Tag Archives: Jewish

Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 18

Statue of Molly Bloom: Wikipedia

Statue of Molly Bloom: Wikipedia

This is the final episode and is a long internal soliloquy depicting Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she is in bed after Leopold returns home. The episode is comprised of eight long sentences and is all stream of consciousness. Much of Molly’s thoughts are sexual: memories of past affairs, her current liaison with Blazes Boylan, her suspicions regarding Leopold Bloom’s clandestine sexual encounters, and her early days with Bloom. The language is beautiful and should really be read to be felt. I am not going to attempt to analyze the text from this episode; instead, I will discuss the structure of the episode, its symbolism, and how it ties in to the overall structure and larger theme of the book. I will preface this by saying that these are my interpretations. Feel free to use them, just include me in the citation.

The first thing to note about Episode 18 is that it opens and closes with the same word: “Yes.” I see this as symbolic for a circle, implying that there is an eternal cycle associated with the episode. Considering that Joyce employs the same technique in Finnegan’s Wake, where the book begins mid-sentence and ends with the first half of the sentence, I would argue that he is doing the same here. In fact, I would take this a step further and assert that Episode 18 is a circle within a circle and that the entire book is intended to be viewed as cyclical. Remember back to the beginning with the large S. The letter S is also the last letter in the book. I feel that Joyce structured the book to represent the eternal circle of existence: birth, life, death, rebirth. There are certainly an abundance of references and allusions throughout the text hinting at this, whether it is all the talk about metempsychosis or the circles cast upon the ceiling as Bloom and Molly lay together, or the circles of stars. Images of circles and cycles permeate this book.

Gustave Dore

Gustave Dore

The myth is eternal. The story which Homer put forth in the Odyssey is one that has been repeated throughout history and will continue to be repeated as long as humans exist. It is an archetypal story and Joyce knew that. With that in mind, he made his version a modern interpretation of the myth.

In addition to the cyclical structure of the book, I believe that Joyce also included number mysticism within the structure of the book. Let’s break this down a bit. The book is split into 3 sections and contains 18 chapters. First we will consider the importance of the number 3. Obviously, 3 would represent the trinity. It also represents the three stages of life: birth, life, death. It symbolizes the father (Bloom), mother (Molly), and child (Stephen). In addition, each section begins with a large letter: S, M, and P, respectively. I see here another mystical trilogy: Spirit, Mortal, Psyche (although, some scholars have also associated with the three main characters: Stephen, Molly, and Poldy [nickname for Bloom]). I could go on like this for a long time, but I think you get the idea.

Now let’s think about the number 18. First off, if we were to apply kabbalistic numerology to this (and remember, Bloom is Jewish), we get 1+8 which equals 9, which in turn is 3×3, or a double trinity. At this point you may be thinking that this is a stretch, but stay with me, because it gets deeper. In the Jewish faith, the number 18 has another important aspect. It is the numeric representation of the Hebrew word chai (pronounced “hi”). The English translation for chai is “life.” I believe that Joyce consciously chose to make Ulysses 18 episodes because the book is the perfect representation of life, with all its recurring themes.

I have to say that I feel somewhat sad that I am finished. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Bloom and Stephen personally. I also really got a lot more out of the book reading it a second time. So will I read it a third time? Maybe. I’ll certainly keep my copy. I hope you enjoyed the posts and if you haven’t read along, I encourage you to spend the effort and read it one day. I personally think it is worth it.

Cheers!!


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14

Episode 15

Episode 16

Episode 17

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 14

Tibaldi

Tibaldi

This episode corresponds to the oxen of the sun section in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s men slaughter the sacred cattle of Helios for food. In Joyce’s novel, the scene takes place in a hospital maternity ward where the men there are having an unruly discussion about pregnancy and childbirth. Essentially, they are profaning the sacred act of creating life, similar to the way Odysseus’s men profaned the sacred cattle by using them as food.

So far, this was the most challenging section to read, but also brilliant, in my humble opinion. I felt validated though when I found out I was not alone in seeing this as the hardest part of the book.

