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:
- civil engineering
- the paranormal
- comparative literature
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.