Chapter 10: Wandering Rocks
It’s early Sunday morning here in the Antipodes and I’m loafing in bed with my battered copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Anything less like a journey of the Homeric Ulysses amongst the Wandering Rocks is hard to imagine: if he hadn’t taken Circe’s advice to avoid that route, he’d have been becalmed anyway on such a still and sunny morning as this. He’d have been cursing the azure skies as the oarsmen paddled along in exhaustion.
Father Conmee, on the other hand, would have liked a day like this. Melbourne in late spring is preparing itself for the summer scorchers to come, so now the view through my bedroom window is filtered by shadex over the fernery. It makes the blue of the sky look gentler than it really is, and later on when we go to the Farmers Market to buy goodies for the Christmas feast next week I shall need a hat to protect my face from malignant UV, even at 10 o’clock. But the Irish love Australia despite its harsh summer sun – they settled here in their thousands in the Gold Rush and the Irish Catholic presence was a pervasive cultural and political influence in our cities and towns until comparatively recently. Here too, a Catholic priest could walk the streets and meet his parish as he made his way along; he’d have known their names and habits as well, just as Father Conmee does. These days are gone now; there’s a shortage of priests, and in secular Australia hardly anybody goes to church anymore…
Initially it seems easy to read this chapter compared to Scylla and Charybidis. Father Conmee strolls along, chatting here and there, the chapter looking for all the world like a desultory narrative about a priest in Dublin. It’s not, of course. James Joyce is too cunning for that:
The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance.
(Letters, 24 June 1921) [Source: Corbin and Evans]
Joyce has written a labyrinth! Chapter 10 is full of stops and starts and dead ends, and there are retracings of steps and disorienting muddles of the time. There are 19 ‘episodes’, some of them very short and frustrating, and others like those infuriating ones in paper-and-pencil mazes where you manage to go quite a long way before you realise that it’s just another dead end.
Devious minds design those puzzle mazes, and Joyce was devious indeed with this chapter. It’s three o’clock, the day’s getting on, and we’re waiting for the plot to move along a bit. There’s this portentous meeting between Stephen and Bloom still to happen, right? Well, Circe warned Ulysses not to go near the Wandering Rocks, and he didn’t, but Joyce shows us what would have happened if he had: he’d have wandered about, getting nowhere. And that’s what happens in this chapter too: we get nowhere.
Except that we get to know more about a few important things:
- This chapter dates Bloomsday: it’s June 16th 1904. We know this (well, I looked up the date +”disaster in New York” on Google) because Father Conmee sees newspaper headlines about the General Slocum disaster in New York. It was a steamship that caught fire, killing over a thousand people. This event would have been as well known to Joyce’s generation as the subsequent sinking of the Titanic, or as 9/11 is today. Miss Dunne (who’s reading Wilkie Collins’ mystery thriller, The Woman in White) while she’s working at Boylan’s office types that date too (p228). (This also puts Boylan back at the office at about 3pm, I think, which may be significant in terms of his assignation with Molly Bloom. I’ve forgotten what time this was supposed to happen).
- Joyce cared about Ireland’s poverty. He’d suffered this himself as his family’s fortunes declined, and from far away in Paris he hadn’t forgotten, not at all. Boody and Maggy Dedalus are hungry because the pawn shop won’t take their books; they’re reliant on a bit of pea soup from the nuns for their meal. (p225-6) Later on Dilly commiserates with Stephen about his books being sold off because their home is being broken up. She’s a streetwise kid, and knows that her father is withholding some of the money to spend at the pub too (p237); it’s tragic that she has to buy back her French primer when there’s not much chance of her getting an education. (p242). Still later, Bloom buys some second-hand books but I don’t think they were Stephen’s since he was buying a kind of Mills-and-Boon romance for Molly. (p235)
- Irishmen returned from wars fought for England, home and beauty, (p224) to the kind of neglect suffered by disabled returned serviceman that still occurs today. (This seems strange considering Ireland’s vexed history, but poor men have always enlisted when there have been no other jobs to be had. They still do.) It’s not clear to me which war Joyce is referring to, maybe the Boer War, but could it also be a reference to a local uprising? Whatever, Joyce set his story in 1906 but he was writing it as Europe slogged it out in the ‘war to end all wars’, and he knew about the wounded. So in this chapter a onelegged sailor begs and receives nothing from Father Conmee; later, a coin is thrown carelessly from a window to the ground. It is barefoot urchins who ameliorate this humiliation. (p227)
- Molly Bloom has picked a right rogue for a lover. Blazes Boylan makes an appearance, perving on the breasts of the blond girl in Thornton’s greengrocers. He’s a dandy in new tan shoes and gold fob watch, he has plenty of ‘merry money’ in his pockets and he flirts, as older men often do, thinking how irresistible he is when actually, he’s making a fool of himself. (p227) Mind you, Molly is a bit of a lass herself, and not just with Boylan. Lenehan regales his pals with a story about sitting next to her in the car after the annual dinner at Glencree Reformatory, and how he was ‘tucking the rug under her and settling her boa all the time’. (p234)
- Once again we see characters sneering at Bloom for ripping off the seller of a valuable book (p 233) but there’s also acknowledgement that he paid up his five shillings for the collection for Paddy Dignam’s children.(p245) ‘I’ll say there is much kindness in the jew’ quotes Nolan, from The Merchant of Venice.
Stephen isn’t just a show-off about Shakespeare, in this episode he’s in the middle of a chat – in Italian – with Almidano Artifoni about someone’s singing. (Artifoni was a real person, the director of the Trieste Berlitz school from Joyce’s days in Italy) . With the help of Google Translate for some of the words, I have enough Italian myself to understand that Artifoni says something about how he too had ideas when he was a young man, but now he is convinced that the world is too beastly, and it’s a pity because her voice is an asset and yet must be sacrificed. A bloodless sacrifice, agrees Stephen. Artifoni invites Stephen to come and see him to talk more about it, and grips his hand a little too tightly. Now, did I get the pronouns right? Are they talking about a female, and if so, who? Is this something to do with Molly’s singing? Whatever, it further establishes Stephen as an erudite young man.
Then there are the mysteries:
I am baffled by the episode with Ned Lambert down in the crypt. Jack Molloy brings a clergyman (the Rev. Hugh C. Love) down to see the ‘historic council chamber of sant Mary’s abbey where silken Thomas proclaimed himself a rebel in 1534. This is the most historic spot in all Dublin. (p229) It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. A dead end?
Thank heavens for Joyce Images online. There’s another apparently dead end where Tom Rochford is showing off some kind of slot machine that shows turns. I don’t have permission to use the image so you have to visit the site, and scroll about 2/3 down to see the device. I still don’t understand what it’s for, (something to do with horse-racing?) but at least I know what it looks like.
There’s a vice-regal cavalcade. What’s that got to do with anything?
Oh, and the literary styles of the last episode foreshadows the last chapter of the book. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness that brings all the episodes together in a grand muddle, like Molly’s thoughts at the end of the book.
Page references are to my battered old copy of the Penguin Ulysses, 1979 ISBN 014003000x (which uses the 1960 Bodley Head edition, which was the 10th edition and has different page numbers to its predecessors.) BTW This is the last time I’ll be using this edition because I’ve bought a replacement copy – which unfortunately has different page numbers because of a very long introduction.
An introduction which BTW includes a chart of the structure. It informs me that the ‘art’ for this chapter is ‘mechanics’ but I can’t see it myself. It seems to me that it’s all about street life…
Links to my disordered thoughts for other chapters are below. NB Page references to anything before Chapter 11 are to my 1979 Penguin, and after that are to my Penguin 2000 reprint.