Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Artistic Stephen and Scientific Bloom: Vehicles for Parodying Science in Joyce's Ulysses

Related topics:

Medicine
Thought and Action

James Joyce wrote Ulysses at the beginning of the twentieth century, when science was still rapidly altering European epistemology. As the sciences mushroomed in the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance, they began to distinguish themselves from disciplines now classified as the humanities (Seppanen 101). Marshall McLuhan and Ritva Seppanen trace this distinction back to the traditional medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), which diverged as the science-oriented quadrivium rose to prominence (Seppanen 4). The binary established between these two sets of knowledge provides a useful model for examining science through Ulysses' two main characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, where Stephen is associated with the ancient, subjective disciplines of the trivium and Bloom with the more modern, ostensibly objective fields of the quadrivium (Seppanen 99). As both sets of knowledge fail the characters throughout the novel, Joyce parodies science's ambition to rationalize humanity. The failure of science is eventually symbolized in the problem of squaring the circle when it appears in Bloom's thoughts in "Circe" (U 15) and again in the most scientific episode of the novel, "Ithaca" (U 17). Bloom's invocation of the attempt to square the circle represents the impossibility of uniting the finite (the square, the quadrivium) and the infinite (the circle, the trivium), a concise mathematical metaphor for the greater theme of science's failure to rationalize humanity.

Consistent with the expansion of the fields of modern science, Bloom has a wide breadth of science-knowledge, linking him to the quadrivium. Throughout Ulysses, he considers principles from chemistry ("Red rays are longest. Roygbiv. Vance taught us: red, orange, violet, green, blue, indigo, violet" [U 13.1075]), physics ("what is weight really when you say the weight? Thirtytwo feet per second per second" [U 5.43]), astronomy ("Bloom was pointing out all the stars and the comets in the heavens...the great bear and Hercules and the dragon" [U 10.567-568]), and mathematics ("Numbers it is. All music when you come to think of it... Musemathematics" [U 11.830-834]).

Yet, in spite of its breadth, Bloom's science-knowledge is shallow, rarely extending beyond fractured factoids, which themselves are often wrong. Consider, for instance, Bloom's recurring thoughts on the electromagnetic properties of the color black: "Black conducts, reflects (refracts is it?), the heat" (U 4.80). Both "reflects" and "refracts" are incorrect, as black actually absorbs heat, but Bloom continues to consider the idea throughout the day: "How warm this black is. Course nerves a bit. Refracts (is it?) heat" (U 11.446). Again, the thought appears in the hallucinations of "Circe" (U 15): "Black refracts heat" (U 15.401). The question mark and position of the parentheses are noteworthy--first marking Bloom's (false) declaration that "black refracts heat" as a hesitant inquiry, then later, in absentia, indicating a more confident (still false) sense of conclusion--highlighting Bloom's ultimate failure to accurately comprehend the principles underlying his observations. He has a similar problem with the astronomical concept of parallax. He thinks, "Parallax. I never exactly understood. There's a priest. Could ask him. Par it's Greek: parallel, parallax" (U 8.110-112). Bloom understands the etymology of the word correctly--it is from Greek--but he fails to remember the principle. Bloom's inability to grasp science concepts becomes ironic in the historical context of Ulysses. His reliance on science instead of religion or philosophy reflects the epistemological idea that credible knowledge was only attainable through science (Seppanen 49). Although he is actually an advertising agent, Bloom could easily be described as the most scientifically-minded character in the novel; yet, he is no closer to understanding the theory of the electromagnetic spectrum or parallax than we might expect an advertising agent to be. Through Bloom, therefore, Joyce underscores the division of practice and theory, and a more overarching parody is made on the objective quadrivium, which proves to be inaccessible to even the most scientifically-minded character in the novel.

In contrast with Bloom, Stephen relies on philosophy, language, literature, and religion to rationalize his internal world. But he is so preoccupied with his own thoughts, that he rarely even steps outside the world of his personal ideas to contemplate contextual, worldly ideas. This becomes the irony of Stephen's character: his constant self-centered engagement with the humanistic arts precludes his ability to rationalize his own identity. Even in his most scientific moments, Stephen uses science only as a metaphor. As he considers the cosmic predestination inherent in a name, he asks himself, "What's in a name?" and answers: "A star, a daystar, a firedrake, rose at his birth. It shone by day in the heavens alone, brighter than Venus in the night, and by night it shone over the delta in Cassiopeia, the recumbent constellation which is the signature of his initial among the stars" (U 9.927-931). Here, Stephen alludes to legitimate facts of astronomy—Cassiopeia is a constellation in the northern sky, and Venus is the brightest planet in the solar system—but they are included only for their poetic utility. They are not necessary, or even logical, components of the answer to his question. Similarly, when Stephen explains to Eglinton that just as bodies are recycled and molecules are "shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image" (U 9.377-378), the scientific information functions only as a rhetorical device, geared toward persuasion. He intends this biological metaphor to convince Eglinton of his literary theory that Shakespeare is Hamlet. Just as the body's tissues are renewed and the mole remains on the skin, Stephen argues, the image of the dead son may look forth through the ghost of the father (U 9.980). Stephen's subjective discussion and use of science as metaphor thus link him not to the quadrivium, but to the trivium.

