|The Cast of Characters: A Reading of Ulysses
Yale University Press, 1999, ISBN 0300078056; Hardcover $27.50. 240 Pages. [Browse/Purchase]
Reviewed for the Brazen Head by Bob Williams
The binding of this book is shockingly ugly and the Yale University Press deserves serious flogging for such a gross breach of sound book making. The end notes, exclusively bibliographical, are methodologically ingenious and painless.
The author is on the staff of Wesleyan University and a psychoanalyst in private practice. Within this book he mentions that he has taught Ulysses for many years and talks with experience of the effect of Ulysses on his classes, that it creates a genuine community like no other work that they encounter. All Joyceans can relate to this since most differences are few and brief.
The title is slightly misleading in that it creates an incorrect hope or assumption that the book is census-type book in the style of Adaline Glasheen's Census of Finnegans Wake. Professor Schwaber, however, uses the word "cast" in a variety of different ways. He speaks of cast as being the equivalent of bent or tendency as well as in the sense of actors in a drama.
Professor Schwaber is an unreconstructed Freudian. This brings up a variety of questions to be considered before it is possible to appraise the book itself properly. It is true that Freud was not a satisfactory practitioner. (Dora left him because she resented his treatment of her as a woman instead of as a person.) He was constantly in the process of refining his thought, an intellectual honesty that many have found less appealing than specious and intransigent certainty. New alternative treatments have had better and quicker results than analysis for many mental ills. Underlying his insight and framing its boundaries is an unattractive pessimism. (However unattractive, it may also be true.)
For all these reasons Freud is not the important figure that he was, say, fifty years ago. Freud bashing is the intellectual fashion of the moment. The fashion, however, ignores the value of the map that he drew of the human mind, the sources of its dilemmas and the mechanisms of its activities. In addition he was a man of great cultural capacity and established fascinating connections between psychoanalytic thought and creative processes.
The relevance of such a figure to Joyce is obvious. Although Joyce was an early denigrator of Freud, many of his thoughts run parallel to Freud's and he used -- knowingly or unknowingly -- many Freudian methods and intellectual constructions. In many ways Joyce and Freud are similar equations operating in different environments.
The pertinence of a Freudian reading of Ulysses must be regarded as, after due thought, a given. Professor Schwaber takes us through a series of psychoanalytically oriented studies of Stephen, Bloom and Molly. Since these three are the creations of Joyce, we are also looking at a psychoanalytical study of the author as well.
Professor Schwaber recognizes the contradictory nature of Joyce: he is an egalitarian writer of a difficult, possibly elitist, book. In the Wandering Rocks chapter Joyce demonstrates that Stephen and Bloom are not the only characters to flourish under his methods. He democratically brings both Tom Kernan and M'Coy to life. We see Kernan on the same basis that we have seen Stephen and Bloom and, although we see M'Coy only from the outside, he is well displayed and, significantly, an entirely different person than the one that we saw earlier in the Lestrygonian chapter.
Professor Schwaber finds the last half of Ulysses difficult but unlike some critics he does not find this a problem. It is a matter of a different order of enjoyment. He points out, as contrast to the early chapters, that the particular style of the Nausicaa chapter allows us to learn both what it is like to be Gerty MacDowell and what it is like to be in her presence.
Although Professor Schwaber ranges freely throughout Ulysses, he recognizes that more advantages adhere to some sections than to others. He follows his introductory chapter on the Wandering Rocks with one on the library scene, Scylla and Charybdis. In Stephen's development of his Shakespeare theory he finds Stephen suffering from a paralysis that arises from his unresolved relationship with his dead mother. Aggravated by a (fictional) refusal to pray at her dying request, his real problem is the now impossible desire to have her all to himself. The constant arrival of younger siblings frustrated this desire and death has now put the matter beyond dispute but has not closed it. In his Shakespeare discussion Stephen makes many points of identity. As a survivor he is Anne and he is Hamlet, the sorrowing son, and Claudius, as he contemplates his auditors with murderous thoughts.
Stephen, unable to establish full integrity as a person, suffers creative impotence. He applies an intellectual solvent to fatherhood and sonship in an attempt to batter his way through his dilemma but he is in crisis and the Shakespeare theory in which he does not believe becomes a parable of his spiritual state. In its formulation he readies himself for his later meeting with Bloom.
Professor Schwaber twice refers to Stephen as the oldest son. He was not. He was the oldest surviving son (17.537). Consideration of this fact would have given Professor Schwaber's discussion of Stephen's relations to brother and brother figures -- in which group Professor Schwaber includes Bloom -- a better focus. (That Professor Schwaber missed this important fact is doubly odd since he later quotes the very passage that I refer to.) Despite this lapse, what he says about brothers is, as Tom Kernan would no doubt have said, most trenchant.
There is no relief in sight from complexity as Professor Schwaber turns his attention to Bloom. A very basic question -- is Bloom Jewish? His inner identity is tied to some idea of Jewishness but as a matter of deliberate consideration, he knows that he is not. In the eyes of his fellow Dubliners he is casually or virulently disregarded as Jewish. Some idea of Bloom's complexity may be derived by Professor Schwaber's indecisiveness about his name. He is sometimes Leopold and sometimes Bloom and Professor Schwaber joins the very large group, which includes Nosey Flynn and M'Coy, that regards Bloom with admiration and affection.
