Monday, September 29, 2008


As an example of how closely Joyce's Ulysses can be read, consider this brief passage from the 'Lotus Eaters' episode in which Leopold Bloom, pausing in a church during mass, misreads the sign on the back of a priest's vestments:
...Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

The IHS on priestly garments--as Joyce certainly knew and the secular Bloom appropriately does not--is a Christogram, writing that alphabetically signifies Christ, in this case via the first three letters of His name in Greek: iota-eta-sigma. This Christogram is also commonly (mis)interpreted as signifying 'Iesus Hominum Salvator' ('Jesus, Savior of Man') or 'in hoc signo (vinces)' ('by this sign, conquer', from the legend of the vision of Constantine). Read in the light of this last misinterpretation, the only one that explicitly refers to the acts of reading and interpretation that are the concerns of the Joycean passage, these few lines that on the surface seem a mere scene of comic and sentimental misinterpretation become something much more complex. It is both an allegory of misreading (paging Dr. de Man...) and an allegory of the act of reading the Joycean text itself. It opens a series of mirrors, in some of which the reader might see reflected his/her own studious and/or baffled face. Bloom as reader, mirroring and parodying the actions of all nonfictional readers of Ulysses (you, me, Harold Bloom), misinterprets a written sign. But it's not just any sign. It's a sign that is commonly misinterpreted as referring to a scene of crucially correct interpretation. Joyce thus casts a shadow of doubt on the validity even of Constantine's interpretation and places a critical question mark over all acts of reading and interpreting, even of the holy Word. In short, the passage is a deconstructionist's delight, hurling the acts of reading and interpretation into a deManian abyss of mirrors and meaninglessness... This is all too complex for a blog post (it's really academic journal fodder), so let me end it now, delivering a Tristram Shandy-ish coup de grace in the delightfully understated form of a single, terminal period: .

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