The Rise of Modernism in James Joyce: Gravity, Magnetism, and Desire

One’s perception,…must be motivated by being drawn toward its objects by desire, and desire is always based on an imagined response.

Sheldon Brivic on Lucan’s Philosophy in “Images of the Lacanian Gaze in Ulysses


Mr. Bloom “adduce(d) to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science(.)” The focus on applied science was no great sin; nearly all of humanity did the same in 1904 with Euclid, the Catechism, and an unshakable belief in Newton’s Laws. Bloom’s small, vintage library led him to some misunderstandings and allowed miscalculations.

Bloom’s outdated scientific, astronomical, and mathematical sources included:

  • The Story of the Heavens by Sir Robert Ball (blue cloth).
  • A Handbook of Astronomy (cover, brown leather, detached, S plates, antique letterpress long primer, author’s footnotes nonpareil, marginal clues brevier, captions small pica).
  • Short but yet Plain Elements of Geometry written in French by F. Ignat. Pardies and rendered into English by John Harris D. D. London, printed for R. Knaplock at the Bishop’s Head, MDCCXI….

These volumes left him unprepared for the revelations of the Twentieth Century.

“Cassiopeia and the collision of stars suggest Stephen, Shakespeare and Bloom.” William York Tindall

On 16 June 1904, Einstein was still puzzled over gravity’s inconsistency. Picasso experimented with the movement of light and images across spacetime with moving pictures, not having decided whether the artistic effects were mystical, as his friend Apollinaire believed, or iconoclastic as another, Alfred Jarry, would recommend. Both influences encouraged radical art.

Before the First World War, “Impressionism was driven out,” and Wyndham Lewis had the public ear for a time. Lewis preached that the artist’s view is and should be “unchanging” and that the intellect “dislikes what is fluid” (SueEllen Campbell 353-62). Picasso, however, was inspired by Cézanne’s approach to light, planes, and space. He painted the same scene daily, shifting the effects of light, “anticipating spacetime” (Miller 95-96). Like Pisarro before him, Cezanne treated objective reality liberally and renaissance perspective with just a little disrespect. Cezanne called his technique passage (Miller 5). Henrí Matisse (whom Picasso considered his only rival) focused on colors and lines, but Cézanne’s series of Bathers paintings (and some include The Temptation of Saint Anthony) are said to have influenced Picasso’s development of images through spacetime that became Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Literature evolved similarly. Aimée Isreal-Pelletier believes Rambaud’s poems of the 1870s are subject to interpretation either for symbolic meaning or Impressionistic content. In England, Joseph Conrad did the same with prose.

Until 1887, all the whispering about incompleteness in Newton’s science originated from casual observation, then Michelson and Morley attempted to prove the existence of the ether. Afterward, what we knew of optics, electromagnetism, and gravity was subject to question. A resolution arrived courtesy of Albert Einstein in 1905. Some say that Einstein’s four short papers in 1905 (Photons, Brownian action, Special Relativity, and Inertia) might all be considerations of the same subject– gravity.

Leopold Bloom, unlike Wyndham Lewis, was willing to consider the possibility that the universe was not a puzzle unsolved but a mystery unfolding.

Did he then accept as an article of belief the theory of astrological influences upon sublunary disasters? 

It seemed to him as possible of proof as of confutation and the nomenclature employed in its selenographical charts as attributable to verifiable intuition as to fallacious analogy: the lake of dreams, the sea of rains, the gulf of dews, the ocean of fecundity.

Poldy’s library may not have been up to the task, but he was willing to consider unconventional answers.

Einstein’s Gravity in Picasso and Joyce

Einstein was not the first to propose that Photons were particles carrying light through space. Roman philosophers, including Democritus, suggested something similar. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Max Planck supported the Photon theory with findings from his research on black bodies that collect and emit radiation. This supported Newtonian physics but conflicted with Descartes’ theory that light behaved like a wave. Einstein began to suspect that light behaved both as a wave and as a particle after mulling Michelson and Morley’s attempt to discover ether’s nature, the medium that transported light waves. Einstein decided that ether could have no such mechanical properties (Miller 66). His decision called into question all science claimed to understand about gravity, energy, and matter. Gravity, Uncle Albert decided, is merely an acceleration of motion in a curved universe, and energy is just matter set in motion on the curve of spacetime (199).

If Cézanne had unleashed light in motion for Picasso, Lorentz’s electromagnetic theories had done something similar for Einstein. He was now able to consider different effects dependent on perspective. With this approach, Einstein discovered motion changing the effects of electromagnetism. He imagined that there was a magnet large enough for an observer to stand on. The North and South poles of the magnet connected via a charged coil, rotating clockwise. This thought experiment revealed different results for the same measurement to the observers on the stationery magnet and the coil in motion. Einstein found this unexplained duality “unbearable.”

Picasso and Joyce soon explored duality through perspective in their respective arts.