Just as Professor Schwaber chose Scylla and Charybdis to study Stephen, he selects to begin with the Cyclops chapter to study Bloom even as he admits that, although here and there in this chapter we see Bloom objectively, that objectivity is marred by the bias of the venomous narrator. We also find in the Bloom of this chapter a persistent voice in a series of conversations to which his contributions are unwelcome. Professor Schwaber writes: "Leopold is defending against anguish by diverting, through repression, his passion and anger and attending stoutly to matters at hand. Doing nothing to intervene at home, he aggresses in talk at Kiernan's." It is in fact, as he knows, the time when Molly is betraying him with Boylan.
By moving from Cyclops to Circe Professor Schwaber attempts further explication of Bloom by his role in the constellation of father, mother, son (Bloom) and wife. In this system Bloom, fascinated by women, is also at a disadvantage that stems from the vision of Ellen Bloom as the Widow Twankey, the pantomime role of Aladdin's mother and usually played with broad sexual innuendo by a male actor. It is the result of this unreciprocable relation with the mother that prevents Bloom from effective activity in the case of Molly's betrayal. His anger is too great for him to deal with and he represses it.
"For a couple of hours before Leopold and Stephen part, they will walk and talk about a range of subjects trivial and searching, rarely agreeing but comfortable enough to linger with one another. Neither will have had any such companionship all day and Bloom, we'll learn, hasn't had any for a decade."
And for slightly longer than this decade Bloom has been in a state of repressed maturity. Towards the close of Circe he asserts himself purposefully (as opposed to the useless assertion in Cyclops), rejects the dominance of Bella and takes the unconscious Stephen into his protection. The vision of Rudy as he would have been had he lived rewards him.
But through most of his day he has struggled with the repressed anger that we saw in Cyclops. His equanimity has suffered damage from outbreaks of depression, one of them occurring before he learned that this was the day on which Molly would betray him. He manages, however, to preserve himself from defeat. He is buoyant, irrepressible in fact.
Stephen is a different matter. He has vanished from Ulysses for several hours and re-enters it drunk and desperate. It is his frenzied "dance of death" that summons his mother from her grave, visible to him alone. The mother with whom he seeks understanding and solace is an enemy, a ghoul whose entire consciousness consists of nothing but commonplace religious cant.
In dealing with the angers, respectively repressed and obsessive, of Bloom and Stephen, Professor Schwaber does not rise above the usual level of Joycean criticism although the text is punctuated by insights that both instruct and amuse. In the penultimate chapter he considers the story of Bloom and Stephen in the Eumaeus and Ithaca chapters. In a stroke of brilliant comic invention, he names this chapter "The Odd Couple."
Of the wooden style of the Eumaeus chapter he says:
"the self-awareness of Ulysses, apparent from the first but showing increasing skepticism about words, narratives, and comprehensibility, would dovetail with the flamboyant ventures of form and style by which the story continues and the narrative shines -- silently shouting 'I am here,' afraid he might not be."
Professor Schwaber convincingly describes the levels of union between Stephen and Bloom, a union that is tentative, temporary, incomplete and clumsy. Despite the fragmentary union and the waywardness of the style, these two show themselves to be relaxed in each other's company and there is an ease and warmth that is found in few other passages of Ulysses.
In this description of the Eumaeus chapter Professor Schwaber illuminates the tentative workings of Bloom's mind as Bloom toys with possibilities and vicariously tries out roles concerning his new role as a betrayed husband.
As we move homewards (Ithaca), the style shifts to the pedantic. "But even this style proves unreliable, a last rebuff to naive realism." Of Stephen's curious choice of songs, the Hugh of Lincoln ballad, he sees the beginning of Stephen's withdrawal from his relationship with Bloom and of his abrupt departure Professor Schwaber observes: "He leaves before he is left once more."
In his last chapter Professor Schwaber studies Molly. He reviews all the possibilities that others have canvassed -- from goddess to slut. He admits her variety and provides a reasonable description of a woman with enormous unschooled intelligence, verve and wit. He has no trouble in accepting "O Jamesey" as an imploration directed to her (literary) creator.
"She can be viewed appropriately as a protofeminist without benefit of theory, latently subversive of the patriarchy, and, less sympathetically, as the projected image of the traditional male wishfulness about women. But none of these aspects opens to her individuality."
Her thoughts, ignited by her first experience of adultery, the oddity of her life with Poldy, the loss of her infant son eleven years earlier and the natural sensuality of her nature embank the torrential flow of her thoughts. Professor Schwaber artfully organizes these by examining the closing thoughts of each of the long eight paragraphs that make up the Penelope chapter.
"Murder and adulterous love, pride of beauty, aroused sexual desire, fear of aging and desertion, bodily discharges and an anal shove, a confusion of admirers, ecstatic fulfillment: these intensities arrest her inner flow of language."
Professor Schwaber brings his book full-circle. He began by considering Joyce's egalitarian stance and concludes: "By ending with Molly Bloom, Ulysses extends the democracy of epic interest from Stephen and Leopold to her, and potentially to everyone."
Professor Schwaber noticeably passes from an active wrestling with the complexities of Ulysses to an appreciation of the lyricism of the later chapters. In this process his own style becomes more lyrical. The differences implicit in this change undermine the consistency of his book without detracting from its value. What he writes is worth reading however much his focus might shift. In a way he may be said to recapitulate the traits of Ulysses itself.
Putting 'Ulysses' on Freud's Couch -- From the December 16, 1999 New York Times. A positive review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.