Actualization of Mythos in James Joyce’s Ulysses: Leopold Bloom’s Metamorphoses

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-12


Fritz Senn refers to Ulysses as James Joyce’s Metamorphoses and suggests that the novel is of panto-mimic nature as it imitates everything. As Molly Bloom also remarks, her husband is “...always imitating everybody...” [Senn, 1985: 122-123]. Hugh Kenner makes the assumption clearer by stating the following: “Bloom is no imitation Ulysses but Ulysses reborn” [Kenner 1987: 29]. Kenner's viewpoint  reminds the reader of Mircea Eliade’s statement in regard to the concept of the ritual. As Eliade observes, the religious activities entrenched among the primitive and archaic societies serve to memorialize and engrave the primordial event in one’s memory. The ritual plays the decisive part in order not to forget the sacred event, which took place prior to the recorded history. In archaic cultures, the real sin is oblivion. “Every religious festival… represents the reactualization of a sacred event that took place in a mythical past, “in the beginning” ” [Eliade, 1987: 68-69]. The sacred ceremony aims not only to imitate but to bring a mythical event into existence, that is called, as Eliade puts it, reactualization of mythos. Thus, the reading of Ulysses can be considered, to a certain extent, as a ritual bringing the literary ancestors of the novel into existence and congregating countless biblical and mythological characters or historical figures.

While discussing the Homeric parallels in the essay “Book of Many Turns”, Fritz Senn accentuates the well-known opening line and the first noun of Odyssey:

ándra moi énnepe, moûsa, polýtropon, hòs mála pollà”[1]

“Andra” - “Man” is placed first in Homer’s epic poem. As Senn suggests, Homer introduces the central figure of the poem from the very beginning that can not be unnoticed by Joyce. The importance of the placement of the accusative noun is not disregarded in the remarkable translation of Odyssey by Alexander Pope: “The man for wisdom's various arts renown'd, long exercised in woes”. The defining adjective corresponding to “Man” is also of great importance. The definition of the epithet – “polýtropos” - is vague and of many potential meanings: wary, shifty, of many changes, manifold, various, etc. However, literally, it can be defined as “much turned”, “of many turns”. Hence, Homer describes Odysseus as a man much traveled, many-sided, and versatile. According to Senn, the ambivalent quality and various meanings of the Greek word are also reflected in Ulysses and the collocation, “ándra polýtropon”, may have been the subject of interest and source of inspiration for James Joyce. It is notable that in 1915 Joyce referred to his novel as “Ulysses Wandlungen” (“Wandlungen” – to change, transformation) in the postcard written in German addressed to his brother Stanislaus. Senn assumes that Joyce probably wanted to write “Wanderungen” (wanderings) but he confused two German words into each other, or he just played with words, as the verb “Wandeln” in German means both “to wander” and “to change”. The coupling of “Man” and versatility became one of the main motifs of Ulysses: “Ulysses Wanderungen” happens to be an excellent summing up of the novel and also of the two main meanings of Homer’s adjective, stressing the hero’s travels as well as his versatility” [Senn, 1985: 127-128].

Multiple distinct examples of Bloom’s metamorphoses are especially congregated in the episodes 14 and 15 (“Oxen of the Sun” and “Circe”). In “Oxen of the Sun”, Joyce represents the development of the English language and composes a parody of 32 stylistic variations of literary writing.[2] Joyce’s technique of language style imitation determines the identity of the characters. Wolfgang Iser rightly notes: “The determinant pressure exerted by this style is so great that advertising agent Leopold Bloom suddenly becomes the medieval “traveller Leopold” [Iser, 1985: 197]. The several excerpts from the episode serve as examples of how Bloom turns into a variety of identities. Imitating Anglo-Saxon abbot and translator, Aelfric of Eynsham, Joyce informs the reader that Bloom visits the maternity hospital in order to verify Mrs. Purefoy’s condition: “Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor at night’s oncoming. Of Israel’s folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared” [Joyce, 1946: 364]. Bloom turns into The traveller Leopold” [365], and also “Childe Leopold” [366] in the passage composed with the style borrowed from medieval travel stories. Afterward, by imitating Arthurian legends he becomes “Sir Leopold” [366]. The stylistic idiosyncrasy of the next lines reminds the reader of the 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s writings and the reader is encountered with Mr. Bloom: “To revert to Mr Bloom…” [384]. The excerpt composed with the manner characteristic for the essayist Charles Lamb represents contemplated Bloom, chewing the cud of reminiscence” [389], who meditates on his past and recalls young version of himself in the present moment: “He is young Leopold” [389]. Furthermore, by using stylistic characteristics of the British historian and essayist, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Joyce, as if he was a chronicler, elaborately describes Bloom: “that vigilant wanderer, soiled by the dust of travel and combat and stained by the mire of an indelible dishonour” [Joyce, 1946: 394]. At the end of the episode, by using dialects and slang, Leopold becomes “Old man Leo” [402].

