From Modernism Lab Essays
By Kira Hillman and Olena Tsykynovska
“Calypso”, the fourth episode of Ulysses and the first episode in Part II, serves chiefly to introduce readers to Leopold Bloom. It breaks stylistically from the previous episode, the dense and meandering “Proteus”. According to the Gilbert schema, Calypso’s “art” is economics, and its “technique” is narrative (mature). We see “economics” here in a few ways: as an ordered system of relations (production/consumption, stimulus/response); as indicating the Greek origin referencing household management; and perhaps as in the sense of conservation/restraint (economy of language).
The title’s Homeric reference is the Greek nymph Kalypso, who detains Odysseus on her island for seven years on his journey home from the Trojan War. But Odysseus’s captivity on Calypso’s island does not overlay simply onto Bloom’s marriage; as elsewhere, the suggested parallel between Bloom and Odysseus resists fastening. Molly seems more Penelope than the nymph hanging over her bed, and Dublin seems more Ithaka than the exotic isle of Ogygia, which more naturally allies itself with Bloom’s reveries of the Orient. Yet Bloom does long to be in a place other than the one where he now makes his home, and Molly does hold him in a kind of entranced servitude.
The episode opens with a description of Bloom’s diet, specifically his habits as an enthusiastic carnivore. He is preparing breakfast for his wife, Molly, and thinking about kidneys. His cat meows and Bloom sets out milk for her, watching the animal carefully while idly wondering about her whiskers and tongue. This opening scene presents the connection between the human and animal worlds as at once corporal and abstract. Animal bodies are flesh and organs to be consumed or strange forms to be “watched curiously”, yet embedded in this watching is a fascination with that unbridgeable gap between the human and animal, into which Bloom pours human motivation and an elevated comprehension. “She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Cruel. Her nature… Wonder what I look like to her.” (4.27)
Bloom decides to go to Dlugacz’s for some kidney, and asks Molly if she wants him to pick anything up for her while he is out. She responds with a soft grunt that he interprets as a “no”, then turns over in bed and makes the brass quoits (decorative discs on the rods supporting the bedstead) jingle. This leads Bloom to muse about the bed, which was purchased at an auction by Molly’s father Tweedy in Gibraltar (Spain), where Molly is originally from.
He prepares to leave, taking his hat down and checking for a white slip of paper in the headband. Bloom confirms that he does have his potato, a talisman that he always carries with him, but that he doesn’t have his key. Preferring not to disturb Molly, he closes the door lightly and sets out into the daylight. Earlier in the book Stephen gave the key to his tower residence to Mulligan, and this parallel between the two men suggests the importance of departure and return for both.
In the “happy warmth” of the sun Bloom daydreams about wandering through the streets of a city “somewhere in the east.” He checks himself, thinking, “Probably not a bit like it really” (4.99) and recalls the title page of a book he owns about travels in the near east. That Bloom’s first exposure to the outside prompts a romanticized meditation on foreign travel strongly suggests a subconscious (or conscious) identification as an outsider in his own town, likely connected to his Judaism.
Bloom’s thoughts progress in a systematic fashion as he approaches the butcher’s, organized mostly by what he passes on the way. He sees Larry O’Rourke’s bar and notices him inside, thinks of Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father) imitating O’Rourke, and considers stopping to say something about the funeral occurring later that day. Instead he briefly comments on the weather. He contemplates how men like O’Rourke make money, coming from the country and starting their own businesses. He hears young boys at school reciting the alphabet and geography, and then finally gets to the butcher’s shop and stares at the meat in the window.
