Joyce’s Ulysses: Episodes 13-18 #FebBloom

Melissa over at Avid Reader’s Musings
is hosting a read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses this month, and I promised to post my reading guides/reactions for anyone who might want another perspective on this difficult read. This post covers Episodes 1-6. If you are reading along or want to join, remember to use #FebBloom for social media.

The Episodes

Book Two, Continued

NausicaaNausicaa: Now, here was an interesting episode.  It jumps ahead in time quite a bit, bringing us to 8pm, and we arrive back at Sandymount, where we were with Stephen Dedalus early in the day (in “Proteus”).

The major theme of this episode is sex, or perhaps more specifically, sexual climax.  Throughout the episode, we see references to objects moving in arc – that is, rising and falling.  For example, there is a roman candle that is described rising into the air, where it explodes; there is also the rising and falling of Gerty MacDowell’s leg, and the description of the swinging censer in the church.  This theme actually ended the previous chapter (with the rising and falling of the biscuit tin), but it is explicitly related, here, to Bloom and Gerty’s coordinated orgasms.  It also, of course, parallels The Odyssey, in that Odysseus, having been stranded on the island of the Phaeacians, is awoken after his shipwreck by a ball thrown by Nausicaa, the island princess.  Incidentally, a ball is thrown toward Bloom in this chapter, too, which briefly awakens him from his sexual stupor (until the girls and children leave, at which point he and Gerty return to their mutual and simultaneous self-gratification).

The first part of this episode is mainly about Gerty, and the second part is about Bloom.  I think we get a glimpse at Joyce’s thoughts on Irish womanhood (and women in general) in this chapter.  Gerty is compared to the Virgin Mary, but she is in no way innocent or pure, as evidenced by the fact that she teases Bloom sexually and keeps at it until they both “finish.”  My understanding of the censorship history of this book leads me to believe that much of the outrage stemmed from a few things: first, vivid descriptions of bodily functions; second, mixing sex and religion; and third, presenting women as sexual, passionate creatures filled with their own erotic desires (and willing to seek gratification).  All of these things are certainly present in this episode.

We also find out a few things about Bloom’s sexual desires (though not nearly as much as we will find out in “Circe.”  For instance, he has been known to visit prostitutes.  We learn that he once paid a woman just to say dirty words to him, and we see him recall a moment when he had sex with his wife, but this memory is combined with the memory of Molly and another man (Mulvey).  This is the second time where Bloom seems almost willing and desirous of seeing his wife with another man.  Also, strangely and surprisingly, we learn that Bloom might not really be Jewish (even though he has been playing the role of the persecuted Jew throughout this book, and especially in the last chapter!).  After he ejaculates, he mentions his foreskin, which a true Jew certainly would not have.  Weird.

Finally, he discovers that his watch stopped at 4:30pm, which is probably when Molly & Blazes Boylan were having sex, and he writes a message in the sand: “I . . . AM. A.”  I’m not sure what this message is supposed to mean, though a search on this topic yielded some probable explanations; still, it seems no one can say for certain.

H-Oxen of the Sun TibaldiThe Oxen of the Sun: This was a bizarre episode – at least, I thought it was bizarre until getting to the next episode, “Circe,” which is completely insane. Anyhow, the episode begins about 10pm and lasts until 11pm.It takes place at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, where Mina Purefoy (previously mentioned early in the book and thought of by Bloom, throughout) is in labor and about to give birth, after three long days of trying.

Bloom has decided to visit Mina Purefoy, but he also discovers Stephen Dedalus here, visiting with some of his friends who are medical students at the hospital.  It is here where the father-son theme really starts to take hold; Bloom decides to stay and watch over Stephen, partly because he (Bloom) and Simon Dedalus (Stephen’s father) are friends, but mostly, I think, because Bloom has been searching for a son ever since his own died.  Bloom does not care much for Stephen’s friends and the group are clearly under the influence of something (we later learn that it is absinthe), so Bloom decides to follow them when they leave the hospital.

The parallels between Joyce and Homer in this episode seem more difficult to find, especially following how overt they were in the previous episode.  The only obvious connection I can draw is between the slaughter of Helios’s cattle in The Odyssey with the epidemic of foot and mouth disease in Ireland, which is killing their cows.  The larger theme, and perhaps the real connection, is that of life and death in general.  Joyce, through his characters, seems to go on a tirade against birth control, prophylactics, etc.  He staunchly supports family and the idea that married couples should have as many children as possible (despite poor Mina Purefoy’s obvious predicament).

Mulligan is made the villain (again) in this episode because he is pro-contraception.  There is a funny scene where Mulligan goes on and on about how he will offer up his “services” to any and all women who choose it, but he’ll make sure he doesn’t “pay” for it (by becoming a father) nor ask them to literally pay for it (meaning, he wants to screw around, free of charge).  The next page or so that follows is rife with puns about condoms – umbrellas, cloaks, etc.  It is really quite funny.

The true genius of this episode, though, is that Joyce has essentially recreated the history of the English language, from Beowulf to modern slang, and put it into practice.  Every few pages or so, the dialogue and narration move from one moment in the history of the English language to another, and the reader must keep up with it in order to both understand what’s happening in the episode and more importantly, what Joyce is trying to say about language – which is the real message.  I had to backtrack a bit and begin rereading, as I only realized what he was doing after moving into the third moment.  Essentially, he evokes Beowulf to Bunyan, through the University Wits, Dickens, the Gothic novel (probably my favorite part) and even Socratic rhetorical dialogue.  He ends the episode in modern slang, with bits of American black slang included, which seems like clear condemnation of the “destruction” of the English language.  Apparently, Joyce was not happy with where English had gone & probably feared that there was no turning back, no reclaiming of the greatness of earlier prose.  Is Ulysses, then, an ode to the English language?  Or a eulogy for it?

circe-and-the-companions-of-ulyssesCirce: This is probably my favorite episode of the book, so far, which is ironic because it was the one I most feared (it is enormously long – about 150 pages). It was also again difficult to find parallels to the original epic.  In The Odyssey, the goddess Circe turns Odysseus men into swine, but Odysseus managed to resist her spells and remain human.  In this chapter, Circe is clearly Bella Cohen, who runs a brothel.  Is the parallel, then, that Bella turns men into swine by providing these kinds of services?  Certainly there are some bizarre, descriptive sexual scenes between Bella and Bloom – and Bloom does ultimately break free of the spell, which would reinforce the Bloom-as-Odysseus idea.  I suppose, now that I’ve talked my way through it, this is indeed connection enough!

Like “Nausicaa,” I think this could certainly be an episode, if not the episode, which had censors bringing charges of obscenity against the book.  The overarching theme seems to be psychological – a fear of free sexual expression.  If we dare to act out are fantasies, will we become animals?  Almost the entire episode, though, is narrated as if in a bizarre dreamworld fantasy – and both Bloom and Stephen Dedalus suffer from hallucinations, sexual and terrifying.

One of the most important parts of the episode, and probably of the entire book, is the moment when Stephen Dedalus, after suffering through terrible hallucinations of his mother (who has appeared to further guilt him for not praying at her bedside) breaks free of the fantasy by smashing a chandelier and shouting the word, “Nothung.”  At first, I thought this was another silly sexual reference “not hung – impotent?” but I looked up the word and learned that it is actually a reference to Wagner’s The Ring of the Niebelung, whose hero is named Richard (also Wagner’s first name) Rowan (an Ash tree).  The hero’s name not only stands for the Ash tree, but he also has a sword made of Ash , which is the same wood that Stephen’s walking stick is made of.  Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Wagner or about this opera, but clearly Joyce was heavily influenced by it.  The major significance, though, is that Stephen refuses, through the haze of his blurred vision, his absinthe-induced delusions, and his fevered dancing with whores, to succumb to his mother’s guilt-trip.