The style of Episode Fourteen, one of the most difficult in the novel, consists of imitations of chronological stages in the growth of the English language, beginning with Latinate and Middle English prose up to the chaos of twentieth-century slang. The progression of language is, in turn, meant to correspond to the nine-month gestation period leading to human birth. The imitations of the styles of different time periods and prominent writers seem parodic because the styles are somewhat exaggerated (some more so than others). The ultimate effect is to drive home the point that has been made more subtly in Episodes Twelve and Thirteen: narrative style contains built-in ideology that effects what is reported and how it is reported. Joyce shows this by allowing each different style to gravitate toward its normal subject matter.

(Spark Notes)

Throughout the episode, Joyce employs lots of imagery and metaphors associated with childbirth and cattle, solidifying the connection between this episode and the one in Homer’s epic. There are so many and they are embedded in such dense text, I could write a small book just exploring them. As such, I decided to just mention them and leave them to you to explore and interpret as you read through the episode. Instead, I want to use the rest of this post to look a little closer at two paragraphs that really struck me. They are long, but I’m including them here for those who need.

The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence: silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived. A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars. She follows her mother with ungainly steps, a mare leading her fillyfoal. Twilight phantoms are they yet moulded in prophetic grace of structure, slim shapely haunches, a supple tendonous neck, the meek apprehensive skull. They fade, sad phantoms: all is gone. Agendath is a waste land, a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa. Netaim, the golden, is no more. And on the highway of the clouds they come, muttering thunder of rebellion, the ghosts of beasts. Huuh! Hark! Huuh! Parallax stalks behind and goads them, the lancinating lightning of whose brow are scorpions. Elk and yak, the bulls of Bashan and of Babylon, mammoth and mastodon, they come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. Ominous, revengeful zodiacal host! They moan, passing upon the clouds, horned and capricorned, the trumpeted with the tusked, the lionmaned the giantantlered, snouter and crawler, rodent, ruminant and pachyderm, all their moving moaning multitude, murderers of the sun.

Onward to the dead sea they tramp to drink, unslaked and with horrible gulping, the salt somnolent inexhaustible flood. And the equine portent grows again, magnified in the deserted heavens, nay to heaven’s own magnitude, till it looms, vast, over the house of Virgo, And, lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer! It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.

(p. 414)

So there is a lot going on here. First off, we see liberal use of oxen imagery and allusions to birth. These are then connected to cycles, particularly cycles of rebirth, or metempsychosis. This is all connected to the collective unconscious, represented by the sea and also the heavens. The bull imagery is likely an allusion to Apis, the Egyptian bull deity who served as an intermediary between humans and Osiris.

Apis is named on very early monuments, but little is known of the divine animal before the New Kingdom. Ceremonial burials of bulls indicate that ritual sacrifice was part of the worship of the early cow deities and a bull might represent a king who became a deity after death. He was entitled “the renewal of the life” of the Memphite god Ptah: but after death he became Osorapis, i.e. the Osiris Apis, just as dead humans were assimilated to Osiris, the king of the underworld.

(Wikipedia)

We also have a lot of goddess symbolism woven into the section. Virgin birth and Immaculate Conception are hinted at, as well as the goddess Venus (represented by the daystar) and the Jewish Shekhinah from the kabbalah, who is the veiled and hidden aspect of the godhead.

Finally, the section is full of clear zodiac references. These tie into the overall theme of the cycles of birth and regeneration while strengthening the connection between human existence and the divine cycles as reflected in the heavens. Life and consciousness, like the zodiac, is an eternal cycle, and is sacred. The zodiac represents our spiritual and psychic connection with the universe. Joyce draws on all these various symbols to emphasize how sacred life is, and how childbirth is a key part of the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

zodiac

The next episode is the longest in the book, approximately 180 pages. It is written in the style of a play script, so it should go fairly quickly, but it may take me a little longer to finish that section and get a post up. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section14.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apis_%28god%29

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 12

CyclopsPolyphemus

This episode corresponds to the section of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men are captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus lands on the island of the Cyclopes (Sicily) during his journey home from the Trojan War and enters a cave filled with provisions with some of his men. When the giant Polyphemus returns home with his flocks, he blocks the entrance with a great stone and, scoffing at the usual custom of hospitality, eats two of the men. Next morning, the giant kills and eats two more and leaves the cave to graze his sheep.