He notices the last remaining kidney and the “nextdoor girl” standing in front of him in line, reading out a list of orders. Turning his attention towards her hips, he recalls the image of her skirt swinging as she whacked a carpet on the clothesline. While in line, he picks up a page of newspaper that the butcher uses to wrap meat and studies the ad, depicting the Kinnereth model farm—founded by the “Palestinian Land Development Company” to train Jewish workers— in a simple image of a farmhouse and cattle. This ad evokes memories of working at the cattle market. Turning the page “aslant patiently” prompts the return of the image of the swinging skirt. Bloom’s unusual reading of the ad reveals his tendency to fix his gaze in a measured and purposeful way, perhaps mediating his experience of the present reality to at once induce variation (however fabricated) and generate a continuity of impressions. Like a composer, he works with atonality—the dissonance of the immediately perceived—and through expressionistic manipulation forces the elements to adhere to their own internal logic. Like a Schoenberg of perception, he constructs a kind of twelve-tone system of impressions.
He departs from the butcher shop and heads home, disappointed that he missed the neighbor’s servant, as he would have liked to walk behind her and watch her hips move as she walked. He continues to “read gravely”, this time an advertisement for a land share in Israel through a company planning to plant citrus groves. He again finds himself imagining the east, “Quiet long days: pruning, ripening. Olives are packed in jars, eh?” These reveries elicit a sensation of Bloom (the subject) not as a unity but a series of displacements, cut off from a world whose fullness is only a result of its emptiness that we are always attempting to fill. This concept denies the Western illusion of self-sufficient individuality, and perhaps Bloom’s nostalgic daydreams of the east do hint at this encroaching denial.
The word “citron” leads Bloom to remember two old friends and “pleasant nights” spent with Molly in their company. He passes a man that he recognizes but the man does not acknowledge him. Then a change in tone: “A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly. Grey. Far.” (4.218) This is the same cloud that Stephen observed in episode one: “A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green”. (1.248) Instead of describing the effect of the cloud on Bloom’s immediate surroundings, the passage turns to the darkening of his thoughts. He is struck by Jewish imagery of “barren land, bare waste”, “The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere.” (4. 225) The description of an old hag passing is interspersed with these thoughts. The passage ends with a reference to the “grey sunken cunt of the world.” Here the idea of fertility is somehow once-removed from its definition as a life-sustaining force. It is not the fluid warmth of a nourishing womb but the etiology of suffering---enabler of unfettered procreation (and therefore, death) in a shriveled, infertile world.
Bloom turns onto his street, feeling “grey horror” and hurrying towards home. He tries to dismiss the dark interlude, thinking, “I am here now. Yes, I am here now.” He anticipates arriving home to Molly. “Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” Although Molly seems to dominate and even feminize Bloom, in that he waits on her and doesn’t address her infidelity with Blazes Boylan, she remains his nexus of comfort. Much like Odysseus who feels physically “compelled” toward Calypso each night despite her role as his captor, Bloom’s physical (though non-sexual, as will become clear) relationship with his wife does provide brief solace from isolation and longing.
Bloom’s good humor returns as the sun in the form of a golden-haired girl, or a girl in the form of the sun, runs past him “swiftly, in slim sandals” (50) – an apparition that recalls Hermes, a god part sun - part man:
Hermes the Wayfinder, who bent to tie his beautiful sandals on, ambrosial, golden (The Odyssey, V, 48-50)
Two letters and a card wait for Bloom at home. He brings them upstairs to Molly, who proceeds to order him around while reading the card from her daughter. She slips the letter, which Bloom believes is from her lover Boylan, under her pillow. As Bloom makes tea for Molly and cooks the purchased kidney he glances at the letter addressed to him from his daughter, noting key phrases. He happily remembers moments with Milly and an old rhyme he used to recite for her, and then brings his wife’s tray up to her bedroom.
Bloom arranges the tray meticulously to her taste. He brings the tray to her bedroom, whose veiled twilight recalls the “hollow cave” in which Calypso keeps Odysseus. As Molly half-lifts out of bed to meet him, he admires the mature womanliness of her shape and smell. He is anxious to ensure her comfort and satisfaction. When she points beyond the bed, he searches obediently for the desired object: it is not the stocking but the book, which contains a long word she does not understand: “metempsychosis,” tries Bloom, “means the transmigration of souls”; “O, rocks!” she responds, annoyed to have exchanged an oblique word for the same (52). The violent scene depicted on the cover of the book turns Bloom’s mind to animal cruelty and to death: two subjects that are strongly linked for him in later chapters. He suggests, during a conversation in “Hades”, that a tramline be built to transport animals - and adds an instant later that a similar tramline ought to be built for the dead. Later, as he wanders through the cemetery after the funeral, Bloom thinks that “dead animals [are] even sadder” (93). His inner linking of death and animal life implies a suppressed belief in a human life beyond the animal, whatever that might mean. But the internal, metaphorical connection is supplemented by a connection of circumstance. Bloom, thinking of illness in the same chapter, adds: “canvassing for death... Dogs’ home over there. Poor old Athos! Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish” (75): the memory allows the reader to understand that Athos was Bloom’s father’s dog, whom he perhaps mentioned on his deathbed. An associative chain connects the two themes, along with the metaphor it perhaps created.
Bloom gives Molly a plainly-worded definition of metempsychosis and glances at the nymph painting hanging over Molly’s bed, noting the women’s resemblance. He takes his meat off the pan, as it has begun to burn, and reads his daughter’s letter over breakfast. She thanks him for her birthday presents and tells him about her work, her friends and a young boy she has apparently been seeing, who sings her the same song that Boylan, Molly’s lover, sings to Molly. The resemblance between the two women is disturbing: “Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down… Yes, yes: a woman, too. Life, life” (74). Milly becomes a woman like Molly, her “sweet light lips” become “full gluey woman’s lips” (55): life cycles in endless repetition, rather than progress – it is “life, life…” ad infinitum.
Bloom’s mind wanders from the fact of Milly’s sexual awakening to the day of her birth, fifteen years ago, and to the birth of her dead brother Rudy eleven years ago. He thinks of Milly’s tempers, her attractions, and her poise; he regrets that someone like Boylan will take her, as he has taken Molly. The cat mews, bringing Bloom back to his day, and he goes out to relieve himself with a journal under his arm. Walking through the backyard to the outhouse, he thinks idly of sorting and fertilizing the garden that grows there. Bloom receives and ignores the command to “be fruitful –” once before in the “Calypso” episode, when he reads the advertisement for Israel’s farms during his trip at the butcher’s: “to purchase waste sandy tracts from Turkish government and plant with eucalyptus trees” in Kinnereth (49). Like the unchanging cycle of birth and sexual maturation he observes in his wife and daughter, crops are “always the same, year after year” (49). The episode does not quite come out and finish with “—and multiply”, but the pre-echo is certainly audible: as the olive trees in Zion might be “ripening” under Bloom’s hand (49), so his daughter Milly is “ripening” (54) sexually; but while she has her young student to tend to her, Molly apparently seeks tending outside her marriage. Though we don’t learn anything specific about Bloom and Molly’s sexual life until later, the story holds a cracked mirror to it in the funeral party’s gossip about Martin Cunningham: “Who knows is that true about the woman he keeps? Not pleasant for the wife. Yet they say, who was it told me, there is no carnal” (77).
Bloom sits down in the privy with a story from Titbits. The sentence he reads to himself comes from a story by Joyce: the self-referential, Escher-like moment in the story is reminiscent of an early section of the Odyssey, in which Telemachus listens to portions of an early version of the Iliad. Bloom remembers a few personal attempts to write fiction and thinks briefly of the night that Molly met Boylan. He finishes and pulls on his pants, listening to bells that remind him of Dignam’s funeral.
The fourth episode introduces Leopold Bloom: it invites us to compare his perceptive habits, his hale materialism and deviations from it, to Stephen’s abstractions.
Bloom gives intense consideration, in “Calypso,” to food, flesh, and sun. These are the basic fragments of his experience; which, for Stephen, are hundreds of remembered texts. The flesh-and-sun of Stephen’s experience is text as well, the “signatures of all things” he is “here to read” (31). He is not complacent to be faced with the presence of the objects themselves, as Bloom seems to be, both because he knows himself to see only their signatures, the marks the objects make upon his mind, and because he only wishes to see the signatures – the divine forms within and beyond objects. If Stephen’s reality is textual (“heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here” (37)), Bloom’s texts are opposed to reality – the “kind of stuff you read,” like Bloom’s reverie of the East, is likely to be false (47). Although the tempting description of the farm in Israel is printed word, there is “still an idea behind it” (49, emphasis mine); again, though the dance of the hours is a “poetical idea” – “Still, true to life also” (57). Stephen’s experience with texts is a reading and subsequent transformation of his subjectivity, but Bloom reads “bending his senses and his will, his soft subject gaze at rest” (48), inactive, and unaltered – and, what is more, very much distracted by the nextdoor girl’s “crooked skirt swinging, whack by whack by whack” (48). The scene in which Bloom paces his reading according to his bowel movement, using a page of the story to wipe, needs no comment. We recall Stephen watching the dog urinate on the beach: “He [the dog] trotted forward and, lifting again his hindleg, pissed quick short at an unsmelt rock. The simple pleasures of the poor.” (39) – poor mentally, we may read, as well as materially.
Yet several times in “Calypso” the objects in Bloom’s sight do begin to signify to something beyond themselves: the smell of bread leads to the East and its temptations, which Bloom swats away as only fiction; the sight of cattle to Israel, fertile and then wasted, and bluntly symbolic of the world’s barrenness and decay. Bloom’s defense against these thoughts is renewal of faith in the simplicity of “ample bedwarmed flesh” (50). It seems a simple opposition of death to procreation (and of reading of symbol to reading of surface) – until we remember that Bloom refuses to be fruitful and (we suspect) multiply. Milly’s ripening, that of the “pretty seaside girls” from Boylan’s song, is linked to fertile soil; but in the “Hades” episode it is associated also with the soil of the graveyard: Bloom thinks that the corpses “must breed a devil of a lot of maggots. Soil must be simply swirling with them. Your head it simply swurls. Those pretty little seaside gurls.” (89) And we’ve learnt, of course, that Bloom’s last attempt to procreate ended in the death of his infant son.
The episode enmeshes problems of reading within intimations of Bloom’s sexual habits and experiences of death, offering no more than the promise of complication.
Recollection and Time
This episode is inarguably one of the more simple passages in Ulysses. Essentially it chronicles a simple trip to the store, a brief conversation over breakfast, and a bowel movement. One complicating figure in the startlingly linear narrative is that of “memory”, specifically Bloom’s memory. It seems to be at odds with itself in attempting to define its function. “Memory” itself—the past as contained in Bloom’s mind—signifies age. Bloom’s engagement with “memory”, however, is pointedly childlike. Whether he is debating the difference between reflection and refraction, wondering about the way olives are packed, debating the location of his hat, endeavoring to remember a familiar man’s name, or even making sure he didn’t forget anything on Molly’s breakfast tray, there is an innocently interrogative/curious aspect to Bloom. It’s as if he is a young schoolboy eager for the answers, aware that they are within reach and just require a certain pointed effort to solve. When he passes by the students reciting their alphabet and geography, he even associates himself with them. “Brats’ clamour. Windows open. Fresh air helps memory. Or a lilt… Boys are they? Yes. Inishturk. Inishark. Inishboffin. At their joggerfry. Mine. Slieve Bloom.” (4. 136) Slieve Bloom is a range of mountains in central Ireland, a viable extrapolation of the recited series of islands off the Irish coast. His many mundane questions can even be seen as prompts for recitation as they call for knowledge already possessed, present but at a distance, maybe symbolizing something weightier with the same elusive property. Bloom’s childlike engagement with the limits of his knowledge contrast strikingly with his mature reflections on history, his daughter’s childhood, and Molly. However, the apparent contradiction of these two modes of examination is in fact a dynamic relationship. The motif of memory is a kind of pendulum alternatively signifying youth and old age, swinging inside the story (as in a clock) to dutifully convey the passage of time. Fittingly, the episode ends with the repeated “Heigho!” of the church bells tolling the hour.
Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.