The binary sets of knowledge, ancient and modern, subjective and objective, which Stephen and Bloom respectively represent, collide in the novel's penultimate episode, "Ithaca" (U 17). Although both characters are present, the episode prioritizes the objective style of modern science in its question and answer format and its scientific catalogues, couched in scientific jargon. Yet, these virtues of science, the aesthetics of its purported superiority to the humanities, are represented satirically in "Ithaca" (U 17). The questions and answers—which, at face value, may represent a sort of Flaubertian scientific detachment (Kenner 449)—are parodied as questions become blatantly leading and answers are either hollow, off-topic, or offer excessive information to the point of hyperbole. For instance, the question "What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?" (U 17.183-184) demonstrates such characteristics, and its answer expands on the parody with its page-long explanation, replete with obscure facts ("its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea" [U 17.213]) and sesquipedalian vocabulary.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the episode, however, is in its abundance of mistakes. As Patrick McCarthy points out, "Ithaca" (U 17) is riddled with mathematical errors, such as the answer to the question "What relation existed between their ages?" (U 17.446). The answer explains that the proportion of their ages increases as years are added, when actually the ratio decreases detachment (McCarthy 609). Science fails Bloom's sense of proportion, too, as he considers his and Stephen's place in the universe. He goes from contemplating "the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way" (U 17.1043) to "the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead" (U 17.1061). Bloom soon realizes that within these supreme magnitudes of scale, it cannot be calculated where he and Stephen exist; the scale itself is indefinable. Similarly, Bloom considers the division of molecules until division fails him: "if the progress [of division] were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached" (U 17.1069). The double negatives in the sentence are true to the characteristic redundancy and confusion of the language of "Ithaca" (U 17), which aim to exposing the limitations of science.

The episode's parody of science finally becomes symbolized through Bloom's thoughts on the impossibility of squaring the circle, the problem from ancient Euclidian geometry: to prove that the area of a circle could be equal to the area of a square using a straightedge and a compass (Gifford 494). It was not until 1852 that a German mathematician was able to use calculus to prove that the circle cannot be squared, since π is a transcendental rather than a rational number (Gifford 494). The problem was, therefore, one of both antiquarian and contemporary significance for Joyce, and therefore also seems to echo the tension between the ancient trivium and the modern quadrivium. As Patrick McCarthy argues, in spite of the attempts of science to reduce Bloom and Stephen to purely rational terms, the result is no more satisfying than the attempt to square the circle (613). Soon after Bloom considers squaring the circle, Stephen departs, rejecting Bloom's offer to stay. At the end of the day, the trivium and quadrivium are not united, and the episode concludes with a large black dot--punctuating Bloom's final words and reminding the reader that the circle cannot be squared.

Ultimately, Joyce refuses to reconcile his artistic and scientific protagonists. Even in their final moment together in "Ithaca" (U 17), as they each listen to the bells in the church of Saint George chime, their unequivocal differences are evident by their vastly different perceptions: Stephen hears a Latin prayer for the dying, and Bloom hears a prosaic "heigho, heigho" (U 17.1230-1234). The two main characters then depart from one another anticlimactically, with little to no apparent resolution of their respective issues. Fittingly, Joyce often referred to "Ithaca" (U 17) as the ugly duckling episode—his favorite one in the novel (Madtes 443). We might conclude, then, that he was satisfied leaving the tensions he created between the characters and their bodies of knowledge unresolved. Instead of a neat solution, Joyce offers us parallactic approximations. Through multiple perspectives, the characters are foiled; their faults and virtues are highlighted more clearly, and Ulysses' larger messages become more apparent. But just as the area of a circle is approximated, these too are only approximations, and not even science can rationalize them for us.

Citations and Related Sources

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Second revised edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. Revised edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Madtes, Richard E. "Joyce and the Building of Ithaca." ELH 31, no. 4 (December 1, 1964): 443–59
McCarthy, Patrick A. "Joyce’s Unreliable Catechist: Mathematics and the Narration of ‘Ithaca.’" ELH 51, no. 3 (October 1, 1984): 605–18
Seppanen, Ritva. "Squaring the Circle : An Examination of Scientific Ideas in James Joyce’s Ulysses." Masters, Concordia University, 1980

If you are an editor of Ashplant, you can edit this page.