The Books: “Ulysses” – the Nestor episode (James Joyce)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

ulysses67.bmpUlysses- by James Joyce.

2nd episode in the book. Its equivalent in The Odyssey is the “Nestor” episode. The episode itself is quite simple: Stephen teaches in a school. After class, he has a long conversation with Mr. Deasy, the headmaster – who is, basically, the wise Nestor in “The Odyssey”. Their conversation is about history. Irish history. Deasy asks Dedalus if he could drop off a couple of things he had written at 2 Irish newspapers. They walk and talk.

Here are some of the notes I scribbled in my margins during this episode:

– NESTOR (history, brown, horse, catechism)
– predicts the chaos of Circe
– Mr Deasy – a wise Nestor and a prattling Polonius

Which brings us to yet another level of correspondence within the book – and that is to Hamlet. Joyce doesn’t do a “reveal” until the Scylla and Charybdis chapter – which takes place in the National Library – where Stephen regales his friends with his theory of Hamlet. Needless to say, Hamlet is a fatherless tormented soul. He has been robbed of guidance by an older man. He seeks revenge. Dedalus’ fatherless state is similar – although Simon Dedalus (the father) is still very much alive. But he’s useless as a “father figure”. Dedalus needs to look elsewhere. Leopold Bloom, hiding behind a column in the library, overhearing Stephen’s impromptu lecture on Hamlet, doesn’t respond or reveal himself. The father figure remains hidden.

The Nestor “chapter” contains perhaps the most famous line in all the book:

– History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Mr Deasy has the silly pomposity of Polonius – yet he also makes a great deal of sense. It’s just that Stephen does not agree. Mr Deasy represents the “old”. The old Ireland. “I remember the famine” he says. Stephen doesn’t care about the blasted famine. We must not live in the past. History is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Look to the future. Look to the new. In a conformist society such as Ireland at that time, this was seen as incredibly threatening- shades of Stephen Dedalus refusing to get involved in Irish politics in Portrait. Who is HE to go against the grain?? In Ireland if you go against the grain, you pay. And big. This is Stephen’s dilemma. How can he not be Irish? How can you change what you are? All he knows is: he will NOT be like Mr Deasy.

Because this is Joyce we’re talking about though – all of this is implied. Never stated outright. In order to get all the levels, we need to understand that they are even THERE … like Faulkner said, we must treat Ulysses like an itinerant illiterate Baptist preacher treats the Old Testament: with faith. Joyce, through all of his books so far, has used the color “brown” as a signifier of decay and death. I wrote about it before in my posts on Dubliners. Any brown anywhere should give you a clue. Joyce’s colors of hope and life are blue, green … but brown? Death. The Nestor chapter is full of brown. If you did not know what that signalled, you would miss the clue (and again, there are tons of websites and a couple of books out there that can give you guideposts such as this one – you are not alone!!) The brown here is indicating the utter decay of the society in which Dedalus lives. A society where the “new” is run out of town on a rail. Where history weighs on its people like a 1000-ton weight. It is a society of death. It has no hope. Of course Joyce never WRITES this clearly and unambiguously. But he fills the chapter with the color brown, and that is all we need to know.

We must never forget that we are inside Stephen Dedalus. He is our guide – and sometimes he is unreliable, and sometimes he doesn’t let us in on what he is thinking … because, in general, we as human beings, do not explain ourselves to ourselves. This is why Ulysses is a challenge to read. But like i said in an earlier post, if you just give up on YOUR wishes for a reliable narrator who interjects himself into the action in an explanatory way … then Ullysses makes more sense than any other book you’ve ever read in your life.

Oh, and the anti-Semitism that will become important later rears its head here.

We haven’t even met Leopold Bloom yet, the Jew in Ireland, but the ground is already being set for his appearance.

Here’s an excerpt.


EXCERPT FROM Ulysses – by James Joyce – from the Nestor episode

– Now then, Mr Deasy said, rising.

He came to the table, pinning together his sheets. Stephen stood up.