Between the last quarter of 1906 and July of 1907, Picasso examined the movement of light as energy through space and time. Ultimately the result was the iterative image of one woman in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The image(s) include shifting faces, a floating arm, and an impossibly twisted knee. No observer of “reality” could detect these images from any single perspective at any moment. But using Einstein’s discovery of multiple observers with differing views, Picasso replicated what was unveiled by physics. Dynamic energy in a curved universe was not only possible but inevitable. 

Joyce manipulated mass and energy into a matter of some gravity too. For him, the movement of the universe was not as dry as Johan Kepler’s cubes and distances in calculations of planetary orbits. The inertia of human bodies was not so easily observed. However, Joseph Campbell sees evidence of it in Ulysses’ Ithaca episode: “He [Bloom] has bumped his head because Molly has changed the whole room around. The female is energy, she is mover, she is change” ( 182).

Margot Norris thinks it is not coincidental that Martha Clifford tells Bloom, “I have never felt myself drawn to a man as you” ( 10). In the mathematical catechism of Ithaca, Stephen and Poldy connect in their susceptibility to gravity: “Both admitted the alternately stimulating and obtunding influence of heterosexual magnetism.”

Einstein’s datum becomes flexible data under relativity. In Picasso’s art, this reflects as one woman transmogrifying into five with representational features, a baboon face, and a primitive mask. They stand, defy balance, are dismembered, squat. For Leopold Bloom, the one irreplaceable Marion Tweedy Bloom can be found situationally not only in Martha Clifford. She is also a domestic at Dlugacz’, The Nymph of the Bath unfolded from Photo Fits, a fine lady embarking into a carriage, a marble Venus, helpless Gerty MacDowell, and a dominatrix.


Duality and Duality

In literature, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo anticipated the dual nature of light. In the novel, a lighthouse suddenly asserts itself threatening to reveal a cache of treasure. Writing about the novel, Susan Cook cites John G. Peters, who described this treatment of light as impressionism [photons in motion] (Cook 141n1). The beam from the lighthouse is a wave. Its appearance and rotation are particulate.

Einstein thought of photons as discreet entities but also as elements in a sequence. He said, “Certain memory pictures form series. A memory picture that occurs a great many times in several different series can serve as an ‘ordering element’ for those series.” That view also expresses duality, the pictures being like photon packets and the series like a wave. The same is true of Einstein’s thought experiment on electromagnetic induction. The coil observer saw current rising through a field; the magnet observer saw current moving as a force. This duality differs from Picasso’s, but it provides a connection between optics and mechanics. The velocity of the turning coil is mechanical; electromagnetic theory is the theory of light [thus a condition of optics] (Miller 198-99). Ebury notes the “… appearance of Einstein… in The Wake as Eyeinstye (305.6)….associate(d)… with optics,…” (100). This may also double as an expression of Joyce’s vision problems. 

Tindall says Stephen is “fascinated by rhythm” like waves rather than objective vision ( 68). He refers to the rise and fall of sentences. Katherine Ebury, by contrast, picks up the duality of Joyce’s prose. She says, “The Joycean word possesses a quality, not unlike the wave-particle duality; it cannot offer just one meaning but has the properties of several other words” (104). Broader than Ebury’s inspection of Joycean vocabulary is the symbolic Proteus episode that rides wild waves and deposits bits of particulate jetsam onto Sandymount Strand. 

Picasso liked to embed mirrors in photographs. This is another expression of duality. When friends and adversaries scorned Demoiselles, the artist included the canvas in new works–but face against the wall. This is another expression of duality. The rear view of Demoiselles is found in both photographs and paintings. That might remind you of Einstein’s thought experiment where he pursues a beam of light; when he catches the beam, “the light would be frozen in space” (Miller 200). 


The Spectrum

Van Gogh intuitively knew that the relationship among colors could produce an effect. His strokes were too large for the eye to blend the frequencies. What he attempted required the mixing of light rather than the mixing of pigment. Instead, he invented the mélange solide, brushstrokes of adjacent, contrasting colors. Georges Seurat, building on the work of Nicholas Odgen Rood, achieved the desired effect by limiting his colors, then placing dots in proximity allowing the observer’s eye to blend blue and red to produce magenta at a sufficient distance (Pupa and Haeberli 114-15).

The spectrum helped Einstein convince the scientific community that light is subject to gravity. He proposed red would be displaced as gravity influenced light—this theory supported relativity (Ebury 99). The results of later experiments, a technical failure and a limited success, promoted relativity and Photon Theory. As Shem declares in praise of Henrí Pointcaré, who championed theoretical proofs, “Thanks ever sore much, Pointcarried!” (Finnegans Wake).

