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Ulysses.  Chapter 1

I always loved this first sentence. It’s grand, funny and rich with the things to come. I checked what the insane Frank Delaney had to say about it (insane because his 148 podcasts of Ulysses but still only on chapter 3 is, in many ways, a pretty complete definition of the word insane – in the best sense). It’s the only podcast of his I’ve heard, and though I really like it (he is an impressively thorough fella), I think there’s much missing to his take on it. Anyways, to Joyce;

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

And so it begins. There is indeed the word play and the humor Delaney mentions (Stately vs. plump and Buck), but there’s real depth here too. First – the pacing and meter of the sentence is just lovely – that’s an esoteric comment, but it’s true. Read it aloud and just feel the lovely musical beat of his language. But onward.

Ulysses is a book, among other thing, largely about Dublin, the city and the state of it, as well as about the individual lives of the commoner in it. Stately is a great word to begin this with – it has the two suggestions in it – the larger sense, the ‘state’ of Dublin and its affairs and politics and physical reality of it. And there is the stately part too – the stature and way the individual holds himself and stands alone. This individual against the overall is all over this sentence, as well as the book.

The end of the sentence has many references. There is the priestly visual of it – Buck Mulligan, in his robe, coming from the top of the stairs like a priest to Mass. The Catholic debate is everywhere for Joyce – that wrestling of the intellect and knowledge and profanity of live versus the Irish upbringing and the sacred indoctrination of the Church. It’s the single most pronounced ‘issue’ in all of his works. And it’s here, lovely stated – plump Buck Mulligan versus the ritual. The sacred ritual versus the bowl of lather. But the end of the sentence, I think, really has a nice contrast in. The mirror and razor lay crossed – the obvious religious cross, of course, but why these items? On one level, there’s a great physicality to a razor – it’s an instrument that speaks of the body, the surface, the physical (violence too, but again, it suggests a physical violence). A mirror is the etherial – the spirit, that reflected image of reality. They lay crossed because it is the theme in general – the wrestling, or crossing, between the physical exterior and the spiritual interior. Additionally, Stephen Dedalus mentions (or is referenced) three times in the first chapter that ‘the cracked lookingglass of a servant is the symbol of Irish art.’ So here also, the mirror is symbol for culture, art, things of the mind – of the ‘highbrow’, opposed to the physical nature, the violence, the ‘lowbrow’ of the razor. So already, three times in the first sentence, this juxtapositioning of the sacred and the profane (the three times being the word ‘stately’, the image of the priest and plump Buck, and the mirror and the razor). Not bad for 22 words.

Alright, so I am finally getting down to a project that I’ve wanting to do for some time now – read, simultaneously, The Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ve read them both before, years ago, but to sort of link them up, chapter by chapter, seems like a good way to see the similarities between them. This could go nowhere, or be a big ol’ waste of time, but what the hell, it’s worth the attempt.

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