I spent two full years of college studying Ulysses. Since graduation day, I have done nothing with my useless and pointless Joycean knowledge, so I thought I'd use the Bloomsday anni- versary — the action of Ulysses took place one hundred years ago today — as an excuse to crack open the old books and talk about some rich Wagnerian imagery that appears early in the novel. Forgive the lit-crit digression; I'm trying to keep this blog on message, and as a rule won't be giving you my thoughts on politics, the weather, kitties, David Beckham, etc.
At the end of the third chapter, “Proteus,” Stephen Dedalus is gazing out into Dublin Bay, watching a three-master sail past. He is, as always, chasing the endless swirl of his thoughts. He has a kind of premonition of an alien creature about to enter his world: “He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.” As Timothy Martin points out, in his book Joyce and Wagner, these lines fuse the old Irish poem “My Grief on the Sea” with the libretto of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, whose title character arrives in a ghost ship with “blood red” sails. I’d add another detail; in Wagner, the Dutchman’s crew comes ashore “silently and without further sound.” Compare the final words of the chapter: “silently moving, a silent ship.” Joyce even preserves the redundancy of Wagner’s stage direction.
Now what happens when we turn the page? “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” This jump cut from a young Irishman’s metaphysical daydreaming to a middle-aged Irishman’s matter-of-fact breakfasting is one of the sublime jokes of the novel, and it becomes more sublime when you realize that Wagner is also the butt of it. Stephen Dedalus is, obviously, one of the innumerable Wagner-worshipping youths who populated the last fin du siècle—at the drunken climax of the book, he will make like Siegfried and shout "Nothung!" He also seems a bit of an anti-Semite; certainly, some of his best friends don't like the Jews. He is familiar enough with the writings of the hateful French journalist Edouard Drumont to be able to quote the phrase “old hag with the yellow teeth,” which appears, I discovered back in the day, in Drumont’s 1891 book Le Testament d’un antisémite. (Drumont was talking about Queen Victoria, who wasn’t Jewish, but never mind.) It is natural that the same train of thought would lead Stephen to Wagner’s opera, which apes the legend of the Wandering Jew. The “pale vampire” is the image of his fear of the Other. But flip the page and there is the vampire himself, a magnificently ordinary man at the outset of his magnificently ordinary day. The juxtaposition looks ahead to the great meeting of Dedalus and Bloom near the end of the novel.
Joyce owned the score of The Flying Dutchman and also had a copy of Wagner’s essay “Judaism in Music.” His own attitudes toward Jewishness were not without their ambiguities and complexities, but he would have had pure contempt for Wagner’s racism. The Wagnerian Dedalus is made to see the limits of his archly aestheticized view of the world. “Full fathom five thy father lies,” he says to himself. As the ship goes by, there is a sea-change, and his phantom father becomes the face of Bloom.