– I have put the matter into a nutshell, Mr Deasy said. It’s about the foot and mouth disease. Just look through it. There can be no two opinions on the matter.

May I trespass on your valuable space. That doctrine of laissez faire which so often in our history. Our cattle trade. The way of all our old industries. Liverpool ring which jockeyed the Galway harbour scheme. European conflagration. Grain supplies through the narrow waters of the channel. The pluterperfect imperturbability of the department of agriculture. Pardoned a classical allusion. Cassandra. By a woman who was no better than she should be. To come to the point at issue.

– I don’t mince words, do I? Mr Deasy asked as Stephen read on.

Foot and mouth disease. Known as Koch’s preparation. Serum and virus. Percentage of salted horses. Rinderpest. Emperor’s horses at Mürzsteg, lower Austria. Veterinary surgeons. Mr Henry Blackwood Price. Courteous offer a fair trial, Dictates of common sense. Allimportant question. In every sense of the word take the bull by the horns. Thanking you for the hospitality of your columns.

– I want that to be printed and read, Mr Deasy said. You will see at the next outbreak they will put an embargo on Irish cattle. And it can be cured. It is cured. My cousin, Blackwood Price, writes to me it is regularly treated and cured in Austria by cattledoctors there. They offer to come over here. I am trying to work up influence with the department. Now I’m going to try publicity. I am surrounded by difficulties, by… intrigues, by… backstairs influence, by…

He raised his forefinger and beat the air oldly before his voice spoke.

– Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it Coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.

He stepped swiftly off, his eyes coming to blue life as they passed a broad sunbeam. He faced about and back again.

– Dying, he said, if not dead by now.

The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.

His eyes open wide in vision stared sternly across the sunbeam in which he halted.

– A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?

– They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

On the steps of the Paris Stock Exchange the goldskinned men quoting prices on their gemmed fingers. Gabbles of geese. They swarmed loud, uncouth about the temple, their heads thickplotting under maladroit silk hats. Not theirs: these clothes, this speech, these gestures. Their full slow eyes belied the words, the gestures eager and unoffending, but knew the rancours massed about them and knew their zeal was vain. Vain patience to heap and hoard. Time surely would scatter all. A hoard heaped by the roadside: plundered and passing on. Their eyes knew the years of wandering and, patient, knew the dishonours of their flesh.

– Who has not? Stephen said.

– What do you mean? Mr Deasy asked.

He came forward a pace and stood by the table. His underjaw fell sideways open uncertainly. Is this old wisdom? He waits to hear from me.

– History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

– The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

– That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

– What? Mr Deasy asked.

– A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

Mr Deasy looked down and held for a while the wings of his nose tweaked between his fingers. Looking up again he set them free.

– I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks made war on Troy. A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffni. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not the one sin. I am a struggler now at the end of my days. But I will fight for the right till the end.

For Ulster will fight
And Ulster will be right.

Stephen raised the sheets in his hand.

– Well, sir, he began.

– I foresee, Mr Deasy said, that you will not remain here very long at this work. You were not born to be a teacher, I think. Perhaps I am wrong.

– A learner rather, Stephen said.

And here what will you learn more?

Mr Deasy shook his head.

– Who knows? he said. To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.

Stephen rustled the sheets again.

– As regards these, he began.

– Yes, Mr Deasy said. You have two copies there. If you can have them published at once.

Telegraph. Irish Homestead.

– I will try, Stephen said, and let you know tomorrow. I know two editors slightly.

That will do, Mr Deasy said briskly. I wrote last night to Mr Field, M.P. There is a meeting of the cattletraders’ association today at the City Arms Hotel. I asked him to lay my letter before the meeting. You see if you can get it into your two papers. What are they?

The Evening Telegraph

– That will do, Mr Deasy said. There is no time to lose. Now I have to answer that letter from my cousin.

– Good morning, sir, Stephen said, putting the sheets in his pocket. Thank you.

– Not at all, Mr Deasy said as he searched the papers on his desk. I like to break a lance with you, old as I am.

– Good morning, sir, Stephen said again, bowing to his bent back.

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