Another deeply interesting and important element of the episode is how very much (too much?) we learn about Leopold Bloom and his wonderfully, deliciously, seriously gross fantasies.  As it turns out, Bloom is a serious masochist.  He has a foot fetish, he is a coprophiliac (sexually attracted to the anus/fecal matter), and he is turned on by transvestism.  In his mind, Bloom sees Bella become “Bello,” a man, who then dominates Bloom and calls him “girl.”  She/He sits on Bloom’s face, spanks him, has him worship his (her) foot, and much more.  We also learn that Bloom has watched (or has had fantasies of watching?) his wife have sex with other men.  I think it is possibly this episode which leads some scholars to make the claim that we (readers) learn more about Leopold Bloom than any other literary character, ever.  There are no secrets left.

In the end, though, Bloom wakes from the frenzy and becomes that same Bloom from “The Cyclops,” a man with self-confidence and a voice – one who can break Circe’s spell.  He cares for Stephen Dedalus by handling his money, by standing up for him when he breaks the chandelier and refusing to allow Stephen to pay any more than the damage is actually worse (and Bella demands about 10x more), and by running after Stephen when he “escapes” the brothel.  He also stands up to bully-British military men and Irish policemen, all of whom could be a serious threat to the delusional Dedalus.  This says, again, very much about the goodness in Bloom, and about his strength (often veiled).

At the very end, Bloom has a vivid fantasy of his own, where he sees his dead son, Rudy, alive and as he would be had he lived; a boy at Eton, well-dressed and healthy.  As he is caring for Stephen, his newly adopted son, at this time – the father-son motif is even doubly reinforced.  More importantly, though, we see that Bloom has an enormous capacity for awe, for beauty.  The finale to this episode is definitely the best thus far.


zpage195Eumaeus: Episode 16 begins around 1am and immediately follows the whirlwind action of “Circe.”  In Homer’s Odyssey, Eumaeus is a swineherd, faithful to Odysseus.  When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after his long absence, he meets with Eumaeus, who is still loyal to the family after all this time, and then joins his son, Telemachus, to rid their home of Penelope’s many suitors.

In Joyce’s episode, we get a sort-of “meeting” between this epic’s Odysseus and Telemachus, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.  They meet in a coffeehouse that is run by a man nicknamed “Skin-the-Goat,” who we learned in “Aeolus” drove the decoy car for the Phoenix Park Murderers. The real parallel between this episode and the original epic, I think, is in its description of the returning wanderer.  There are three characters, here, including Bloom, Parnell, and “W.B. Murphy,” a sailor who seems to be using a pseudonym, though we don’t know why, who are all “returning” to their wives/lovers, just as Odysseus was in The Odyssey.

We learn in this episode that Stephen does not plan to return to his job as a schoolteacher (he meets a friend on the street, lends him money and tells him that there will be a job opening at his school – referring, of course, to his own position).  We also learn a bit more about Bloom, as we do with each episode.  We  have seen that Bloom is in general a good man – caring and altruistic in many ways.  He displays that altruism here with Stephen, warning him away from Buck Mulligan, whom Bloom does not trust, and decides to bring him home since it is late and Stephen clearly has nowhere to go (having given up his key early in the book).

This kindness is in many ways double-edged, though.  Bloom ruminates on Stephen’s talents and abilities, and he imagines how Stephen’s talents as a writer could help Bloom gain publicity for a project he has been considering (starting a new opera).  Bloom also imagines writing stories of his own, as he did earlier in the book, and considers extending his evening with Stephen for the single reason that it might add fodder to the stories he would write, and then publish in Titbits (the magazine he mentioned previously).  So, Bloom is willing to part with a bit of food and maybe give up a bed for the night, in exchange for what he hopes will become a creative, and even a business, relationship with Stephen Dedalus.

Two important things to note about this episode are its syntax (style) and the dichotomy it establishes between Bloom and Dedalus.  First, the syntax is notable because it mirrors the tone of the story at this point.  The sentences of this episode tend to be long, rambling, and many times unfinished – petering out into nowhere.  This creates a sense of tiredness and exhaustion in the reader, which mimics the way Bloom and Stephen must both be feeling after this very long day (and night).  In addition to the fatigue-inducing syntax is the perpetual theme of miscommunication between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom.  The two never seem quite in sync or in agreement on any topic. Not only does this confusion add to the tiredness of the episode, but it also clearly establishes them as two distinct personalities – they are not both Christ-like figures, after all, nor, I think, is the father-son dynamic,  one so often reinforced throughout the book (and so hoped for by Bloom), necessarily going to come to fruition.  Stephen represents the non-religious, intellectual artist, while Bloom is the faithful mercantile opportunist.  Stephen is concerned with deep issues, like the soul of the Irish people, while Bloom only comments on the surface beauty of an unknown language (having heard a couple arguing in Italian, Bloom found the language beautiful, but Dedalus knew they were arguing about money).

I was also intrigued by the presence of a new character, Murphy, who only appears in this episode.  I haven’t spent enough time thinking about him to be able to develop any thorough analysis about him, but he certainly seems to perpetuate a few themes, such as the motif of disguises and the theme of the wanderer (like Bloom and Parnell, and Odysseus).  Is he just there for comic reinforcement, though?  I doubt it.  One thing that struck me is the possibility that he might be homosexual (like Mulligan, perhaps).  Neither is “outed” in any obvious way, but Mulligan’s possible attempt at drugging (through drink) Stephen, coupled with his silence during the Oscar Wilde/Shakespeare debate and his verbosity about Bloom’s sexuality made me wonder.  In the same way, Murphy’s stories about Antonio seem highly suggestive – filled with longing and hints at romantic & carnal attachment.  There is also tattoo on his chest, which includes the number sixteen.  After wondering about it and searching around the interwebs, it seems that, in European slang and numerology, this number represented homosexuality.  It also happens to be the number, in sequence, of this episode. I don’t know nearly enough about European slang nor numerology to be able to attest to this, but an interesting analysis of the whole situation can be found here.  It’s possible to read this inter-textually or extra-textually and arrive at the same, or different conclusions.  Which is part of what makes reading and discussing this book so fun (and frustrating!).

imagesIthaca: Bloom has finally returned home, with his Telemachus (Dedalus) in tow.  It is about 2am when they arrive, and the episode is set up very much in terms of a religious ceremony, like a communion.  The episode is littered with recurrence of the numbers 3 and 9 (suggesting the Holy Trinity).  Not only are these numbers simply mentioned repeatedly, but we also learn that this is the third time that Bloom and Dedalus have met in this way, that Bloom was baptized three times, and many of the categorization that goes on in this episode come in lists of 3 or 9.  In addition, terms like “mass,” “host,” and “Lucifer matches,” and images of crosslaid sticks, all feed into the allegory of religious ceremony – as does the almost literal ceremony that takes place as Bloom (hatless, with candle and aching side) leads Dedalus into his home (upon the conclusion of which, bells chime). Of course, the episode concludes as it must, with Stephen and Leopold urinating next to one another, mixing, as it were, their sacramental wine.

This entire scene (the entire episode) is delivered in a Question-and-Answer method, very much like that of the Catechism.  Each episode has had a unique syntax and structure, matching the episode’s contents.  What I wonder about, though, is the purpose of all of this religious imagery.  This is a comic novel, very much concerned with humanity and the human experience (down to the very nitty, gritty details of it).  Neither Bloom nor Dedalus is “religious” (though Molly is) and it’s hard to imagine that the Trinity, here, could represent a conjoining of the three of them.  The mysticism that is infused – the moments of “elevation” and speechlessness that Bloom and Dedalus experience- is, perhaps the real point.  The Catholic imagery might be a means-to-an-end, evoked in order to metaphorically explore human potential in creative moments, rather than divine inspiration.

