Sep 18th 2014

Goodness in Leopold Bloom

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

Note to my readers: This essay is a follow-up to my rereading of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that is more personal essay than review and my rereading of Kafka’s The Trial. I’ll culminate this series with a discussion of how these three seminal modernist novelists examine and articulate the issues of moral ambiguity.

In this brief essay, I focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses —even in the face of the seeming impossibility of doing that with this tome of a novel. This is a good story, a compelling story, a story full of humor and life that captures the heart and imagination if we’re willing to read it as a good story. 

Ulysses has an imposing reputation and a difficult narrative style. For goodness sakes, those of us, like me who read it in undergraduate and graduate school, read it along with a book that was longer than the novel—Ulysses Annotated. That book is the key to the allusions that pepper every page. I’ve done it that way twice and as a writer and always learning.

I suggest that for non-scholars, the novel should be read for the powerful story that it is. When you get caught up in trying to understand every allusion—and Joyce did something incredibly complex on that score—you lose the story, the life of the book. I argue that this book has lasted not because it’s so complicated but because it really does live and breathe. 

The writer Anthony Burgess in a terrific little book in size ReJoyce, but large in ease of reading, says about Ulysses: “Let it join the beside library along with Shakespeare and the Bible.”

Joyce’s Ulysses is a big book. Joyce is imposingly erudite, but the novel is no solemn text. Joyce was a great humorist and humanist. 


His style changed the modern world of literature. He recreates what thought might be like if written down. We get jolting shifts in style, and we get a disjointed narrative that makes sense.

I’ve come to understand what the critic Hugh Kenner meant when he called Joyce “The Arranger.” He plays games with us and it’s well worth playing along. 

By the second half of the book, where the chapters get longer and longer, it’s almost as if he’s recreating what someone is saying in real time. The book has the quality of great cinema—it engulfs me in its world.

I focus my camera here on the remarkable main character Leopold Bloom, who journeys through the one day June 16th on a parallel latitude in Dublin with the young man Stephen Dedalus until their paths inevitably cross. 

Joyce has created in Leopold Bloom a character who embodies goodness—not the spiritual goodness of a saint, but that of a man confronted with his own sensuality, his own failures and the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be.

Leopold Bloom is the most human, flawed, forgivable and forgiving character ever to appear in literature. He embodies goodness, not the spiritual goodness of a saint, but that of a man confronted with his own sensuality—this is a very sexy book and not just in the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end. 

Bloom who becomes our hero, our fallible Ulysses, like us is confronted with his own failures. In this world Bloom is an outsider, a Jew, shunned by others, the object of derision and anti-Semitism, an ordinary man, cuckolded by his wife, the woman he loves.

The power of the story comes from his simple nobility and his unfailing inability to pass judgment. We see him unfold before us moving inevitably and surprisingly toward the high-browed intellectual, self-important Stephen Dedalus, a sad much younger man in much need of the simple wisdom and unfailing humanity of Bloom. 

Bloom is filled with thoughts of his own bodily functions and of sensuality. He exhibits a rather perverse obsession with women’s bloomers, as just one example of our anti-hero’s nature.

The pun on his name and his obsession is comically intended as we see in Molly’s soliloquy that closes the novel. Her soliloquy is not only oft-quoted but likely more often read that the novel itself, and I’m here to say that’s a misunderstanding of the achievement of the novel, of the power of the character made live in Leopold Bloom. 

The sentence I quote from begins at line 748 in Chapter 18, the last chapter entitled “Penelope.” Ninety-one lines later with no punctuation intervening at 18:839, Molly says,

“…and the new woman bloomers God send him sense and me more money I suppose theyre called after him I never thought that would be my name"

Bloom is hardly the picture of the Homeric hero.

And yet, I am left by novel’s end with a pervasive sense of Bloom’s nobility, a nobility based in his actions, his opposition to violence, his sense of his own guilt and responsibility. I wonder if I hear Joyce’s voice in Bloom’s words, “It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong ...” “Eumaes” Chapter 16: 1093-4). 

This unwillingness to pass judgment is the source of Bloom’s nobility, evidence of Joyce’s embrace of humanity with all its flaws, and one of the reasons that this novel—with all its difficulties and challenges to analytical thought—touches the heart.

Bloom’s deeds, though hardly broad and sweeping, define him, as actions define each of us in our lives. The seed of Bloom’s actions lies in his sympathy for others. Here are some examples that make me love him. 

In Chapter 6, “Hades,” where Bloom crosses paths with Stephen’s father Simon, a character named Martin Cunningham appears. Cunnigham also appears in the short story “Grace,” in Dubliners, and there too, he’s a man of mixed qualities, though his intentions seem good. Cunnigham interrupts Bloom: “Martin Cunningham thwarted his speech rudely” (6:277). Yet it is Bloom who recognizes goodness in Cunningham: “Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare’s face. Always a good word to say” (6:344-5).

It is Bloom who remembers Mrs. Sinico (6:997), “Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral”. Mrs Sinico also appears in the short story “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners and is portrayed there sympathetically, lost to love and ultimately to drink. 

It is Bloom whose “heavy pitying gaze absorbed her [Mrs Breen’s] news” in Chapter 8 “Lestrygonians” (8:287) of Mina Purefoy’s “very stiff birth” (8:284) and it is Bloom who subsequently goes to visit Mina.

