(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)
We’ve seen a man shaving, two breakfasts, nude swimming, a bath, and a trip to the outhouse; who didn’t see the “Hades” funeral coming? When part of the point is apparently to depict the pure embodiedness of living, death has to hover on the horizon. And notice how almost none of the physical living we’ve seen has been done by Stephen? Bloom gleefully feeds his body on other bodies; the “Odyssey” section, the “Calypso” episode, and in fact Bloom’s whole appearance in the book all begin with an almost Rabelaisian catalog of body parts he loves to devour:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish [fun garden path here—condiment or contentment?] the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Check that out: His favorite flavor comes sauced with piss.
Stephen, on the other hand… He’s mostly just unsettled or disgusted by bodies. He seems to appreciate hands, but otherwise the bodies that come up in his episodes have so far been dead mothers, bloated, drowned corpses, a dead dog. Oh, and he wipes some snot on a rock. There’s none of the earthy appreciation for embodied living that fills Bloom’s episodes with such gusto.
Which is why I’m so pleased that it’s Bloom in the funeral carriage, rather than Stephen. We can probably guess what kind of morose, depressed-person, self-centered piece it would be to read if it were focused through Stephen. But with Bloom instead, it’s lively and funny and touching and humane. (I hope to come to feel warmer toward Stephen over the course of the book.) He has both a sentimentality and a pragmatism in this episode that I just love. His wry outsider’s perspective on the Christian burial ceremony is awfully percipient, and there’s an undeniable frisson to his description of postmortem liquefaction and his meditations on maggots and how even a graveyard rat’s gotta eat.
I’m getting a little scattershot here, but it’s because this post is more appreciative than interpretive. I can go through bit and bit describe for you what moves me in this episode and why, but it amounts to the presentation of Bloom as—to quote the man himself, in his private appraisal of Martin Cunningham—a “sympathetic human man.” In all its mundanity and gruesomeness and sorrow and totting up and shallowness and sympathy and bruised pride and sexual desire, Bloom’s internal experience of the funeral of an acquaintance feels entirely real. What most rouses my great tenderness for him here is his repeated return to thoughts of his dead infant son and his father’s suicide. His observation on the pointlessness of staking a suicide’s heart—“As if it wasn’t broken already”—is so sad and so empathetic. Joyce shows him in this episode as a man who, for all the energetic joy he brings to living, carries enormous sorrows with him but still looks out for the sufferings of others. (That’s why he says a sudden death is best: no suffering.) He’ll spend part of his day looking to see whether statues of goddesses have anuses, but he also thinks about how comforting it must be for the dead to hear jokes or fashions discussed by the corteges that tromp over them.
Eh, I’m rambling. My point is: The “Hades” episode is a beautifully empathetic portrait of a normal, everyday, empathetic man who understands that life you love more than your own can begin with the sight of two dogs mating in an alley, and that that doesn’t diminish it even a little.