(Da) Homer, Dante, Joyce: Ontology, Heroes, and Hell

Novels require protagonists who grow from this to that. The development of the novel from epic poetry also required a “becoming.’ The epic hero conforms to customs and rituals to overcome obstacles; the modern hero develops new standards of ethics and behavior. This is the essential difference between Homer’s Odysseus and Joyce’s Bloom. In the epic, the hero struggles, but the struggle doesn’t demand development by the hero, knowledge, but not character development.

Homer’s Odysseus emerged after twenty years of trials as the same duplicitous, philandering opportunist who feigned madness to avoid military service. He may temper the brashness that prompted him to claim his victory over the cyclopes by giving his true name, but Odysseus’ hubris is no less real. Tactically, he becomes less vocal in defiance of the gods. Legends about Odysseus end with his defiance of the gods. He sailed to the land of the dead and drowned as a sailor might. Odysseus, as he first appears, is already a departure from earlier Greek heroes. The onset of the Bronze Age introduced lighter weaponry, and the heroes who emerged, led by the Ithacan, became not gigantic or brutishly powerful like Ajax the Greater. Odysseus represented the emergence of the skilled, deft, thinking hero. He appears in the stories already possessing these qualities and does not develop them in response to his trials. 

Modern traveler Leopold Bloom is a timid man. Bloom suffers the pain of betrayal and is deprived of lineage by the loss of both son and father. This leaves him without a past or posterity. He is ostracized without real cause by citizens of his polis. Finally, his sexual behavior shames him. By the novel’s conclusion, if Ulysses is indeed a novel, if indeed it has a conclusion, he has found a way to reconcile Molly’s infidelity with their mutual, atypical devotion. Poldy has found and nurtured an artistic offspring in Stephen. The voices on Dublin Streets acknowledge an ambivalent respect for Mr. Bloom as the novel proceeds. M’Coy cedes,      “—He’s a cultured allroundman, Bloom is, he said seriously. He’s not one of your common or garden… you know… There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.” John Wyze credits Bloom with the idea for Sinn Fein. Finally, Bloom accepts himself as the “womanly man.” Mr. Bloom balances comforting of widows, caring for beasts, and tending to family. Meanwhile, he accepts his weaknesses, perversions, peculiarities, and eccentricities.

The bridge between Odysseus and Bloom comes courtesy of Dante. Dante, the character rather than the poet, develops a refined spiritual awareness in traveling through the realms of the dead. The voyage through the afterlife is a feature of all three masterpieces. Joyce’s hope-filled Bloom is the counterpart to Dante’s noble but hopeless Virgil, condemned to “Hell” as an unredeemed, noble pagan. Unlike Virgil, Bloom can invent his own salvation through Modernism. Poet Dante allows Virgil’s eternal fate to stand unaltered. The Dead Latin’s fate is sealed, but the Quick Florentine’s redemption is underway. Character Dante confesses to avarice, but the Poet reserves an artistic vanity and gluttonous revenge.

Joyce doubtless used Dante as a substructure in writing Ulysses. Purgatorio, Canto XXV, is set in the ring of the lustful and includes a description of the creation of human bodies and souls. It also anticipates the idea of evolution in the cessation of development by less perfect life forms. Dante begins the canto with astrological references. ” It was no hour for hobbling our ascent,/ for to the Bull the sun had left noonday/.”

The sinners here have abused procreation. Some are lecherous heterosexuals; others are sodomites. In Ulysses, “Oxen of the Sun,” Bloom guides Stephen through a cavalcade of carousing medical sinners who verbally abuse women, blaspheme against motherhood and the Virgin Mary, and recommend abortion, eugenic engineering, and Malthusian measures for population control. The Bull Taurus in Dante is a celestial marker but is also a symbol of fertility and the command to “Go forth and multiply.” From the opening episode of Ulysses, bulls and beef stock are symbols of fertility and the Slaughter of the Innocents. In Homer, Zeus destroys Odysseus’ crew after they slaughter the oxen sacred to Helios.

Having used Taurus, Dante immediately proceeds to symbolize the punishment of the now penitent lechers with the astrological symbolism of the scorpion’s sting. In Joyce, Bloom has recently been beestung. The symbolism has a dual significance. Like Dante’s sinners, Bloom is punished for his sins against fertility. He has been physically capable but emotionally unable to have sex with Molly since their son’s death nearly eleven years ago. He is guilty of Onan’s sin. The sting, however, also represents Bloom’s fertilization as the blossoming of the new and modern man.

Finally, Dante describes the body as an empty depiction of the soul: “And if you think that when you make a dash/ your image in the mirror dashes too,/ what once was hard will soon as soft as ash./” The deception of mirrors is also a recurring theme in Ulysses, like the deceptions of mirrors in the “Wandering Rocks” episode and the distortion of “the cracked looking glass of a servant” in the novel’s opening pages. Homeric failure of the senses is usually through deception by the gods or the clouding of the human eye. The invention of the gods is human self-deception perfected.

Homeric epic, Medieval transition, Modernist novel.  The long literary form morphs like the fetus. Initially, shaped by a chaotic Homeric world, the epic is ruled by arbitrary and selfish gods. The medieval epic emerges in a world dictated by the unbending ethos of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and finally becomes an utterly personal, flexible, and perhaps recursively chaotic Modernist form where any standard (or no standard) is equally acceptable without controls beyond the exercise of one human will, beestung or not.

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