Books Magazine

Ulysses, Chapter Twelve: Cyclops

By Jake Cole @notjustmovies
[Link to previous chapters here]
Nothing makes me as simultaneously amused and infuriated as a bad (good?) pun. Joyce highlights the fact that the 12th episode of Ulysses corresponds to the Cyclops encounter in The Odyssey by placing the perspective in that of an anonymous first-person narrator, necessitating the frequent use of "I," the homophone for "eye." It's as easy as that. Or so it seems, anyway. Soon, Joyce delves into deeper interpretations of men with one eye, specifically their metaphorical lack of depth perception in their opinions. Windbags have floated around this novel like zeppelins, but here at last Joyce truly sinks his teeth into the self-righteous posturing of the roving bands of Irish drunkards crowding every pub in mid-afternoon.
I thought Joyce's prodding of Bloom in the previous chapter bordered on the cruel, unstoppable visions of Boylan heading off to take his wife. I had not seen anything yet. Those reminders of Bloom's impending cuckolding served mainly as vain motivation to get Leo off his ass and into action. Here, however, we at last see something of genuine contempt in Joyce's humanistic and tempered worldview.
The narrator, a debt collector, mingles with Irish nationalists in a pub around 5 p.m. The most prominent member among the crew of drinkers is another anonymous man, known as the Citizen. The Citizen spends the entire chapter espousing racist, nationalistic views to the simpering morons nodding and harrumph-ing in agreement. The narrator clearly agrees with the Citizen, his admiration of the man pouring off his account of the man and his words.
These are the sort of men with whom you don't ever want to start a political discussion. Not because they're as intellectual and well-researched as they believe but because they stick so dogmatically to their narrow viewpoints. Just yesterday, I had a nice, long chat with a friend about politics in which I kept trying to stress -- while apologizing for monopolizing the discussion as she politely said it was fine -- that as much of a committed liberal as I am, I honestly do try to see where people are coming from. It's difficult sometimes, and especially now, as the gulf between two parties grows so wide that genuinely centered individuals are few and far between, but then opinions must have been bitterly partisan in Dublin in 1904 and these men still seem like assholes.
Joyce pulls no punches. Their view of Ireland is so rosy, so absurd compared to the banal realism of the author's portrait of Dublin that the 1st-person suddenly shatters and the prose becomes hilariously pompous and Romantic, combining Irish lore with medieval legend and Greek mythology to capture the supposedly unspeakable beauty of an idiotically dressed citizen or the ordering of another round of bitter. Their focus on politics leads to an incessant listing of names, glorifying Ireland and cursing her sworn enemy, England. An account of the execution of Emmet, the Irish nationalist who led a failed rebellion against the Crown, stretches across pages and lauds the man and his Romanticized relationship with his fiancée in devastatingly overwrought terms.
Of course, the thing about nationalists is that, at some point, they have to come up against something or someone from another country. In that case, the more committed bigots find some way to claim those objects and people, and the funniest part of the chapter comes in the form of a page or so list of names touted as Irish heroes. Among them: Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri, and Buddha. It reminds me of my initial confusion over Joyce's nationality before I ever read anything by him, thinking he was American as if that was somehow the default nationality of an artist. I also recall a documentary Louis Theroux did for the BBC in which he profiled black nationalists in America: in one of his more memorable interviews, he spoke with a council of black leaders who insisted noteworthy, white historical figures were actually black, their racial pride preventing them from acknowledging anyone they could not see as one of their own. But just as the most tenuous connection can be used to claim another, so too can the tiniest trace of foreign blood in the veins of an Irishman preclude him from acceptability in the eyes of the Citizen. He uses anti-Semitic remarks to describe Bloom and anti-Italian stereotypes to slam an Irish politician with Italian heritage.
Bloom enters early in the chapter, waiting on Cunningham to square Dignam's debts, and the mood around him turns so intensely hostile that the paranoia Bloom has felt so far seems justified. The Citizen starts making loud comments about immigrants sapping the life out of Ireland, such comments directed at least partially at the Jewish Bloom despite him being a natural-born Irish citizen. But it's this insufferable windbag who reserves the right to call himself "citizen" at the expense of all others who are different, and Bloom becomes a convenient target for the rest.
