When I started reading “Ithaca,” I flipped forward after just a couple of pages because I feared that all of the 70+ pages in this batch would follow the question/answer format that opened the episode. I may have groaned audibly when I saw that they would. It was a cute trick, I thought, but who needed 70 pages of it? Who needed 20 pages of it? But as I read on, a neat thing happened that has happened several (though by no means all) times for me in this book: However unsettling the form of the episode was at the beginning, I internalized it somehow and found a way to read past the form, or maybe to embrace it. What had at first seemed an obstacle or a cutesy-pie trick turned into maybe a sort of prism through which to read the content of the episode. I wound up liking this episode very much, and for all my gnashing of teeth at the beginning of it, I was sad to see it end. Of course, it did end rather sadly.

As for what the episode’s structure actually is, or what it is doing, I wasn’t entirely sure until I cheated (as always, after my reading) by looking at the Linati schemata, which suggests that what we’re dealing with here is a (or the?) catechism. Well I’m not Catholic and don’t know much about Catholicism, so while I knew that there was a thing called the catechism, I didn’t really know what it was. So the form of “Ithaca” seemed to me to be like something out of a school room. In fact, Stephen’s fairly rapid-fire questioning of his students in the Nestor episode seems to anticipate the form of this episode, and I took “Ithaca” to be a sort of dialectic (perhaps almost Socratic) lesson formally.

I also found the word “prolusion” rattling around in my head as I read. A prolusion is a preliminary exercise, sort of a hallmark of old-fashioned education, and the prolusions I’m most familiar with are Milton’s. They’re explanatory or argumentative, often quite humorous pieces of oratory spoken before an audience. Several of the answers to the questions posed in this episode struck me as somewhat prolusive. That there are a couple of references to Milton’s “Lycidas” later in the episode kept the prolusion idea in my mind, though I don’t quite mean to posit that Joyce is making reference to Milton’s prolusions. Still, it’s an association that colored my reading. (By the way, if you want to feel really bad about your formal schooling, go look up Milton’s essay “Of Education.”)

In any case, there’s something distinctly lesson-like in this episode. And as I read, I made note of a number of particular fields of study that came up, sometimes with actual brief lessons in the fields (other times merely loaded language). The really obvious ones:

  • geometry
  • physics
  • chemistry
  • civil engineering
  • thermodynamics
  • accounting
  • the paranormal
  • composition
  • numerology
  • comparative literature
  • music
  • astronomy
  • religion
  • linguistics
  • navigation

Bloom has taken a filial interest in Stephen, and so an episode in which a father figure bereft of his own son talks at length with a son-figure (who in the source matter is bereft of his father) may as well be written in a didactic form (“Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue…”). Of course, despite the form, many of the answers are not in fact aimed at Stephen. Certainly the ones after Stephen leaves aren’t.

With Stephen gone, Bloom begins to think about his own station in life. At around page 702, I began to notice a pronounced emphasis on progress and progression (there’s an outlier way back on page 650, with the progression of dates and the “progressive extension of the field of individual development and experience”). First there’s mention of a geometrical progression. Then there are several references to widening of scope (sometimes couched in terms like “what else?”). Maybe it’s an equivocation, but the questioner asks on 707 about consideration of progressive melancholia. A couple of pages later, we’re given successive (progressive? maybe regressive?) modes and examples of poverty. Late in the episode, Bloom considers the progression of men who’ve (he imagines?) cuckolded him; this progression is mentioned more or less alongside parallel lines running to infinity, and the series of men is said to be repeated into infinity. The book is a progression in time. Bloom is on a progression toward sleep. The episode ends by asking “where?” and giving no answer.

The last in my little progression of pro- words that I latched onto in this episode is “prothalamion,” the fancy-pants name for the wedding song genre of poetry. Spenser’s “Prothalamion” is probably the most famous example. These poems are often full of bowers and nymphs and flowers and rivers and repose. How sad the end of “Ithaca” is, as Bloom’s bed and settling into thereof are described as follows:

With circumspection, as invariably when entering an abode (his own or not his own): with solicitude… prudently, as entering a lair or ambush of lust or adder: lightly, the less to disturb: reverently, the bed of conception and of birth, of consummation of marriage and of breach of marriage, of sleep and of death.

