Ulysses, Episode 2: Nestor – “History is a nightmare” – In which I learn why there are so many damned pubs named Kitty O’Shea’s.

“History…is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

I was feeling guilty about such a long hiatus from Ulysses when I’d only just started this, but now it seems appropriate that I am going back to concentrate on this chapter right now. After days in a newsroom surrounded by images of violence in Israel & Gaza, surrounded by the voices of pundits screaming at each other, talking past each other, getting nowhere with each other, Stephen’s declaration about history, the theme of this episode, seems perfectly, sadly apt.

I also like how Gilbert sums it up in his study:

“[History is] an incubus risen from the charnel-house, like the ghost of murdered Denmark, to suck the lifeblood of the present, the little time man has to be himself.”

The episode is full of references to Irish history and the struggle for independence, which, even when Joyce was writing (with no idea of the decades of violence yet to come) must have seemed a nightmarish burden vomited up by previous generations.

This episode mirrors that in the Odyssey when Telemachus goes to seek the counsel of wise old Nestor, who then takes the opportunity to tell him the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming and his betrayal by Clytemnestra. Here instead, Stephen gets a bit of unsolicited life advice from the rather crusty old schoolmaster who he works for, Mr. Deasy (whose name, it seems, Joyce plucked from that of a damaging agricultural reform bill of 1860).

Here’s the breakdown for this chapter from the Gilbert scheme:

  • Scene: The School
  • Hour: 10 a.m.
  • Art: History
  • Color: brown
  • Symbol: horse
  • Technic: Catechism (personal)
Gulliver with the houyhnhnms.

Gulliver with the houyhnhnms.

Mr. Deasy’s office is filled with history – portraits of important historical figures, old coin and spoon collections, and, most symbolically perhaps, seashells: “An old pilgrim’s hoard, dead treasure, hollow shells.” The past is a lifeless collection of dates and names that students must recite.

Deasy’s office is also covered with pictures of famous racehorses (Repulse, Shotover, Fair Rebel) and as Gilbert puts it (referencing the horse creatures in Gulliver’s Travels):

“The symbol of this episode is the horse, noble houyhnhnm, compelled to serve base Yahoos. Stephen too, is restless under the pedagogic yoke.”

“The distinction between historian and poet…consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.” [Thanks, giant book of annotations!]

For me, the key moment in the scene, which illustrates this young-person-looking-at-old-codger-resentful-of-the-burden-of-history vibe, is when Mr. Deasy gets worked up about his frustrated attempts to make his views on public policy heard and influential.

“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.”

Jaaaaays. It’s like that awkward moment when your grandma busts out with some comment about “colored people.”

And if you like a little misogyny with your racism, he pins a lot of the world’s woes on women too. And of course, the hero and heroine of Ulysses are a Jewish man and his quite sexually liberated wife. So much for Mr. Deasy’s historical interpretations.

“A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of meneas, ten years the Greeks made war on Tryo. A faithless wide first brought the strangers to our shore here, McMourrough’s wife and he leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffni. A woman too brought Parnell low.”

Parnell (Charles Stewart Parnell) was a major figure in the Irish struggle for home rule. And his career was basically destroyed by the revelation of a long standing affair with a married woman, Mrs. Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea. I’m still not quite sure why the name of a politician’s mistress would be such a popular pub name, (I mean, would you name your bar Monica Lewinky’s?) but if that’s all I’ve learn from this episode of Ulysses it’s well worth it.

BONUS: The Kitty O’Shea’s I would sometimes frequent in Madrid was renamed, of course, the James Joyce.

Notes (as before, a selection from the Gifford book):

  • daughters of memory: the nine muses of Greek mythology were the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory).
  • Blake’s wings of excess: double allusion to two lines of William Blake – “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.”
  • the infinite possibilities they have ousted: from Aristotle, the idea that at any moment there are an infinite number of potenital ways life could unfold, but once that moment passes, and one of those potential outcomes becomes actual, the other possibilities are “ousted.”
  • the only thing true in life?: a mother’s love
  • morrice: “moorish”
  • Averroes and Moses Maimonides: 12th century Muslim and Jewish scholars, respectively, who sought, as did Thomas Aquinas to reconcile Aristotle with their faith’s orthodoxy. Bonus trivia: Both scholars lived in Cordoba, Spain (where I studied abroad) and have nice little statues there.
  • If youth but knew…: Proverb, “If youth but knew what age would crave, it would at once both get and save.”
  • all Irish, all king’s sons: Proverb, “All Irishmen are kings’ sons” (after the ancient kings of Ireland). There is a similar Jewish proverb.
  • Soft day: greeting for a drizzly, misty day.
  • crawsick: hungover (My official favorite word of this episode!)
  • A shout in the street: “Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets…saying, How long, ye simple ones will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:20-22)
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