By David Bowen
"There's five fathoms out there.... A sail veering about the blank bay waiting for a swollen bundle to bob up, roll over to the sun a puffy face, saltwhite. Here I am" (18). If "Old Father Ocean" (42) is Proteus (Gifford 46), god of "primal matter" (32) corresponding with a viridian tinge of primal soup as well as the tide that washes in the ruined flotsam and jetsam of man's voyages, it makes some kind of sense that there is no corresponding symbolic organ to this episode. We are in the protean realm of the non-organic, or rather unorganized and de-organized matter. The aforementioned bobbing corpse is of course more than a homicide case in Joyce's symbology. The corpse lost to sea's rot and "bladderwrack" is the body of Proteus manifest in a disturbing (dead) human form, bloated and dissolving. It is there to intimately remind us of our eventual return to unformed matter, to entropy at its extreme. This disintegration will lead to a chaotic reintegration with the Ocean, unfathomable body of energy, crusher of bodies washed to shore, carried to the sandflats of Dublin via "Cock Lake." Proteus harbingers the "seachange" (42) of all organisms, all matter; the corpse also manifests the "Seadeath, mildest of all deaths" (42), "soft as the hand of mist" (Book XI of The Odyssey). "Full fathom five thy father lies" (41): Father Ocean or Proteus as the drowned, absent father, hidden body of "coral" and "pearls" (The Tempest), always in the "sea change... rich and strange" (ibid.). This macabre dance of matter and energy is witnessed in the undead movement of the corpse "driving before it a drift of rubble" (41), an indeterminate mass of preterite matter. He will rise again "sunk though he be beneath the watery floor" (41). He is a "bag of corpsegas," porous, "a spongy titbit." In his undead, coral-like growth, matter transforms according to unpredictable, heretical logic, which Dedalus is compelled to read as he does "signatures of all things... seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot" (31). This logic only a poet could follow, or perhaps it is simply poetic creation: "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain" (41-2). This fabulation of the chain of being is certainly profane, or at least outside the accepted, predictable logic of any catechism. Ocean is God as an immanent storm and flux; the abstract, ethereal God of Christendom is more ascetic, barren, removed. Ocean's corpses return to us an overwhelming sensuality of rot and entropy and bodily transformation. Further, "Dead breaths I living breathe" (42), this resurrection will not be trumpeted glory and abstract salvation. Corpses are also the subject of the Hades episode, chronicling Dignam's funerary procession through downtown Dublin, its "heart." Bloom broods on the image of corpse-eating rats: "Pick the bones clean..." (94). Contrasting burial with a notion of Eastern cremation practices, Bloom recalls reading of the Chinese belief that "a white man smells like a corpse," already intimating the rot of the full body, made up faux-immaculate for life-beneath-earth, a resistance to the entropic cycles of the ground we tread upon. Bloom accords more with the Chinese: "Cremation better," or "Ashes to ashes. Or bury at sea." Yet while ashes would provide only scarce sustenance to earth and its creatures, sea burial provides immediate feasting for the fishes. Even more so than earth burial, while Tibetan 'sky burial' is quite an open feast (imagine being shat on by the bird that just ate the corpse!). In the ocean, this feast would of course be salted: "Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse: smell, taste like raw white turnips." Kinch begins to feel "thirst" (42) before his vista of seadeath foreground by his sliver of sandflats hosting ejected "seaspawn and seawrack" (31). He feels himself moving on alone "to evening lands" (42), his body eerily felt to be old, his "teeth... very bad... Shells." He walks on shells: dead husk walking on dead husks. He even leaves his "dry snot... on a ledge of rock carefully," an offering to Proteus; he dubs himself "Toothless Kinch, superman." Proteus is certainly more than human, and perhaps Dedalus feels, vaguely or obscurely, his move toward this "superhuman" nature, though the road there be crippling entropy, a break down of the organism, the de-organization into "bladderwrack." Dedalus has certainly not shown much loyalty to his species, so that it makes some kind of sense in him finding an affinity with Father Ocean, with a terrifying, mysterious force, which is not the God of the Church he walked out of in Portrait. Still, he leaves, dehydrated, needing to slake his thirst, not yet ready for the saline onslaught of the ocean.
Bloom too must go "back to the world again" (94), away from the cemetery, re-emerging for air. The place "brings you a bit nearer every time" as family and friends sink back to earth. "Plenty to see and hear and feel yet," Bloom far more the sensualist than the materially impoverished and almost ascetic Dedalus. Bloom only wants "warm beds," which he will indeed seek out in a brothel where he will meet his younger, profane counterpart. The latter will move on alone to evening lands, profane, pro fana, without the temple. It might already be said that the two have diverging perceptions on death, being-toward-death, even diverging anxieties on this condition...
Joyce, James. Ulysses: The Corrected Text. New York: Random House, 1986.
© David Bowen