by Alexandra Romanoff
Episode 8 of James Joyce‘s Ulysses follows the windy, talk-heavy Aeolus episode with a lunchtime meditation on the physical, notably food and sex. It parallels the encounter with the Laestrygonians in The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his crew meet a community of cannibals who decimate their numbers. The episode plays throughout off of The Odyssey’s notion of consumption as greedy, violent and repulsive. Bloom spends much of the episode obsessed with thoughts of power and potency, considering the ways in which the body takes in and expends energy. His quasi-scientific focus is particularly striking and often touching as he attempts to justify his response to the world around him with references to more rigorous reasoning.
In The Odyssey, the crew is greeted by the daughter of the Laestrygonian king who brings them in to see her father—and it is he who begins the feeding frenzy, violating every law of guest friendship by making his visitors his lunch. Cannibalism of this sort is carnivorous appetite taken to its most violent and discomfiting extremes; while no one in Joyce’s Dublin is attempting to literally consume Bloom, he begins to see the consumptive act generally in the same light. Aside from the literal trouble with eating, he is perhaps also more generally threatened in this chapter by the forces he cannot control. The Laestrygonian king might parallel Blazes Boylan, the man on his way to Bloom’s house to sleep with Bloom’s wife and so in some sense dethrone him. The only Laestrygonians who do not participate in the cannibalistic act are queen and princess, and so women become something of a safe haven for already-feminized Bloom; he sympathizes with their troubles instead of being by turns afraid and disgusted as he with most men he meets here.
The episode begins with Bloom being handed a throwaway advertising a talk to be given at the Y.M.C.A. He glances down at it, sees the letters Bloo- and mistakes them for his own name: “Me? No. Blood of the Lamb” (8.8-9). This halting interpretive process introduces us to the technique of the chapter, which is peristalsis, the rhythmic motion by which food is forced through the alimentary canal. It stops and starts, the meaning changing as he reads, just as food will be transformed from recognizable and appetizing into undifferentiated shit as it passes through the body. Further, the blood of the lamb, an explicit reference to Christ, is thought to be transformative: it is after all Jesus who, in dying for our sins, offered humanity the chance at salvation.
The trouble here is that Bloom is a Jew: “I’d like to see them do the black fast Yom Kippur,” he thinks, moments later, on the greed of priests (8.35-6). He is removed from these cultural rituals, unwashed in the blood of the lamb: the throwaway contains neither himself nor the possibility of salvation. He tosses it to the sea, notes that even the gulls are not interested by it—there is no nourishment to be had here.
The sense of halting thought and displaced self also permeate Bloom’s consideration of Blazes Boylan, his wife’s lover. Bloom never names the man in his thoughts, calling him simply “he,” and, later, when he catches a glimpse of Boylan in the streets, mentioning only the colors of his hat and shoes. The process of digestion is all about displacement, moving food through the body in order to extract nourishment from it and then expel what is not useful. Bloom in some sense refuses this process, banishing Boylan’s name from his mind, choking it back out every time it surfaces. “Think no more about that,” he commands himself (8.108-9).
Much of the episode is spent on his considerations of what and how we ought to consume: Bloom notes constantly what is being eaten or purchased by others, wondering always at what is proper or correct. This comes to a head when he enters the Burton restaurant, flush with tender lust after a lengthy consideration of lush, sensual images and happier moments in his marriage. The violent physicality of the place shocks him: instead of the silk stockings, exotic spices and warm wife he has been imagining, he finds “men, men, men” (8.653). They are “swilling, wolfing gobfulls of sloppy food,” spilling everywhere, picking their teeth, spitting out gristle, animals eating animals, feral (8.655).
Bloom is often feminized: he is introduced while in the process of making himself and his wife some breakfast while she lazes upstairs, still sleeping. Here, however, he finds himself in the world of men, each one bolting his food as if famished. He is disgusted by it, the physical process performed without regard for its implications. Bloom remarks throughout the chapter on the various physic uses of food: “hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline,” or, later “kosher…hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside” (8.729, 751-2). He wants consumption to be symbolic, somehow less distressingly physical, approved by science or religion. Further, he once again brings up the Yom Kippur fast, a holiday which insists on the connection between our physical and spiritual status. Bloom ends up leaving Burton and ordering himself a vegetarian lunch at Davy Byrne’s, a “moral pub” (8.732).
This is all curious because the first thing we learn about Bloom is that he is an enthusiastic carnivore: “Mr. Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” episode four begins (4.1-2). He starts off his day with a pork kidney for breakfast; now, however, the very idea of meat repulses him. This is perhaps because of the connections he makes between food and sex—the heady sensuality of both acts rendered base both by their physicality but also their disconnection from a hierarchical governing order. The cannibalism of the Laestrygonians sees humans simply as another type of edible animal, refusing them any special status as thinking or ensouled and thus meant to be spared.