After the giant returns in the evening and kills two more of the men, Odysseus offers Polyphemus some strong and undiluted wine given to him earlier on his journey. Drunk and unwary, the giant asks Odysseus his name, promising him a guest-gift if he answers. Odysseus tells him “Οὖτις”, which means “no one” and Polyphemus promises to eat this “Nobody” last of all. With that, he falls into a drunken sleep. Odysseus had meanwhile hardened a wooden stake in the fire and now drives it into Polyphemus’ eye. When Polyphemus shouts for help from his fellow giants, saying that “Nobody” has hurt him, they think Polyphemus is being afflicted by divine power and recommend prayer as the answer.

In the morning, the blind Cyclops lets the sheep out to graze, feeling their backs to ensure that the men are not escaping. However, Odysseus and his men have tied themselves to the undersides of the animals and so get away. As he sails off with his men, Odysseus boastfully reveals his real name, an act of hubris that was to cause problems for him later. Polyphemus prays to his father, Poseidon, for revenge and casts huge rocks towards the ship, which barely escapes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, the Cyclops is represented by an unnamed person who is presented in this section as a first-person narrator. It is therefore from the “I” perspective, a singular and myopic view of the events that unfold. The events take place within a pub, the Dublin equivalent of a cave, dark and enclosed. Throughout the episode, there are lots of puns and wordplay associated with the word “eye.”

—Ay, says I. A bit off the top. An old plumber named Geraghty. I’m hanging on to his taw now for the past fortnight and I can’t get a penny out of him.

(p. 292)

The narrator is not a pleasant person. He seems to have an issue with everyone. He is totally self-centered (focused on his I) and, in my humble opinion, kind of a jerk. But then again, we all have our own egos inside and often think things about others which we keep to ourselves.

Since Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the metaphor of blindness appears throughout the chapter.

—Some people, says Bloom, can see the mote in others’ eyes but they can’t see the beam in their own.

Raimeis, says the citizen. There’s no-one as blind as the fellow that won’t see, if you know what that means.

(p. 326)

There is a lot of symbolism tied in to this short quote. On one hand, the narrator is blind to the opinions of others. He is solely concerned with his own opinions. Bloom is blind to the hostile anti-Semitic feelings that the people around him are feeling towards him. The people of Ireland, represented by the citizen, are blinded by their intense desire to establish a national identity. Finally, the mention by the citizen of “no-one” is an allusion to the name that Odysseus used when he fooled the Cyclops.

As the episode continues, the environment becomes more and more hostile towards Bloom. This is especially evident through the citizen, who gets so worked up he starts verbally attacking Bloom as he makes his exit from the pub with Martin Cunningham. The citizen follows him out to the street, hurling anti-Semitic insults at Bloom, who responds by naming famous Jews from history, including Jesus, which enrages the citizen even more.

—Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.

—He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.

—Whose God? says the citizen.

—Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.

Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.

—By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain the bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us the biscuitbox here.

(p. 342)

The episode concludes in a similar manner to the corresponding section in the Odyssey. As Bloom is escaping in the carriage (symbolic of Odysseus’ ship), the citizen, who is blinded by rage, throws the biscuit tin (symbolic of the boulder) at Bloom, but misses his mark.

Begob he drew his hand and made a swipe and let fly. Mercy of God the sun was in his eyes or he’d have left him for dead. Gob, he near sent it into county Longford. The bloody nag took fright and the old mongrel after the car like bloody hell and all the populace shouting and laughing and the old tinbox clattering along the street.

(pp. 343 – 344)

We are nearing the halfway mark in the novel. My next post will cover Episode 13 which in my book ends on page 382 with the word “Cuckoo.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11


 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphemus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section12.rhtml

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 10

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This episode corresponds with the Wandering Rocks, or Planctae, in Homer’s Odyssey.

