On Ulysses: Narration and Nationhood in “Cyclops”
But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
Yes, says Bloom.
What is it? says John Wyse.
A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place. (272)
Readers of Ulysses are accustomed to a distanced, omniscient narrator who freely dips in and out of its characters’ inner lives. In the novel’s second half, the narrative becomes increasingly aware of itself and the limited range of traditional storytelling. As a result we get the slurry of unstable signifiers and linguistic re-orientations in chapters like “Wandering Rocks” and “Sirens” as Joyce plays with time and space.
We must learn to read Ulysses as a book about narrative rather than a book that simply contains one. This is why we’re so shocked when we stumble upon the first word of “Cyclops” and we are slapped in the face with the personified “I”.
I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye. (240)
In “Cyclops” this personified narrator guides us through an afternoon hour at the pub. He has a heavy Dublin way of speaking, he collects debts and complains when Bloom doesn’t pay for drinks yet doesn’t offer to pay himself. Our “I” narrator is almost a Simon Dedalus figure in his irascibility, his well-informed but talkative and secretly gossipy character. Yet, our narrator’s identity is never revealed. He is an anonymous nobody in the pub, like the “Noman” that Odysseus tells Polyphemus is his name. (Note the similarity between “Simon” and “Noman” backwards, “Namon”)
What’s interesting about reading “Cyclops” is that there’s actually a second narrator. After our “I” narrator scolds his tenant in a conversation with Joe Hynes, a massive paragraph of dense prose written in a legal style erupts from nowhere:
…I had to laugh at the little jewy getting his shirt out. He drink me my teas. He eat me my sugars. Because he no pay me my moneys?
For nonperishable goods bought of Moses Herzog, of 13 Saint Kevin’s parade in the city of Dublin…his heirs, successors, trustees, and assigns of the one part and the said purchaser, his heirs, successors, trustees and assigns of the other part. (240–241.30–51)
This second narrator, who I identify with the “eye” at the end of the first sentence, is not personified and whereas the “I” is more concerned about his personal, inward reality this “eye” aims to pull every little issue outward.
“I” is reductive, treating other Dubliners and Bloom purely in terms of gossip he hears and the stereotypes he creates. “Eye” is aggrandizing, treating certain subjects with an absurd encyclopedic seriousness. Another way to contrast our cyclopean narrators is that “I” is closed off, ironic about the affairs of others, and actively excludes. On the other hand our “eye” narrator is indiscriminate, and is openminded to the point of being parodic.
There are two things that our narrators have in common. First, they are both nationalists. “I” keeps close those he sees as true Irishmen like the citizen, which excludes Bloom who represents the other. “Eye” is especially receptive to the same mythic ideologies, following a epic description of the citizen with an even more extensive list of Irish heroes. The second is that they are both hypocrites who distort the truth. When Bloom leaves the pub, “I” assumed he must be going to collect the winnings from the Gold Cup race. “I” lambasts Bloom for not treating everyone to drinks yet is greatly lacking the virtues of a hero himself. “Eye” suffers the same problem, pretentiously and triumphantly hailing Ireland with a rambling list of Irish heroes that somehow includes Dante, Charlemagne, Shakespeare, and Adam and Eve!
The perspectives of these two narrators are monolithic and monocular. They are fuelled by a not-so-subtle xenophobia that, as Karen Lawrence puts it, “debases [the] currency of language” by obscuring the value of truth, discourse, and reporting.
But where does this ideology come from? From what arises the microaggressions of “I” and the Twitter storm-esque, word diarrhea of “eye”?
The citizen. (The “Aye” that opposes Bloom’s “Yes”)
The citizen is Polyphemus. He is a populist, an ardent Irish nationalist who is monocular in that he alternates between two singular narratives, embodying both the inward “I” and the outward “eye”, without the perspective to consider the value of others. He is the figurehead of the pub, an establishment where the weary everyman dulls his senses and forgets about reality by consuming alcohol and the citizen’s palliative nationalist rhetoric. He promises his followers an echo chamber for only the most nostalgic, most self-serving memories of an Ireland that was great.
The citizen, like his cyclopeans, is a hypocrite. He lambasts Bloom for not being Irish enough, even though we learn that Bloom was involved with the Sinn Fein! The citizen is not really concerned about Ireland at all. All he cares about is being the big muscle man who uses “force, hatred, history” to make others follow him blindly.
So what is the purpose of the “Cyclops” chapter? Joyce is trying to dig up the roots of Dublin’s paralysis. Why do the men and women of Ulysses spend their days at home, at pubs, do really nothing at all? The answer is a mix of hatred-fueled nationalism and patriarchy, dishonesty and hypocrisy, and religious traditionalism.
Joyce’s solution? Bloom.
If we see Bloom in “Sirens” as lonely, sad, and fragile we see him in “Cyclops” as forward, righteous, and humanistic. I believe this chapter is Bloom’s moment of redemption, in which he fulfills his destiny as an Elijah figure who is ready to fuse with Stephen Dedalus to become the artist-hero that will save Ireland.
But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
What? says Alf.
Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred. (273.1481–5)
Of course Bloom is mocked for this remark, and given the sarcastic tone of the chapter we should too. Yet, we start to understand that when Bloom talks about love he’s not articulating a deception or a mere cliché. Unlike the other men, Bloom is being forthright and unsentimental when he talks about love, nationhood, and identity. In this way, I see one of the primary themes in “Cyclops” as the value of sincerity.
Throughout Ulysses, Bloom is a binocular character who can worry about his own personal issues while being concerned for others, like the stripling or Mrs Purefoy. He is a subject of the world and a subject of his own body.
When the dialogue in the pub devolves into anti-Semitism, Bloom fiercely defends his identity. He is Irish and Jewish because of his actions, not because of how others describe him. He declares, “Christ was a jew like me.” (280.1808) By asserting his humanistic values, Bloom saves himself from the binds of history and hatred and is carried off to complete his mission of redeeming Ireland. He transcends Odysseus, who merely wants to go home. Unlike the parallel in The Odyssey where Polyphemus throws a rock and wrecks Odysseus’ ship, the citizen’s biscuitbox misses Bloom entirely, clinking sadly on an empty Dublin road.