Interspersed throughout the chapter are Bloom’s questions about parallax, an apparent displacement or shift in perspective—it is a term taken from astronomy but also applicable to the literary technique used throughout Ulysses. The stream of consciousness narration allows Joyce to slip from one subject to another, eliding and relating any number of different topics; there are moments in which he moves from the thoughts of one character to another without any explicit mention of the change. The narrative ground of Ulysses is never solid: the reader is always slightly disoriented. Bloom craves order: he wants to understand the world scientifically. He is adrift and uncertain in shiftless modern Dublin, repulsed by its heedlessness, again isolated and displaced from all that surrounds him.
The original agent of his displacement is, of course, his wife Molly. He wanders so as to avoid being home when her lover arrives: the ordered household, man and wife, is dismantled by this third element. Instead, Bloom recalls the happier moments of their early marriage, piecing together explicitly for the first time a chronology of that relationship. “Twentyeight I was,” he thinks, “she twentythree. When we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy” (8.608-10). The stillbirth of their son has since stood between them, marital intimacy impossible in the intervening years. The act of giving birth, like that of digestion, is peristaltic, muscular contractions pressing down and out. The stalling of that process has stalled out Bloom’s marriage, his life: he is stuck, halting, unable to produce, unable to absorb. He thinks briefly about the pains and indignities of labor and birth, the mystery of what women go through.
The female body is nonetheless always tempting for Bloom. He craves both the physical contact but also the tender reassurance of sex with his wife: youth and hope and happiness are there for him, best expressed in his fond remembrance of a dalliance in a field, years ago. “Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed,” he says, “mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsours of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy” (8.907-8). The idea that would perhaps now disgust him, half-chewed food passed between lips like pre-digested cud, seemed them intimate and sweet, almost communicative, her mouth presenting his a mumbled offering. It isn’t that Bloom mistrusts either sex or food per se; the contexts of the episode, however, make them repellant to his sensibility.
That context is a particularly masculine one: he cannot eat or love in a lunchroom full of men, and he cannot return home because he has been displaced from his bedroom by another man. Bloom, over and above his personal feminine tendencies, displays throughout the episode a sympathy with female troubles, their physical discomfort making him tender rather than repulsing him. He dwells on the lengthy labor of a woman named Mina Purefoy and the fact that there are no public restrooms for women in Dublin. As in Odysseus’ encounter with the Laestrygonians, women present a sort of safe space: they will not necessarily save you, but they will not attempt to consume you, either.
Bloom finally takes refuge in the museum, though even there he cannot escape the pressing physicality of the world: he intends to go partially to discover whether the nether regions of nude female statues are anatomically correct. Either civilization has accepted these two biological processes, sex and digestion encoded in even the most sophisticated and refined forms of culture, or it has been degraded by them, the Greeks too a nasty, lusty people.
In the land of the Laestrygonians, two women lead the Greeks to their death, but it is a man, the king, who begins the orgy of consumption that will wipe out all but the men on Odysseus’ own ship. The women, then, are deceitful but not lustful or gluttonous: wife and daughter will lead you into darkness so that the husband, the king can swallow you whole. Odysseus and his men avoid this fate by canny planning: they moor their ship not in the main harbor but to a steep cliff, essentially hidden. Odysseus is often saved by his cunning and self-restraint, seeking out the smart way rather than following the path of least resistance. Bloom would like to be like Odysseus, the crafty planner among the cannibals, powerful not because of his gigantic stature but for his foresight and understanding.
Just before the episode ends, Bloom helps a blind stripling across the street, an act of compassion that once again associates him with Jesus. However, where before the relationship was denied (“Me? No. Blood of the Lamb.”), it is here allowed, the interaction pleasant and brief (8.8-9). Bloom considers what life would be like, blind, the loss of one sense enhancing the function of the others. He wonders at how color might be experienced by a blind man, what it would be like to make love to a woman he couldn’t see. This moment of connection, however, is then denied when Bloom catches a glimpse of Blazes Boylan out walking. The calm of his vegetarian lunch, the moment of compassionate aid is destroyed and Bloom is once again halting, his thoughts stuttered. He distracts himself, going through his pockets, pretending to purpose, finding, eventually, the little scented soap he purchased earlier in the day.
Bloom arrives at the of the museum just as his hand finds the soap: “ah soap there I yes. Gate. Safe!” (8.1192-3). He is protected by hygiene and culture, the world ordered for him, however briefly. He is not kingly Odysseus but at least he is no longer among the Laestrygonians: for the moment, all is clean and quiet and safe, the difficult, profane world kept at bay by the museum gates.
Joyce, James. Ulysses, The Gabler Edition. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 1986.
All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style: