Virgil, Bloom, and Dante’s Hillside Predators

—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire. (“Calypso”)

 

When asked his status, Leopold Bloom might give Virgil’s answer: “Not man; man once I was” (Dante Canto i l. 67). Bloom lost his way by middle life, buffeted among three carnivorous beasts, becoming more peculiar in his ways. The catalysts for his personal limbo are the beasts of his concern: a coquettish daughter, his lust, and a wandering wife whom he will not bring himself to satisfy. He treads awkwardly in a woman’s world, shunned by male companions. Christian men consider him a Jew despite being twice Baptized and not born to a Jewish mother. His father, a suicide, abandoned him. His infant son died eleven days after birth.

In Inferno, Dante created threatening beasts that block the pilgrim’s path, the first a dancing leopard, decorated, spry, and reckless. 

32 A panther light and swift exceedingly,
33 Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er! (Canto i)

She represents the impetuosity of youth. This beast also is indicative of the hormonal and cavorting Millie Bloom. She picnics with Bannon, a companion of Mulligan, a military enlistee, and a practitioner of “kiss and tell,” he is an apparent danger. Naive enough to be taken in by Boylan’s brash buoyancy, she acts fondly toward her mother’s lothario. Millie’s attraction to Bannon enhances Millie’s attraction to him by singing Boylan’s “Seaside Girls.” While daughter Millie clashes with her mother, she is much like Molly. She is also demonstrably affectionate toward her father. Bloom, awkward and isolated, twice behaved inappropriately toward his daughter. Her well-meaning, like Virgil, is an uncatechized noble pagan. She is dispatched to Mullingar out of his reach but also unprotected. For Mr. Bloom, the leopard is an unresolved and misunderstood relationship.

45 A lion’s aspect which appeared to me.
46 He seemed as if against me he were coming
47 With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger, (Canto i)

The He-Lion represents Bloom’s sexual appetites and aberrations. He entertains his proclivities without restraint, engaging in voyeurism, self-abuse, masochism, a fascination with bodily elimination, and extramarital machinations. During the “Circe” episode’s hallucination sequence, he metamorphizes sexually. Poldy becomes, like Tiresias, both man and woman. The Greek transgendered soothsayer significantly appears in Joyce’s model The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Bloom engages in a buffet of sexual variation during Bloomsday– excluding coitus. He may be unable to engage in the act of love since the death of the infant Rudy eleven years previously. The novel explicitly states that he has been unable to engage in the marital act with his wife. It is unclear if Mr. Bloom will ever tame the Hillside Lion. He does, however, reconcile himself to his wife’s sexuality.

Molly Bloom is the She-Wolf representative of perverse wisdom. She loves Poldy but selfishly, in a worldly way, and with a degree of manipulation (there is mutual manipulation but also much accommodation). She rationalizes her infidelity, focusing on her natural appetites and without regard for her responsibilities.

96 But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;
97 And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
98 That never doth she glut her greedy will,
99 And after food is hungrier than before.
100 Many the animals with whom she weds, (Canto i)

At the novel’s end, it is Molly Bloom who recounts the compromises of the life she shares at 7 Eccles Street with the upside-down compact of reconciliation she creates for her upside-down husband.

Until the first Bloomsday, Mr. Bloom was, himself, lost in the dark wood. Mark Vernon summarizes Virgil’s assessment of Hell: “human beings have a river that runs through their souls, but unlike a natural river that readily finds its way to the sea, the human stream can become blocked or diverted” (Vernon 24). Bloom’s flow has been dammed and damned. He observes there will be “No good eggs with this drouth.” His life has been arid and infertile for more than a decade. To blossom, he needs to discover the wellspring of grace and drink of…

79 … Virgilius and that fountain

80 Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?” (Canto i)

In Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey, Mark Vernon tells us the Florentine “has written a guide to life in all its fullness, and he has a guide too. As he is spinning around in the woods, the beasts of his personal failures hunting him down, a human figure appears” (19). Leopold Bloom still suffers from his failures. Joyce models his structure, in part, from Dante’s framework, but Bloom is not yet the guide that Virgil models. Everyman Poldy still suffers flaws, weaknesses, and peccadillos, but on June 16 1904, his kindness, generosity, and love will grow sufficiently to allow him to serve as the guide for Pilgrim Dedalus. At 8 o’clock on that morning, Bloom has not yet made peace with domesticity.

Vernon observes that the correct descent into the pit of Inferno is ever-left down the corkscrew path. Turning to the right would subject pilgrims to greater horror and closer proximity, even contact, with the damned. Not yet wise, at the corner of Eccles and Dorsett, Bloom turns right. There he subjects himself to an occasion of sin in the allure of the next-door slavey and the first of the monsters of Hell he will encounter, the blood-stained, “ferreteyed” butcher Dlugacz. He prudently travels left when returning home with his meal of oozing inner organs. He will descend into the jaws of Hell but now travels under divine providence.

Dante and Joyce wrote about descents that would reveal, atone for, and finally purge their sins, respectively spiritual and artistic. For the artist, this “initiation” will open an “inner eye (allowing them to) experience all that exists in the deepest darkness as well as the brightest light…” (Vernon 19-20). First, their guides must deserve to advise them. For Bloom, this means the reconciliation with sins of intemperance (Milly the Leopardess), unnatural appetites (Leopold the Lion), and betrayal (Molly the She-Wolf).

Virgil, born before Christ but alive during his preaching ministry, is a capable guide but an imperfect soul. Virgil made the trip into Hell before, that time as the agent of a witch (Canto ix ll. 22-24). Vernon holds out hope that through spiritual development gained while escorting Dante, (“He is learning. For me, this adds to the possibility that the pilgrimage has become Virgil’s quite as much as Dante’s. There is more than one person’s salvation at stake” (66). Virgil might yet join the “noble pagans” and Old Testament worthies in Paradise. Mark Vernon is a therapist, not a theologian. Hope is the hammer of his trade. He later explicitly states  “even in hell, things change” ( Vernon 81). Theologically his argument is unsound. Redemption after judgment was only possible on Good Friday when Christ descended into Hell to retrieve the noble pagans. The afterlife cannot incubate spiritual development in Virgil. That assessment is based precariously on 14th Century theology, of course.

Mr. Bloom, still vital, can and does find redemption on that first Bloomsday through generosity for humankind and beasts, empathy, and love despite all obstacles.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) by Dante Alighieri in two languages (italian, english), and one dual language, parallel … (translated) Vol. 2) (Italian Edition) . Kindle Edition.

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

Vernon, Mark. Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey. Angelico Press. Kindle Edition.

 

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