Everyday Semiotics

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Austin, day two

The conference was held at the University of Texas at Austin's student union, with a small Joyce exhibit a few blocks away at the Harry Ransom Center where, somewhere deeper inside, exists a respectable amount of Joyce's papers, so I hear.

The first panel I attended was on Scientific Joyce -- seemed a sort of precursor to my own panel two days hence -- which included discussions of Oxen of the Sun's embriological references, a discussion of nerves and fatigue as relating to Eumaeus, and a charting of the comet Bloom imagines himself in Ithaca.

Next was a panel on "indeterminacies" where most discussion centered on Margot Norris's paper about Stephen's anti-Semitic ballad, the story of little Harry Hughes who is chopped into pieces by a Jewess. Norris suggested Stephen's singing this in front of Bloom might have been an escpe mechanism -- Stephen, fearing entrapment in the Jew's house, tries to distance himself. But in fact Bloom hasn't yet extended his invitation at the moment Stephen sings; and also in fact, it was Bloom who invited Stephen to sing. It seems to me, and another listener suggested, that Stephen is singing his ballad with tongue in cheek. Of course Stephen was much earlier shown to be resistant to anti-Semitic stereotypes ("A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, Jew or gentile," he tells Mr Deasy); then again, it's easier in theory than in practice to avoid bigotry. [And something to check up on -- Stephen actually appears in Kiernan's while Bloom is out and calls him a "perverted Jew," echoing Buck Mulligan who earlier warned Stephen that Bloom had his eye on him. This purported exchange happens in Cyclops, so I reckon that if it is Stephen who says this, it's not revealed unambiguously.]

After lunch a good panel where, in epistulary form, Erin Hollis and Aaron Schmidt unpack and unpack some more the very, very brief scene in which Bloom is revulsed by the sloppy eaters at Barton's and decides to take his lunch instead at Davy Byrne's. Bloom is normally such a deferential fellow, so whence this sudden disgust at his fellow man? Very cleverly the panelists wove in the nearby reference of another building near the Barton, the former Harp theater, now the Empire pub. Bloom once turned his back in the same way on a rowdy crowd at the Harp, and now this indigenous venue has been appropriated by "empire." So something vaguely anti-nationalistic going on, perhaps, and probably a manifestation of Bloom's otherness as a born Jew in Catholic Dublin.

In this panel and the next were very interesting discussions of Gabriel Conroy's insecurity in "The Dead." Marian Eide described how Molly Ivors, an intellectual woman (whom Joyce professed to hate), challenges Gabriel on politics, leaving him for the rest of the evening to contemplate what his comeback should have been, so stupefied was he by this woman who dares match wits with him. And in his toast he actually presents his comeback as a declaration against becoming too educated and losing the human quality -- in fact how he'd like to see women remain, uneducated and homebound. Finally, at the hotel, as if to placate himself further, he seeks a surprising brutal kind of sexual solace in his wife, Greta.

But no luck there either, for Greta is in a brown study about her childhood suitor, Michael Fury, who supposedly died from his love for her. Gabriel's domestic frustration likely goes deeper than this, suggested Tara Prescott, who elucidated a pervasive double entendre behind the golloshes Gabriel insists on wearing and which Greta refuses to wear. Greta, Prescott suggested, is resistant to using a condom and, perhaps, stifling Gabriel's hunger for casual sex.

Also in the day's last panel was a fascinating look at a whole genre of circus-slave potboilers underlying the fleeting mention in Ulysses of a book called _Ruby: Pride of the Ring_. Joyce seems to have conflated several books of this genre into one for the purposes of his own novel, argued Jennifer Burns Levin. According to her, these texts were not intended to be pornographic, but they do pay a heck of a lot of attention to what we understand now as masochistic fetishes: the circus girls' beatings at the hands of the ringmaster are minutely detailed, with descriptions of every whip crack and welt. Molly Bloom is dissatisfied with _Ruby_, telling her husband, who picked it out for her, "There's nothing smutty in it." Bloom, however, probably would have thought there was.

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