Another important revelation (or reinforcement) from this episode comes from Bloom’s reaction to the physical evidence of Molly and Blazes Boylan’s affair.  His reaction is calm, measured.  He is portrayed as a humanist and a passive anti-hero, accepting of the affair, understanding it as for the most part natural (though he does have momentary thoughts of possible responses, such as divorce).  Whether this reaction, or Bloom as a person in general, should be lauded is hard to say and will likely depend on the reader, but that’s not Joyce’s goal.  Instead, I think Joyce wants to fit as much detail about the world, and especially about human nature, into Ulysses as he can (and, being Joyce, he had to of course up the ante by making this all fit into one 24-hour period).  We learn even more about Bloom in this episode, as we will in the next, and, by the end, there’s hardly anything more we could hope to learn about him (and plenty which we would probably have preferred not to know).

Francesco_Primaticcio_002Penelope: Many readers have described this chapter as being Joycean stream-of-consciousness on steroids.  I think, however, that stream-of-consciousness does not quite describe the kind of narration happening, here.  Yes, we are witnessing Molly’s uninhibited, raw thoughts, but whereas stream-of-consciousness is typically a steady flow of thoughts, one after the other, Molly’s have little flow or patter to them at all.  What we have here is something more akin to word association, where each sleepy thought (Molly is slowly waking up) signals another idea, which Molly’s brain then rambles off on.  There is some slight structure to the episode, such as the bookends of Molly’s specific thoughts about Bloom and also the eight sentences that make up the episode (they are sometimes ten pages long, but they are still “sentences” structurally – separated by line breaks and such).

Speaking of the eight sentences, eight is a number that recurs frequently in this episode.  We learn that Molly was born on September 8, for example, and that Bloom once bought her eight flowers (poppies – significantly).  Her body position, too, curled on her side on the bed, as she is, also recalls the number 8.  This allows for, at least, some symbolic structure to a chapter which is relatively free-flowing (even Molly is probably not very aware of her thoughts).  Also, the number 8, of course, typically works as a stand-in for the lemniscate (“infinity” symbol \infty).  As for its meaning here, that is as yet unclear to me.  My first instinct is that it, like this entire episode, has something to do with womanhood and the “realness” of it (as opposed to what, until this book, was admitted/able to be discussed about womanhood, female sexuality, etc.).

I find it fascinating that Molly’s soliloquy ends a book that has been, for the most part, about Leopold Bloom, her husband.  We know the entire time that Bloom knows that Molly is going to have an affair.  Now, here we are after the fair, with the could-have-been villain of the story, and yet the irony is she becomes, in many ways, the hero – womanhood personified.  Molly is lonely, and sad.  She clearly does not despise her husband; no, she even misses him and wishes he would “return.”  Even while her thoughts drift off, thinking about Boylan, sailors, Narcissus, and boys from her youth, still she always comes back to Bloom.  We learn that she knows how to tease and how to fake an orgasm.  We learn that she is jealous of other women and worries about Bloom cheating on her with other women.  We learn, too, that she has standards – having been deeply offended by the way Boylan so nonchalantly disrobed in front of her, without even asking for permission.

Most importantly, though, we see Bloom from Molly’s perspective and learn even more about him.  We learn that, really, Molly and Bloom both blame themselves for their distance, for their failing relationship.  Molly, though, let’s us in on all of Bloom’s little secrets – his dark and dirty fantasies, the way he sleeps at the foot of the bed to be near her feet, the way he kisses her bottom, how he asked for her underwear, and even that he asked her to add her own milk to his tea, when she was nursing.  What woman would put up with such a man?  Molly does.  Like Bloom, or perhaps even more so than he, Molly is completely accepting of the body.  Bloom seems to sometimes feel guilty or apprehensive about his desires, but Molly represents almost a new Irish woman, one who is aware of her body, her sexuality, her needs and desires, and not ashamed of them.   She also contemplates others’ sexual proclivities and the male body, as well as the female.  She wonders what it would be like to be the man during sex, doing the penetrating.  We get a detailed description of Boylan’s “manhood,” and also of a woman’s menstruation.

Much of this, in today’s literature, would not be shocking (though some of it – such as Bloom’s coprophilia- probably still would be), but for the time, Joyce was breaking ground by allowing such openness, such raw contemplation of the private elements of everyday thoughts and actions.  Who describes a character’s irritated vagina after a period?  Joyce does.  Who describes a character defecating, picking his nose, smelling someone’s bum?  Joyce does.  Nothing about the human experience, it seems, should be closed to discussion or rumination, and “Penelope” drives that point home.

The episode also leaves us with the question of Bloom and Molly.  There are hints, I think, that the dynamic of their relationship may be changing.  We learn at the beginning of the book that Bloom usually caters to Molly, in a masochistic way.  He makes her breakfast in bed every day, with care not to make too much noise so as to disturb here. In this episode, we learn that it is Molly who will be making him breakfast.  There is repeated mention of “eggs,” which is a common symbol of rebirth – could their marriage be on the mend?  Did they need to get beyond the affairs, beyond the jealousy, in order for Bloom to reclaim his space and for Molly to remember (as she does in her winding thoughts) just how much she really does love him?  Molly recalling that moment where she feeds Bloom seedcake from her own mouth, something Bloom had recalled himself earlier in the day, links their desire for reconciliation.  The fact that Molly knows so much about Bloom (and likely vice versa) and yet they remain together and still enjoy tender reminiscences about each other, perhaps tells us that they will manage to fix what’s broken and carry on.  As do her final thoughts before fully waking:

“I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”  (644)


So, that’s it! Ulysses complete! If you are interested in reading my thoughts on the rest of the book, you can find my responses to Episodes 1-6 here, and my responses to Episodes 7-12 here. What did you think of the book? Did you finish? Was this your first time reading it?


Numbers 3-Numbers 17 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Seven: Numbers 3-Numbers 17

How much more wandering in the desert must we put up with? These poor Israelites, no wonder they continue to whine and gripe every few decades. Can you imagine years and years of the nomad lifestyle, in regions of the Middle East where it is nearly impossible to find food and drink? Perhaps it is no wonder that Moses faces a couple of uprisings in this part of their journey, nor that god becomes severely exasperated again with the Israelites griping. Despite a lot of tedious rules and even more tedious moaning and groaning from the people, this part of Numbers also explores important histories, such as the introduction of Caleb and the Judeans, the role of the various tribes within the priesthood (servants, ministers, etc.), and reminders about the superiority (or at least historically retrospective explanations for such) of certain tribes over others, e.g. the fall of the eldest tribe, Reuben.  

Uprisings: Over the course of a forty-year period, Moses and Aaron face two uprisings from the people, most of whom are getting pretty tired of waiting for god (and Moses) to deliver on their promises. The first uprising comes from the tribe Korah and is essentially a religious rebellion. God has favored the Levites and placed them in charge of the church, including anything to do with ministry or the tabernacle. Priests become the most powerful people in the tribe, capable of both forgiving sins and casting judgments, as well as treating the sick, etc. This doesn’t sit well with the Korah people, who feel left out; so they rise up against Aaron but are quickly struck down by god (indeed, god causes the earth to open up and swallow them). The second uprising is a political one, started by the Reubenites. Reuben was the first/eldest tribe and thus would normally hold some kind of honor among the tribes, but as has already been described, they were “prophesied” to fall in stature. Their uprising against Moses and Aaron, here, reflects their attempt to regain stature and some control, perhaps total control, of the tribes. They fail completely and will never rise to prominence again.

Racism, Jealousy, and Pride: One of the seemingly random parts of Numbers occurs in Chapter 12. Miriam and Aaron, though we are to understand it’s probably Miriam, become jealous of Moses’s wife, an Ethiopian woman (Zipporah – Exodus 2:21). We were told earlier that he took for a wife a Cushite/Arabian woman, and here we learn that Miriam, an Israeli woman, finds that problematic. Because of her reaction, which seems borne out of jealousy and pride (that a woman from another culture is wife to the most powerful Israeli leader), god afflicts her with leprosy and forces her out for 7 days. This is an interesting turn of events as, earlier, god had commanded his people not to inter-marry; however, he has also suggested numerous exceptions relating to “strangers” and “ignorance.” In other words, if someone not of the tribe can be taught and is willing to convert, then perhaps an exception can be made. This scenario would certainly apply to Moses’s wife. So, the lesson here must be not to let pride and jealousy control our opinions or actions (after all, god catches them “gossiping”).

Almost to The Promised Land: Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites around for another few decades, and after much disrespect from the Israelites, god essentially promises to make them wander for another forty years before they find a permanent settlement. Naturally, the people get pretty upset about this. While they settle in Kadesh for 38 years, so the people at least have a “homeland” of sorts, they can essentially see “the promised land” is within reach, and yet they cannot get there. One scout from each of the 12 tribes is sent out to explore and to discover if they have indeed reached the “land of milk and honey.” They have come pretty close, but this promised land is already inhabited, and by a powerful tribe; indeed, the people are so powerful they are described as “giants,” next to whom the Israelites seem like “grasshoppers.” Alas, while Joshua and Caleb, the heroes of the northern and southern tribes respectively, argue that the Israelites should push ahead and claim the land, they are overruled, and the promised land remains just out of reach. So close, yet so far away!  


Hell Sheol: In this part of the bible, we see the first iteration of hell, which is called “Sheol.” When god strikes down the Korahs’ uprising, he casts the tribes into a pit. This pit is essentially the early Hebrew understanding of hell. It was not the hell many think of today, with a devil and torturous punishments; instead, it is a joyless nothingness, a dark pit where virtually everyone save for a select few, chosen by god, will go after death.

Ignorance: Among the many laws outlined in this part of Numbers (aren’t we done with those yet?) is another mention of how to treat strangers. This has become a common theme in the last two books of the bible, so we should probably take it seriously as a major philosophical tenant. In this case, god tells his people that the ignorance of strangers will be forgiven because, after all, they could not know any better. An interesting thought to kick around, particularly when we hear people making arguments about who will be “saved” or not (this is often reduced to who is or is not baptized, with “strangers” to Christianity getting the severely short end of the stick).

Heroes: Earlier, we were introduced to Joshua, a military hero from the northern Israeli tribes. In this section of Numbers, we are introduced to the southern tribes’ counter-part, Caleb. He hails from the Judean region, which has an interesting history (and future – including pending civil war), as one of the direct descendants of Israel (Jacob). Caleb and Joshua both wanted to enter the Promised Land and take it from the giants when all other tribes resisted. They lose that argument, but god rewards their faith with honor (a long and powerful succession).   

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was first published by Broadway Books in 2011. I’ve had it on my “to be read” pile for about six years and finally decided to read it as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge because the movie adaptation is releasing this March. The story is set in the United States, in the year 2044. The world is a bleak and dismal place. War, disease, and famine has become a world-wide problem. Economic, social, and government institutions have all but collapsed, and income inequality is at its greatest levels of all-time. Despite these problems, technological advancements have continued and the new ideal world is one called the “OASIS,” a virtual space unlike any we could currently imagine, where people can be whomever they choose. People can meet and get married in the OASIS, children go to school and earn their diplomas through the OASIS. It is a beautiful and powerful opportunity and, as it turns out, also deadly dangerous. When the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving behind an immeasurable fortune plus control of his company, an international, play-to-the-death quest begins. The first person who can solve each riddle and beat each boss, wins it all. Billions of dollars. Total control of the OASIS. But despite years and years of effort by individuals, groups, and corporations, the scoreboard remains empty. Empty, that is, until one lonely, poor, awkward geek named Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, figures out the first test and beats it. Then all hell breaks loose.

Ernest Cline’s style is effective in creating this science-fictionalized, virtual reality cross-over world, where people exist in two places simultaneously, sometimes as themselves but often not. He creates great tension in the idea of this universal split-personality, where everyone is someone else and where people are often only truly honest in the virtual world. The tone, too, is appropriate given the content and topic. Cline writes with a kind of frenetic irreverence that suits the abundance of geeky reference, nerd history, and 1980s pop culture that permeates the narrative. It is crystal clear who this story is about and what kind of audience will be attracted to it, though I don’t think the book will be appreciated only by self-professed geeks like me. This is because the prose itself is engaging, the pace is fast but not overwhelming, and the two worlds being created are delicately balanced and well-treated so that both seem believable, each with its own graces and terrors.

THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. One of the most common and powerful critiques I’ve read from other reviewers about this book is its lack of characterization or problematic issue with stereotyping, and I get it; there might be some problems here. First, though, I want to start with what I think was a great strength for this novel’s characterization: the antagonists. The bad guys. They are so realistically normal, and so realistically evil, in that deeply human way, that I found them horrifying and compelling at the same time. What is the nature of their evil? Greed and a consuming desire for power. That said, some reviewers have pointed out weaknesses in character development, as when Wade Watts, having fallen in love with a girl, realizes that he is overweight and thus commences to get in shape (the process of which is described in just a few sentences so, sure, that’s a bit unrealistic). The rather fanciful and laughably easy weight-loss/fitness process aside, I’m not sure what the primary resistance is to that character’s impulse. How many of us, especially when we were young, tried to modify our appearance to impress a person we were interested in romantically? I appreciate that the “message” isn’t great, but is it unrealistic?

In addition, some have argued that Ready Player One is just another cis-white-het-male fantasy because the protagonist is a white heterosexual male. Do we need more diversity in fictional protagonists? Yes, particularly in the still male-dominated genres of science-fiction and fantasy. That said, I can’t fault a good novel and its interesting-if-flawed hero because of the fact that he is a straight white male. I also appreciated the diversity of his friendships (though, as I will discuss in a moment, reviewers have found plenty to fault there, too).

SPOILER AHEAD. I’ve also read critiques about the way Cline draws some of the diverse characters: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto (OASIS character names for real people). Wade’s best friend in the OASIS is Aech, whose character is a heterosexual male but who, it turns out, is a black lesbian woman in real life. When the two finally meet, Wade is taken aback for a moment, and then they have a good laugh and carry on like the best friends they are. Some have taken issue with the fact that Wade was shocked by Aech’s real gender/race/sexuality, and others have said the character was drawn that way to tic all the “diversity” boxes. I simply didn’t read it that way. To me, seeing a straight white teenage male discover his best friend is a black lesbian woman, and then shrug it off as entirely unimportant, was a welcome and powerful statement, especially in the science-fiction genre which remains heavily heteronormative.

SPOILER AHEAD: There have been complaints, too, about Daito and Shoto being stereotyped by their race. There are a few pages where the two, plus Wade, repeatedly mention the word “honor” as in, was someone’s actions honorable or not. At first glance, I could see how this might come across as racist: you’re drawing Japanese characters and scripting them with cheesy samurai film clichés? But, wait. Daito and Shoto identify as samurai. They talk about honor because they care about honor. I’m not convinced that this is the author being lazy or making a racist mistake in narration or dialogue; to me, it is an expression of what is important to the two characters themselves, and it aligns with their backgrounds and their other actions throughout the novel. (But do Parzival and Art3mis both need to repeat it in the span of a few pages? No, probably not – I hear you, there.)