It is Bloom who helps the blind man “tapping the curbstone with his slender cane” (8:1075) and is careful not to condescend to him. 

And it is Bloom who “put his name down for five shillings” to help the widow Dignam. Indeed, that mission of mercy lands him in the midst of the vicious attack by the citizen and the derision of others in Barney Kiernan’s pub, for he has come “about this insurance of poor Dignam’s” who has died and left his wife penniless.

By the measure of others, Bloom who is the butt of much derision, nonetheless fares well: Davy Berne says, “Decent quiet man he is” (8:976). ... He’s a safe man, I’d say.” (8:982) And of course that oft quoted line, “There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom,” (10:582) spoken by Lenehan, a character also seen in “Two Gallants,” in Dubliners and described there as “a sporting vagrant” and a sponger, quite unlike Bloom.

The touch of the artist I assert here is Joyce’s recognition of the artist’s sensitive nature, the artist’s inability to avoid seeing, to avoid hearing, to avoid the bombardment that is life in a city and in this case that city is Dublin, Ireland. 

In one of the most powerful chapters of the book, “Cyclops” Chapter 12, Bloom  expresses his opposition to capital punishment. “So they started talking about capital punishment and of course Bloom comes out with the why and wherefore...” (12:450-5). What follows is a humorous discussion of what happens to the “poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged” (12:457).

What interests me is that Bloom was the one who had thought about the issues involved in the killing of the guilty. 

Bloom’s opposition to violence is noteworthy because it does not arise from a submissive nature, though one could argue that Bloom behaves in a subservient manner in the novel. His opposition arises from conviction.

Significant as well is his strong verbal attack against the citizen: “Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. (12:1431) ... And I belong to a race too, says Bloom that is hated and persecuted. (12:1467) ... I’m talking about injustice, says Bloom.” (12:1474)

Bloom understands, confronts, and deflates the arrogance and pomposity of both prejudice and nationalism that lead to violence in both word and deed. 

One of his finest moments comes when it is he who preaches love: “Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred” (12:1485).

The citizen, or Polyphemous, if you will, is blinded by sun, not by violence, and it is he who hurls a biscuit box at Bloom to no avail. All this occurs amidst much jocularity as well as the parody of pompous language. 

But can the serious point be missed? I think not. Bloom makes clear in his retelling of the event to Stephen Dedalus that his views arise from conviction: “I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form” (16:1099).

This is a gentle soul. 

No wonder then that Bloom shall be the one to lead another, Stephen Dedalus, with a slender stick, the ashplant, to safety late in the novel. One must be struck by the gentleness Bloom offers to Stephen when he rescues him in Nighttown: “Come home. You’ll get into trouble.” (15:4511) “Face reminds me of his poor mother” (15:4949).

There’s no question he is helped in his personal journey by the meeting with Stephen, a personal journey, particularly, in his relationship with his wife Molly and the loss of his son Rudy. 

Honesty characterizes this imperfect man: It is Bloom who makes us aware of his role in Molly’s betrayal. We learn from him that he has not slept with Molly for eleven years since their son Rudy died shortly after his birth: “Could never like it again after Rudy” 8:610.

Bloom’s love of Molly is clear throughout. Even with his awareness of her tryst with Boylan, the man who is her lover, he thinks of her wit. He thinks often of Molly’s beauty, as when he purchases the orange flower water for her: “Brings out the darkness of her eyes” (5:494). 

In the Circe chapter, which Molly haunts, pervades, Bloom says, “Last of my race. ... Well, my fault perhaps. No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If not? If still?” and the narrator comments, “He bore no hate” (11:1066-68).

Cuckolded he is by Molly and Blazes Boylan, but his love of Molly persists as does an awareness of his own responsibility.

In Chapter 13, which ends with nine cuckoos, Bloom, who has ejaculated to the sight of Gerty MacDowell, a young woman, writes in the sand with a stick. Sticks as leitmotif, perhaps? He writes, a message for her perhaps. He writes, “I” (13:1258), “AM. I” (13:1264). 

He echoes Stephen’s personal exploration. We hear Stephen, early in the novel in Chapter 3:452, “And the blame? As I am. As I am.” A reference to his guilt, his search and we hear the echo of Jesus in The New Testament, John, 8:58: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Bloom’s surrealistic trial in Nighttown confirms for me his sense of guilt. “A fife and drum band is heard in the distance playing Kol Nidre” (15:1407-8). Kol Nidre, of course, is the solemn prayer that opens the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.

I assert that here is man, an ordinary man, examining his life

In that examination, in his kindness to others, in his commitment to tolerance and forgiveness, I find goodness and nobility. In Joyce’s technique, the use of stream of consciousness, the jolting shifts in style, the disjointed narrative, I find the chaos of existence and moral ambiguity shown in the very way he tells the story, and I marvel at his embrace of humanity emerging out of it all.

The writer John Berger in his essay “The First and Last Recipe: Ulysses” has said that Ulysses is an ocean. You don’t read the book, you navigate it. And I argue that one of the best ways to do that, after reading it in academia with all the tomes and references written about it, is simply to read it. Get the story, get that great story for its simple, raw, erotic humanity.



For Mary L. Tabor's own web site please click here.

You can follow Mary on Twitter and on Facebook.



     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.