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Irish History Transformed: Bloom, Parnell, and Metempsychosis in Ulysses

Related topics:

Native and Foreign
Union and Division

Throughout Ulysses, references to Irish history and folklore function to develop a critical portrayal of traditional historical and nationalistic modes which involve a kind of obligatory nostalgia for "Old Ireland" and her champions, a fixation on violence, and a narrow conception of Irishness. It is important to note that these historical modes arise from a dark history of colonization, religious tensions, and bloody rebellion—a "nightmare," according to Stephen Dedalus (U 2.377). Thus, Andrew Gibson interprets Ulysses as "a massively protracted labour to ease off the shackles of a devastating history" (Gibson 41). Gibson references Gregory Castle, who identifies Joyce's "struggle against history" as a "resistance against the tendency of historical points of view to converge and dissolve in the absolute logic of a master discourse" (Castle 307). According to Castle, through his critique of historical conventions in Ulysses, Joyce allows for the "infinite possibilities" that have been "ousted" (U 2.50-51), and Gibson affirms that the novel "recasts...a historical set of discourses in terms of such possibilities" (Gibson 41). Castle argues that Leopold Bloom's historical sensibility offers an alternative to the master discourse of Irish history. Indeed, with his outsider status as an Irish Jew in Dublin, Bloom not only demonstrates a critical perception of traditional historical modes, but he also has a dynamic view of history as "repeating itself with a difference" (U 16.1525-26). In Ulysses, repetition with a difference aligns with the novel's conception of metempsychosis, which serves as a model for Joyce's "Bloomian" alternatives to conventional modes of Irish history.

"Sirens" (U 11) serves to elucidate Bloom's heterodox view of Irish history, which distinguishes him from the other Dubliners. Throughout the episode, Bloom is positioned "at a critical distance from his socio-historical milieu" (Castle 309). In the episode, Ben Dollard sings "The Croppy Boy" for an audience at the Ormond bar. The song is a nationalist ballad about a young Irish rebel in the 1798 Rebellion who is killed by a British officer disguised as a priest (Gifford 293). The other audience members in the bar show an emotionally patriotic response to the ballad, but Bloom's response to the whole display is critical. He characterizes the overflow of nostalgia and pity as "the thrill they itch for" (U 11.1083). His response to the ballad, or lack thereof, is just one of many examples suggesting Bloom's divergent view of traditional Irish history.

The motif of metempsychosis works to further consolidate this aspect of Bloom's character. Metempsychosis may be broadly understood as reincarnation (Tymoczko 43). Bloom describes it to Molly as "the transmigration of souls," and then meditates on the idea: "That we live after death. Our souls" (U 4.342, 352). Maria Tymoczko also refers to metempsychosis as "identity through ever-changing forms" (48). Through metempsychosis, it is possible to imagine the lives of historical agents as extending beyond their own fixed historical moments and their deaths. Tymoczko notes that critics have tended to relate metempsychosis to the "Greek mythos" of Ulysses while neglecting the Celtic mythos, and she argues that Joyce "utilized an Irish rather than a Greek conception of metempsychosis" (48). This notion of a specifically Irish conception of the principle may be expanded to include not only Celtic mythology, but also more recent Irish history—as exemplified by the presence of Charles Stewart Parnell, who rose to power in the 1880s as a nationalist leader and Member of Parliament. He led the efforts to establish Home Rule, but in 1890 his ten-year liaison with the married Katherine O'Shea came to light in a divorce trial, after which the leaders of the Irish Catholic Church shamed and denounced Parnell, ending his political career. As a result, Irish nationalists split (after Parnell had worked to unify them), and hopes for Home Rule died (Gifford 4). Parnell has a distinctly metempsychotic presence in Ulysses, foregrounded by the myth of his return and suggested through a close textual association to Leopold Bloom, who sometimes seems to embody Parnell's literarily-reincarnated presence. This metempsychotic link exemplifies Bloom's dynamic view of history and opposes the narrow "deterministic history" in which Parnell's identity is otherwise arrested (Castle 311). As a Jewish-Irish iteration of a pillar of Irish history and nationalism, Bloom transcends the master narrative of Irish history that has fixed and silenced Parnell in a historical moment of disgrace and political disappointment—the same master narrative that would silence and exclude an "outsider" like Bloom.

