Thursday, June 2, 2011

ULYSSES by James Joyce: Chapter Two, 'Nestor'

Chapters one and two of Ulysses are sutured together by a beautiful sonic 'match cut.' The last word of 'Telemachus,' usurper, shares an initial vowel sound and rhythm with the first two words of 'Nestor,' You, Cochrane. The matching music of the words (an early hint of the technique of 'Sirens') transports us smoothly from the seaside path of the first chapter's conclusion to the classroom at Mr. Deasy's school.

'Nestor' is one of the novel's slighter chapters, but it contains some of Stephen Dedalus's greatest moments. His definition of a pier as a "disappointed bridge" is simply gorgeous, an example of a 'pathetic fallacy' that generates genuine pathos. Every human being wandering alienated through the modern city is a pier who thinks he's a bridge. In his dialogue with Mr. Deasy (a name that Dickensianly rhymes with 'queasy,' appropriate for a character who becomes increasingly nauseating as the scene progresses), Stephen effectively rephrases Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire on the nightmare of history and succinctly deconstructs Deasy's ill-informed Shakespearean allusion by contextualizing it as a line spoken by Iago. He also rather wonderfully describes himself as a 'learner' rather than a 'teacher.' My favorite moment of the discussion, though, is the Joycean coup de theatre that occurs when Deasy's Protestant Hegelian argument reaches its "one great goal, the manifestation of God" at the very moment a goal is scored in the hockey game out the window. Deasy is too blinded by dogmatism to note the deflationary irony, but nothing is lost on Stephen, who "jerk[s] his thumb towards the window" and defines God as "a shout in the street." A shrug of the shoulders slightly defuses this populist blasphemy (which unsurprisingly is also a classical allusion: vox populi, vox dei).

This most literally pedagogical of Ulysses's chapters is the perfect place to say a few words about the vast academic secondary literature that has grown up around this novel. There is an intimidatingly massive library of Joycean books, essays, journal articles, webpages, blogs, etc., but only three books are absolutely necessary for an informed reading of Ulysses: Richard Ellmann's still-standard biography, James Joyce (in its 1982 revised edition); Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses; and Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. These books, especially the last, will tell you more than you need to know. This may sound like an enormous diss directed at the Joyce Industry, but it's not. I've found many other Joyce books informative and even enjoyable, but none of them are as absolutely necessary as the three mentioned above. As to the fraught question of which edition of Ulysses to read, I've read both the Gabler edition and the long-standard 1961 edition and found that while there are a few interesting differences in some specific lines, most of Gabler's many corrections are very minor. I'm tempted to call the scholarly tempest over the Gabler edition "Much Ado About Nothung"--but surely someone has already used that as an alternate title for Wagner's Ring.

1 comment:

jandh said...

Thank you for writing. You deserve a huge audience.