In the Odyssey of Homer, the sorceress Circe tells Odysseus of the “Wandering Rocks” or “Roving Rocks” that have only been successfully passed by the Argo when homeward bound. These rocks smash ships and the remaining timbers are scattered by the sea or destroyed by flames. The rocks lie on one of two potential routes to Ithaca; the alternative, which is taken by Odysseus, leads to Scylla and Charybdis. Furthermore, in the Odyssey of Homer, it was Hera, for her love of Jason, who sped the Argo through the Symplegades safely.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s book, this episode is broken into 19 subsections, each symbolic of a wandering rock. Each of the subsections focuses on one of the characters in the book while that character makes his or her way through Dublin. Throughout each of these parts, glimpses of other characters pop up. These out-of-place paragraphs represent the danger of trying to navigate the episode and having dangerous, unforeseen shards of text suddenly appear, causing you to crash. The final subsection is a complete chaotic mashup of all the characters, which culminates the final thrust of effort needed to clear the chapter.

The following section provides a good example of the text in this episode. Individuals are depicted as wandering around, having haphazard collisions with other people while chucks of text from other subsections suddenly appear.

A onelegged sailor crutched himself around MacConnell’s corner, skirting Rabaiotti’s icecream car, and jerked himself up Eccles street. Towards Larry O’Rourke, in shirtsleeves in his doorway, he growled unamiably

For England . . .

He swung himself violently forward past Katey and Boody Dedalus, halted and growled:

home and beauty.

J. J. O’Molloy’s white careworn face was told that Mr. Lambert was in the warehouse with a visitor.

A stout lady stopped, took a copper coin from her purse and dropped it into the cap held out to her. The sailor grumbled thanks and glanced sourly at the unheeding windows, sank his head and swung himself forward four strides.

He halted and growled angrily:

For England . . .

Two barefoot urchins, sucking liquorice laces, halted near him, gaping at his stump with their yellow-slobbered mouths.

He swung himself forward in vigorous jerks, halted, lifted his head towards a window and bayed deeply:

home and beauty.

(p. 225)

The last thing I would like to mention about this episode is that I believe there is hidden number mysticism woven in, which is unseen, just as the wandering rocks. The episode is comprised of 19 subsections. In Jewish kabbalistic number mysticism, this would be combined as 1 + 9 to give us the number 10. Ten is the episode number and it is also the number of sephirot in the kabbalistic Tree of Life. An explanation of the sephirot is far beyond the scope of this post, so I will simplify for those who need and say that according to Jewish mysticism, the sephirot are the building blocks of all existence. Everything that exists is a result of God’s emanation through the sephirot. Again, this is a very simplified version, but it’s my belief that Joyce hid number mysticism throughout Ulysses and the fact that the primary character in the book is Jewish would lead me to suspect that the hidden numeric symbolism is Jewish in nature. I will expand on this idea in future posts, when the time is right.

For those of you interested in learning more about the symbolism in the kabbalah, I recommend On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism by Gershom Scholem.

My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 11 which ends on page 291 in my book with the phrase “Done.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section10.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planctae

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 2

Image Source: www.comicvine.com

Stephen Dedalus — Image Source: http://www.comicvine.com

This is a short episode, but there is a lot going on. For me, this episode sets the groundwork for the saga which will unfold throughout the book. Some of the dominant themes that stood out for me were memory, history, money, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.

Early in the episode, Stephen Dedalus’ mind wanders as he briefly considers memory. There is a sense that Stephen is haunted by memories, most likely the result of his pain over his mother’s death. I suspect that the reason for this is because often the most vivid memories are the sharpest and most painful, those which cut directly into the psyche.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?

(p. 24)

As Stephen is discussing Pyrrhus with the class he is teaching, one of the students jokes that Pyrrhus was a pier. Stephen then follows the prompt and explores what is a pier.

—Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.

—A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the waves. A kind of bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.