The reader observes the series of Bloom’s transformations in the nighttown described in the 15th chapter. The faint light of road lamps and blaze of searchlights piercing the darkness, rattling of the cyclists’ bells, violent cracking of the brake, banging voice of the gong – all these details serve to create the chaotic and hallucinatory atmosphere of the episode. Leopold Bloom becomes a policeman [410]. He pretends to be Dr. Bloom, a dental surgeon, and also author-journalist [427-429]. His personal identity card says he is Henry Flower [427]. Bloom is a mason (“…plucking at his heart and lifting his right forearm on the square, he gives the sign and dueguard of fellowcraft” [428]). In defense of Bloom, J.J O’Molloy refers to him as an infant (“My client is an infant” [434]). Furthermore, Leopold confuses himself with his wife: “I am the daughter of a most distinguished commander… Majorgeneral Brian Tweedy” [429]. He is judged to be: “bisexually abnormal”, “a finished example of the new womanly man”, who is about to give birth [460]. Bloom, obedient like a sheep, sinks on all fours at Bella Cohen’s feet and transforms into a pig [493]. All above transformations appear to be  the reverberation of his own words told in “Hades”: “If we were all suddenly somebody else” [Joyce 1946: 102].

In the phantasmagorical setting of “Circe”, the reader is faced with Bloom transformed into lord mayor of Dublin [447], who establishes the New Hibernia of the future - the new Bloomusalem [452]. Therefore, he represents the Messiah, who is made a scapegoat and is blamed to be the false Messiah, however, the tormented Bloom will rise from death like Christ: “In a seamless garment marked I. H. S. stands upright amid phoenix flames” [Joyce, 1946 : 464].

Bloom together with Stephen looks in the mirror. He glimpses the face of William Shakespeare instead of his own reflection [524]. Leopold also transforms into the various political figures, reformers, philosophers, and biblical or literary characters:

“Bloom walks on a net… contracts his face so as to resemble many historical personages, Lord Beaconsfield, Lord Byron, Wat Tyler, Moses of Egypt, Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, Henry Irving, Rip van Winkle, Kossuth, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Baron Leopold Rothschild, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Pasteur…” [Joyce, 1946 : 462].

As Jeffrey Perl points out, individual identities meld into each other and become a unified character (Leopold Bloom and Bella Cohen become Bloombella) and also vice versa, the reader is faced with the opposite - division of an identity: Philip Beaufoy blames Bloom for having a “quadruple existence”: “Why, look at the man’s private life! Leading a quadruple existence!” [Joyce, 1946: 431].. In a similar way, Stephen Dedalus splits into the Siamese twins: “Philip Sober” and “Philip Drunk” [Perl, 1984: 198].

