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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Shape of Stephen Dedalus

For those who may have wondered why I abruptly opened the tap full blast the past 2 weeks with a torrent of posts, almost all about Mansfield Park, and then just as abruptly shut the flow entirely the past 2 days, it's because I have been indulging in a tangential foray into a new literary sleuthing domain, one that I had only visited sporadically and fairly superficially before, i.e., James Joyce's Ulysses.

I recognize an irony in this, in that I have treated Jane Austen's novels as the predecessors to Joyce's, in that I have been proceeding in my literary sleuthing the past 6 years as if it had been Jane Austen, and not Joyce, who famously boasted: "I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries."

I have been amply rewarded for my approaching Austen as if she were a proto-Joyce, and now it is therefore altogether fitting that I close the loop, and approach Joyce as if he were emulating Austen--which I believe, in part, he very definitely was.

In that regard, the brilliant Austen scholar Janine Barchas recently drew a parallel between the mapping of the geography of Bath in Northanger Abbey and the famous mapping of the geography of Dublin in Ulysses--but Barchas did not realize, I suspect, that Joyce was consciously emulating Austen in that specific regard!

And that brings me to a goodie I discovered today about Joyce's Ulysses that relates very closely to another feature of Austen's writing which he emulated--the kind of word play that seems a mere joke, but actually is of the greatest thematic significance.

Having set the stage, now I will combine the text of two posts I sent today in an online group discussion of Ulysses. This is not short, but if you're interested in Ulysses at all, you will want to read it all the way through (and actually, if you've read Ulysses, then this post will seem very SHORT to you!) ;)

PART ONE: A shape that couldn't be changed

This first post by me was a response to another participant's rebuttal of my claim that Stephen Dedalus's character is transformed in the aftermath of the phantasmagorical Circe episode of Ulysses not long before the end of the novel. He claimed that the crisis in that scene did not change Stephen in essentials, and then he quoted something Joyce confided privately to a friend, a quote which is well known in Joycean circles, to the effect that "Stephen has a shape that couldn't be changed."

That Joyce quote brings to my mind several famous quotations attributed to Jane Austen by family and friends, and also some of the famous comments Austen made in her letters to her niece Anna about fiction writing. What is striking in them is how many of them are like lines out of one of Austen's novels, with a surface meaning
concealing a secondary covert meaning. Especially in the comments that Austen made about what was going to happen to some of her characters after the end of their novel. If you read them carefully, you see that they raise more questions than they (appear to) answer. Sphinxian pronouncements, as they should be--why do the reader's work for him?

And I see exactly the same thing in this comment by Joyce about Stephen. it appears to be straightforward, in leading to your conclusion, but....think about the word "shape" and how Joyce uses it in Ulysses (and, I'd bet, in his other novels, too) in various VERY interesting thematic ways. It's one of the many leitmotifs of the novel, as it passes from Stephen to Bloom to Molly in very idiosyncratic ways for
each of them.

And then think about how SHAKESPEARE used the word "shape"in his plays, particularly in (where else?) Hamlet, where it appears nine times! Most famously and importantly of all in Hamlet's doubts about the Ghost's true identity: "the Devil hath power to assume a pleasing SHAPE".

"Shape", of course, is an Elizabethan term for a ghost!

So, when you take all of that into account, as I believe we must, Joyce's comment to Budgen takes on a whole new meaning IN ADDITION to the one that has generally been attributed to it. Joyce the Sphinx is telling us that Stephen has, i.e., is visited by, a ghost that couldn't be changed. And while some would suggest that the ghost in question is that of his mother, I would argue (as you might now have come to expect, based on what I've been writing the past few days here) that it also refers to BLOOM, who is another sort of "ghost" (as in "imaginary friend") who visits Stephen for one fateful night.

And that raises the other side of the shapely coin, i.e., is BLOOM (whether real person or imaginary friend) changed by HIS encounter with Stephen?


Then, as I mulled over what I had just written, I had an epiphany (if there is ever a valid reason to use that by now cliched word, it must be in a discussion of Ulysses!) and wrote the following:

PART TWO: A shape that couldn't be changed: S t E P H A n

In followup to my previous message about Stephen's shape that couldn't be changed, it dawned on me shortly after writing that message that James Joyce, who was a lover of anagrams and wordplay in general, as exemplified in Bloom's anagramming on his own name, had embedded a particularly clever anagram on the word "shape" in ANOTHER name in the novel (actually, to be more accurate, I am sure there are dozens of such
anagrams in the novel, and I have just found one of them!).

Look at my Subject Line and you can see my point. I.e., in plain English, the letters s, h, a, p, and e all appear in the name "Stephan"!

That might not seem overly convincing at first glance, standing alone---but it does not stand alone, in fact it turns out to be the portal to a rich lode of hidden wordplay in Ulysses.

Throughout Ulysses, Stephen is spelled in the English manner, with the "ph" followed by "en". However, in exactly four places in the novel, there is a variant of his name, where "ph" is followed by "AN", and they turn out to be a very curious collection, as each one of them points either to the word "shape", or to Hamlet, or both!:

"Read the skies. Autontimorumenos. Bous Stephanoumenos. Where's your configuration? Stephen, Stephen, cut the bread even."

Of course the word "configuration" is a $10 synonym of the word “shape”, and the last sentence's word play on the name "Stephen" suggests the hidden wordplay that just preceded it!


"Stephanos, my crown. My sword. His boots are spoiling the shape of my feet. Buy a pair. Holes in my socks. Handkerchief too."

And there is an explicit reference to the word "shape", and, by reference to the words "crown', "sword" and 'boots", to a courtier, such as....Hamlet!


"I might find here one of my pawned schoolprizes. Stephano Dedalo, alumno optimo, palmam ferenti. Father Conmee, having read his little hours, walked through the hamlet of Donnycarney, murmuring vespers."

And there is a veiled reference to Hamlet!

But the best one is this one:

"You have spoken of the past and its phantoms, Stephen said. Why think of them? If I call them into life across the waters of Lethe will not the poor ghosts troop to my call? Who supposes it? I, Bous Stephanoumenos, bullockbefriending bard, am lord and giver of their life."

First, we have references to ghosts and phantoms, and, further, the role of Stephen's imagination and memory in giving those "shapes" life!

"All desire to see you bring forth the work you meditate, to acclaim you Stephaneforos. I heartily wish you may not fail them."

And here we are surely meant to recall both Claudius in Act 1, Scene 2: ("We doubt it nothing: heartily farewell.") and Hamlet's mocking passive-aggressive "reply" in Act 1, Scene 5: ("I'm sorry they offend you, heartily; Yes, 'faith heartily.")


And so it turns out that the shape of the NAME Stephen COULD be changed!!! The above four instances are the proof in the novel, and now I think I have convincingly shown that Joyce's private comment was indeed a Sphinxian riddle leading deep into the mysteries of the novel itself!

Cheers, ARNIE

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