(Da) Modern Bloom and Dante’s Medieval Virgil

Odyssey to AeneidAeneid into InfernoInferno becomes Ulysses. A cavalcade of mentors leads pilgrims through Hell in these epics of Western Literature. In each case, it’s an otherworldly trek where above-ground physics stands on its head in simoniac fashion. Time is the first natural law to be violated. Early in Inferno, Canto I (Longfellow’s translation), we find…

37 The time was the beginning of the morning,
38 And up the sun was mounting with those stars

Dante begins his book without his poet mentor. Similarly, Joyce offers us three episodes of Ulysses before introducing Mr.Bloom in a spacetime return to 8 A.M. at a place miles distant. The passing of time is disjointed in both epics. Virgil’s tour in The Divine Comedy begins early on Good Friday, but the sunlight disappears before the opening of Canto II. We know little of how that Good Friday passed. The clock of Bloomsday lurches into the morning of the next day’s sunrise. In Hell and Dublin, time stumbles and sprints without the rules of Newton’s Physics or Quantum clockings.

The guides, one poet and one commercial traveler, are different by their prestige, birth, and occupation. Virgil describes the circumstances of his birth…

68 And both my parents were of Lombardy…
69 Sub Julio was I born, though it was late,
70 And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,

The greatest invention of the Roman was “global” citizenship; it allowed Pax Romana. Lombards like Virgil’s parents were full citizens of Roma and enjoyed special protection. Rudolf Virág and Karoly Higgins were citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire but didn’t enjoy any special privileges or protections. Rudolf was Jewish, and Karoly (later Julius) may have also been Jewish. St. Paul, a Jewish citizen of Tarsus, was a Roman citizen by privilege and therefore protected in ways that Hungarian Jews were not. 

The path of Leopold’s lineage weaves across Europe, changing citizenship, surnames, and religions. The change of given name by Bloom’s maternal grandfather from Karoly to Julius is significant, or at least ironic. Virgil says he was born Sub Julio and lives under the mantle of Augustine’s peace. A generation removed from Hungary, Leopold Bloom also lives in a great empire. Still, on the Mediterranean, in Europe, and distant colonies, five great empires- Austria, England, France, Germany, and Ottoman Turk (the tsarist empire already wobbly) contest against each other for supremacy. The largely Victorian-born family jealousies kindled a fire that would blaze for another fifty years. While Virgil lives in the security of social and personal peace and safety, Mr. Bloom enjoys no such peace, political or personal, in Dublin. He lives as a citizen-outsider under a British Empire.

In Inferno, Virgil is neither damned nor exalted. He is an unsaved, unglorified but unpunished noble pagan. Living during the lifetime of Christ, he remained ignorant of salvation, living… 

71 During the time of false and lying gods.

There is a tradition that claims Virgil foretold the birth of Christ.

Leopold Bloom is a spiritual free agent. He is born not near enough to Jewish law to be one of the Chosen people, nor distant enough to be accepted by Christians. He is uncircumcised and dipped in several baptisms. He has tugged at every door that might lead to Paradise— Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Freemason, and Spiritual. Like Tiresias, his predecessor in The Odyssey, he attempts a gender-pass to Paradise, becoming both man and woman in the Circe episode.

Virgil writes Poesy …

73 A poet was I, and I sang that just

Poldy also aspires to get his prose in print for pay. Bloom’s epic would be published by the shabbiest rag in Dublin- Titbits. He would co-author, working closely with his wayward wife to squelch her infidelity.

Virgil becomes Dante’s guide through the intercession of three blessed ladies. The first of these is The Virgin, then Saint Lucy and finally Beatrice…

 94 A gentle Lady is in Heaven, who grieves....

 97 In her entreaty she besought Lucia,...

103 "Beatrice" said she, "the true praise of God,
104 Why succourest thou not him, who loved thee so,….

Likewise, Mr. Bloom finds Dedalus through the intervention of three ladies. These three are less blessed but drive Bloom to meander like Odysseus darting around Dublin’s darkest corners. Unlike Gerty MacDonald or the unfolded print of the Nymph over the marriage bed, these three are not fantasies; they manipulate the traveler’s course. And he is particularly susceptible to the Sirens’ song. These three are the virgin (Molly, the faithless wife), the sightless martyr (Martha Clifford), and Beatrice (the disciplining Bella). 

We’ll say more connecting The Divine Comedy and Ulysses, fictional Virgil and Bloom, and Dante and Dedalus in the coming months. For now, the stage is set for the descent into Dis and Monto.

This is the first of a series of monthly essays about the influence of Dante on Ulysses. A previous essay examined the use of The Divine Comedy as a substructure in Joyce’s story “Grace” and in Flannery O’Connor’s “The River.” That can be found at https://jamesjoycereadingcircle.com/2021/11/18/about-grace-a-comparison-of-the-working-of-grace-by-james-joyce-and-flannery-oconnor/

2 thoughts on “(Da) Modern Bloom and Dante’s Medieval Virgil

  1. I really enjoyed this article Don. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before this — I see you published it at least twice — but it is very interesting.

    1. I may have just promoted this to the Dante group rather than the Joyce groups on FB. There are actually five or so essays about Virgil and Bloom on the website. Thanks for your kind words, Bill.

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