SPOILER AHEAD: Lastly, I’ve read criticisms about the love-interest, Art3mis, and the development of Wade’s and Art3mis’s relationship. Some have said she “succumbs” too quickly in the end, after rejecting his advances for so long. I’m again on the opposite side of this debate, I guess. The two were the top competitors in a prize that would change not just their own lives, but the entire world. Art3mis took the smart route, which was to focus on the tasks at hand. Wade couldn’t get past his feelings for her. What’s wrong with either of these responses? And who is to say that, once the competition ends, particularly given all that the two go through and all that Wade does for Art3mis, Aech, and the others in the real world, where all of their lives are at risk, the two wouldn’t come together after all?

Ultimately, I do agree that characterization is the weaker element for this novel. I think there’s enough to make us care about Wade’s success and about the fate of his friends, but there are also things that happen too quickly or perhaps go without enough explanation. Wade, too, makes some decisions which leave us wondering whether or not we should be thinking of him as a hero, but as Aristotle suggests, an effective hero is mostly admirable and to be rooted for, but he is not necessarily perfect.

The Huffington Post calls Ready Player One, “The Grown-Up’s Harry Potter.” This isn’t quite right. Although there are some comparisons between the Muggle/Wizarding world and the Real/OASIS worlds, and between the orphaned lives of Harry Potter and Wade Watts, Ready Player One is much more of a realistic science-fiction novel than it is a fantasy. As a child of the 1980s, and a self-confirmed geek, I saw much more of Stranger Things in this novel. It’s a dystopian thriller for contemporary society. And I loved it. Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Ready Player One is Book 3 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

February Checkpoint #TBR2018RBR

Greetings, Challengers!

Congratulations! We have reached the second checkpoint and I am pleased to announce that we have 30+ book reviews linked up in our Mr. Linky widget (below). Nice work! Can we get another 30 this month?

I’m also thrilled to announce the winner of the first Mini-Challenge: Fanda from Fanda Classiclit! Fanda won a book of her choice ($20USD) from The Book Depository. She chose a copy of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, in honor of Dickens’s birthday. Enjoy, Fanda! 

Question of the Month

What are your strategies for staying on top of your reading goals? Do you keep a bullet journal or other kind of planner? Do you aim for a certain number of books per week, per month? Do you just “wing it” and let whatever happens, happen? Tell us your secrets!

My Progress: 3 of 12 Completed / 2 of 12 Reviewed

So far, I’ve read 3 of my 12 required books. At the moment, I’m feeling pretty confident that I will be able to read and review all 14 books on my TBR Pile Challenge list this year! I’m pretty excited about that, although, to be honest, my two year-long projects have been suffering a bit since the semester started in mid-January. I need to stick to my commitment of pacing myself this year so that I can keep up with both of those projects (reading and writing) while also keeping up with my challenge list and other pleasure reading. It’s always a balancing act, isn’t it!?

Books Read So Far:

How are you doing?


Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year.

Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!


Joyce’s Ulysses: Episodes 7-12 #FebBloom

Melissa over at Avid Reader’s Musings is hosting a read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses this month, and I promised to post my reading guides/reactions for anyone who might want another perspective on this difficult read. This post covers Episodes 1-6. If you are reading along or want to join, remember to use #FebBloom for social media.

The Episodes

Book Two, Continued

aeolus2-1027Aeolus: Episode 7 begins around 12pm (noon), in the office building that houses Dublin’s major newspapers. There are two major comparatives between this episode and the corresponding chapter of The Odyssey, as far as I can tell.  The first is a play on the character Aeolus who, in The Odyssey, provided Odysseus with a great gift – the sea winds trapped in a leather satchel, making it easier for Odysseus to get home.  The parallel here is with the “windy,” journalism being parodied in the episode – all these newspapers printing bold headlines but are devoid of any real, meaningful news.  In the second place, a parallel can be drawn between the instance of Odysseus’s men opening the satchel and releasing the winds, which threw them wildly off course just as their ship was coming in sight of home.  In Ulysses, Bloom’s goal (in this episode) is to navigate the demands of Keyes (who is placing an advertisement) and Myles Crawford, Bloom’s boss & editor for the paper.  Bloom comes very near to completing the “quest,” but at the last moment is foiled.

The symbol of keys is reproduced heavily in this episode.  The advertisement Bloom hopes to place is for a man named Keyes, first of all, and that advertisement would be accompanied by Keyes’ logo, which is a symbol of two crossed keys.  Bloom (and Stephen Dedalus) are both keyless, from their first episodes, so the idea of isolated, homeless wanderers is reinforced here in the workplace, too.  It is deepened even more when Bloom is placed in relation to his colleagues, as we saw in the “Hades” episode (there, Bloom was isolated by differences in humor and religion; here, he is literally struck by a door and essentially shoved out of the conversation).

What is a bit ironic, I think, is that half of this episode is devoted to the conversation being had by Stephen, O’Madden Burke, Professor MacHugh, and Crawford, and throughout their chat it becomes clear that they idolize long-dead heroes, people who can do nothing for them, while missing the fact that Bloom, perhaps this story’s epic hero and/or Christ-figure, is standing right in front of them the whole time.  The reader learns in later chapters that Bloom is thought quite highly of by many other people, but his peers dismiss him without second glance – certainly another allusion to the Christ story (worshiped by commoners, vilified by those in power).

Also in this episode are more comparisons between Ireland and “slave nations” of the past.  Ireland is essentially in bondage to England at this point in time, and this relationship is compared to that of Israel’s bondage to Egypt (Professor MacHugh even makes a point about preferring to teach Greek over Latin, the Romans having “conquered” the Greeks, so we get a similar comparison there, too).

unknow artist-728837Lestrygonians: “The Lestrygonians” finds poor Leopold Bloom headed into the National Museum in hopes of avoiding his rival, Blazes Boylan.  In the museum, Bloom finds himself examining the statues of Greek goddesses or, more specifically, their anal details. Ah, Bloom. Ah, Joyce.  The episode begins about 1pm and lasts about an hour.

Before reaching the library, which is where the episode will end, Bloom is wandering through the center of Dublin.  He meets and observes various people along the way, including a Christian Brother, a YMCA youth, a Mrs. Breen, and Dilly Dedalus, Simon Dedalus’s daughter (Stephen’s sister).

The only connection I can find between this episode and The Odyssey is in the scene at the Burton restaurant.  In Homer’s original epic, the Lestrygonians were cannibals, responsible for killing and eating a great deal of Odysseus’s men.  In the Burton restaurant, Bloom describes men eating and drinking in a disgusting, bestial, and primitive way.  He is so offended by their actions that he decides to leave and eat someplace else.

Like the scenes which describe characters urinating, defecating, nose-picking, and other such everyday unspoken activities, this scene and much of the chapter is one of observation.  Bloom is clearly a sharp observer of human activity, and the idea seems to be to reveal the humanity, the “realness” of common events.  These things happen, and they matter – probably one of Joyce’s major themes.

Bloom also thinks about Molly (his wife) and her soon-to-occur affair with Blazes Boylan.  He worries that Boylan might have venereal disease and wonders if he would risk giving it to Molly.  We also learn more about the strain in Leopold and Molly’s relationship, having to do with the death of their son, Rudy.  Apparently, ever since Rudy died, Leopold has not “finished” inside of Molly, preferring coitus interruptus instead.  Perhaps his fear, or hers, or both of theirs, that another pregnancy would result in another dead child?

A couple of recurring symbols also become strengthened.  We know of the “jingle” sound now being meant to signify Boylan & Molly’s affair, but we also have the lemon-scented soap as Bloom’s good luck charm (Odysseus’s moly) and of Boylan’s straw hat and tan shoes which, when described, always signal his presence, even when he is not named explicitly.

My favorite line of the novel thus far (with the line from “Hades” still a close second) occurs in this episode as well:  “Me. And me now.”  The emotion behind this, the sadness and loneliness, is incredible.  It is Bloom’s own way of restating a previous thought, “I was happier then.” What makes it so moving are the glimpses we have now had into Leopold and Molly’s first meetings and romance.

