chapter. Upon thinking of her, he turns his mind away as quickly as possible. He cannot face her. In Circe, with Bloom's support, he faces her. The next two chapters of the novel deal with the changes and the realizations that this confrontation results in. Until Circe, Stephen is sophomoric, fatalistic, and cynical. And an asshole. Joyce doesn't have much respect for his autobiographical stand-in. Circe is the turning point; the pivot that saves Stephen from nihlism (and alcoholism, and whatever he's been doing in Nighttown). The themes of salvation and redemption start to emerge...
posted by mr_roboto at 10:21 PM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

As an addendum to mr_roboto's points, late in the chapter (from memory) Bloom also begins to confront the idea of Molly's infidelity with Boylan, which he has up to now been turning away from in a similar manner to Stephen's thoughts of his mother.

It's been a while since I read much Joyce criticism, but I did enjoy Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living fairly recently. The marketing copy tries to spin it as 'Ulysses as self-help guide'; really it's a readable but insightful scholarly analysis (much more so than de Botton's book on Proust, I think, which is positioned in a similar way).

From Kiberd's Circe chapter:
"Why is a dream play necessary at this point in the book? Because even in the candour of their own interior monologues characters have engaged in self-deception. Beneath the apparent richness of their materials there was often to be found a deeply troubled or unhappy consciousness. Much that had been repressed or denied in the daylight hours can be brought to the surface at night. So this expressionist play about hidden impulses is also an examination of some of the sicknesses (and more positive yearnings) which lay behind the monologues."
posted by MazeNoCentre at 2:16 AM on April 1, 2015

Thanks for the followup mr roboto!

The second purpose of the style of Circe is to provide insight to the inner worlds of the characters.

I think I would have an easier time buying into these inner worlds if it wasn't for the "hey, Bloom shouldn't know about that bit that JJ O'Molloy speaks during one of the fantasy trial scenes" or "wtf, Stephen's mother is repeating words from the letter that Martha wrote to Bloom!"

If I accept Nabokov's suggestion that it's the book that's dreaming, then I can't really conclude anything about the characters' inner worlds, can I?.

I'm looking forward to the next two chapters. The first time I read those chapters I didn't notice much of a change in Stephen's character compared to what he's like in pre-Circe chapters, but I will keep an eye out for it on the second runthrough.

@MazeNoCentre - I'll check out the Kiberd book, thanks.
posted by storybored at 7:21 PM on April 2, 2015

If I accept Nabokov's suggestion that it's the book that's dreaming, then I can't really conclude anything about the characters' inner worlds, can I?

I think this problem actually illuminates something crucial about Ulysses. It's true, you can't take the "hallucinations" simply as manifestations of what's going on in the characters' minds. Nabokov says the book is dreaming, not the characters; it might be more precise to say that the hallucinatory bits are alluding to, expanding upon, and riffing off of other parts of the book, without necessarily referring to any conscious or unconscious mental states of the characters. Now, that's a tendency you see throughout Ulysses. In the Sirens episode, for example, there's this line:
Leopold cut liverslices. As said before he ate with relish the inner organs, nutty gizzards, fried cods' roes...
That's a reference to the opening lines of Part 2 -- a textual reference, not Bloom's memory of his breakfast. Other examples are the headlines in Aeolus and the parodic interpolations in Cyclops: running commentary on their respective episodes, from outside any character's framework. The Circe episode is the culmination of this tendency.

So what's the point? Well, on the one hand, the extended riffs do flesh out the characters and the story. As mr_roboto pointed out, Circe is where we get to see the major characters confront the ghosts that have been haunting them throughout the book. In a realist novel, the conventional way for Joyce to do that would be to orchestrate some melodramatic scene where the characters consciously experience those confrontations. But scenes like that are rare in real life, and so they'd be out of place in Ulysses, which is fundamentally an account of a more-or-less ordinary day in Dublin, 1904. The Circe episode is a workaround for that problem (and maybe it's formatted like a play in part to acknowledge that this is where the melodrama is concentrated).

On the other hand, if the hallucinations in Circe don't represent the characters' actual experiences or inner states, then why should we trust them as telling us something "true" about the characters? I believe Joyce is deliberately provoking this question, and I can think of two answers. First, it's a basic technique of Ulysses that various details scattered throughout the book reinforce one another. We judge the validity of what we learn from the hallucinations based on what we know from other parts of the book. Stephen's mother doesn't "really" appear to anyone, but the emotional experience is consistent with what we know of her death and how it has affected Stephen, and the hallucination in turn reinforces the details we've already gleaned about that situation. We accept the hallucination as useful information because it's consistent with the rest of the text.

But second, I think Joyce is making a point about the novel as a genre. Why should we trust anything a novel seems to tell us about its characters? We trust realist novels implicitly, because realism is a suite of techniques for creating the illusion that its characters exist independently of the text itself, and we've learned to accept those techniques. (It's like editing in Hollywood movies: we don't notice the cuts because we've learned to accept them as part of the default grammar of film, even though nothing could be more artificial.) The first episode of Ulysses uses a conventional, realist style as a starting point, a norm that the book increasingly deviates from. The Circe episode illustrates that even when there are totally non-realist, hallucinatory interpolations, where arbitrary details from elsewhere in the text are jumbled together and the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, we stick to the idea that there are these extra-textual entities called "characters" that the text is giving us information about. But whatever you learn from the hallucinations about the characters' inner worlds has exactly the same textual authority as whatever you learn from the "realistic" first episode; if the book is dreaming, well, the book is all we have to go on, and we'll have to learn to read its dreams (just like Freud thought he had learned to "read" the dreams of his patients). One measure of the success of Ulysses is that, even though the realist mode is disrupted and sometimes abandoned completely, you can come away from the book thinking it contains some of the most richly, fully realized characters in literature. The experience of realism doesn't depend on realism's cliches; you can foreground the novel's textuality as much as you want and it won't necessarily break the realist illusion.
posted by twirlip at 10:32 AM on April 10, 2015

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