I’ve written before about composition from the perspective of Stephen. There’s some more of that in this week’s reading as well, as we get his various asides as he pontificates about Hamlet. (I didn’t much enjoy episodes seven or nine, by the way. Nine was especially irritating.) This week I’m going to write a bit about composition from the perspective of Bloom. Though there may be more/other relevant passages than the ones I’ll list here (time constraints kept me from doing the second readthrough this week), I’ll focus on a few that stood out to me.
The first appears on page 152 of my edition. Bloom is considering how poets write and suggests that they do so by using similar sounds. Then he amends his assessment when he thinks of Shakespeare writing in blank verse; it’s not the rhyme, he figures, but the flow of the language that makes poetry (Milton came to a similar conclusion and advertised it in the argument to Paradise Lost, it occurs to me). The trigger for these thoughts seems to be his somewhat serendipitously pairing the words “rats” and “vats” after thinking about rats in a brewery. He then sees some gulls, thinks back to the story about Reuben J (94) his telling of which was rudely interrupted (the thwarted telling of that story/joke a sort of act of verbal composition in the works; thanks to Paul for calling to my attention this detail, which I had sort of glossed over), and comes up with a little couplet about a gull flapping over the sort of water Reuben J would have pitched into. We have witnessed here an act of artistic creation. It’s no great act, as the couplet is really kind of bad, but the gesture is intact. There’s a moment of discovery (rats/vats) followed by a brief stream of associations followed by a sort of synthesis followed by analysis.
A few pages later, casting his thoughts again to Dignam while trying to elicit sympathy from a female acquaintance he meets (one of the major points of poetry, one might argue), he seems to write another little ditty, this time using an old Robert Burns song as source material (Salinger latched onto the same song, with alterations of his own):
Your funeral’s tomorrow
While you’re coming through the rye.
Diddlediddle . . .
He doesn’t speak the ditty aloud, of course. What he has just spoken aloud is “Funeral was this morning.” Metrically, it’s very similar to the first line of his little stanza; “this morning” and “tomorrow” scan identically, and the larger phrases both include “funeral” at the beginning. He has taken an utterance and turned it into a nubbin of a poem. The first line is rhythmically similar to a repeated line from Burns’s poem — “Should a body meet a body” — and the lines share a body association, so he makes the leap. But he’s distracted by conversation and can’t finish the thought, so he substitutes rhythm placeholders to close out the stanza. I imagine him subtly padding his fingers on his pantleg along with the rhythm he fashions in his head.
The next act of composition that stood out to me appears on page 170. Bloom has gone into a restaurant and, grossed out by the masticatory, slobbery, soppy affair of actually eating elbow-to-elbow with other people (compare to his contemplation of dining upon a kidney alone in episode four), sees a man stuffing cabbage down his throat with his knife. He thinks of the old saying about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth and modifies it to say (to himself) that this man was born with a silver knife in his mouth. Bloom thinks it’s a witty modification. But then he realizes that silver would suggest that the man was born rich, and this man clearly wasn’t. When you ditch the silver association and are left with the knife, you lose the allusion, he concludes. Not so witty after all. (Ahem, Kinch.) Bloom here is composing and revising a witticism he might have been thinking of using later in the day. It’s easy enough to imagine him among friends again trying to cut in (a la the Reuben J story) with an anecdote complete with witty wordplay.
On the next page, Bloom turns his mind to cannibalism (again inspired by the gobstuffing going on around him) and starts putting together a limerick. He rolls it around in his head while ordering food. An acquaintance uses the phrase “Who’s getting it up” (about Molly’s concert series), and the sexual connotation of the phrase, along with his prior speculation that the cannibal chief gets to eat the “parts of honor” of any victims, leads Bloom in a more ribald direction with the limerick. Again we’ve seen here how the germ of an idea takes on the associations that the surrounding events and conversation suggest and results in an act of creative expression.
A couple of pages later, Bloom thinks about an idea for a poison mystery story, but I’m not as interested in that as I am in his treatment of a couple of flies he spots. First he thinks the following: “Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.” Later, he observes: “Stuck, the flies buzzed.” Sexual imagery aside (the two thoughts are separated by an explicitly sensual passage), these observations strike me as acts of revision. By the time he reaches the end of the first sentence, he has decided he didn’t like his syntax, and he tacks “stuck” back onto the end. Or maybe it’s not a syntactical revision so much as a syntactical emphasis. Or maybe it’s merely a mistake, a detail added that he forgot he had already specified. In any case, it’s a considered sentence. The later version suggests revisitation of the observation. Maybe he’s not landing on a final syntax here, but he’s thinking again about the flies (was it watching two flies stuck together that called to mind the sensual scene from his memory, much as watching a couple of stuck-together dogs got Molly hot and bothered in an earlier episode?) and about the particular terms in which he’s thinking about them. It seemed to me a sort of glimpse at a way in which associations influence composition.
As I noted initially, we also see behind the curtain of Stephen’s mode of composition. I think the men’s modes are different, though I’m not sure I can explain very well why I think this; it’s sort of a vague sense at this point. Stephen is a composer of imagery around abstract ideas, while Bloom is a simpler compositor of associations. Stephen seems to go from memory to poetry, Bloom from observation to poetry to memory (I’m not at all sure yet that I fully believe this; I’m still considering it). Stephen knows a lot of things and uses poetry to showcase what he knows. Bloom asks a lot of questions (seriously, I’ve written “inquisitive” in my margins a bunch of times), and his private compositions arise in a way out of his trying to locate himself within the world around him. Stephen, maybe, is a dry, sterile Modernist (I’ve touched before on my bias against Modernism), Bloom something either older or newer, something to me more personal and likable, if less accomplished and cerebral.