We learn that Bloom and Molly haven’t had sex in over a decade. He gives her what seems to me to be a tender kiss on the bottom and answers her questions about his day. The best I can tell from the descriptions, they lie in bed in something like a V shape. He’s weary, having seen the world in a day (so to speak, and somewhat fancifully to link the story with its nominal source material) and come home to find himself horned. What’s next? Where are they going? Forward? Pro-? This is surely a different scene, a different mood, than the mood that provoked Molly to ask him for a little touch early in the book (and that a distant memory), than the mood that provoked the old acrostic Valentine’s Day poem:

Poets oft have sung in rhyme
Of Music sweet their praise divine.
Let them hymn it nine times nine.
Dearer far than song or wine,
You are mine. The world is mine.

Poor Poldy. Not a word of it seems to be true.

13 thoughts on “Pro-

  1. Paul Debraski August 23, 2010 / 12:10 am


    If I haven’t said so before let me say now that I really enjoy reading what you have to say about episodes. As you’ve seen, I tend to a take a very literal approach to the works. I throw in what I can, but I try to suss out what the text is saying. What I love about your posts and your way of thinking is that you look beyond the straight text and see connections that I would never consider.

    I love that I can have read the same thing as you, come to a similar opinion of it (most of the time) and yet still feel like I get so much more out of it from your post.

    I too really enjoyed Ithaca (and, yes, I figured you would like it). My post is coming shortly, but I’m delighted but what you’ve posted here.

    So again, thanks for thinking the way you do, it gives me a well rounded appreciation for what I’ve just read.

    • Jeff Anderson August 27, 2010 / 1:53 pm

      I second what Paul says here. I really appreciate getting to see what a totally different style of reading from my own can find when we’re reading the same thing. I like this kind of big-picture way that you seem to read (at least for your posts here), they way you can pluck up scattered, individual moments, and show how, when you look at them in the right light, they all have the same stamp on them—and it’s normally something I’d never have found on my own in a million years.


  2. Daryl L. L. Houston August 23, 2010 / 8:20 am

    Thanks, Paul. It goes without saying (though maybe it shouldn’t) that I get a lot from your more literal posts as well. I go down rabbit holes sometimes and miss really fundamental things about what’s happening in the stories that your posts clarify for me. It’s a real service.

  3. Leroy August 23, 2010 / 10:44 am

    My first time through Ulysses Ithaca was my favorite chapter. But then I’ve always been a fan of “in your face” stylistic choices by writers. One claim I’ve seen made of this chapter is that while being the most overtly objective and scientific, it also contains the most disinformation because these are Bloom’s answers to the questions as filtered by his memory, knowledge, and opinions. I haven’t quite made my mind up on this yet.

    The answer to the last question is the black dot that follows it. Joyce is said to have wanted a dot that was obviously much larger than a period. Not all editions reflect this. I interpret it to mean that the answer to “Where?” is “Right here and now.”

    You’re right about the parallels between this chapter and chapter two. In fact all of part three parallels part one as we get this progression: narrative (telling the morning events, mostly from Stephen’s point of view in part one, telling the late night events, mostly from Bloom’s point of view in part three), catechism (both of the boys by Stephen and of Stephen by Mr. Deasy in part one, of Bloom by Joyce or the Arranger in part three), internal monologue (Stephen’s stream of consciousness/Molly’s stream of consciousness). In part one we get less mature, simpler, developing versions reflective of Stephen and his youth. In part three we get more more mature, more complex, highly developed versions reflective of the older Bloom and Molly.

  4. Stevie August 23, 2010 / 3:15 pm

    One thing I remember being told about this book is that the book itself has to teach you how to read it. I feel a connection with the process you described of embracing the format of each chapter.
    BTW, I didn’t know about “prolusion” – & i noticed there’s no wiki for it. maybe you should create one? Just a suggestion.
    i want to reiterate Paul’s comments on these posts – i’m finding it all very enjoyable. trading these reading experiences… i don’t know, i think it adds a layer of usefulness to having those experiences in the first place (for me, anyway).

  5. Daryl L. L. Houston August 23, 2010 / 4:05 pm

    Stevie, I had much the same experience with the group read of Infinite Jest that you describe here. I had read it several times and knew what I thought about it, but it was neat to see what folk new to the book had to say (it was also neat to see what insights veterans could provide). I also agree about the fact of having to learn how to read this book. The first book I read that worked this way was Gaddis’s JR; I personally found Gaddis’s payoff to be bigger (unless there’s something earth-shattering in the last episode).

