‘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.

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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.

Ulysses is packed to overflowing with such things: in it every concept, no matter how intangible or rarefied, is transformed into something lowly, degraded, abject – and the more so the more elevated it held itself to be. Poetry turns into snot; nature, and the contours of the Romantic sublime, into a bowl of sluggish vomit. Forget Apollonian beauty: what Bloom wants to know is whether statues of Greek gods have arseholes. For him, the heart, seat of refined emotions, is a rusty pump; communion is cannibalism; justice just ‘means … everybody eating everyone else’. He’s obsessed with falling bodies, their weight and volume and the speed at which they fall. Ulysses is a heavy book, a book full of weight, a fallen book. What has fallen in it, into it, is everything literature previously held to be immaterial or abstract: in its pages metaphysics collapses into what the artist Jake Chapman nicely calls meatphysics. It’s hard to think, outside of zombie movies, of a work more omnivoric – and omni-emetic. Rats eat corpses; savages eat missionaries; Bloom eats cheese; cheese eats itself; dogs eat themselves, spew themselves out, eat themselves again; the city and the day eat and spew out Bloom …

Joyce, needless to say, is a materialist. Over the Neoplatonism of A.E., with his trite assertion that ‘Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,’ he champions Stephen’s Aristotelian materialism of the now and the here, the art of forms and form. Against vague cosmic mysticism he pits Bloom’s vision of spinning gasballs – ‘Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock’ – and of ‘entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa’. But this materialism should not be confused with empiricism. On the contrary, it’s what Georges Bataille, in his ‘Critical Dictionary’, calls ‘base materialism’. For Bataille, the positivist materialism of science or the dialectical materialism of Marxism are nothing more than Christianity in disguise, and a philosophy grounded in them remains an idealist one. Against crypto-Platonic versions of ‘form’ he proposes ‘the Formless’, or l’Informe. ‘L’Informe,’ Bataille writes, ‘is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world.’ (The term he uses for ‘bring down’ is déclasser, which carries the dual sense of lowering in class, or demoting, and of releasing from all classificatory or taxonomic constraints.) It is

a term that serves to bring things down in a world that generally requires that each thing have its form. What this word [l’Informe] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless [informe] amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

Bataille here identifies what I see as one of the central thrusts of literature as it moves into and through the 20th century. You see it emerging in late Yeats, as his lofty esoteric icons are downgraded to a clutter of rag-and-bone-shop trinkets in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; you see it, later, in the proêmes of Francis Ponge, where he celebrates the endomorphic thingliness of things, the way their sheer material facticity breaches the limits of every attempt to contain them conceptually or aesthetically; or in Wallace Stevens, in his plum that ‘survives its poems’, oozing and rotting beyond and between their lines; in visual art, you see it in the thick, muddy canvases of Dubuffet, where materiality far overtakes mimesis; or, later, in the unformed mounds of fat slapped down in front of us by Joseph Beuys. But Ulysses is where the process fully plays itself out, whirring and clunking and splatting and squelching. Ulysses matters most, because it makes matter of everything. Everything in Ulysses is déclassé, or (to use a term of Joyce’s) ‘netherfallen’. Things aren’t even things in Ulysses, at least not in any quasi-autonomous sense, monadic entities with subjective sovereignty: they are abject, broken, the excreta of other things. Everything is a by-product of something else. Cheese isn’t just self-consuming, it’s the ‘corpse of milk’; jackets, soap and margarine are corpses of corpses, the offslew of the hide, hair and horns disgorged by slaughterhouses, what Bloom, brilliantly, calls ‘the fifth quarter’: the one that’s surplus to a thing’s integrity, to mathematics itself, a remainder. Bloom assesses the written word, too, solely in terms of its by-products: the blotting paper that he used to sell, that he blots Martha’s name with, hatching an idea for a detective story in which blotter-residues lead a sleuth to solve a crime; the giant sheet of it that he proposes the stationer Wisdom Hely parade through the streets; or the equally enormous ink bottle he also pitches Hely, ‘with a false stain of black celluloid’ (Claes Oldenburg’s entire career opens and closes in the space of that throwaway); or the actual ink, the ‘encaustic pigment’ he recalls Molly leaving her pen in, ‘exposed to the corrosive action of copperas, green vitriol and nutgall’. His own compositional effort (‘I am a … ’) also gets bogged down by the material he writes on, as his stick sticks in the mud and thus becomes the very thing it tries to represent.