The scene where Bloom recalls Molly feeding him chewed seedcake from her own mouth first struck me as a kind of mother-son psycho-sexual situation; Molly is, after all, the one in charge, at least so it seems from the earlier episodes; but then I thought perhaps this is another way in which Molly’s sexuality, much more overt than Leopold’s, brings Leopold to her level.  He wanders around buying her pornographic books, thinks about hanging pornographic paintings above their bed (for her), all thoughts which likely would not occur to him except in the hopes of pleasing her – why did Molly choose him, someone not clearly passionate or “studly,” if not for the challenge of “awakening” him?  Of course, then one wonders why she is having an affair with the novel’s Don Juan – is this, too, because of Rudy and how her relationship with Bloom has changed since?

I think of most importance in this chapter is that we begin to see common people (Byrne and Flynn, in this episode) who remark upon what a decent guy Bloom is.  This will happen again and again in future episodes.

scylla-and-charybdis-bookpalaceScylla and Charybdis: Here we are at the Dublin National Library, which is where the last episode ended (with Bloom staring at goddesses’ anus’).  The episode begins at 2pm and lasts until 3pm – getting ever closer to the fatal hour.

This was one of the more difficult chapters to read because it  doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with the Ulysses story.  Instead, we find Stephen Dedalus discussing his theories on Shakespeare with a group of academics.  One idea that is reinforced here, though, is that of Stephen’s obsession with paternity.  The father-son thing strikes full-force in Dedalus’s ruminations on Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s ghost(s).

The Scylla and Charybdis connection, too, is hard to find.  In The Odyssey, we know that these are two monsters, Scylla being a six-headed monster and Charybdis being a massive whirlpool.  Homer tells us that Odysseus was forced to pass between the two and, having been advised by Athena, chose to pass by Scylla and sacrifice one man for each of Scylla’s heads (or mouths).  It seems that the set-up, here in Ulysses, is to compare the poet George Russell (A.E.), an Irish nationalist, mystic, and Platonist, with Stephen Dedalus, an Aristotelian – sharp-witted and willing to jab at his interlocutors.  In this comparison, the mystic Russell would surely be Charybdis, the whirlpool, and the cutting/biting Dedalus would have to be Scylla.

Alternatively, though, it is also true that Dedalus finds himself, throughout his lecture on Shakespeare, opposed by six forces – which would make Dedalus not Scylla, but the hero, Odysseus who, as in the Homeric epic, chose to navigate toward the six-headed monster.  In this case, the six foes to “satisfy” would be Lyster, Russell, Best, Eglinton, Mulligan and, oddly enough, himself (Stephen Dedalus).  Dedalus is clearly his own foe, as he is asked near the end whether or not he even believes his own theories about Shakespeare, and he must admit – no, he does not.  What this chapter does for Dedalus is, I think, what the previous episode did for Bloom – reinforce the fact that Stephen is an outsider, one who thinks and feels differently from his peers.

What I loved about this episode were two things:  First, the experiment with “composition of place,” which is a rhetorical technique used by orators (most notably, as Dedalus points out, the Jesuit St. Ignatius Loyola) to help the audience imagine a physical picture of what is being described by the speaker.  It was fun to witness Dedalus’s thoughts as he prepared to lead his audience any which way.

Also, I loved the debate between those who believed Shakespeare’s life and biography should be kept separate from the interpretations of his work, versus those, mainly Stephen, who feel the “man” Shakespeare, and all his history, played a significant part in crafting the plays & sonnets, and should therefore be considered in discussion.  As one who lives in the academic world, I can say this is still an ongoing debate with two staunch campus – those who feel a text should be read as text and only text, and those who feel that author and history should accompany any study of a text.  The debate, here, leads Stephen to analyze Hamlet as a psychosexual drama, well before it became popular (as it has been for some time) do so.  It also reminds us of the theme of dispossession, which is clear in Hamlet but also, again, in Stephen and Bloom.

Finally, I begin to wonder about Mulligan’s sexuality – is he homosexual, perhaps?  A quick search reveals that many critics seem to think so, and many others do not.  And, of course, there are those who think it doesn’t matter in the slightest.  I find it curious that Mulligan remained conspicuously silent during the discussion of Wilde and Shakespeare and male love.  Normally, Mulligan has something to say about everything.  What’s more, however, is the fact that he seems obsessed with Bloom’s sexuality – warning Stephen Dedalus that Bloom is “Greeker than the Greeks” (165) and is likely lusting after Stephen (179).  Perhaps the lady doth protest too much?

8zxoxq57mgwbmez32lfzr5iu9Wandering Rocks: Now, this was a fun chapter.  It is an interlude of sorts, coming after the first 9 episodes and before the remaining 9 episodes.  So, Ulysses itself consists of 18 episodes and this chapter also has 18 very short episodes with a coda – a mini-odyssey, almost Chaucerian, in its own right.  It begins just before 3pm and ends at 4pm, and within it are descriptions of various characters meandering about the streets of Dublin.  In The Odyssey, Odysseus was given a choice, by Circe, to sail either through the moving rocks or to pass by Scylla and Charybdis.  Odysseus knew that the only hero to have ever made it through the wandering rocks unscathed was Jason of the Argonauts, so he chose the other route.  To read Ulysses, though, we must go through Scylla and Charybdis and the wandering rocks – the significance?  Possibly Joyce just having fun at our expense.

While each of the short vignettes is interesting, what I find most-fascinating are the two which bookend the chapter.  These two bring a kind of balance to the whole chapter and remind the reader that Joyce, as an Irishman, is concerned with two oppressors: The Roman Catholic Church (Father Conmee, S.J. – vignette #1) and Great Britain (William Humble, earl of Dudley, G.C.V.O. – vignette #18).  Ireland is at the mercy of religious and political powers not its own.  Another piece to look at is vignette #10, which would be the middle (interlude) of the chapter which is the middle (interlude) of the book.  In this vignette, we find Bloom buying a pornographic book (Sweets of Sin) for his wife Molly.  Thus, at the center of the entire story is what?  Sex, Romance, Love, Marriage, Betrayal – a man trying to please his wife.

The “movement” or “wandering” of this chapter seems to come in two forms.  First, the obvious movement of the various characters who are being described throughout this episode, as a panoramic of Dublin.  Second, though, are all the little misdirections Joyce lays out for his reader.  I’m sure I didn’t catch all (or even most?) of these traps, but some I found include the fact that we are told twice Father Conmee is walking through Clongowes’ playing fields – was he walking in circles?  No! He is actually remembering Clongowes’ playing fields, not actually walking through them in real-time.  Then, there is also the funny little episode with Boylan’s secretary and the Wilkie Collins novel, The Woman in White.  She makes the mistake (Freudian Slip?) of wondering whether Boylan is in love with “that Marion,” meaning Marian Halcombe of the book (those who have read Woman in White probably caught this) but instead saying Marion, which is Molly Bloom’s real first name.

There are other moments of ambiguity, too, such as when Lamppost Farrell bumps into the blind lad, who then calls Farrell blinder than himself, and also the “Dentist Bloom” who is mentioned in passing, but who is not our Bloom.  In addition, there are rather funny juxtapositions of events or situations which lead to an expression of a rather sardonic nature.  Take, for instance, the moment when Father Conmee, engaged in deeply religious thoughts, stumbles across a young couple who just finished making love.  The horse game, and the mistaken “Throwaway” comes up in conversation just as Bloom arrives to find a book for Molly.  And, finally, though I’m sure I’m missing some, there is the song “The Croppy Boy,” which is an anti-British Irish ballad, but it is being sung as Kernan eagerly runs to see the royal cavalcade.  Joyce certainly gets two thumbs up for accurate (and entertaining) use of irony!

