‘Ulysses’ and Its Wake

Tom McCarthy

How do you write after Ulysses? It isn’t just that Joyce writes better than anyone else (although he does), it’s the sense that Ulysses’s publication represents a kind of rapture for literature, an event that’s both ecstatic and catastrophic, perhaps even apocalyptic. A certain naive realism is no longer possible after it, and every alternative, every avant-garde manoeuvre imaginable has been anticipated and exhausted by it too. As though that weren’t enough, Joyce returns to the scene of his own crime, arriving not incognito (in the manner of his shady non-character McIntosh), but brazenly assuming the role of principal mourner. Just as Ulysses was initially conceived as an extra story in Dubliners, Finnegans Wake gestated as a 19th episode of Ulysses. The three are part of a continuum, and Ulysses is a work whose own wake, and perhaps that of the novel tout court, is already at work in it. What new patterning, what ploughing of the sea, could a writer envisage outside the ripple-field already sent out by Joyce? Derrida complains of Finnegans Wake’s relentless ‘hypermnesia’, which ‘a priori indebts you, inscribes you in advance in the book you are reading’. ‘The future,’ he says, ‘is reserved in it.’

Derrida’s complaint is economic: doubly so, with its metaphors of both debt and reserve. In Joyce, economics is elevated to the level of cultural form: money becomes literature, and vice versa. In Finnegans Wake, pages are banknotes, scraps of ‘pecuniar interest’; the manuscript of the debt-ridden writer Shem is ‘an epical forged cheque’ passed off ‘on the public for his own private profit’; the economic aspect of the verb to tell is fully played out as the book gets ‘retaled’. By the time of Finnegans Wake, then, the ‘economantarchy’ (as Joyce calls it) that is literature’s trading-floor is fully up and running, but the process begins back in Ulysses. ‘The problem,’ Stephen tells Buck Mulligan after Buck scolds him for trying to trade Shakespearean theory for a bit of English coin, ‘is to get money.’ Should they solicit it, he sarcastically asks, from the milkwoman who’s just passed by? She takes money from them and extends them credit at the same time, but her real-terms contribution (as economists would say) to the novel is the short speech she delivers:

– Bill, sir? she said, halting. Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling and one and two is two and two, sir.

The logic of accountancy has permeated the prose: the passage isn’t just about totting up a bill; the mechanism of financial computation generates what’s on the page. What we read is like the paper tape that issues from an adding machine. And a literal cash machine, with slots for shillings, sixpences, half-crowns and crowns, appears in the next chapter, in which England is cast (by Deasy) as a land of monetary self-sufficiency (though threatened by usurious Jewish merchants), while Ireland is recast (by Stephen) as a pawnshop, one to which he’s more in hock than most. The chapter ends as the sun profligately flings, through a chequerwork of leaves, dancing coins onto Deasy’s shoulders: light itself turning into money.

Stephen’s debt re-emerges during his argument with the poet George ‘A.E.’ Russell (one of his many creditors) as he stakes his fraught bid for literary inheritance to his own reserve and storehouse, the five-vowelled alphabet: A.E.I.O.U. In Burke’s pub and Bella Cohen’s brothel, Stephen is as spendthrift as the sun, prompting Bloom to relieve him of his coins for safekeeping, which turns Bloom into a cash machine too: Bloom, son of a money-lending Jew of the type so despised by Deasy, who moves around Dublin negotiating terms and profit margins; who in his reveries hatches get-rich-quick schemes; who, ever inquisitive, marks the edge of a florin before tendering it to a grocer ‘for circulation on the waters of civic finance, for possible, circuitous or direct, return’. In (or out of) Bloom’s hands, the grubby coin turns into the Homeric hero, or the other way around: Ulysses becomes currency. As the milkwoman’s invoice opened the Odyssean day of reckoning, so a new bill will call time on it: Bloom’s final totting-up of the day’s earnings and expenses is reproduced in double-entry format. Bloom has fantasised about becoming a writer, about earning good cash by publishing detective stories or accounts of characters encountered at nocturnal cab shelters: this, though, is the real ‘account’ he’ll write of his day, his true act of book-keeping.


One of Bloom’s mooted entrepreneurial schemes involves selling human waste on an industrial scale. Joyce’s work is mired in excremental language and imagery: water closets, commodes, sewers, ‘clotted hinderparts’, ‘slopperish matter’, ‘nappy spattees’, ‘pip poo pat’ of ‘bulgar … bowels’ and so on. Nowhere is Joyce more potty-mouthed than when taking on the language and procedure of religious devotion. At the outset of Finnegans Wake the books of Genesis and Exodus become urinary and colonic tracts and Christ the salmon turns into a big brown trout, a ‘brontoichthyan’ thunderfish or turd floating in a stream mingling with ‘piddle’. But, again, the process has already begun in Ulysses. Bloom starts his day by votively bowing his head as he enters his outhouse to perform the act of defecation that will see him hailed as ‘Moses, Moses, King of the Jews’ who ‘wiped his arse in the Daily News. Buck Mulligan, in his parody of Mass, quick-changes from priest to military doctor, peeping at an imaginary stool sample floating in what he has been presenting as an altar bowl. The shaving bowl doesn’t contain faeces, but other sorts of human waste: stubble and cast-off skin cells. These things, too, belong to the category of excreta, as do phlegm, bile, navelcords and blood: whatever is excessive, leaking, trailing, dragging.

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