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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Self-Slaughter of Buck Mulligan’s Melting Flying Candle

Yesterday, I revealed one of my interpretations of what Buck Mulligan is slyly referring to when we read the following in Chapter 1 of Ulysses…

“—I'm melting, [Buck] said, as the candle remarked when... But, hush! Not a word more on that subject!...”

I showed yesterday that ONE of the sources that Buck is teasingly alluding to is the mythological flying Icarus and the fatally untimely melting of the wax affixing his wings to his torso. To the best of my knowledge, I am the first to spot that allusion.

On the surface, Buck seems to be Buck suggesting, in an oblique, erudite way, that Stephen is flying too high for his own good, as an artist and a person, and that he’s headed for a hard fall. This is consistent with other things Buck says to and about Stephen in a more direct way.

Additionally, I pointed out that Buck’s comment has also generally been understood by Gifford and others as a rather witty joke on a phallic theme. Candle melting, get it? That interpretation is supported by Buck’s playful “But, hush!” which alerts the reader to seek a scandalous interpretation, if he has not already seen it.

I then wrote as follows:

“And in case you were wondering, I do have ANOTHER allusion to alert you to…one which indicates that Buck’s dirty joke was not only an allusion to the mythological Icarus--a “candle” who, like Norma Jean, burned out much too soon--- it was ALSO an allusion to ANOTHER source for Ulysses, another source which has its own very hidden-in—plain-sight dirty joke? Anyone want to take a crack at telling me what that other allusive source is, and prove it by also providing the first line of that earlier dirty joke (which actually extends for a long while)? Happy hunting, and when you put your hands on that other allusion, you will know you’ve found something which provides a very firm, unyielding foundation for a deeper understanding of Ulysses, one which will not melt away at the first onset of global warming. ;)”

As no one has presented an answer, it is time for me to do so.

I put in that last sentence every word I could think of to suggest ANOTHER word which I deliberately omitted, which would have made the answer much more visible. The words “firm” and “unyielding”, and also the suggestion of the polar ice caps melting, are all different ways of referring to an object which is………SOLID! And I also gave you a last clue in the Subject Line of this post, in the word “self-slaughter”. See it?

If not, that is my cue to now give you the OTHER passage which Buck was alluding to, as promised:



Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
THAT GROWS TO SEED; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. THAT IT SHOULD COME TO THIS!

Although I’d imagine that to most of you a sexual interpretation of that very famous soliloquy of Hamlet is surprising, I assure you that it is an interpretation that has significant but low-profile roots in both the critical literature, and also in performance history. To run through all the nuances of Shakespeare's sexual joke would take a long while, but suffice for my purposes here to point out that in that soliloquy, we have all of the following working in tandem:

the image of a phallus as solid flesh going through a certain physiologically predictable sequence which differs strikingly from the melting of solid ice to liquid water--i.e., ice thaws FIRST, and THEN melts into water, not the reverse! ;

the image of suicide (“self-slaughter”), which is a perfect metaphor for the act of self-satisfaction, given that it is well known that Shakespeare loved the image of “death” as orgasm;

a garden is not the only living object which “grows to seed”—that is a VERY clever sexual pun, isn’t it?; AND

the metaphorical meaning of “come”, which was another of Shakespeare perennial favorites in his bawdy moods, which seemed to have been more or less constant.

So, I think it’s clear from this quick analysis that Shakespeare was indulging in some pretty elaborate sexual innuendo in that passage, in parallel and interacting with the conventional interpretations of that soliloquy as a suicidal despairing lament.

And I think it’s now equally clear from looking at Buck’s joke alongside Shakespeare's, that Joyce “got” Shakespeare’s joke!

And I can tell you further that Joyce showed his understanding of the Bard’s joke, not only in Buck’s witticism, but also in several other widely separated passages in Ulysses. My personal favorite, which, as far as I can tell, has never been noted as having a covert sexual meaning, is the following, which superficially appears to be one of the pleasantries passed back and forth by Bloom and his friends:

—I was down there for the Cork park races on Easter Monday, Ned Lambert said. Same old six and eightpence. Stopped with Dick Tivy. —AND HOW IS DICK, THE SOLID MAN?

—Nothing between himself and heaven, Ned Lambert answered. —By the holy Paul! Mr Dedalus said in subdued wonder. DICK TIVY BALD?

Standing alone, the sexual resonance in that conversation COULD very well be a coincidence, one of those countless sexual innuendoes which we all fall into without the slightest conscious intent to do so. But, combined with Buck’s joke, which points so clearly to Hamlet’s “too too solid flesh”, it cannot be an accident to have a man named “Dick” be referred to as “the solid man”!

And as icing on the cake, now consider one final bit of conversation ABOUT a sensuous meal in Ulysses:

—But wait till I tell you, he said. Delahunt of Camden street had the catering and yours truly was chief bottlewasher. Bloom and the wife were there. Lashings of stuff we put up: port wine and sherry and curacao to which we did ample justice. FAST AND FURIOUS IT WAS. AFTER LIQUIDS CAME SOLIDS. COLD JOINTS AND MINCE PIES...

That word “solid “ again, embedded amid a description which just happens to work very well describing something more than eating food.

Now, I conclude this post by circling back to the FIRST hidden allusion in Buck’s joke, which pointed to the melting wax on Icarus’s wings, which I demonstrated yesterday, and now I suggest to you that Joyce, by these TWO allusions to Hamlet, was showing that he ALSO understood that Shakespeare was ALSO alluding to that same Icarian melting wax in his “too too solid flesh”.

Because, as you may recall from my post the other day, Shakespeare had already, in Act 1, punningly showed us that Hamlet was a kind of Icarus in his situation, by having Hamlet refer to himself as being “too much i’ the sun.”

Which all goes to show what a complex allusive game Shakespeare played, and what a still MORE complex game Joyce played as he constructed a literary Chinese box to hold Shakespeare’s!

Cheers, ARNIE

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