The Odyssey

Contrary to Judd’s advice, I’m reading The Odyssey in tandem with Ulysses (well, partially contrary to Judd’s advice — he suggests familiarity but also figures that a simplified version suffices). I’m vaguely familiar with a lot of the stories and have read quite a bit of Greek mythology to my daughter in the last year (this is a great book to read with little kids, by the way), but I’ve never read The Odyssey through from start to finish. Ten or eleven years ago, I think I checked it out of the library to read on an airplane, but I got distracted and never finished. It’s high time I read the thing, and what better timing could there be?

I’ve already documented how I’ve found Ulysses so far to be anything but transparent. To augment my reading, I worked my way through both the illustrations and the annotations for the UlyssesSeen project, and it was all very illuminating. The fine folk over there note that Joyce is very money-conscious throughout the book, and they bring to the foreground how Mulligan is leaning on Dedalus for money — a striking fact given that Mulligan has more elevated social status than Dedalus, so that you’d think he’d have more money too. Mulligan shamelessly pumps him for rent, for milk money, and for booze money, and he finally asks for the very key to the lodging. Mulligan is quite simply a parasite.

Parasitism turns out to be a major theme of the first two books of The Odyssey. I wonder, in fact, if a simplified or child’s version such as what Judd suggests would highlight the theme. The basic storyline for the opening of the poem is that Odysseus has been away from home (fighting the long battle of Troy and then waylaid on his home journey) for ages. His son, Telemachus, was a youngster when he left but is now coming into adulthood. Penelope (Mom) has been fighting off suitors for several years now. They all figure that Odysseus is dead, and Penelope is apparently pretty hot stuff. What I had never thought of before reading the epic is that it’s not as if the suitors are swinging by one at a time to take her out to The Olive Garden and have her home by midnight. No, all these guys are lounging about drinking Odysseus’s wine, killing and eating his animals, and generally wreaking havoc and making themselves at home on Odysseus’s/Telemachus’s dime. For years and years. After a helpful visit from Athena, Telemachus decides he’s not going to take it anymore, and he tries to give the suitors the boot. Several times he mentions how they’re mooching off of him (this is emerging as a rhetorical device in the epic, by the way, the repetition — often in the same words — of an anecdote or notion) and how he wants them gone.

It takes the visit from Athena to give Telemachus a kick in the pants. Similarly, maybe it takes a visit from the milk woman (credit to UlyssesSeen for the idea) to give Dedalus a kick. The counting out of money must serve as a bitter reminder to Dedalus of what a moocher Mulligan has been. And the first episode of Ulysses ends, apparently, with Dedalus effectively wiping his hands of the tower and of Mulligan.

All this to say that so far, I’m finding a parallel reading of The Odyssey to be of more value than I might have expected given Judd’s comments. It’s certainly not indispensable companion reading, but I’m finding it interesting. It also happens to be pretty entertaining and sort of anthropologically fascinating on its own.

15 thoughts on “The Odyssey

  1. robberry July 12, 2010 / 7:26 am

    While I’m familiar with the Odyssey for my own journey through Joyce’s text, Daryl, I have to admit I’ve never read the whole thing. Good on ya.

    I did attend the Annual BloomsDay on Broadway in NYC last month where their theme this year was correlations between the two stories.
    Plan was they’d read a passage of Homer that related to novel’s next event, often using the same actors for each corresponding part. That was great fun and I suspect it might be a useful method for anyone to follow; read the section in Homer that relates to the upcoming episode in Joyce.

    While the episodes (Joyce disliked the term “chapters”) of the novel our not named nor numbered within the text, they’re often referred to by Homeric names because of a paper, the “Linati Schema” Joyce once helped write for people to see the relationships;

    The Linati is a pretty simple tool for first-time readers as it helps point out times for all the day’s events as well as subjects, themes and related sciences/arts/readings.

  2. Chris Forster July 12, 2010 / 9:02 am

    Rushed Response:

    I think the “mooching” theme you’ve identified linking Joyce’s novel with the epic which (presumably) lends it structure is especially interesting b/c of the questions it already raises about how these correspondents work.

    I think I may have have a soft spot for Mulligan and the damning single word ending of the first episode, “Usurper,” seems almost exorbitant on Stephen’s part. Your post suggests that Mulligan is playing the “suitors” role insomuch as he is living on Stephen’s dime—making Stephen the wandering Ulysses.