In this chapter and in the next, we witness a great deal of sentimentality and compassion.  Joyce, though, for some reason (perhaps being a naturalist?) ends this episode and the next one with antitheses to the sentimentality which pervaded the episodes right up until their endings.  Here, he does this by ending the chapter with Patrick Dignam, son of the dead Dignam whose funeral accounted for the first few episodes of the book.  Rather than displaying young Patrick as sad, in mourning, etc., we see a boy whose primary concerns are the vacation time he will get from school and the popularity (or attention) he’ll have upon returning, thanks to his dear old Dad’s having kicked the bucket.

pic9The Sirens: This chapter begins about 3:30pm and lasts about one hour, ending around 4:30pm.  It is the fateful hour to which the first half of the book has been leading. The Sirens is probably one of the most popular/well-known episodes from The Odyssey – even those who haven’t read the poem are likely familiar with the dangers of “the siren song.”  Here, the sirens include three women, two are barmaids and one is a prostitute.  None of them holds much power, though, and their relationship to the original sirens seems tenuous at best.  Bloom does evade all three, though, whereas other men of this episode are perfectly happy to be enticed by them, so there’s certainly that parallel.

The larger theme, though, and possibly the real connection to Homer’s epic might be music itself.  In The Odyssey, the Sirens did not have physical power over anyone – it was their song, their music, so beautiful and captivating, which held all the strength.  Here, too, the power of the episode is in its musicality.  Joyce begins the episode with a composition of themes – 57 of them, it seems- which are then recalled throughout the score.  The episode itself is difficult to follow because not much is said explicitly; instead, each line from the original outline corresponds to an action in the episode, which in turn has a larger meaning or significance.

There are also two songs explicitly sung in this chapter, the first of which is from an opera, Martha and the second of which is a song we are already familiar with from the previous chapter, “The Croppy Boy.”  Each of these songs is significant to Bloom’s situation.  The opera is a story of love gone wrong – a young man loses his mind over a woman, only to regain his senses when he marries her in the end. While Stephen Dedalus is singing this song, Bloom realizes that he is still in love with his wife, Molly, and he writes a “blotted” letter (perhaps the final one?) to his sort-of mistress-by-mail, Martha Clifford (who is certainly alluded to by the singing of said opera, Martha).  This would make the hero of that opera, Lionel, Leopold Bloom – but Leopold is not going mad over Martha, he is instead losing Molly, and himself because of it.

So, it seems Bloom might be destined to lose his two ladies.  Near the end of the episode, we see “one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer,” and this is “Bloom alone.”  Throughout the episode, we have heard the jingle jangle of Boylan’s carriage drawing toward Molly Bloom, and Leopold in a way hears it, too (or imagines it – as he knows the affair is about to take place).  Bloom in fact followed Boylan into the hotel where the singing, and all the action, takes place, but he makes sure to hide in the back, basically alone (with another outcast, actually – Stephen Dedalus’s “Uncle Richie” whom Stephen’s father holds in such contempt).  Thus, Bloom creates for himself the very situation which causes him his greatest pain – witnessing another man prepare, and go, to sleep with his wife.

At the very end of this episode, Bloom finds himself with an upset stomach, from the food or the alcohol.  He leaves and while walking passes by an antique store where a picture of Robert Emmet, a martyred Irish nationalist and orator, hangs, with the lines: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”  Bloom reads this, passing gas throughout, and ends the episode with one long, loud, fart, followed by the word “done.”  Brilliant and hilarious.  Another episode ripe with sentimentality “blown” apart by comic relief.  The point?  Possibly that real emotion, raw as it might seem, is preferable to long-winded pomp and circumstance.

Cyclops: Episode 12 begins around 5pm, in Barney Kiernan’s pub. This pub is metaphorically the Cyclops’s cave from Homer’s Odyssey, and there is a character in this episode, known only as “The Citizen,” who is Joyce’s model for The Cyclops.  This episode is one of the most explicitly similar to Homer’s epic, so far.

The episode is littered with references to long, cylindrical, sometimes sharp and/or heated objects, which recalls the stave which Odysseus used to blind Polyphemus, the cyclops (and which was burning hot, from the fire).  Some of the objects that appear are a cigar (which Bloom burns himself on), a long, thin ear-trumpet, and the handle of a street cleaner’s broom (which almost blinds the chapter’s narrator).  These objects are also rather phallic in nature, so there’s certainly something to be made of that as well, particularly when juxtaposed with Bloom’s scientific explanation for why hanged men often sprout erections (and sometimes ejaculate).

One also must wonder if the idea of “blindness” goes beyond just the link to Homer’s poem.  In this episode, we meet the anarchistic “Citizen” (another parallel to Polyphemus, actually, as he too was an anarchist), and other drunken guests, all of whom seem to have a rather narrow, bigoted view of the world.  We witness something new in Bloom during this episode – he actually stands up for himself and “his people,” in opposition to the racist “Citizen.”  The allusions to blindness, then, might be indicative of a metaphorical mental or political blindness – a simpleness of thought.  Incidentally, The Citizen is even further paralleled with Polyphemus at the end of this episode, when he throws a biscuit tin at Bloom, just as Polyphemus threw a boulder at Odysseus’s ship.  So, as I said, the relationship between Joyce and Homer in this episode are particularly explicit.

Some other interesting things to note are that Bloom twice refuses alcohol, apparently well aware of his own limits.  Also, the narrator at one point is describing his own urination, which given the description tells us that he has syphilis – why we need to know that is not quite clear, except that it fits with the types of characters in this bar as well as the overall mood of this setting – violent, dark, filled with hatred and confrontation.  A cyclops’ natural lair?

One of my questions about Bloom is also answered in this episode.  Sort of.  Throughout the book, he seems to be aware that Blazes Boylan and his wife are going to sleep together around 4:30pm.  I kept wondering why, then, he doesn’t just go home and prevent it?  We learn here, though, that he is going to visit the Dignam family, to pay his respects for their loss.  This is, I think, supposed to be another “positive” characteristic – a type of Christlike sacrifice, but, to me, it doesn’t quite work.  Unless, of course, Bloom doesn’t actually mind that his wife sleeps with other men?  Some issues arise later which make that seem possible.

So, there are my thoughts on the middle 1/3 of the book. What are your thoughts so far? Have you gotten as deep into the book as you hoped by this point? Did I miss anything that you found interesting/important/funny, etc? You can also find my thoughts on Episodes 1-6 here

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and articulate essay that was adapted from the author’s December 2012 TEDx Talk. It serves as both a personal investigation and interpretation of what it means to be a woman today, but also a call to action for men and women around the world, all of whom, in Adichie’s opinion, should favor and support feminism.

The essay revolves around a single question: “What does feminism mean today?” It is developed out of an earlier TEDx talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” which recounts the risks of succumbing to or perpetuating stereotypes. The expansion is logical because, as Adichie suggests, the word “feminism” has been damagingly stereotyped over many years and by many groups, some of whom simply respond to the word without knowing what it means and others of whom are fully aware, and know better, but attack the idea because it is an assault against their own privileged place in society.

What I found truly compelling about this reflection on feminism is that it is steeped in the culture and society of Nigeria, a country that still rigidly clings to the concepts of “gender roles.” Adichie provides a number of anecdotes that illustrate just how deeply rooted are these stereotypes and prejudices, such as the fact that restaurant hosts and servers will refuse to acknowledge a female customer if a man is with her, even if she is paying, because women are not supposed to have money and if they do, it must have been provided by the male (and never mind the idea that a woman might go out to a bar or club without a male chaperone). These examples might ring hyperbolic in the United States, but the reality is that this was our cultural response to gender not very long ago, as it was in Europe. The evidence that many countries are still oppressed by such stereotypes is a prescient reminder that our own society’s rules are new and thus relatively insecure, but also that we too still have far to go in seeking gender equity right here.

