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Ulysses, Chapter Eleven: Sirens

Posted on the 02 May 2011 by Jake Cole @notjustmovies
Sometimes Joyce can be so literal I almost don't notice what he's doing. The Sirens chapter is based, of course, on the golden-voiced bird-women who lured sailors to their deaths on craggy rocks with their irresistible song. Because of this, Joyce uses musical imagery: the whole of the first two pages contains nothing but snippets of thoughts and sentences, and it's not until about halfway through this passage that it becomes clear Joyce is "warming up" as if tuning an orchestra. At the end of the segment, he announces to the reader that he's ready to go with a riotous "Begin!"
I took the fewest notes on this chapter as I have any of the other 10. That is not because I somehow had this whole thing "figured out" but because I got so entranced by the rhythm of the prose. In that sense, the writing itself embodies the mythic sirens, lulling me into following it until I finally snapped out of it and said, "Oh crap, important things are happening!"
It's 4 p.m. Bloom continues to walk around Dublin and finds himself drawn into the Ormond Hotel, a pub with a singing room, by two loudly chatting barmaids whose voices draw him in. Still paranoid with anxiety, he assumes their mocking of a grease-nosed man is directed at him, and he drifts closer until he continues his walk, returning once more when he spots Boylan headed to the hotel.
For the remainder of the chapter, Bloom loses himself in fretful thoughts as characters carouse and sing in the pub. Simon Dedalus enters with friends and sets about scoring himself a drink. Boylan flirts with the barmaids, leaving just as he practically convinces one of the barmaids to sleep with him. Why he's leaving is clear, but Joyce nearly mocks poor Bloom, the "jingle" of the suspension of Boylan's wagon reminding him of the creaks of his bed springs, thus making him think of Boylan riding off to sleep with Molly.
Joyce doesn't stop there. As Bloom remains in the bar -- WHY, Leo?! Go the hell home and stop this! -- Joyce breaks up Bloom's subjective listening experience with harsh, omniscient peeks at Boylan riding to 7 Eccles St. Not only that, Joyce hammers home what's about to happen with brutal wit: he depicts images of Boylan whipping his mare's rear to get it to Molly's house faster, the double meaning of him wearing out that ass (as it were) hopefully lost on no one.
Oh, I should mention, this chapter is thick with innuendo. Dedalus and his rowdy crew, aided by their social lubricant, make bawdy jokes about everything, including one gag about a burst eardrum that suggests Joyce also finds the idea of aural sex amusing. Bloom, horny little toad that he is, does not fail to note the buxom maids and even delays the exit he should have made well before one of the bar songs threatens to make him emotional so he can watch one of them rest her hand on the phallic beer tap.
To this point, Bloom has been an incredibly sympathetic figure. We pity him being cuckolded, pity how alienated he is from others, pity how inconsequential he seems despite his decency. Here, however, as the man sits in a pub, Joyce lets that lull give space and pacing to our perception of Bloom, and certain issues arise. He knows where Boylan is going but says nothing, preferring to stay and wallow in self-pity instead of going home and stopping this mess. What's more, he writes to his flirtatious pen pal, thus making him a cheat as well. This is the weak, craven side of Bloom, and it can be hard to stomach.
But I loved what Sheila O'Malley had to say about this:
I kept getting frustrated with Bloom, as I read the book the first time. Like: DUDE. Just TELL Molly you love her – punch Boylan in the nose – and go home and fuck Molly like you’ve never fucked her before – she’s DYING for it – what is your problem??? But as the book went on, I realized what I was reacting to – was my own proclivity for passivity, or fatalistic thinking … my own feelings of defeat in the face of emotional challenges … my own desire to avoid a big fat fight and also – my almost pathological need to never be hurt again.
She also notes how much shit Bloom has endured: he lost a child to sickness and a father to suicide. Even within the frame of the novel, he's been ignored and mocked to his face and behind his back. That has an effect on people, and if we can no longer fully pity Leopold, we also cannot completely condemn him.
That moral gray area fits Bloom's own outlook. Most of his thoughts to this point have been gentle, fatherly. Here, he finally gives into the darkness for a bit. He has fun with the disabilities and looks of some and the boorish behavior of others, but he tempers his more haughty thoughts with fair considerations of why people behave or look the way he do. He cannot go too hard on Simon because of the man's recent loss, and he eases off his rough appraisal of his friend Goulding's appearance because of the man's hobbling back pain. Everyone else in this book speaks with verve, often unjustified. The drunken Irish crowd that shuffles around our main characters bloviate about their insipid lives; even the songs they sing in this chapter have those treacly sentiments of past glory to them, songs all the more ironic as Joyce wrote this chapter around the time of Ireland's split from England. Other men drunkenly insist upon the superiority of certain tenors, of events and songs centuries old. Even Stephen, revealed to be directionless in his philosophizing, at least speaks with polemical conviction.
Coming off the Wandering Rocks chapter and its macrocosmic view of Dublin and its inhabitants, Bloom's relativism and humanistic maturity demonstrates why Joyce finds him so superior to all these sots emptily pontificating and avoiding work even though so many seem to be in debt. But Joyce also shows how being different holds Bloom back, prevents him from getting a handle on his own life. It's possible that these men aren't just blinding themselves to life but are finding a way to cope with it. Bloom has not yet found that respite. If he is meant to help Stephen find himself, Bloom also needs guidance of his own, and getting sidelined from returning home is not helping him. It's almost unsurprising that Joyce ends the chapter by letting Bloom relieving some kind of pressure by letting out a great big fart.

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