Stephen, for his part, obsesses over the question of the word becoming flesh and flesh becoming word; he sees words ‘changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand’. Walking on Sandymount Strand, Stephen is crushing things everywhere, as if trampling Bataille’s l’Informe: ‘His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada.’ But this crushing of things affords him no domination; the quagmire starts to drag him, like Bloom’s stick, into its base plane: ‘Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.’ Stephen’s beach is spattered with corpse parts: bladderwrack, sockets, swaying arms, a redpanting tongue, a bloated carcass, ‘bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine’. As Stephen moves through it, rhythm begins: ‘Acatalectic tetrameter of iambs marching.’ Zombie omnivorism is a description of literature itself: ‘Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.’ Cut to Bloom, who devours a urinous offal from all dead before going off to watch ‘HOW’, as Joyce announces, ‘A GREAT DAILY ORGAN IS TURNED OUT.’

The organ Bloom watches being turned out is, of course, a newspaper; what is being dismembered and cut up in proto-Burroughsian fashion in the Freeman’s offices and printing works is prose itself. Language in Ulysses is just another organ, and like so many other organs in this properly obscene book it keeps getting unzipped, whipped out, flashed left and right and centre. People should desist, once and for all, from using the term ‘interior monologue’ to describe the novel’s outbreaks of unassigned first-person narrative. This is not interior monologue: it’s exterior consciousness, embodied (or encorpsed) consciousness that has ruptured the membrane of conventional syntax. Language lies and drifts around Dublin’s streets like ozone in dystopian sci-fi fables: H and E and L, printed on sandwich boards, march along the gutter while Y lags behind, cramming a chunk of bread into his mouth. Even the novel’s letters eat and crap. Michel Leiris, another contributor to the ‘Critical Dictionary’, describes in Scratches eating alphabetti spaghetti as a child; eating too much, and being sick; watching the dented letters fall back from him: far from being a tool for refining the world into concepts, language is what mixes with saliva in your mouth, gets kneaded by your tongue and teeth, repeats on you. Joyce knows this all too well: ‘Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips.’ This scene, repeated twice (Molly replays it too), itself reprises Stephen’s half-formed (or half-deformed) vampire poem (written on a torn-off scrap of Deasy’s letter about foot and mouth) in which mouth to her mouth’s kiss degrades into mouth to her moomb, then oomb, allwombing tomb, then finally mouth to my mouth. But it’s the seedcake that’s important, and it’s important that it’s seedcake, not fruitcake or carrot cake: this is a scene of fertility and dissemination, writing as material transmission.

And yet the seedcake is not the work. The work, at this point, remains to be written. Ulysses is a book in which the central stake is the coming into being of the book itself. This is effectively what Stephen is tasked with: to write Ulysses. ‘I want you to write something,’ Myles Crawford says. ‘You can do it … Put us all into it, damn its soul.’ He has in mind a long piece of journalism, but the exhortation carries much wider implications, especially when the press headline repeats it: ‘YOU CAN DO IT!’ ‘All desire to see you bring forth the work you meditate,’ Lenehan tells Stephen after Stephen has encircled his own head with a putative laurel, drunkenly boasting of his bardic ability to make ‘ghosts troop to my call’. Actually, it’s the ghosts who order him, and Stephen knows it; he knows of the coffined, mummified, word-embalmed thoughts in Dublin’s library that ‘an itch of death is in them, to tell me in my ear a maudlin tale, urge me to wreak their will.’ Here another sense of Bataille’s term déclasser suggests itself, a decidedly 21st-century one: declassification. Stephen acts as a kind of hacker, called on to dicky into sealed and buried files, to crack them open and break their contents out again, so that they may commingle and cross-pollinate. (In McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto, to hack is ‘to produce the plane upon which different things may enter into relation’, to open grounds of possibility for the new creative event.) Stephen, like Hamlet, has been called by ghosts (or corpses); where Hamlet’s orders were to act (orders he disobeys by writing instead), Stephen’s orders are to write. But he’s as useless at carrying them out as Hamlet. Stephen – and Joyce himself – is agonised, to the point of paralysis, by the familiar question: how do you write after Ulysses, if we take Ulysses to mean the plane of possibility hacked open by the extraordinary creative wave, unleashed (in part at least) by his own exertions, on whose breaking crest he finds himself borne, or perhaps within whose surging foam he finds himself submerged. No wonder that he is both afraid of and fascinated by the sea.

