James Joyce's Ulysses

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James Joyce's Ulysses

"There's five fathoms out there.... A sail veering about the blank bay waiting for a swollen bundle to bob up, roll over to the sun a puffy face, saltwhite. Here I am" (18). If "Old Father Ocean" (42) is Proteus (Gifford 46), god of "primal matter" (32) corresponding with a viridian tinge of primal soup as well as the tide that washes in the ruined flotsam and jetsam of man's voyages, it makes some kind of sense that there is no corresponding symbolic organ to this episode. We are in the protean realm of the non-organic, or rather unorganized and de-organized matter. The aforementioned bobbing corpse is of course more than a homicide case in Joyce's symbology. The corpse lost to sea's rot and "bladderwrack" is the body of Proteus manifest in a disturbing (dead) human form, bloated and dissolving. It is there to intimately remind us of our eventual return to unformed matter, to entropy at its extreme. This disintegration will lead to a chaotic reintegration with the Ocean, unfathomable body of energy, crusher of bodies washed to shore, carried to the sandflats of Dublin via "Cock Lake." Proteus harbingers the "seachange" (42) of all organisms, all matter; the corpse also manifests the "Seadeath, mildest of all deaths" (42), "soft as the hand of mist" (Book XI of The Odyssey).

"Full fathom five thy father lies" (41): Father Ocean or Proteus as the drowned, absent father, hidden body of "coral" and "pearls" (The Tempest), always in the "sea change... rich and strange" (ibid.). This macabre dance of matter and energy is witnessed in the undead movement of the corpse "driving before it a drift of rubble" (41), an indeterminate mass of preterite matter. He will rise again "sunk though he be beneath the watery floor" (41). He is a "bag of corpsegas," porous, "a spongy titbit." In his undead, coral-like growth, matter transforms according to unpredictable, heretical logic, which Dedalus is compelled to read as he does "signatures of all things... seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot" (31). This logic only a poet could follow, or perhaps it is simply poetic creation: "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain" (41-2). This fabulation of the chain of being is certainly profane, or at least outside the accepted, predictable logic of any catechism. Ocean is God as an immanent storm and flux; the abstract, ethereal God of Christendom is more ascetic, barren, removed.
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