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The Problems with Gifts

Monday, September 7, 2009; 04:46 am Leave a comment

My obsession, or focus, for studying Ulysses is ‘gifts’. Now, I had a working idea of what a gift was, but just to be certain I checked the web definitions floating about. Three recurring definitions came up:

1 : a notable capacity, talent, or endowment
2 : something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation
3 : the act, right, or power of giving

After reading the Telemachiad, the first three episodes of Ulysses, each of these definitions is enacted in some way, though that action, interestingly, is often shying away from or a mockery of the real thing. The first definition looks at a gift as almost a quality of some kind, a talent. Stephen Dedalus, we know, after seeing into his mind and reading about him and his interactions with others, is an exceptionally gifted individual, a poet, an artist. And yet, one of the first things we realize about Stephen is that he and his environment, including his “friends” and Dublin, Ireland, are suppressing those gifts. In following the running commentary and clues between the sea, the castle, his lack of bathing and anger with the usurper, one recognizes quite easily that Stephen has exiled himself from the country, his mother/master, and his home/family, in all senses of the words. Exile, self-imposed or not, does little for Stephen’s gifts, as he is still physically trapped. Stephen’s struggles with theology, history, family, and country frustrate him at every turn, each demanding something he is unwilling, in his Lucifier-artist role, to give. His avenues of expressing his gifts are therefore defunct at the moment.

The second definition, the voluntary transference of something without compensation, occurs repeatedly in the first two episodes, most often in a negative, ironic, or mocking light. Buck Mulligan is the greatest transgressor here.  As with his mockery of religion, Stephen, and country, Buck turns gift-giving on its head, most often requiring an exchange for something. In the first instances of gift-giving in the first two episodes, Buck Mulligan simply seizing Stephen’s handkerchief while insulting the sensitive poet (“the bard’s noserag”). Being a good host, Stephen lets the grab pass. The second instance occurs when the tenets receive the milkwoman and Buck, playing Stephen’s role of host, tosses out a coin, singing “-Ask nothing more of me, sweet. /All I can give you I give.” Here Buck reduces Swinburne’s Oblation to a crass commercial interaction – not sincere gift-giving, though he might label it such. This mockery and commercialization is typical of Buck, and runs throughout the episode, while his interactions with “gifts” – both taken and given (i.e. Stephen’s handkerchief and Stephen’s key and money) – cheapen relations and reinforce the unsavory (I believe Blamires used the word “diabolical”) aspect of the man and his associates. The other instance of possible gift-giving occurs in episode 2, when Deasy imparts the gift of wisdom on Dedalus. We learn fairly quickly from Stephen, however, that this “wisdom” has been imparted multiple times before, and its biased, narrow definitions – no matter how tempting – serve as shackles rather than wings. By the end of the episode, we see that Deasy is only interested in debate, in gratifying his own sense of superiority, which Stephen refuses to rise to.

The final definition of a “gift,” and the interactions listed above, begs the question of who should be giving giffts and who should be receiving. Many of you may know of the importance of gifts in The Odyssey – the host of a home was supposed to share food, drink, not pressure the guest into anything, give gifts, etc. The guest, in turn, is to treat his host with respect, dignity, thankfulness and not become overbearing/taxing. This host-guest ritual is disturbed in The Odyssey many times, most notably by the suitors; the disruption of this ritual always signals a failing on one party or another. Shakespeare, most notably in Hamlet and King Lear, also shows how this ritual is broken, by a guest abusing privileges and ignoring the wishes of his host. Stephen, as the rightful host of the tower and as a gifted individual, plays his part well, but his associates and the world constantly fail to hold-up their side – aggravating Stephen’s social and mental isolation.

Other thing to note: Haines’ cigarettes. Gifts? What does it mean when the only “gifts” given to Stephen (that he accepts) come from his land’s conqueror?

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