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The main ghost in the library may be Hamlet’s, but another glides fleetingly through the chief librarian’s office: Mallarmé, who in his jottings depicts Hamlet ‘reading the book of himself’ and ‘struggling beneath the curse of having to appear’. Like Ulysses, Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard enacts the ruin of a certain type of cultural space, enacts the breakdown and degradation of ship into gunwale and keel, of language into typographic fragments. Not only is Un coup de dés – its imagery, scenarios, even vocabulary – redevoured and regurgitated in the text of Ulysses (once you’ve started noticing it, it’s everywhere: the shipwrecked sailors, mermaids, obsessions with numbers and computations and so on), but Joyce’s novel, like Mallarmé’s poem, is dominated by its own relation to the looming spectre of a work to come. Mallarmé claims in his essay ‘Le Livre: instrument spirituel’ that ‘everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book.’ Since the conventional book is insufficient to the task of storing and transforming the whole world, Mallarmé starts deforming it, cracking the spine, folding out the pages, trying to overhaul it into something up to the job. These are the terms under which Un coup de dés is written. But, as Maurice Blanchot points out, Mallarmé didn’t see Un coup de dés as the realisation of this: rather ‘it is its reserve and its forever hidden presence, the risk of its venture, the measure of its limitless challenge’.

Reserve, risk, venture: the economic field asserts itself again. Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, manically apostrophising the gold he’s dug up, simultaneously curses it as a ‘defiler’ and marvels at the way it ‘solder’st close impossibilities/and mak’st them kiss’: the same capacity McKenzie Wark attributes to the hack. Joyce seems to intuit the same connection: Ulysses’s economic register, grubby though it is, also underwrites a giant speculative system in which, amid collapse and boom, the promise of a monumental or unprecedented return gestates, a return that would be literature itself; a promise that remains deferred, whose deferral is necessary for the speculative system to exist. Mallarmé’s book can’t be written, but the demand for it, once it has been issued, sets the parameters of future serious literature. Ulysses inhabits these impossible parameters, and so isn’t only not the book heralded by Mallarmé, but also not the book anticipated or announced by itself. When you read it, you’re always reading what’s actually there in relation to a framework that isn’t there: you read contemporary events in relation to the ur-historical epic outside. Bloom is not Odysseus, or Molly Penelope; every Homeric link is effected as a negative, a gap, the distance between (for example) a Cyclops-blinding poker and a chimney sweep’s brush, or a siren’s foam-lashed rock and a beer-flecked bar counter; there’s no heroic or redemptive reconciliation between Bloom and Molly, no resurrection of the dead; even Molly’s landmark speech remains unspoken. Just as history, for Stephen, is a repository or storeroom of all the events that failed to happen, infinite ousted possibilities, so the whole ‘story’ of Ulysses takes place in the negative, a place where, ultimately (to quote Mallarmé), nothing will have taken place except the place. The movement from impossible to possible is at every instant set in motion and held in abeyance, displaced from a reality that might be consummated as reality onto the disjecta symbols of an unrealised totality: potted meats, keys and Keyes ads, the trajectories of urine, menstrual blood in a chamber pot.