Ebury also says, “…the Wake’s obscurity owes something to a notion of light’s spectral mystery…” (97). James Joyce’s used the spectrum earlier in writing “The Dead”; a heliotropic envelope carried Greta’s reply to Gabriel’s marriage proposal (Norris 12). By the publication of Ulysses, Joyce had already used stellar gravity’s effect symbolically. For example, there are seven colors in the spectrum. Mat Dillon has six daughters. With Molly attending the Dillons’ party, there are seven. At the party, the attraction among Bloom, Molly, and Stephen is first evidenced (Norris 18). Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen of the Ithaca episode’s “tranquilizing spectrality” achieved through the use of color.

Leopold Bloom has long been fascinated by the effect of the spectrum on his observation of terrestrial happenings.

Because in middle youth he had often sat observing through a rondel of bossed glass of a multicoloured pane the spectacle offered with continual changes of the thoroughfare without, pedestrians, quadrupeds, velocipedes, vehicles, passing slowly, quickly, evenly, round and round and round the rim of a round and round precipitous globe.


Planetary Effects

There is an electromagnetic attraction of celestial bodies. That attraction draws Bloom to Molly and also to Stephen. Tindall observes that Molly suggests the Moon (227). Indeed, her monolog commands the night. She is the Moon Huntress Diana and Selene, Goddess of the Moon. Her influence on the men around her transforms them into satellites of her influence. Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen, ” Bloom and Stephen (in the Ithaca episode) thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze” (Budgen 257).

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of the connections of mythologies to modernities, tells us that the Moon collapses on herself and contains her own shadow (31). She is mysterious. Certainly, Molly is inscrutable, but she doesn’t guard her secrets with much care. Candor is another source of her brilliance. Bloom is cagy in approaching women; Molly is of the opposite pole. They are like terminals of Einstein’s electromagnetic experiment. Mrs. Bloom’s attraction is as unresistible to Bloom as the positive pole of Einstein’s magnet is to the negative. He can no better resist her than the tides can avoid the Moon’s gravitational pull. We observed that all women represent Molly for Bloom, and her presence, perfume, and memories of her performances follow him throughout his day. Even and especially at the moment of her infidelity, even and especially because he is sexually incompetent with her since Rudy’s death. Molly likewise is bound to Bloom’s constant orbit despite her infidelity.

In 1954, Pablo Picasso exhibited a series of paintings using as subjects his wife Francoise, and children Claude and Paloma. The boy in a swatch of blue paints too. He is seated at a little distance from his mother who is also an accomplished artist. The girl in a green parallelogram has been drawn close to the mass of her mother who is dark, given identity only by wisps of white lines like a new Moon. Writing about these paintings at the time, critic John Lucas was reminded of what Picasso said about the appeal of another subject: “What interests me is to find the place of that head of hair, of the figure in space, as that of the armchair on which the model is seated….The color interests me less at present than the ‘gravity’…not to say the density….” (Lucas 202). Here too, we find an orbital magnetic attraction this time for the daughter to mother with differing effects from the color spectrum.

In treating Molly’s stellar gentlemen, Tindall notes “Cassiopeia and the collision of stars suggest Stephen, Shakespeare and Bloom (686)” [227]. Bloom’s path will continue to wander predictably but elliptically around Molly. Stephen’s path, reordered by the collision, sets off on a comet’s course, artistically charged with self-consuming energy. Bloom is fundamentally altered too “…suncompelled, …. disappearing from the constellation of the Northern Crown he would somehow reappear reborn above delta in the constellation of Cassiopeia and after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors, a dark crusader, a sleeper awakened,….”


Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. “Joyce, Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg: A Relativistic Quantum Mechanical Discussion of ‘Ulysses.'” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 3, University of Tulsa, 1990, pp. 577–86,

Budgen, Frank. James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960, pp. 257-62.

Campbell, Joseph. Mythic Worlds, Modern Words. New World Library, Novato, 1993, pp. 179-86.

Campbell, SueEllen. “Philosophies of Space and Time – JSTOR.” JSTOR, JSTOR.ORG, 1983, 

Cook, Susan E.”‘ Nostromo’s’ Uncanny Light.” Conradiana, vol. 44, no. 2/3, Texas Tech University Press, 2012, pp. 127–44,

Ebury, Katherine. “Beyond the Rainbow: Spectroscopy in Finnegans Wake II.1.” Joyce Studies Annual, Fordham University, 2011, pp. 97–121,

Gilbert, Pupa U. P. A.; Haeberli, Willy. Physics in the Arts (Complementary Science). Elsevier Science. Kindle Edition. pp. 114-16.

Israel-Pellitier, Aimée. “Radical Realism: Rimbaud’s Affinities with Impressionism.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, University of Manitoba, 1992, pp. 49–68,

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. 

Lucas, John. “Picasso: Bright Light in a Gray Season.” College Art Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, (College Art Association, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.), 1955, pp. 196–203,

Miller, Arthur I. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. BasicBooks, 2002.

Norris, Margot, “Joyce’s Heliotrope,” Coping with Joyce: Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium, Editors Morris Beja and Shari Benstock, Ohio State University Press, 1989, pp. 3-24.

Tindall, William York. “Ulysses,” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, 1959, pp. 220-31.


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