Skip to main content

Happy Bloomsday, dad.

It's Bloomsday today, and Father's day tomorrow. James Joyce's Ulysses, set on the 16th June 1904, is a phenomenal, bewildering, literary roller-coaster of a book which everyone should read [1] and which I would be fool to attempt to write about. Since previous posts have well-established me as such, here are my hasty scribblings. Still, points for topicality, no?

Fittingly, fatherhood is a running theme. A father in search of a son: middle-aged Leopold Bloom, (the Odysseus figure), lost his infant son 11 years ago and feels emotionally estranged from his wife (the Penelope figure) of whose numerous affairs he is well aware. A son in search of a father: 22 year old aspiring writer, Stephen Dedalus (the Telemachus figure), has suffered the long-running neglect of an alcoholic father and has recently lost his mother. The story describes, in a variety of challengingly experimental literary modes, events in both their lives -- ranging from the basest of bodily functions to the profoundest of inner musings -- during a single day. Their paths eventually converge and Bloom finds himself 'rescuing' a very drunk Stephen from a brothel (where he looks like to lose all his money through sheer intoxicated carelessness), force-feeding him coffee and bread and taking him to his own house where he tries to bond over a mug of cocoa.

The chapter with the cocoa, 'Ithaca' (after Odysseus' home island where he is eventually reunited with his son and wife), is probably the one I most readily connected with and enjoyed. It is written in a sort of catechistic style -- itemised questions are followed by obtusely precise and literal answers -- and it's that formality which somehow emphasises the strangeness and distance between the two protagonists. Trivialities and profundities are treated with the same ritualistic importance:
"How did Bloom prepare a collation for a gentile?

He poured into two teacups two level spoonfuls, four in all, of Epps's soluble cocoa and proceeded according to the directions for use printed on the label, to each adding after sufficient time for infusion the prescribed ingredients for diffusion in the manner and in the quantity prescribed.

What supererogatory marks of special hospitality did the host show his guest?

Relinquishing his symposiarchal right to the moustache cup of imitation Crown Derby presented to him by his only daughter, Millicent (Milly), he substituted a cup identical with that of his guest and served extraordinarily to his guest and, in reduced measure, to himself the viscous cream ordinarily reserved for the breakfast of his wife Marion (Molly).

Was the guest conscious of and did he acknowledge these marks of hospitality?

His attention was directed to them by his host jocosely and he accepted them seriously as they drank in jocoserious silence Epps's massproduct, the creature cocoa."
With 16 chapters-worth of solitary journeying as the build-up, this eventual moment together, alone, feels like a long-awaited opportunity for intimacy, for each to find in the other the fulfillment of their felt needs. But…the encounter is ultimately disjointed and unsatisfactory. They trade anecdotes, discuss shared acquaintances, even (with momentary symbolic promise for barriers overthrown) share Hebrew and Irish poetry. Overall, the impression they make on one another is reciprocated otherness:
"What was Stephen's auditive sensation?

He heard in a profound ancient male unfamiliar melody the accumulation of the past.

What was Bloom's visual sensation?

He saw in a quick young male familiar form the predestination of a future."

Bloom -- keen (anxious, even) to further the acquaintance -- invites Stephen to stay, knowing he has no-where else to shelter for the night:
"What proposal did Bloom, diambulist, father of Milly, somnambulist, make to Stephen, noctambulist?

To pass in repose the hours intervening between Thursday (proper) and Friday (normal) on an extemporised cubicle in the apartment immediately above the kitchen and immediately adjacent to the sleeping apartment of his host and hostess.

What various advantages would or might have resulted from a prolongation of such extemporisation?

For the guest: security of domicile and seclusion of study. For the host: rejuvenation of intelligence, vicarious satisfaction. For the hostess: disintegration of obsession, acquisition of correct Italian pronunciation.
[…]
Was the proposal of asylum accepted?

Promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully it was declined."