The level of vitriol flowing out of the men is terrifying. Every time the mild-mannered Bloom speaks on issues with a moderate, holistic view, the narrator views his opinions as interruptions and disrespectful sidetracks of the "worthy" statements of the Citizen and other pub denizens. News from the horse race comes in, and it turns out the dark horse with 20-1 odds won, screwing over betters like Boylan and his lady friend (Molly?). When Bloom momentarily leaves to run an errand, one of the men mumbles something about him probably going to collect his winnings, and by the time Bloom returns, everyone else is convinced that he's won huge yet hides his winnings to collect free drinks off them, completely ignoring the fact that Bloom has turned down drinks. And earlier, they were mocking him for not partaking! It's insane. At one point, the narrator thinks that murdering Bloom would be completely justifiable in a court of law.
It's easy to get caught up in the bile and miss just how consistently reasonable Bloom is being with these people. They rant about the floggings in the English navy, but Leopold points out that all navies have strict discipline. He responds to their hatred of seemingly all other nations by pointing out that hate leads to persecution, something that, as a Jew, he knows all about. He counters their racial identification of nationality -- something intrinsic to the European view of nations -- with the more modern interpretation of a group of disparate people working together for a common goal. Instead of looking to the past and bloodlines, he finds that a nation should be people creating their future. But he phrases himself poorly and receives another round of condescension for his troubles.
Something happens in this chapter that surprised me: Bloom finally stands up for himself. He at first tries to let the Citizen's anti-Semitic comments pass, but he slowly emboldens himself to speak up as their insipid, one-eyed views of the world crowd out all rational discussion. However, he never sinks to their level; he could easily claim moral superiority to these louts, these sadsacks acting as if they're representing the proud spirit of Ireland as they sit in a bar getting loaded at 5 o'clock (so really, for all their stereotyping of others, they're the ones that best fit cultural jokes). Instead, he calmly debates them on their rhetoric, seeking calmer responses to issues that even Bloom concedes concern him as well. Even at the end, when Bloom at last stands up in his cart and shouts back at the Citizen -- a moment brought back to Joycean levels of realism and wit when a prostitute tells Bloom his fly is open -- he offers a reasonable, incontrovertible retort that sends the Citizen into a sputtering frenzy because he has nothing to say back to the Jew that plagues him. The best he can do is try to kill Bloom in an impotent display of rage that reveals him for the pathetic sot he really is.
No matter; the men still close upon him like a pack of wolves looking to tear him apart, and they blind themselves to the goodness he has to offer. The Citizen sardonically refers to Bloom as "the new Messiah of Ireland," but that's more or less what Joyce has set him up to be. Bloom recognizes the uselessness of getting drunk all day and devolving into bigotry in response to the genuine hardships Ireland has suffered at the hands of others. Unwittingly, the men reveal how much they have in common with the Jews they lambaste: one of the parodic segments, regaling the reader with a court case, posits the 12-member jury as representatives of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and the Citizen himself makes reference to the lost tribes of Irishmen scattered in the nation's own diaspora. If they could just open their other eye and get some perspective, they could see how much they share with Bloom. But then they wouldn't be Cyclopes.
Joyce makes the interesting decision to end the chapter with one final parody, this time of Biblical passages as he presents a vision of the cart carrying Bloom suddenly ascending into Heaven with Elijah. Joyce just hammers the Christ allegory home: Boom's final assertion to the Citizen was a reminder that Jesus and, in a way, God were both Jewish, and for his humanistic views Christ the Jew was murdered by the mob he'd been sent to save. But Joyce gives him a Jewish ascent at the end, letting him simply leave this world and walk with the Lord. This amusing but moving coda says everything you need to know about how much Joyce, however harshly he may view Bloom at times, loves the man and sees him so above his thick-headed racial brethren. It's a stand and cheer moment if ever there was one, proof of Bloom's quietly devastating defeat of these frothing men. Or, considering Joyce's love of fart jokes, perhaps it's better to call Leo's style "silent but deadly."

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

Magazines