Monday, June 21, 2010

The Solstice in Circe (Ulysses)

Today is the Summer solstice, the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. The Sun is at its highest point and from now until December it descends lower and lower on the horizon. As I'm now starting my 2nd reading of the longest day in literature, Ulysses, the solstice has me pondering a scene from the Circe episode, the wild, weird, witches' brew of the book.

It's June 16th, days away from the Summer solstice and, as I've discussed here before, young Stephen has gone about as far as his egotistical, self-centered, cynical attitude (keep in mind he's 22 years old) can take him. Ran away from home to go live in Paris, lived like a bohemian there for a little while and now he's back in Dublin after his mother, whose deathbed he refused to kneel down and pray at, has recently died. He's drunk and fooling around in a brothel in the heart of Dublin's red light district. Unbeknownst to him, a rather concerned Leopold Bloom has been following him to make sure he stays out of serious trouble and I draw attention here to a line from the scene in the brothel when Bloom first walks into the room where Stephen, his friend Lynch, and three prostitutes are hanging out (pg 502-503 in my 1961 Random House edition).
  (...Stephen stands at the pianola on which sprawl his hat and ashplant. With two fingers he repeats once more the series of empty fifths...) 
For this scene, I prefer Joseph Campbell's decyphering of Joyce's symbols from his book Mythic Worlds, Modern Words (pg 148):
The fifth is the furthest one can get from the tonic without being on the way back: Do re me fa sol la ti do, then do begins to close again. At this point in Ulysses, Stephen knows that he is at the extreme of his departure from the base, of his separation from the father. The tonic is the father or the ground or the base or the drone, and he has separated himself as far as he can. The sun will cross the Tropic of Cancer on the June 22 summer solstice, and will then start on its journey south, to set. Stephen realizes that this episode is the end of his old life, the moment of crucifixion, the moment when the sun reaches the apogee of its climb in the heavens and begins its descent: "I have gone as far as I can in this egoistic single way of mine, and I am about to embark on my way home."
Stephen, the heavily intoxicated young poet and scholar, tries to put this feeling into words but his friend's cap (yes: his cap, the chapter is filled with weird hallucinations) argues with him.
Stephen: ...The reason is because the fundamental and the dominant are separated by the greatest possible interval which...
The Cap: Which? Finish. You can't.
Stephen: (with an effort) Interval which. Is the greatest possible ellipse. Consistent with. The ultimate return. The octave. Which...
Before he can finish, a gramophone outside suddenly begins blaring the song "Jerusalem, The Holy City," a perfect Joycean synchronicity as this is the meeting of the two characters whom the whole book is about (also an interesting coincidence because the song begins with that same Do re mi fa, etc). Stephen, trying to finish his explanation, is annoyed, "Damn that fellow's noise in the street" (bringing to mind his earlier refutation to his lecturing boss that God is simply "a noise in the street"). His friend Lynch makes fun of him ("What a learned speech, eh?") but one of the prostitutes pretends to know what the hell he's talking about:
(With obese stupidity Florry Talbot regards Stephen.)
Florry: They say the last day is coming this summer.
This thought conjures up a variety of ridiculous hallucinatory phenomena in Stephen's drunken brain and onto the scene enters a characterization of The End of the World, dancing and talking with a Scotch accent. Elijah also enters, speaking with an American accent and going on a perfect Billy Sunday-like preaching tirade. This character produces one of my favorite quotes in the book for, as Campbell explains, "very frequently, Joyce brings out key thoughts in a totally contrary kind of language and situation" and emphasizes this as one of Joyce's essential messages. Here's the hallucination of Elijah (looking and sounding like Billy Sunday) preaching to Stephen, Lynch, Bloom and three prostitutes:
Elijah: ...Are you a god or a doggone clod? If the second advent came to Coney Island are we ready? Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ, Bloom Christ, Kitty Christ, Lynch Christ, it's up to you to sense that cosmic force. Have we cold feet about the cosmos? No. Be on the side of the angels. Be a prism. You have that something within, the higher self. You can rub shoulders with a Jesus, a Gautama, an Ingersoll. Are you all in this vibration? I say you are... 

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