(p. 24)

The pier then becomes a symbol for memory. It is something solid that juts out into the sea of the subconscious. And despite the continuous crashing of the waves of forgetfulness against the pylons holding up the pier, the pier remains, just as the painful memories persist. It is also worth noting that a pier is a place where ships depart and dock, so the pier also builds the connection to the seafaring Odysseus.

As the class is dismissing, Stephen offers the following riddle to the class:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

(p. 26)

The students are unable to solve the riddle, so Stephen tells them that the answer is “The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.” (p. 27) This is a totally absurdist answer and has no relevance to the riddle whatsoever. I would go as far as asserting it is a Dadaist answer. I pondered the riddle for a bit and came up with my own answer: Judas Iscariot. There were originally twelve apostles, and one would assume that eleven of them were admitted into heaven, hence the ringing of the eleven bells. Judas was sent to hell, for betraying Christ and for committing suicide. The riddle implies that it is time to forgive Judas for his sins and allow his soul access to heaven. I think Joyce dropped a little hint to the riddle in the text, because on page 29, he mentions the twelve apostles.

The image of the fox reappears, but now it seems to be a symbol for a historian, a sly and intelligent creature who is obsessed with digging up the past, with scraping away the debris of time to uncover the history buried below the surface.

A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

(p. 28)

The second half of this episode focuses on Stephen’s interactions with Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster. I personally found Deasy to be a most disdainful character and he could easily be called Mr. Queasy, since he kind of made me feel sick. He is self-righteous, obsessed with money, brazenly anti-Semitic, and misogynistic.

Deasy lectures Stephen on the importance of money, emphasizing that money is power. He then tosses in a quote by Shakespeare to back up his assertion, but Stephen catches the irony of the fact that it was Iago who Deasy quoted, and Iago is not a model character.

—Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know what money is. Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured.

(p. 30)

Shortly afterward, Deasy launches into an anti-Semitic rant. He employs the same inane arguments that have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment for years: that the Jews control the government, the banks, the press, and so forth. He then accuses the Jews of being the cause of society’s decline.

—Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.

(p. 33)

After Stephen attempts to defend the Jews against Deasy’s accusations, he says something that really struck a nerve with me:

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

(p. 34)

On one level, this is an expression of the connection between memory and history. Stephen’s past haunts and torments him, and try as he may, he cannot free himself from his personal history. But there is also a larger issue here. Our society is formed based upon human history. Whether we remember the past or forget it collectively, it doesn’t matter all that much. We are still the products of our collective past. If you wanted to apply a Jungian analysis, you could also argue that our collective consciousness is tied to our collective history, and we are bound to it, unable to free ourselves. It’s kind of a dark rabbit hole to start going down, and for one who has always viewed history in a positive light, this casts a shroud over my long-standing views on the value of history and memory.

Next, Deasy launches into his tirade against women. During his rant, he mentions Helen of Troy, which serves to tie the scene in with the Homeric motif.

—I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks make war on troy. A faithless wife first brought strangers to our shore here. MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffini. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not one sin. I am a struggler now at the end of my days. But I will fight for the right till the end.

(pp. 34 – 35)

As I read this again, I couldn’t help wondering how Stephen felt hearing this, especially with the pain of his mother’s death still fresh. He does not react to it, other than signaling he is ready to leave. I suspect he is hurt and angry, but because he is financially broke and struggling, and needs the work, he is afraid to speak out. I feel for Stephen. He is in a terrible place.

The episode concludes with Deasy making a joke about the Jews.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.

(p. 36)

For me, this is the key setup for what is to come. There is a similarity between the Jews wandering in the desert and Odysseus traveling the seas. Both are wanderers attempting to return home, but can’t. It is also important to note that Leopold Bloom (who correlates to Odysseus and will appear soon in the story) is Jewish.

The next episode concludes the first part of the book. If you are reading along, I expect to have my thoughts on Episode 3 to be up in about a week. Read on!