    Leroy, my edition does have the big dot, but it didn’t occur to me to see it as a particular answer. Will have to think about that a bit more.

  6. crazymonk August 23, 2010 / 9:40 pm

    And speaking of Infinite Jest, I thought that the Ithaca episode was quite reminiscent of Wallace’s common use of the scientifically precise narrative style — e.g., the Year of Glad section. (“62.5% of the room’s faces are directed my way, pleasantly expectant.”) I really dug this episode, and if I ever participate in a Bloomsday reading I’d likely choose a passage from it.

    It’s interesting to finish the penultimate episode of the book knowing that the next is (spoiler?) entirely an internal monologue of Molly Bloom. (I once, in my high school days, saw a professional actress at Hartford Stage do a reading of I think the final sentence and I remember being entranced by it.) I am in some way expecting something vaguely earth-shattering here, based on this episode’s reputation, and on how Ithaca ends. Leopold is cataloging his fears and his dreams throughout the episode, and in the end he comes to a sort of acceptance of Molly’s adultery. But now we get to find out what Molly thinks about their relationship, and so the opportunity still exists to learn about Leopold’s future.

    Stephen, on the other hand, has likely exited the novel entirely. I can’t imagine Molly has any informed perspective of how the day’s events have affected Stephen internally, and so we have all the information I *think* we’re going to get. And what’s surprising to me is that there’s little evidence that he’ll wake up the next day and not continue being the moping sad sack he was during the last. Sure, he spent some time with Bloom, and I think most readers at this point are hoping that a little Bloom rubs off on Stephen — but all we have is a few tender moments in a single evening, after a particularly terrible day (for Stephen). Are we supposed to take Joyce himself as evidence that Stephen has turned a corner after this day? Or is all of the coded and overt symbolism about their meeting supposed to be sufficient? Or was it more important to Joyce for us to understand how Stephen affected Bloom as opposed to vice versa?

  7. Greg Carlisle August 23, 2010 / 10:24 pm

    The Q&A in Ithaca that begins with “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” is perhaps the greatest literary passage I’ve ever read. Yes, James Joyce, you have done the impossible and showed us in a brief passage how the universe is contained inside each human being.

  8. Lianhua August 23, 2010 / 11:51 pm

    As crazymonk says, it’s unclear that anything has really changed for Stephen as a result of meeting Bloom. (And I would say the reverse seems true as well.) I’ve been reading the New Bloomsbury guide in conjunction with Ulysses, and feel a bit underwhelmed at the amount of evidence that seems to exist for many of the guide’s statements. I was completely shocked when Stephen just left at the end of Ithaca–there had appeared to be no real breakthrough, no meeting of minds. The New Bloomsbury book talks up how Stephen and Bloom “save” each other in some sense–Stephen discovering a father, and Bloom a son. But I see no evidence that Stephen doesn’t just see Bloom as a hopelessly pedestrian old guy, or that he got anything out of their time together. As for Bloom, sure, he seems happy to have someone intellectual to talk to, and wants to help Stephen. But what he sees in Stephen is just a projection of what he wants to see; he doesn’t really understand him. Although, having said that, that’s probably true of most parents’ perceptions of their children…

  9. Hunter Felt August 24, 2010 / 1:27 am

    Lianhua, the “projection” theory is what I’ve always gotten, but I’ve always thought that was one of “Ulysses”‘s strengths.

    Stephen has made a huge impression on Bloom’s life, Stephen will most likely barely remember him. That’s a very very common thing in life and there’s something oddly beautiful about in how Joyce is able to make an emotionally satisfying novel out of this seemingly simple event.

  10. Leroy August 24, 2010 / 2:01 am

    Greg, your comment reminded me of another aspect of this chapter that has always fascinated me. It starts out so scientific, precise and seemingly objective, yet by the time you reach the end you have experienced some of the most beautiful and poetic language in the entire book. It’s just one more example of the union of opposites theme that appears in many guises throughout the journey.

  11. Hunter Felt August 25, 2010 / 9:21 pm

    Also: What is a home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?

    Best literary callback joke ever.

  12. Ezekiel Crago September 16, 2010 / 12:34 pm

    From Bloom’s perspective, it’s all advertising. So what is this novel advertising? What is the reader being sold? Is it just an allegorical good Samaritan story demonstrating Bloom’s “timid courage” or is there more going on here, pointing to the omni-pervasiveness of the Wake?

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