Obsession: Water in the Telemachiad
I wasn’t quite sure whether my obsession was supposed to include pure H2O or mixtures of it – so I guess I decided to play it safe and just go with liquid mixtures that usually contain water. Also, I would like to apologize in advance for any perceived lack of coherence/logic, and for lack of steam in episodes Nestor and Proteus.
There’s the lather, the sea (mother), the tea, the “bowl of bitter waters” (249), milk.
Ulysses opens with Buck’s “bowl of lather” (2), which Buck uses in his mock/black-ish Mass rituals – and here I think it is interesting to note that Buck – formally Malachi, a Jewish prophet from the Old Testament – performs the profaned rituals of a Catholic priest. Buck seems to use his bastardized version of the ritual to mock Stephen’s former religiosity (Blamires 4), which has the odd effect of conveying Buck’s professed atheism while seeming to chain him to religious rote, in the same way he seems to enjoy mocking Stephen’s thoughtful intellect but also continuously (and, in my opinion, superabundantly) makes allusions as if to… I don’t know, affirm his self worth? There is also the beginning of the alignment of Buck/Malachi with cleanliness from water (lather, washing) and Stephen with its opposite: slightly before line 480, we learn that Stephen has only a “monthly wash” (“the unclean bard” indeed – I would personally not advocate this schedule of personal hygiene). Stephen remarks that “All Ireland is washed by the gulfstream” (~before 480). I’m not quite sure what to make of this as of yet, but I’d hazard a guess that Stephen’s loss of religiosity while in Paris (he returns from the continent to his mother’s deathbed, but refuses to kneel down and pray for her)…
Later on in “Telemachus” Buck swims in the sea, and Stephen continues through the three episodes to think of Buck as comfortable in that environment, with water (able to save a drowning man) – whereas Stephen only dares to speculate about his own cowardice in the same watery situation.
Buck is the first to call the sea a “great sweet mother” followed with the mocking adjectives “snotgreen”/“scrotumtightening” (77-78); by line 80, we have the Greek “Thalatta!”, and yet another reference to “our great sweet mother”. The sea is further developed as feminine and maternal in Stephen’s mind – “white breast of the dim sea” (nothing terribly unusual; a sort of The Awakening all consuming, formless but full mother, a site of fertility (Blamires 4), creation and – later in “Proteus” – creativity) – which then leads him to what I think is one of the most interesting associations in “Telemachus”, this simultaneous relation of the sea mother to Stephen’s own deceased mother. But where Buck’s “sweet” mother becomes in Stephen’s experience “the bowl of bitter waters” (249). Actually, this sort of recalls for me the “bowl of lather”; both of them seem related to a concept of purification/test for purity (Catholic/Jewish). Instead of the cleansing that it seems to offer Buck, the sea becomes a site of filth for Stephen, a “dull green mass of liquid”, the color of which he connects with the “green sluggish bile which [his mother] had torn up from her liver” (110).
tea: Buck makes a “strong” tea; here, another association with water and maternity (though this seems to be in a mocking sense): “When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water” (~360). I can’t make out too much as relates to the tea (Cliffnotes tells me that tea reappears later on, so I’ll deal with it as its frequency of mention increases) – there is the element of hospitality and creation, the fact that you mix the tea (made with hot water) with milk (so two things associated with the maternal). However, if you look at the mention of the milk in Telemachus (esp the lady who brings the milk), there definitely seems to be some sort of negative association with this milk/milk lady. Far from being the romanticized icon of the Irish nationalists/revivalists, Stephen finds this milk lady barren (she doesn’t understand Irish). So really, there’s a dismantling of the maternal idea – though she brings milk, she’s late – there is no real sense of regeneration through this maternal figure. And (sorry to jump backwards) there’s that problematic idea of hospitality as a pathetic kind of consolation prize for civilizations that have been trod upon. Hm.
Associations of water and milk here with verses of poems and songs: Milton/watery death, and then religion.
The sea (“our mighty mother”) again, as Stephen wanders along a beachfront. What begins with the obvious associations with the sea – navel-less Eve, Mary and the Immaculate Conception, the two great maternal figures of Christian history – becomes subsequently contrasted with mentions of “misbirths” and of dog carcasses. So again, this imagery of fecundity and barrenness/death… The motif of drowning is brought up again – Stephen thinks of Buck’s prowess/affinity with water, and his own inability to rescue his own mother from the “bitter waters” (salt water – sea, tears… I wonder about the initial “sweet” reference).
in a semi-aside, we have proteus, the shapeshifting god of the sea, and then a mention of the irish equivalent, “the steeds of mananaan” (before ~60), which adds not only to Stephen’s opening ruminations about “ineluctable modality”, but adds to the many-morphous nature of water…
Stephen’s act of urination (which, given Stephen’s preceding poetic/creative spurt, [ah, unfortunate pun,]) puts his excretion in the greater context of the sea mother, with all its connotations of creation/creativity.