Many textual cues connect Parnell to the principle of metempsychosis in the novel. The most obvious is the aforementioned myth of his future return from the dead. One subtle indicator of this mythology in Ulysses is the rumor of his casket being filled with stones, which is mentioned for the first time in "Hades" (U 6) when some of the funeral party visit "the chief's grave" (U 6.919), and Mr. Powers says, "Some say he is not in that grave at all. That the coffin was filled with stones. That one day he will come again" (U 6.923-4). The "stones" here recall Molly's exclamation of "O, rocks!" when Bloom attempts to define metempsychosis in "Calypso" (U 4.343), strengthening the association. Another detail that hints at Parnell's metempsychotic presence in the novel is the ghostly appearance of his brother, John Howard Parnell, whom Bloom describes as "Image of him. Haunting face...a coincidence" (U 8.502-03). It's not unlikely that Bloom's own preoccupation with metempsychosis after his exchange with Molly informs his description of the brother, who may be another vessel for Parnell's "transmigrated soul." Furthermore, in the hallucinatory "Circe" episode (U 15), John Howard Parnell reappears and presents Bloom as "Illustrious Bloom! Successor to my famous brother!" (U 15.1513-14). This episode is significant, because its blending of identities (Bloom's and Parnell's) reflects a larger blurring of the boundaries between Jewishness and Irishness. Here, Bloom is linked to Parnell through their shared messianic status. Just as Parnell has a mythic status, for some, as once and future savior of Ireland—"Erin's uncrowned king" (U 16.1496)—in "Circe," Bloom achieves a similar status as the messiah figure for "the new Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future" (U 15.1544-45). While in this position, his rhetoric conflates "green Erin"—Ireland—and "the promised land of our common ancestors" (U 15.1517-1518), a biblical allusion to the promised land of the Israelites (Gifford 474). As a metempsychotic iteration of Parnell, Bloom embodies a broader sense of history and nationhood that encompasses and even unites Jewish and Irish traditions.

The link between Parnell and Bloom is further reinforced by narrative details throughout "Circe" (U 15) and the following episode, "Eumaeus" (U 16). In "Circe," Bloom's momentous rise to power and precipitous fall parallel Parnell's own rise to power and subsequent disgrace with the Katharine (Kitty) O'Shea scandal: "Lynch him! Roast him! He's as bad as Parnell was. Mr. Fox" (U 15.1762). Gifford notes that Fox was one of Parnell's assumed names in his correspondence with O'Shea. This recalls Bloom similar use of an alias, Henry Flower, in his letters to Martha Clifford. Furthermore, Father Farley is the first to denounce Bloom after his rise to hero status, proclaiming, "He is an Episcopalian, an agnostic, an anythingarian seeking to overthrow our holy faith" (U 15.1712-13). This is significant, considering the Catholic Church's role in Parnell's downfall, as well as Bloom's own distance from Irish Catholicism. The subsequent split between "Bloomites" and "antiBloomites" (U 15.1736, 1753) echoes the split between Irish nationalists who believed in Parnell "in spite of all" (U 15.1736-37) versus those who considered him to be reprehensible, "a disgrace to all christian men...a fiendish libertine" (U 15.1753-54). Later, in "Eumaeus" (U 16), the conversation in the cabman's shelter centers around the Parnell-O'Shea crisis that prompted the split. In this episode, identity is generally ambiguous, as Bloom's thoughts shift seamlessly between himself, Stephen, and Parnell. He recalls a moment in his past when "His hat (Parnell's) a silk one was inadvertently knocked off and, as a matter of strict history, Bloom was the man who picked it up in the crush" (U 16.1513-16). The initial indeterminacy of the pronoun "His" suggests a confusion of Bloom with Parnell. Bloom is the subject of the sentence that precedes this one, so without the parenthetical "(Parnell's)," any reader would initially assume that "His" refers to Bloom, not Parnell. However, Parnell's appearance is not entirely abrupt; the pun on "grave" in "grave character," which appears right before the "His" in question, anticipates his arrival in this sentence, since Parnell is said to have risen from the grave (U 16.1513). Of course, throughout this episode, Bloom is reflecting on the Parnell-O'Shea situation with ostensible objectivity, and yet his own domestic triangle with Molly and Boylan is clearly reflected in the Parnell-O'Shea case. Nonetheless, in his own thoughts he tries to desensationalize the affair, going against the grain of the wider conversation. He reflects on "the simple fact of the case...the husband not being up to scratch, with nothing in common between them beyond the name" (U 16.1380-81). Rather than view the affair and the divorce trial as a defining moment for the moral characters of Parnell and O'Shea, Bloom views the whole ordeal as a private matter and a not uncommon situation. Thus, even on a personal level, Bloom challenges the master discourse of Irish history as it relates to Parnell, syncing it with the moderation of his response to his own experiences with Molly's infidelity.

The fluid, dynamic model of metempsychotic identity is analogous to the broader, more dynamic view of history and nationhood that Joyce offers in Ulysses. Parnell's metempsychotic presence, as embodied by Bloom, allows for a break from static narratives of Irish history that underpin narrow ideologies. The link between Parnell and Bloom lends voice and agency to a historical figure otherwise fixed in time, and writes a Jewish Dubliner back into a history that otherwise threatens to exclude an "outsider" like Bloom.

Citations and Related Sources

Castle, Gregory. "Ousted Possibilities: Critical Histories in James Joyce’s Ulysses." Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 3 (October 1, 1993): 306–328.
Fairhall, James. James Joyce and the Question of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Gibson, Andrew. Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008.
Schwarze, Tracey Teets. "Inventing Identity in Ulysses: ‘Kitty’ O’Shea, Memoir, and Molly Bloom." In Bloomsday 100, edited by Beja, Morris and Fogarty, Anne, 77–95. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2009.
Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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