An interesting point that Adichie makes throughout the essay is that the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage” (11). She explains how pervasively peoples’ negative attitudes about feminism (or feminists) have spread, so much so that those prejudices often dominate the conversation and deny us room for reasoned discussion. How can we have a conversation about gender equality with someone who “turns off” at the first mention of just one word? It might be helpful to come up with a new phrase to help jumpstart and re-appropriate the conversation, bringing it back to a simple discussion about equity rather than the deafening, emotionally fueled debates about “man hating” and “angry women,” sort of like turning the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” when it became clear that people easily conflated “warming” with weather and thus misunderstood the complexity of the systems involved and because it became apparent that people who wanted to mislead others about the topic could undermine the facts of the argument by making the word/situation seem ridiculous (“Oh, look at all that snow, we could sure use some global warming!”).

But feminism is what it is: a belief that men and women should be treated equally in all elements of society, economics, politics, etc. When taken this way, as Adichie suggests, few people think of this as a radical concept. So, how do we move past the word? Adichie believes that it has to start with all of us:

“I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently” (25).  

In other words, we need to take responsibility for the way that we see the world and perpetuate its injustices; we need to teach our children the benefit of seeing and being and creating a world that is better.

Adichie is clear that this means men and women must be equal partners in creating change, and that is in large part because anti-feminism hurts men, too. It oppresses men by prescribing their roles, too. Men cannot be free to be themselves, to truly think, act, and respond the way that they want to, if they are being conditioned to respond, always, in the “masculine role.” If a man is sad, why shouldn’t he cry? And why is that considered “un-masculine”? If a man loves his spouse or children or pets, why shouldn’t he express it? And why is doing so often considered “un-manly”? If a man finds relaxation in cooking or cleaning, why shouldn’t he do these things?

And the same goes for women. Feminism does not tell women not to enjoy cleaning the house, sewing clothes, or making crafts. It simply tells men and women to be who they are, regardless. Imagine the stress and anxiety that would be relieved and the freedom that would come to all of us if we weren’t being forced into predetermined roles that supposedly guide our every single response and our every single interest or ability.

“We teach girls shame,” Adichie writes. “We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something” (33). Likewise, we teach boys to be in control and to crave competition, but we teach girls to be conciliatory and to apologize for having opinions. But “what if . . . we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender” (36). For Adichie, it is clear that this is all feminism asks of us: allow a person to be him/herself. Teach everything we can, so that our children can learn and try everything they want, and then let them decide what to do and how to act from all available knowledge, opportunity, and experience. Personally, I think that’s a world worth building.

Ultimately, I found Why We Should All Be Feminists thoughtful, relevant, and relatable. Although it is based on an oral lecture, it reads well as a written piece. Despite repeating some of the typical supportive arguments about feminism, Adichie adds crucial context by relaying her personal experiences as a woman and a Nigerian. I read this one in close succession to Reni Eddo-Lode’s Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, which also deals with issues of intersectional feminism (as well as structural racism) but in the United Kingdom. I think the fact that these conversations about race and gender are happening on such a large scale, and happening all over the world, is promising.

Leviticus 14-Numbers 2 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Six: Leviticus 14-Numbers 2

99% of what happens in this part of the bible is simply a listing (and re-listing, and then some rephrasing, plus more reminders, and then some emphasis of the same) of rules, laws, and commandments. There is a whole lot of repetition, possibly because the priests are working from multiple source documents and possibly because they think the important rules really bear that much repeating. Who knows? There are also subtle differences in the way the repetition occurs. For example, the first occurrences tend to be simply lists of laws; then, the second occurrences are reminders of the laws plus what happens when someone breaks a particular law (Death? Ostracizing?). Finally, there are a couple of chapters that reiterate the most important of all the laws, which is to say the commandments, with a last segment reminding the people that, hey, if they cannot get their society to follow through, god will abandon them all, make them weak, turn them into cannibals, and other neat and interesting punishments. I’m all for listing as a rhetorical device, but some of these books are just out of control. 

Molech: Why does this name sound familiar? Ah, yes, MOLOCH! “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (Ginsberg, Howl, 1955-56). Anyhow, in the biblical story, Molech isn’t a demonic personification of capitalism. God is pretty clear about this Molech dude. Who is he? It seems he was a particular pagan god, one who required the most personal and difficult sacrifices from his followers: their children. So, when god commands his people not to spill their seed for Molech, he is telling them to cut it out with the child sacrifice, already. Some folks listened, some didn’t. The priests who wrote this section were probably concerned about misunderstandings about the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. Perhaps people, especially new converts to monotheism, used the story of Abraham to justify their continued practice of this ridiculous ritual. The Israeli priests, however, make it clear multiple times in this book that the point was Abraham’s willingness to obey god; after all, the sacrifice never actually happened. God intervened at just the right moment to save Isaac’s life. Burning children at the stake? No good. (But witches and wizards, on the other hand… hop to it!)

Troublesome Laws: This second half of Leviticus continues with its list of laws, rules, and commandments. Some of them are guidelines for the priests, including how to “treat” leprosy and other ailments (the treatments for which sound a lot like witchcraft, which is ironic, considering). There are also a lot of rules regarding fasting, keeping various Sabbaths, treatment of strangers and debtors, etc. Some of the most recognizable are the ones we still talk about today, though, like Leviticus 18:4 & 20:13 which forbid man from laying “with mankind as with womankind.” This is often cited, along with the passages from Genesis’s story of the angels in Sodom, as proof that god forbids homosexuality. I read it differently, though. In the case of Genesis, the violation seemed to be against an ancient custom that protected house guests. In this case, my reading suggests this is less about homosexual relationships than it is about disrupting gender normatives. For man to submit as if he were a woman seems much more in line with other gender rules and customs outlined in the Old Testament. In other words, I see nothing about same-sex love or relationships per se, and instead see a law that reinforces patriarchal social systems. This section also deals with that law that bans wearing clothes of mixed fabrics (Lev 19:19), shaving one’s head, carving one’s skin (tattoos), killing witches, and others which have been largely abandoned. Some that continue to be treated as moral misdeeds include: incest, bestiality, bigamy (or at least the kind that deals with holding relationships with members of the same family simultaneously), and sacrificing children.

Strangers, Debtors, and Neighbors: Some of my favorite philosophies from the bible are reiterated in Leviticus. They coincide with many of the primary moral and ethical laws reflected by the Ten Commandments (which are retold/rephrased multiple times in this section). These include “love thy neighbor as thyself” and do not hold grudges (Lev 19:18), loving strangers as thyself (Lev 19:33-34), and acting charitably to all, including servants, debtors, and the poor. Leviticus 19:10 explains that at each harvest, a portion is to be left to the poor, and the customs of the 50-year Jubilee explain that debtors are to be regularly forgiven and society “refreshed” twice every century. What a thought!


Papa Priests: In this part of the bible, which essentially is written by and for priests, we see regular references to priests’ children. This means they have families. So, what is it with the Catholic law requiring priests be celibate and single?

Scapegoats: The origin of “the scapegoat” is reveled in Lev 16:26. Essentially, two goats are brought to temple for sacrifice. One is actually sacrificed, while the other, the “escaped goat” is returned to Azazel, the demon of the wilderness. Essentially, the goat that escapes is the one that takes man’s misdeeds with him back to the origin of sin, where they belong.

Culture-Building: Much of what happens in Leviticus is more evidence that the priests are outlining rules for establishing a clear and separate culture. These laws about what to wear, what to eat, when to worship, when to relax, and how to care for one’s self (e.g. avoiding tattoos, avoiding shaving one’s hair) reflect opposition to other cultures’ traditions. The Egyptians, for example, did often shave their heads and “curve” their beards. Other nearby people marked their skin with tattoos, cuts, and piercings. Like circumcision and other traditions, choosing not to do these things is an active way to create societal customs for themselves and their descendants.