Apart from Bloom’s metamorphoses, the third chapter of the novel (“Proteus”) conveys the transformations of Stephen’s consciousness. Proteus, the god of rivers and other bodies of water, is capable of constantly changing his shape. Like the constantly mutable nature of multifaceted deity, the technique of the episode is the art of transformation that is also reflected in the narrative language. From the very beginning of “Proteus”, the reader notices that along with the English language, Italian, German, French, and Latin phrases are congregated in Stephen’s stream of consciousness. Thoughts of Aristotle, Lessing and Blake give way to each other in his inner monologue. Walking along Sandymount shore throws Dedalus to Eternity, the garden of Eden, Elsonore: (“Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?”, “Put me on to Edenville”, “…hearing Elsinore’s tempting flood” [Joyce, 1946: 35-42]). Stephen’s ashplant turns into a sword (My ash sword hangs at my side” [Joyce, 1946, 35]), his feet into Mulligan’s feet, as he wears Buck’s cast-off breeks and boots (“His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs, … wherein another’s foot had nested warm” [Joyce, 1946 : 46]). The dog running on the shore recalls the reminiscence of Actaeon and his hunting dogs, hence Dedalus imagines himself as the Theban hero, and the dog changes its face into heraldic deer, a panther, a leopard. Moreover, in his perception uncle Richie Goulding becomes Walter, the character of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta. In “Proteus”, the reader finds the reference to a kabbalistic maxim of metempsychosis paraphrased by Stephen as follows: “God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain” [Joyce, 1946: 47].[3]

By mentioning the doctrine of Metempsychosis, the unending series of transformations is further expanded in Ulysses. The essence of the mystical doctrine is explained to Molly by Leopold: “—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls” [Joyce, 1946: 58]. In “Oxen of the Sun”, Bloom also uses the collocation: “plasmic memory”, which refers to a whole, continuous memory of Metempsychosis, in which each reincarnation of the soul is preserved.[4]

The repetition of the Metempsychotic motif in Ulysses seems to suggest that Bloom's memory is the same as plasmic memory. Lots of invisible threads from Bloom's character go back to the past, to historical or fictional characters. Bloom repeats Odysseus's Wandering and Homecoming Scheme. The plasmic memory of Joyce's wandering character also contains the "remnants" of Christ and Shakespeare. One of the most important references in the work to understand the symbolism of Bloom's character is: “Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone” [Joyce, 1946: 273]. Mentioning of the fish immediately reminds the reader of Christ. Identification of a lone fish lying on a catafalque is nothing more than Bloom as a symbol of Jesus Christ. 

Along with being the embodiment of multiple faces, one of the most frequently repeated details in the work is the emphasis on Leopold Bloom's rootlessness. It is rather symbolic, that while wandering in the city all day long Bloom has no key to his house. Therefore, he climbs over the railings to enter the house. Hence, Joyce aims to depict him as an outsider and a man of no homeland. His identity is also discussed in the work several times:

“—Who is that chap behind with Tom Kernan? John Henry Menton asked. I know his face.

Ned Lambert glanced back.

—Bloom, he said, Madame Marion Tweedy that was, is, I mean, the soprano. She’s his wife” [Joyce, 1946: 98).

By transforming Bloom’s surname, Joyce skillfully manages to show the insignificance of the character's existence in the eyes of society: “Bloowho”, “Bloowhose”, “Greaseabloom” [244-247], “Bloom Alone” [273]. His surname is typed by mistake in “The Evening Telegraph”: L. Boom. (Cf. The prisoners call out the variations of Lazare Chichilashvili’s surname in the short story “Two Verdicts” by Mikheil Javakshishvili: Chikilashvili, Kirikashvili, Nikilashvili, Dikilashvili, Bikilashvili, Tikilashvili, Kitilashvili. While an individual’s name and surname to some extent define his/her personal identity, misspelling it somehow humiliates a person’s individuality). “Not Irish enough”[694] - this is how Marion Bloom describes her husband in her inner monologue. “The wandering jew” [205], says Buck Mulligan, referring to Bloom, and then the aggressive patriot, who calls himself a Citizen, addresses Bloom, “Ahasuerus I call him” [320]. In both cases, there is a reference to the biblical character of the Jews, Ahasuerus, who is doomed to eternal wandering before the Second Coming. In addition, in the 7th episode (“Aeolus”), Bloom, who comes to the editorial office, overhears a conversation about homeland. It is interesting that at this very time J. J. O’Molloy enters the room. The handle of the opened door hits Leopold Bloom on his waist, while he apologizes and stands aside. This episode once again shows that there is no place for Joyce’s wandering character anywhere, especially when the Dubliners talk about their homeland.