    This is interesting especially b/c in the usual thumbnail sketch of the Ulysses/Odyssey correspondences, Stephen is Telemachus. Though perhaps there is no contradiction at all… Stephen is Telemachus, living with the figure[s] who have ousted his father [?]–usurpers if you will (do Mulligan’s unkind words about Stephen’s mother parallel the suitors attend to bed Penelope?). That might help explain some of Stephen’s petulance.

    Recall as well the confused questions of filial identity in Portrait: Dedalus you say? Like the artificier–the artist? Or Dedalus’s son, Icarus, who tried to fly (“by these nets”?) in order to escape from an island (!) but fell back to the sea.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2010 / 9:28 am

    I’m not sure there’s really any contradiction. I definitely draw a line from Telemachus to Stephen, and the idea of Buck/Haines as moochers/suitors relies on that line. Although the suitors in The Odyssey are technically living on Ulysses’s dime, it’s sort of assumed that Ulysses is dead, which makes it in effect Telemachus’s dime (he’s finally reached an age at which he figures “hey, this is *my* problem now”). At any rate, it is a dime that Telemachus fairly enough objects to the involuntary parceling out of.

    The Usurper utterance also of course connects Hamlet and Ulysses — both works in which a son seeks retribution or remedy for ill deeds done the father. There’s an interesting tension also between the attitudes toward mothers; Hamlet feigns affection while breeding abhorrence as Stephen wears mourning clothes and thinks wistfully of his mother after having declined to honor a simple enough wish (it seems there’s also something pretty anti-maternal toward the end of Portrait, though I’ve forgotten it).

  4. Judd Staley July 12, 2010 / 9:35 am

    Perhaps I was a little strong in my comments on the Odyssey. For the record, I read it before I read Ulysses. I just think a lot of people are under the impression that they *need* to read the Odyssey first, and I think that’s just patently untrue. On the other hand, reading them together can be quite illuminating, as Daryl illustrates (great insights, btw).

    It’s worth pointing out that there is a noticable tension in Ulysses criticism between the early criticism which, following Gilbert’s lead, tends to lean rather heavily on the mythological correspondences, and more recent criticism which tries to move beyond them. A great early work illustrating this tension is Robert Adams’ _Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce’s Ulysses_ (Oxford, 1962).

  5. Paul July 12, 2010 / 11:14 am

    As I mention in my recent post, I was assigned to read The Odyssey over a weekend as a precursor to Joyce. I hated it. Then I read it again, at a more leisurely pace, and found I really enjoyed the story. I knew a lot about it, but it was cool to see all of these bits and pieces come together.

    It’s funny to me that through all of the stories I’d heard about Ulysses (mostly the cool monsters), there wasn’t all that much made about the suitors. Sure, we know Penelope is faithful all those years, but man, those suitors are mooches!

    Interestingly the show Clash of the Gods on the History channel did a pretty good job addressing that issue in the Odyssey episodes. It’s not a great series, but there’s good scholarship behind it.

    And Daryl, I will NOT try to squeeze The Odyssey in with this 🙂

  6. Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2010 / 12:55 pm

    Paul, you may not be rereading The Odyssey, but I note that you continue to crank out pieces on other shorter works, albums, and of course the Insurgents project. So I think you can be forgiven.

    Judd, I certainly didn’t mean to call you out or anything. So far, I agree that you don’t have to have read The Odyssey to get something from Ulysses.

  7. Steve Pantani July 12, 2010 / 3:23 pm

    What rightful claim of Stephen’s has Mulligan usurped?
    Two claims seem in play – one as master of property, the other as protector of the mother (a son’s role, especially in the absence of the father). The first seems unlikely: Stephen has no money, and he’s in debt to Mulligan (as he admits to himself in Nestor, when Deasy recommends paying one’s own way); so Mulligan (or his prosperous relatives) appears to be the one “paying the rent.” As host, then, he shelters an exile (Stephen), as Can Grande de la Scala protected the exiled Dante. Indeed the stair reference in the Paradiso (It., “scale”) is often read as a punning reference by Dante to his own future host/protector, a stair-to-host affiliation we perhaps see with our very first glimpse of Mulligan (of anyone) in the opening sentence of Ulysses (the “stairhead” from which Mulligan emerges, in its own way a nice pun – “head” as boss). So if the key properly belongs to Mulligan, then where is the usurpation? If it’s not a matter of real estate, then it’s likely in the matter of the mother, or the protection of the mother. As Ulysses opens, Mulligan’s blasphemies seem intended by him as an extended taunt not of the deity or the church, but of Stephen, a commentary on Stephen’s failure to fulfill his dying mother’s wish, and to kneel and pray. Mulligan’s antics say to Stephen, “Watch me pray. You, too, could have prayed, even if in their own way your prayers would have been as much a farce as all my joking.” Stephen does not mistake the sustained attack on him implicit in all Mulligan’s raillery – in that sense he resents the “offense to himself.” So in effect Mulligan usurps not the father’s role, but the son’s. Mulligan isn’t a suitor; he’s (playing the role of) the son who would have spared Stephen’s mother one last disappointment.

    • robberry July 12, 2010 / 7:19 pm

      A couple of factors are at play here, Steve, but I think I should like to mention something about your Dante reference first. Dante’s work was the great example of fully realized literature for Joyce at a younger part of his life. There’s plenty of Dante to be found here, particularly rolling on the edges of Stephen consciousness as it is modeled after a younger Joyce. You’ve picked up one there I’d never thought of before with the “came from the stairhead”.

      But as to the question of “what’s being usurped” I think we’re getting lead down a false path here when we think about the money aspect. Daryl mentioned the allusions to money that we put in the Readers’ Guide of ULYSSES “SEEN” and, certainly, I still stand by that stuff; Joyce tells us that money is a big concern of the modern Irishmen, poet or not.

      And he does frame the situation so that it’s clear Stephen is paying for the tower while Mulligan is turning it into a haven for a yet another new Irish literary movement (this is, in fact, opposite of the real-life events when young Joyce lived their while the Mulligan model, Oliver St John Gogarty, paid the rent). But Mulligan is taking much more than money from Stephen. He’s taking Stephen’s superior talent and wit as using it as a prop for his own. He’s parading Stephen in front of Haines (the English moneybag) as a meal-ticket.

      So what rightful claim is usurped by that?

      Consider the milkwoman who enters as a “messenger of the morning”. She’s not just serving as the Athena role in conveying the novel’s connection to the Odyssey, she’s also the “Shan van Vocht”, the spirit of Ireland that only the true Irishman can revive, and Mulligan (“the gay betrayer”) and Haines (“her conqueror”) serve as poor suitors and usurpers.

      This is an allusion to what’s being taken, what Stephen/Hamlet/Telemachus is being cheated out of; the idea that there could be a true Irish art that doesn’t rely on English tourism or pandering to parlours of the wealthy and entitled with gimmicky connections to the past. Stephen learns, as Joyce did, that if wants that kind of art he’ll have to separate himself from these people and go elsewhere.

      • Steve Pantani July 13, 2010 / 10:18 am

        Rob, I certainly wouldn’t insist on the rival-brother and mother constellation as an essential reading, but I find support for it in the text and I enjoy it. She Who Brings Milk, the milkwoman as Irish mother or Ireland-Mother, is impressed by the one of her sons who studies for a respectable career (medicine) and not the son who, remaining silent (“listen[ing] in scornful silence”), is “slighted.” If the sea is, as Mulligan’s “wellfed voice” calls it, a “great sweet mother,” then it is Mulligan who ends up in the mother’s cleansing embrace by chapter’s end, as Stephen, again in silence, stalks away (we remember how Stephen’s mother had to scrub him, even when he was a student old enough to have taken care of the job himself). So in the struggle between sons for maternal affection, the glib one wins over the sullen one, whose silence effectively withdraws him from the competition. For Stephen, the son truly honors the mother (May Goulding or Ireland) by declining to assuage her two masters, one Italian, one English, even though that withholding causes her pain. So he will not pray (and ratify the mother’s subservience to the Italian Church) and he will not mount an Irish-intellectual minstrel show (to shake loose some English coins desperately needed by the Irish). It’s the latter temptation that is,as you say, Rob, the point at which the question of usurpation becomes one of a risk to “true Irish art.”

        On the money-rent question – has anybody ever tried to work out how it is that Stephen owes Mulligan “nine pounds” (Stephen’s own claim in Nestor). Mulligan’s life seems subsidized by his rich relatives, but they keep him short of ready cash, making it seem unlikely that the nine pounds represents the accumulated daily borrowings by Stephen from Mulligan (the daily cash flow seems to work the other way around). Is it possible that he and Stephen agreed to split the rent at the tower (the whole amount having been fronted in advance by Mulligan’s prosperous relatives). Half of the 12 quid rent would be – if I’ve done the pre-decimal-currency arithmetic correctly – 17 pounds, 8 shillings each. Is the nine pounds Stephen’s rough estimate of what’s left to work off, net of his daily out-of-pocket distributions to Mulligan? I’m aware that getting this tangled in the weeds of Ulysses “accounting” may be more than a little silly (but then again – minor spoiler! – Ulysses is the rare novel that contains a financial statement for one of its characters).