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“The Book of J” by Harold Bloom

BookOfJThis is a book that has been on my shelf waiting for me to read for quite a long time. I picked it up when I was in college. Harold Bloom had come to speak at the campus and I knew I would have the opportunity to meet him before his lecture. I was familiar with the book and the concept was very interesting, so I bought a copy and had him sign it for me. (Yes, I’m one of those book-dorks who loves autographed copies.) Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad I did.

Essentially, the Book of J is a construct of passages extracted from the first three books of the Torah, or the Old Testament for Christian readers (Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers). Scholars seem to be in agreement that the early biblical texts were written by several different people, then combined and redacted to create a unified text. In this book, Bloom argues that one of the unknown authors, whom he refers to as J, was a woman and referred to god as Yahweh. In addition, he goes on to assert that the intention of J as a writer was not to create a religious or historical text, but that she was in fact writing a literary story of comic irony, comparable to Shakespeare or Chaucer.

The book is split into three parts. The first part contains Bloom’s introductory sections—background information, thesis, history, and so forth. The second section is the reconstructed Book of J, the text translated by David Rosenberg. The third section is Bloom’s analysis of the text.

Bloom begins by asserting that J was a woman writer who wrote for a female audience. He also stresses that “Yahweh, in the Book of J, is a literary character, just as Hamlet is.” (p. 12) He continues by placing J in the same category as Shakespeare, claiming that they are both universal authors, hence their works are prone to contradictory interpretations. Bloom then praises J’s work as being so powerful that three major religions were founded based upon her writing.

J mixes everything available to her and produces a work so comprehensive and so universal that the entire Hebrew Bible, Greek New Testament, and Arabic Koran could be founded upon it. (p. 18)

Shortly before presenting J’s text, Bloom encourages readers to let go of their preconceived notions of the text and approach it from a literary and not a religious perspective.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to our reading J as J is that we cannot cease thinking of the Book of J as the heart of the composite work the Torah, or five books of Moses, and so as the central element in those even more composite works the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, with its Old testament/New Testament structure… To read the Book of J, we need to begin by scrubbing away the varnish that keeps us from seeing that the Redactor and previous revisionists could not obliterate the original work of the J writer. That varnish is called by many names: belief, scholarship, history, literary criticism, what have you. (p. 47)

J’s book begins with the creation of Adam in the Garden and ends with the death of Moses in Moab. Throughout her text, Yahweh appears as a fickle, unstable god, who cannot help acting upon whims. In addition, the women characters always appear stronger than the male counterparts, which is something Bloom points out as support for his argument that J was a woman writing for a female audience. In fact, I would personally take it a step further and assert that J viewed women to be on the same level of divinity as Yahweh, as demonstrated by Hava’s (Eve) claim that she possesses the creative life-giving power of god.

Now the man knew Hava, his wife, in the flesh; she conceived Cain: “I have created a man as Yahweh has,” she said when he was born. (p. 63)

I want to look at one more passage from J’s book, which is a great example of both Yahweh’s fickle character and the strength of the women in the book. In this passage, Yahweh decides to kill Moses for no apparent reason (except that maybe because Moses had not yet had his son circumcised), which in and of itself is bizarre. Why kill your main prophet and the person who is leading your chosen ones? But what is most telling about the passage is that it is Moses’ wife who intervenes and saves Moses. I get the impression that J was expressing that Zipporah, being a strong woman, was on equal footing with Yahweh. She is, in any case, certainly stronger than Moses.

On the way, at a night lodging, Yahweh met him—and was ready to kill him. Zipporah took a flinty stone, cutting her son’s foreskin; touched it between Moses’ legs: “Because you are my blood bridegroom.” He withdrew from him. “A blood bridegroom,” she said, “marked by this circumcision.” (p. 144)

Bloom has a lot of great commentary following the Book of J, and it is much too in-depth to go into within the confines of this blog post. I’ll just mention as bullet points a few of the concepts that struck me as interesting and which you may want to think about:

  • There was no proverbial “fall” and hence no split. J expresses a unity between body and soul, as well as between man and nature.
  • Yahweh did a better job creating the first woman than he did creating the first man.
  • Man was banished from the Garden to prevent his ascension to god-status.
  • Sodom was destroyed not because of sin, but because the people there showed contempt for Yahweh as well as contempt for others. Sin was not a concept for J.