In the “Lotus-Eaters” episode, Bloom entering a Christian church witnesses a communion rite, during which he beholds holy bread, though he does not know what to call it and refers to it as “something like those mazzoth”. According to N. Kiasashvili, Bloom confuses mazzoth with holy bread, respectively, Jewish and Christian religious customs. This is another detail emphasizing his homelessness.[5]

In the “Circe” episode, which is built entirely around hallucinations and serves to convey what is hidden in the depth of Bloom’s unconscious, the reader witnesses the trial. Among many other accusations, Bloom is blamed for having “No fixed abode. Unlawfully watching and besetting” [Joyce, 1946: 427]. The emphasis on Leopold Bloom's desolation is arguably a favorable circumstance to attribute to him the names of all the characters who have ever set out in the dark labyrinths of their own minds or of the surrounding physical world. Leopold Bloom's roots are everywhere and nowhere at the same time:

“What universal binomial denominations would be his as entity and nonentity? 

Assumed by any or known to none. Everyman or Noman” [Joyce, 1946: 673].

 Episode 17 (“Ithaca”) ends with a question: "Where?” to which the answer is vague. The author puts a full stop in response. The question refers to the traveler, Leopold Bloom, who has returned home after wandering Dublin streets all day and appears lying in an embryonic posture. Where is Bloom, the same as Odysseus, or Sinbad the Sailor, or primitive human embryo, or where is he going?

“The childman weary, the manchild in the womb”[682] - this is how Joyce describes his wandering character who returns home and lies like an embryo in the gloomy night, as if he has returned to his mother's womb. The symbolism of darkness as an embryonic form of existence is considered by Mircea Eliade on both human and cosmic levels. On the example of the Karadjeri traditions, a researcher explains that according to the beliefs of this tribe, the initial death of a candidate of initiation means the return to an embryonic state, which has a cosmic significance: “The foetal condition is equivalent to a temporary refresion into the virtual, or precosmic mode of being before “the dawn of the first day” as the Karadjeri say” [Eliade, 1957: 198]. Returning to the cosmic abyss, to timelessness and eternity, the candidate becomes contemporary with the creation of the world, which means that he awaits the creation or birth of a new person from a prenatal state once again.

While discussing the mystery of soul and thought, philosopher Merab Mamardashvili quotes the mystic and religious poet Angelus Silesius suggesting that even if Jesus Christ has been born thousand times in Bethelem, the event of his birth can not be a promise for us to be Christians and good-natured in case he is not constantly newly born in the believer's soul. “Christ should be born within you anew… So is the concept. The concept should always be born in your own experience anew. It must be born as a living state”[6] [Mamardashvili, 1992: 32-33]. Therefore, the birth of Christ becomes merely the factual event that occurred in the historical past if Jesus is not born in the believers’ hearts at the present moment. Nevertheless, Mamardashvili does not refer to the ritual in this passage, his words find a close reference to Eliade’s suggestion related to the reactualization of mythos through the ritualistic ceremony. The leap into eternity from the so-called moment of real time paves the way for the use of mythos in Ulysses. At the same time, the time-place of the work moves in the contemporary time and space of cosmogony, or rather, to timelessness and spacelessness, to the prenatal state of the universe. Dublin symbolizes eternity, where the historical time is abolished.  Leopold Bloom, lying in the dark, reminds the reader of a candidate of initiation awaiting rebirth.

[1]Cited in: Senn, F. 1985. Book of Many Turns. In B. Benstock (Ed.). Critical Essays on James Joyce, 120-136. Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall & Co.

[2]See List of Parodies: Gifford, D., Seidman, R. J. 1974. Notes for Joyce: An Annotation of James Joyce's Ulysses. E.P. Dutton & CO., INC. New York.

[3]A kabalistic maxim of metempsychosis: “a stone becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a man, a man a spirit, and a spirit a god.” (Joyce, J. (2017). Ulysses. Translated into Georgian by N. Kiasashvili, Bakur Sulakauri Publishing, Comments. P. 727).

[4]Joyce, J. (2017). Ulysses. Translated into Georgian by N. Kiasashvili, Bakur Sulakauri Publishing, Comments. P. 834

[5]Joyce, J. (2017). Ulysses. Translated into Georgian by N. Kiasashvili, Bakur Sulakauri Publishing, Comments. P. 736

[6]Translated from Georgian into English by the author.



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