    • Ezekiel Crago July 13, 2010 / 2:48 pm

      This idea of usurping and protecting mothers also seems to underscore the many Hamlet references. Perhaps Mulligan is also linked to Claudius.

  8. Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2010 / 4:41 pm

    That’s an interesting reading, if not one that seems moored too tightly to The Odyssey (though of course there’s no saying it has to be). I had been working from the assumption that Stephen had been paying the rent (Judd notes why this is a reasonable assumption). Stephen does have money — just not much. I had taken Mulligan’s begging for beer money to be his mooching off of Stephen, but maybe he’s just trying to get back some of what he’s owed. We don’t get this information until the next section of the book. In any case, I have trouble with the idea that Mulligan is any sort of surrogate for Stephen as a son. Maybe something later in the book buttresses that idea. That he’s a moocher like the suitors in The Odyssey (but not himself actually a suitor) sits better with me. I took Stephen’s sense of an offense to himself to stem from Mulligan’s saying that he was “only” Dedalus, as if he’s of no consequence, a feeling he bristles at when the milk woman makes her delivery as well. I took it to be a signal of his self-importance rather than a feeling that Mulligan was usurping his role as son. That said, Mulligan does bring up Stephen’s failure to pray and makes a show of mocking religious rites. The idea that this show is any real sort of usurpation would be stronger if there were anything like sincerity in Mulligan’s behavior — he’s guilty of satire more than of usurpation.

    • Judd Staley July 12, 2010 / 5:02 pm

      Sorry to keep stepping in to clarify your interpretation of my posts, Daryl, but I just wanted to say: My reading of the “I paid the rent” bit was intended to show that it’s *not* reasonable to assume Steven paid the rent, at least not as reasonable as it appears to the casual reader. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Seems unlikely, given a lot of the other things we learn about his situation.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2010 / 9:12 pm

        Judd, I may have put it poorly: What I meant to suggest is that I take your post to say that it’s reasonable to read it either way, at least until you read more carefully. For my part, I guess I’m dim enough that even after two readings, I figured Stephen was somehow springing for the rent in spite of his poverty. Didn’t mean to misconstrue your post, though, and I’m grateful for the clarification.

  9. Steve Pantani July 12, 2010 / 6:11 pm

    Daryl, I’m with you totally on Mulligan being “guilty of satire.” Also, I’m sure there’s little doubt about his deep insincerity. It’s not that Mulligan really cares about Stephen’s mother; it’s that he’s got some leverage on Stephen here and he’s using it (what are friends and brothers for, after all?). But I admit that the idea of a second or rival son or, perhaps more accurately, a bogus son mocking the true but alienated son doesn’t resonate with the situation in Homer’s Ithaca (does Telemachus have a brother in Homer?). Truthfully, the brother-reading I’m suggesting owes a lot more to another book – not the Odyssey, but rather a book unwritten at the time of the composition of Ulysses, Finnegans Wake. In FW, a battle of two brothers is waged on every page. In a FW context, Mulligan as Shaun and Stephen as Shem really doesn’t seem like such a stretch. But, okay, maybe that’s not playing fair, since it’s U we’re reading here not FW. But still, couldn’t resist the temptation.
    [And, yes, in context Stephen’s noting of “the offense to himself” does not refer to Mulligan’s campaign of blasphemy, which I suggest is aimed at him. Rather,
    I co-opted the phrase allusively (and perhaps confusingly) in suggesting even deeper reasons for Stephen’s resentment of Mulligan, beyond the initial offense (“beastly dead”) and beyond the obnoxious presence of Haines.] I agree that we’ll have to proceed further into the book to see whether or not the “Mulligan as brother-rival” reading is tenable and productive.

    • robberry July 12, 2010 / 7:31 pm

      There’s definitely a battle going on there that could easily have some cognates in THE WAKE, Steve. But the rivalry between Stephen and Buck, in my mind, has clearer connections to the relationship between Joyce and his one-time friend Gogarty (and a host of other one-time friends he left in Dublin) than it does to that later work.

      Mulligan, like Gogarty, gets kind of a bad rap too, if you ask me. He’s callous perhaps and later we’ll see how vain he is about Stephen’s attentions, but he does seem to have genuine respect for Stephen’s talent as well as some compassion for his isolation. I also tend to see a lot of potential in examining the phrase “his arm, Cranly’s arm…” Cranly, in PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, was a character Stephen felt a certain adolescent sexual attraction to that frightened him tremendously. I think that layer of the Mulligan/Stephen relationship is certainly one worth considering.

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