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Parallax Opoponax

Wednesday, September 30, 2009; 04:03 am Leave a comment Go to comments

According to Merriam Webster’s Online Dectionary, parallax is:

the apparent displacement or the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object; especially : the angular difference in direction of a celestial body as measured from two points on the earth’s orbit.

On to the article: http://hjs.ff.cuni.cz/archives/v7/main/essays.php?essay=benejam

Valerie Benejam’s “Parallax Opoponax” from Hypermedia Joyce Studies (link above) opens with mention of Derrida’s “grammar of perfumes” (in “Nausicaa” to “Penelope”), and begins by charting out heliotropic perfume (a la Gerty Macdowell) in opposition to Molly’s opoponax based scent. In case you’re wondering how this relates to parallax, Benejam (towards the end of the article) makes the observation that opoponax, like so few other words in Ulysses, ends with the suffix –ax, tying it on an aural level to the word parallax, and proceeds from there. I’m not so sure how I feel about that tenuous kind of connection, however, it being Joyce, it seems less improbable…

The article is broken up into 4 main parts and can be summarized as follows:

1:  An observation about Gerty MacDowell’s “little ruse[s]” with the heliotrope perfume that leads Bloom to think not about Gerty, but about the scent of his wife Molly (and of women in general). Benejam describes Bloom’s imaginings about women’s seductive-ness (starting with perfume), the distance that seduction requires (which perfume plays into), and Bloom’s own distance from women and his (attempts at) peeping. Benejam ties in a line about both “seduction and astronomy” requiring distance… which seems a little out of place.

An etymological breakdown of opoponax, the scent associated with Molly, ensues, with some interesting results: “we can identify the Greek opos (juice), which suggests the liquid and fluid in Molly, to be confirmed later in the flow of her monologue. We also recognise panax (panacea), which is in keeping with the leitmotif running throughout Ulysses of the thought of Molly as an antidote to be kept by her husband; it reappears in “Circe” with the allusion to the Homeric ‘moly’ ”. Benejam further plays on the sound of the word to draw connections between au pot and opoponax (au pot effectively French for approximately on the pot), thus Molly’s posterior, which we know Bloom has a thing (or several) for.

2:  Where Gerty MacDowell seen from behind reveals not “mellonous hemispheres” but her lameness. Benejam asserts that the style of the section in “Nausicaa” reflects Gerty’s cosmetic nature – the heliotrope perfume, the lameness-disguised by attire, the clichés and hackneyed lady’s magazine phrases that crop up in effort to paint something “delicate and ladylike”.

3. Benejam does a more full-fledged look into Molly’s perfume, and how Joyce has mirrored the “sharper… more suggestive” scent of opoponax throughout the text. Which so far appears to be true; Bloom’s thoughts always return to Molly, who we only briefly saw (“Mn”) in bed, and his correspondence with Martha also brings up this idea of Molly’s perfume – for the reader, Molly is continuously held at the distance required by seduction, her scent/mention by Joyce an anticipated thing. (Unlike Gerty’s wadded cotton, which only enables reflection on the past.)

Perfume is also linked here to the act of kissing (and of performing the kiss) – tied with the last lines of Ulysses – and then more Derrida: Benejam agrees that Molly’s final repetition of yesses indicates her “awareness of the other (as desiring subject)” which represents “Joyce’s awareness of the other (as reading subject).”

4. Segue into the reader’s position in Ulysses, and finally, I can sort of see where parallax might come in. Benejam argues for Joyce’s non-misogynist attitude by pointing to his contradictory and irreducible representation of Molly/Molly’s perfume in the text (opoponax and jessamine at one point, then opoponax and violets at another), then uses it to tie in to our role as readers: “The indeterminacy of Molly’s perfume also reminds us how extremely careful we have to be in interpreting anything in Ulysses, and how useful it can be to consider several perspectives at the same time, which of course brings me to the notion of ‘parallax’”.

Benejam points to Bloom as the main medium by which we (the readers) read Molly, and makes the case that his parallax, his careful examination of her from front and back, his attempts to see/read things from different perspectives enables a kind of conflation of subject and object in which his celestial object (going back to this notion of parallax) becomes subject. And then Benejam goes on to say that Joyce’s text is the perfume that we the reader should model our reading of Ulysses after “Bloom’s parallactic calculation”.

All in all, not an extremely useful conclusion to reach – it seems a bit general, in my opinion – but, I do think some of the points Benejam raises about the perfumes (the olefactory, especially given Bloom’s interaction with the sensual) is worth a look-see/consideration.

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