This episode corresponds to Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus travels to the underworld of Hades and speaks with the dead. If you are unfamiliar with Odysseus’ journey to the underworld, I suggest reading “The Secrets of the Odyssey (7): Circe and the Underworld” by Symbol Reader, who is one of my favorite bloggers.
The main theme of this section is death, which makes for some morbid reading at times. The episode begins with Bloom getting into a carriage with Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus (Stephen Dedalus’ father). The carriage is part of the funeral procession for Paddy Dignam who is to be buried. During the ride, there is much discussion and contemplation regarding death.
The carriage ride is symbolic for the journey to the land of the dead, which is represented by the cemetery. At one point in the journey, the carriage passes a waterway, which I assume is the River Liffey. This conjures images of the crossing of the River Styx as one enters the realm of the dead.
Their eyes watched him. On the slow weedy waterway he had floated on his raft coastward over Ireland drawn by a haulage rope past beds of reeds, over slime, mud-choked bottles, carrion dogs. Athlone, Mullingar, Moyvalley, I could make a walking tour to see Milly by the canal. Or cycle drawn. Hire some old crock, safety. Wren had one the other day at the auction but a lady’s. Developing waterways. James M’Cann’s hobby to row me o’er the ferry. Cheaper transit. By easy stages. Houseboats. Camping out. Also hearses. To heaven by water. Perhaps I will without writing. Come as a surprise, Leixlip, Clonsilla. Dropping down, lock by lock to Dublin. With turf from the midland bogs. Salute. He lifted his brown strawhat, saluting Paddy Dignam.
When they reach the cemetery, Bloom observes the coffin being removed from the hearse. He begins to contemplate mortality, the sheer number of people who die every day. He notes that Dignam got there before they did, implying both that the hearse arrived before the carriage and also that Dignam died before him and the others.
Coffin now. Got here before us, dead as he is. Horse looking round at it with his plume skeowways. Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a bloodvessel or something. Do they know what they cart out here every day? Must be twenty or thirty funerals every day. Then Mount Jerome for the protestants. Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute. Shovelling them under by the cartload doublequick. Thousands every hour. Too many for the world.
As the burial proceeds, Bloom’s thoughts turn very morbid as he envisions the rotting and decay of the bodies within the earth, of the rats and maggots eating the rancid flesh of the deceased. The images reminded me of Poe and Baudelaire. I also couldn’t help wondering whether this was symbolic of the general decay of humanity, whether Joyce viewed the world around him as rotting just as the flesh of the dead was rotting beneath the soil.
One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean no matter who it was. Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad. Well, and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk. I read in that Voyages of China that the Chinese say a white man smells like a corpse. Cremation better. Priests dead against it. Devilling for the other firm. Wholesale burners and Dutch oven dealers. Time of the plague. Quicklime fever pits to eat them. Lethal chamber. Ashes to ashes. Or bury at sea. Where is that Parsee tower of silence? Eaten by birds. Earth, fire, water. Drowning they say is the pleasantest. See your whole life in a flash. But being brought back to life no. Can’t bury in the air however. Out of a flying machine. Wonder does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down. Underground communication. We learned that from them. Wouldn’t be surprised. Regular square feed for them. Flies come before he’s well dead. Got wind of Dignam. They wouldn’t care about the smell of it. Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse: smell, taste like raw white turnips.
Finally, Bloom’s communication with the dead slips into the realm of necrophilia. Although he seems repulsed by these thoughts, you get the sense that there is a morbid fascination with the idea of sex with the dead.
The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time. Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral. Poor papa too. The love that kills. And even scraping up the earth at night with a lantern like the case I read of to get at fresh buried females or even putrefied with running gravesores. Give you the creeps after a bit.
(pp. 114 – 115)
For those who are reading along, I will be looking at Episode 7 next, which concludes on page 150 with the phrase “if the God Almighty’s truth was known.”
Previous Posts on Ulysses:
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