And so, into the night he goes, non-committal in response to Bloom's attempts to pin him down to further social engagements. (But not before the two companionably urinate in the garden, Joyce's elaborate descriptions of which ocassion -- from a biological, mechanistic, emotional and theological perspective -- can no doubt be easily located on the Internet with the help of your favourite search engine).

It is a sad parting, resonant with unmet longing and disappointed separateness. Hardly the triumphant reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus -- neither glory nor closure for Joyce's heros.

Joyce was not the first or only thinker to recognise the power and ingrainedness of human longing for a strong father figure. It's a key theme in Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, to which Joyce frequently alludes (far more explicitly than he ever references the Odyssey). And it was the basis of Freud's wish-fulfillment-driven 'explanation' for belief in God:
"The idea of God was not a lie but a device of the unconscious which needed to be decoded by psychology. A personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshipped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness. Religion belonged to the infancy of the human race; it had been a necessary stage in the transition from childhood to maturity. It had promoted ethical values which were essential to society. Now that humanity had come of age, however, it should be left behind." (Freud, apparently, but I can't find out where or when he said it...which serves me right for grabbing quotes online).
C.S. Lewis pointed out, in response to this, that the 'father figure' argument works both ways from a wish-fulfillment perspective and can just as readily be used to explain disbelief in God. At any rate, he seemed to think (and I do too) that it was an altogether overly-reductive approach to the problem, and that it's all a bit more complicated to begin with...
"If Freud is right about the Oedipus complex, the universal pressure of the wish that God should not exist must be enormous, and atheism must be an admirable gratification to one of our strongest suppressed impulses. This argument, in fact, could be used on the theistic side. But I have no intention of so using it. It will not really help either party. It is fatally ambivalent. Men wish on both sides: and again, there is fear-fulfilment as well as wish-fulfilment, and hypochondriac temperaments will always tend to think true what they most wish to be false.

Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist be-cause he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he Wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? They may be of some use in analysing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently."  (C.S. Lewis, On Obstinacy in Belief, 1955)
Putting aside the particulars of that debate (I'm not quite fool enough -- on this occasion at least -- to try to 'add' to Freud and Lewis 'off the top of my head'), I thought I'd wrap up with some examples of what the Bible has to say on the possibility and implications of knowing God as Father, and leave it as something worth thinking about:
"Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land." (Psalm 68:5-6)
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:11-13)
"For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (Romans 8:15-17)
"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure." (1 John 3:1:3)


[1] Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying I actually understood all/most/some of it. But I had fun trying, and every book since has felt like a walk in the park by comparison.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

An autobiographical poem about walking on water

A decade ago, give or take – feeling at crisis point in my mental health and desperately socially disconnected – I "went up for prayer" at a church I was visiting. (I find it hard to do this at my own church when I feel desperately socially disconnected. It's hard enough even to be at my own church at such times). And the gentle, kindly woman who placed her hand on my shoulder and prayed some simple, general, healing words to suit my simple, general, hurting plea looked thoughtfully at me afterwards and said "just, if and when you can, keep taking each next step towards Jesus, whatever that looks like," or words to that effect. It seemed as good a plan as any, so I did. (Not instead of getting medical and professional help, I hasten to add; seeking out and receiving whatever support is available has always felt more like an action of faith than a compromise of it).

Since then, stepping towards Jesus has taken me (slowly, often painfully, and usually the long w…

The Sin of Onan

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:6-10) According to Google's answer to what (let's face it) must be right up there among the most-asked questions since the invention of the search engine, this story is the closest the Bible comes to saying anything directly about masturbation.

And it isn't a story about masturbation. It's not even a story, not really, about birth control methods – although they feature. It's a story about the denial of ju…

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.  (T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land, part I: The Burial of the Dead,1922) These lines have lingered in my mind the past few days. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the years following the First World War, when the landscape of humanity seemed perhaps particularly stark and bleak. The poem resounds with disquiet and despair: all glimpsed respite turns out to be illusory or faltering; it seems improbable that any grounds for real hope exist at all. Eliot …