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Speculation: as well as its economic and intellectual connotations, the word carries an astronomic meaning – contemplation of the heavens. And it’s within the umbra of this meaning that the largest of Un coup de dés’s shadows hides itself in Ulysses. Like Mallarmé’s poem, Joyce’s novel is full of constellational imagery. Stephen repeatedly invokes the delta of Cassiopeia, ‘the recumbent constellation’ that hung over Shakespeare’s birth. He pictures stars flung by archangels to the wormy earth, to be rooted out by pigs and poets. The link between poetic words, their formatting and spacing, and the layout of the stars is crucial to the climax of Un Coup de dés, whose high point (literally) is the North Star: a point at which a ‘place’ would fuse with its own beyond, and for that very reason a point never attained, but in whose orbit thought, writing-as-thought, rolls and flashes sidereally across the gutter of the page, forming its inky account. The same climactic movement builds up at the end of Ulysses, which sweeps us from the North Star Hotel to a barrage of meditations on constellations: the Milky Way, Arcturus, equinoxes, nascent new stars and ‘the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers’. After these meditations, Bloom tots up his own account, then pictures himself navigating, ‘septentrional, by night the polestar’, wandering ‘to the extreme limit of his cometary orbit … to the extreme boundary of space, passing from land to land, among peoples, amid events’. But this is all speculation: what he actually does is lie in bed, viewing his lodestar Molly from the wrong end. If Bloom is always elsewhere, beyond himself, it’s because Ulysses is always elsewhere and beyond itself as well; just as it carries its own wake in it, it carries its own elsewhere in it too, or rather lets this elsewhere carry it. Which means it carries the novel in it, as elsewhere: a book-to-come, a possibility in impossible form.

How to write after Ulysses? What would this question even mean? Time, in Ulysses, is fallen too, a by-product of earth-pulled bodies; Dunsink done sunk, and the hours dance across a brothel floor. Joyce time doesn’t move in a straight line from past to future: it too accretes and consumes itself: the future plunges back into the past; ‘now’ is the transit-point or orifice through which this involution passes. When Stephen tells us as much in the library, he’s sketching out a new type of cultural time that we could say Joyce’s work inaugurates, a time not of cultural progress, even from one vanguard to the next, but one in which culture will consume its own tail: Mallarmé, Goethe, Hamlet, Pickwick, Swinburne – a never-ending zombie eucharist.

By the time of Finnegans Wake, this involuted schema will be fixed as a Viconian one of ricorso or re-enactment, in which objects and situations bob about and return, in slightly different form. The schema is already evident in Ulysses with its recirculation of detritus in the form of things, images, events, its many instances of ‘history repeating itself’, as Bloom puts it, ‘with a difference’. But the temporal metronome to whose beat Ulysses really dances is again that of the constellation, understood now in its Benjaminian sense, as a transhistorical joining-up of disparate or previously unconnected points, a joining-up that generates a sudden flash of paradoxical simultaneity, the revolutionary ground for a whole new realm of understanding. If you like, another hack. This is the hack performed by Molly, as, lying on the 53rd parallel of latitude, N., and the 6th meridian of longitude, W., she places the City Arms Hotel, Ontario Terrace and Howth Head and a soup altercation waiting for a train and an ankle-spraining incident at a party and the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the sea and Bloom and Stephen all on a plane of constellated simultaneity. It’s a constellation that can only be construed from elsewhere. Even as she plots her ties to Stephen, he has already wandered off: the very stars presiding over her are fading, and their light is years old anyhow; besides, the revolving earth is sending them, like Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’, westwards. But an alignment has taken place, a conjunction has been passed through, a plane of possibility hewn into existence: that of the word itself, its own unfolding elsewhere. Where Stephen, like Cordelia, says Nothing, Molly carries negative logic to its outer limit by not saying anything at all, but I don’t need to tell you what the very last word that she doesn’t say is.