|James Joyce - manuscript page from the "Circe" episode of Ulysses|
Agenbite of inwit, it’s Bloomsday!
And so today let’s celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel of potent poetic force that I’ve been privileged to read, or at least re-read in part, just about every one of the last 40 years. Three years ago, I applauded here in the glade a couple wonderful bits from the book about the sea and water (click here). Two years ago, I billboarded the famous final words of Molly Bloom’s book-ending soliloquy (click here). Last year, I luxuriated in the wonderfully sonic opening lines of the “Sirens” episode (click here).
This year I herald the “Circe” episode, the 15th section of Ulysses. That episode, set in Nighttown, Dublin’s red-light district, takes the form of a script for a drama, including sometimes extensive stage directions and descriptions. Most compelling, Joyce in his dream-drama blends or animates the real and natural (including memories of events depicted earlier in the novel) with the characters' subconscious and/or anxiety-ridden impulses. Warped hallucinations often result, and they can scorch the imagination (and not infrequently be very funny).
So yes I said yes, let us this Bloomsday wow ourselves with a few passages of nightmarish wildness! Agenbite of inwit, indeed!
Let’s begin with a description of on-stage action from very near the chapter’s start. In this excerpt, the unusual and disturbing pile on one another here, and the writing – check especially the verbs – moves. Initially, Joyce presents a series of mostly lengthy and grammatically complex sentences, some of which include unwieldy portmanteaus, and which depict rather complicated sets of actions. Joyce then shifts dramatically, dropping in a triplet of short sentences (nine, seven, and six words each, respectively). These shorter sentences stun with the rhythmic variation they bring to the passage, their own internal staccato bursts (each of the three sentences has its own three-part energy), and the marvelous cinematic verve of the action conveyed in each. You’ll see, I do believe, and off – and into the wild – we go:
(A pygmy woman swings on a rope slung between the railings, counting. A form sprawled against a dustbin and muffled by its arm and hat moves, groans, grinding growling teeth, and snores again. On a step a gnome totting among a rubbish tip crouches to shoulder a sack of rags and bones. A crone standing by with a smoky oillamp rams the last bottle in the maw of his sack. He heaves his booty, tugs askew his peaked cap and hobbles off mutely. The crone makes back for her lair swaying her lamp. A bandy child, asquat on the doorstep with a papershuttlecock, crawls sidling after her in spurts, clutches her skirt, scrambles up. A drunken navvy ups with both hands the railings of an area, lurching heavily. At a corner two night watch in shouldercapes, their hands upon their staffholsters, loom tall. A plate crashes; a woman screams; a child wails. Oaths of a man roar, mutter, cease. Figures wander, lurk, peer from warrens. In a room lit by a candle stuck in a bottleneck a slut combs out the tatts from the hair of a scrofulous child. Cissy Caffrey's voice, still young, sings shrill from a lane.)
Ah, “a scrofulous child.” Don’t see that one used much, do we? This or different sorts of wildness (both in description, action, and dialogue) continues in the Circe episode for almost 5,000 lines of text, well over 150 printed pages in most editions of Ulysses. Maybe the best place to read it on-line, because of its hyperlink annotations and color-codes that indicate the various narrative approaches Joyce uses, is at the columbia.edu site (click here then click on Chapter 15 (presented in two halves) a bit down the page).
In the meantime, let’s wrap up our Bloomsday observance here by getting wild again, this time with an excerpt from a description of stage action taken from near the end of the Circe episode. The set up here, to simplify mightly, is that distant voices are heard to say, “Dublin’s burning! Dublin’s burning! On fire, on fire!” Joyce then goes apocalyptic, an epic of an apocalypse, including marauding birds and even a bit zombie-action. Dig the punch of the short sentences, almost twenty of them, as this begins, then the longer roll-out of our fine feathered friends, and finally the dead rising, the living plummeting, and all the rest. Yow, and wow, here it is:
(Brimstone fires spring up. Dense clouds roll past. Heavy Gatling guns boom. Pandemonium. Troops deploy. Gallop of hoofs. Artillery. Hoarse commands. Bells clang. Backers shout. Drunkards bawl. Whores screech. Foghorns hoot. Cries of valour. Shrieks of dying. Pikes clash on cuirasses. Thieves rob the slain. Birds of prey, winging from the sea, rising from marsh lands, swooping from eyries, hover screaming, gannets, cormorants, vultures, goshawks, climbing woodcocks, peregrines, merlin, blackgrouse, sea eagles, gulls, albatrosses, barnacle geese. The midnight sun is darkened. The earth trembles. The dead of Dublin from Prospect and Mount Jerome in white sheepskin overcoats and black goat-fell cloaks arise and appear to many. A chasm opens with a noiseless yawn. Tom Rochford, winner in athlete’s singlet and breeches, arrives at the head of the national hurdle handicap and leaps into the void. He is followed by a race of runners and leapers. In wild attitudes they spring from the brink. Their bodies plunge. Factory lasses with fancy clothes toss redhot Yorkshire baraabombs. Society ladies lift their skirts above their heads to protect themselves. laughing witches in red cutty sarks ride through the air on broomsticks. Quakerlyster plasters blisters. It rains dragon’s teeth. [ . . . ])