“By normative standards, Jewish or Christian, J’s portrayal of Yahweh is blasphemy.” (p. 280) She portrays Yahweh as a character with defects and flaws, which makes him a realistic literary character and one to whom we can relate. After reading this book, I will never read the Torah texts the same way again.

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“Metaphysics” by Allen Ginsberg

Image Source: New York Times

Image Source: New York Times

A couple years back I was visiting Boston and decided to peruse the used bookstores around Harvard. While doing so, I came upon a collection of works by Allen Ginsberg and figured it was worth buying. I have not read all the pieces in there… yet, so I skimmed the table of contents looking for something interesting and this one caught my eye.

This is the one and only
firmament; therefore
it is the absolute world.
There is no other world.
The circle is complete.
I am living in Eternity.
The ways of this world
are the ways of Heaven.

Ginsberg expresses some interesting concepts here. He begins by stating that there is only one world, or one realm of existence. While one could argue the existence of parallel universes and dimensions, the fact remains that we only exist in this one. I believe that through the proper spiritual practices that you can catch glimpses of other realms, but we are still trapped within our realm, for this life anyway.

Next, he incorporates the metaphor of the circle and associates it with Eternity. It’s a pretty common metaphor and not one that needs to be expounded on further.

The last two lines are the most interesting for me. They echo the Lord’s Prayer: “On earth as it is in Heaven.” It seems odd to me that Ginsberg, a Jew, would make an allusion to a Christian prayer. My only guess is that he was wanting to write something universal, that would be understood by a broader audience.

While this is not the most spiritually profound poem that I’ve read, it works for me. It is short and concise, and expresses a lot in very few words. To me, that is the sign of a well-written poem.

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“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

MerchantOfVeniceWhile in college, I wrote my senior honor’s thesis on the subject of “Order and Authority in Shakespearean Comedy.” As a result, I had read The Merchant of Venice many times and analyzed the importance of written law during the Elizabethan period. But, it had been quite a long time since I read the play, hence I decided to read it again.

If you are not familiar with the play, the first thing you should know is that it’s not very funny. Comedy, in the Shakespearean sense, is based upon structure, not humor. Pretty much, if people get married at the end, it’s a comedy; if everyone dies, it’s a tragedy. In this play, no one dies and there is marriage at the end, but don’t expect to laugh while reading this. It’s not at all like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Comedy of Errors.

As I read it this time, I really focused on Shylock and how he is portrayed in the text. There is ambiguity here. On one hand, it appears that Shakespeare was presenting Shylock in a way that would make the audience pity him; on the other hand, he also portrays him as despicable. The result is that if one is prejudiced against Jewish people, Shylock will fit the stereotype and support that person’s antisemitic ideas. Conversely, if one feels that Jews are mistreated, that person will also find support in the text.

First, I will cite an example that supports the negative stereotype. In the following passage, Shylock is depicted as caring more about his money than his daughter.

Why, there, there, there, there! a diamond gone,
cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse
never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it
till now: two thousand ducats in that; and other
precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter
were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!
would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in
her coffin!
Act III: scene i

Contrast that to the way the Christians in the play treat Shylock. First off, they rarely call him by his name, but generally address him as “the Jew” with a derogatory slur attached. There are also examples of abuse that Shylock suffers by the Christians.

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Act I: scene iii

There is one last quote I would like to point out. During the trail where Shylock seeks his pound of flesh, he is urged to show mercy and forgive the bond. Shylock then points out the hypocrisy of the fact that the Venetians in the court are slave owners who do not practice the same forgiveness that they are urging from him.

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
Act IV: scene i

While I have read this play numerous times, I have not seen it performed. This summer, a local Shakespeare troupe — The Montford Park Players — will be putting on the play. I am curious to see how they will interpret this controversial play. I will certainly be in attendance.

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