While I haven’t done a full survey of “Nausikaa” for references to precious metals and superstition, I certainly found myself underlining them a number of times. The episode reads at the beginning very much like a Victorian novel of manners (complete with an opening marked by the picturesque, which I believe was not merely a descriptive mode but more a cultural phenomenon in the period), and so I initially took some of the girlish superstitions to be simply part of (what I took to be) the Victorian flavor of the episode’s opening. I finished the reading early last week and didn’t go back to it until tonight. As I went back through my annotations, I began to think maybe there was more to the convergence of superstition and precious metals, and the more I think of it, the more I become convinced that this convergence is central to the novel.

Alchemy is broadly known to be the (attempted) practice of turning base metals into gold. It is an unscientific, superstitious practice, and it stands in stark contrast to the rational, inquisitive (a word that I’ve written in my margins many times) way in which Bloom investigates the world. So the  appearance of superstition in the lovely seaside girls contrasted to Bloom’s ever-present scientific view of things alongside the appearance of many metals (base and otherwise) made me think of alchemy.

I was also struck in this chapter by a concern with appearance vs. reality. On page 342, for example, we’re told how Gerty learned to draw an eyebrow line to give herself a haunting expression; we’re told on 355 that Cissy fusses over the boys to make herself look attractive (this is also petty jealousy on Gerty’s part, of course). The episode is all about perception at a distance and the reality of internal monologue. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that it’s about the alchemical reaction that takes place as you seek to fashion from the lead lump that is your dreary reality a golden future or vision to aspire to. Or maybe that’s too fanciful.

I do think there’s more going on here, though, for the notion of social alchemy also runs through the episode. Cissy is seen as tomboyish and crude, gipsylike (her eyes, admittedly). She’s described as having a nigger hat and nigger lips; she has “golliwog curls,” which I discovered referred to a set of stories with lots of racial (think minstrel-show) baggage. This is all set up next to Gerty’s refinement, her “languid queenly hauteur” (more in this vein on 341). On page 346, we’re told that worshippers are gathered without regard to social class. A page or two later, someone is said to be a gentlemen who looked a thorough aristocrat. A bit further on, Gerty’s interior monologue describes Cissy’s little brothers as common. Joyce here invites consideration of class difference, which lends itself well enough to the alchemical metaphor. The Victorian novels certainly covered the topic of social alchemy. Wallowed in it, even.

The church intrusions puzzled me a little bit as I read this episode. It’s not clear to me whether there’s simply a church nearby enough that services can be heard or whether there’s a service taking place on the rocks. There is explicit mention of the Sacrament, which — the conversion of bread and wine into the actual blood and body of Christ (gross) — is itself a sort of Alchemy, which is a matter of doctrine that I imagine has often been at play in religiously divided Ireland, and which seems to rub up against another consistent theme of the novel, metempsychosis. Transubstantiation. Changing from one thing into another. Bloom ponders the matter on 370 and thinks of the stories in Greek mythology in which people were changed into trees from grief.

Since this is a quickish blog post and not a scholarly article, I don’t have a tidy conclusion, but I do think these associations may be worth considering in the larger context. The ongoing metempsychosis thread can hardly be ignored. Consubstantiality of the father and the son (and of Hamlet and company; and of Telemachus/Stephen, Ulysses/Bloom) is central. Maybe a sort of alchemy is afoot.

One thought on “Alchemy

  1. Ezekiel Crago August 11, 2010 / 3:33 pm

    Perhaps the text performs a deeper alchemy by presenting the internal worlds of many quite different persons as one complete narrative. It occurred to me, after noticing how many repetitions of the met him pike hoses theme pervade the text, that the reader, by jumping from point of view to point of view, accomplishes a kind of literary metempsychosis, a textual transmigration.

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