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Obsession: Catholicism

Monday, September 7, 2009; 02:38 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Well, there is a lot to deal with when talking about Catholicism in Ulysses. I probably will spend most of my time trying to narrow my obsession into a more manageable bite. But for now, let’s try to go over everything I got in the first mouthful. Just by going through the audio and the annotation book I had a fairly good idea about how to approach my search before I started reading and marking, and taking notes. Just for the record, the notes aren’t complete, but I’d rather get my ideas up as fresh as possible. Like fish, I might come back and look at these closer to 11:00 PM, and realize that they stink, and have rotted with the passage of time.

I have several rabbit holes to follow, although a few are looking more promising than the others. First, and probably easiest to play with is the relationship that the characters of the book have with Catholicism. The characters who seem to have a passing association with religion in the Telemachiad were Buck Mulligan, Stephen Daedalus, Stephen’s mother, Haines, and Mr. Deasy. Interesting to note who does not seem to have an opinion on religion: they come in the form of any living women, and the children that Stephen teaches.

Considering the forthright views of Aunt Kate in The Dead, however, I suspect that women we meet further along in the novel will have their own opinions on the Holy Mother Church. It does seem strange to me that the milk woman, a representation of Ireland (according to Gifford), does not hold any strong views. Her only real mention of regligion is contained in her greeting, “That’s a lovely morning, she said. Glory be to God,” which sounds as unthought of and as regularly used as the German “Gruess Gott” that would have been the typical greeting of the time period in Prussia and Bavaria–you still can hear it in Bavaria today (12.390). Perhaps, in the end it does not matter if Ireland becomes a Catholic or a Protestant state. Still, so far the young children, women and poor seem to be voiceless as far as their take on religion is concerned.

While the relationship between characters, their part in the story, and their religious character as Irish Catholics, or non-Catholics is the most obvious approach, I actually think I like the threads of heresy that run through the novel. Most characters are connected to heretical thinkers at some point, and the ideas the heretics espoused are either enacted, or ensnare the thoughts of Stephen (“Where is poor, dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtality” page 32 lines 50-51).

It leaves me struggling with the question of how Stephen feels about religion now. Despite what seems on the surface to be rebellion against the church, his thoughts run rampant with the theology of his schooling and back ground. Is it possible to reject what you have been taught? Stephen’s current thoughts seem to suggest “no” despite the fact that he is trying desperately to reject it. Can you take the Catholic out of the Daedalus? How do the other characters fit into this, as much of the time he seems awash in a sea of heresy?

On much the same theme, there are also a wide variety of Saints and religious figures that are evoked, whether through characters, or philosophical concepts which grapple with the brains of the poor characters. Even Mulligan, seen as a tempter, and irreverent, reminds Stephen of Saint Chrysostomos (3.26). The amount of Biblical imagery in this book has a lot to Perhaps heresy and holy order should be lumped together and examined as one battle, that will hopefully continue through the rest of the book.

I was also struck by the reoccurring mention of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Perhaps this comes under the category of heretical thought, or just be completely outside the realm of Irish Catholicism. However, it might be time to beg my roommate for her copies of the books, and sit down to read them again, and compare them to the views that Buck (who seems to be the big Nietzsche proponent) expounds. What if Buck, who is content to laugh at the world in an indolent way, has managed to reject the trappings of the Catholic Church more thoroughly than the serious studious Stephen? Mulligan sees no ethical problem with lips service (“Humor her till it’s over,” page 7 line 212), therefore implying that he no longer sees the church and God as something to be respectful of, where as Stephen maintains both respect and rejection at the same time.

Regarding the language used, I was surprised to see in the annotations just how often the Irish characters’ speech contained phrases that dodged curses relating to Christ, and God: “O Jay – Dodging the curse Oh Jesus” (Gifford 20), is I believe the first example out of perhaps five. This leads me to questions of superstition within the Irish Catholic church, and who believes them. That returns to the problematic question of Buck’s allegiance to his church. He is usually the man using these dodges. While he has little problem paying lip service to God, he cannot take the Lord’s name in vain. Which gets back to the question of how deep the schooling that these men received, goes. They all seem to be fairly well-educated despite being in dubious financial circumstances, and in Stephen’s case, from a disreputable family background.

Finally, as I have already mentioned, the book is rich with religious imagery, but what do the Biblical quotes used have to say about the political situation and the greater Irish history? Joyce has left that lingering under the surface of the interactions of the characters. Still, I don’t think I will follow that path, as I am more interested in the microcosmic Joycean Dublin interacting with the macrocosm of the Irish Catholic church than I am in two macrocosms as they are represented in the microcosm of the story (if we can call such a long book filled with detail a microcosm).

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