The dream in Ulysses

A friend of mine and I have been reading Ulysses together over the past year and I had mentioned my impression, I’m sure I read it somewhere, I don’t think I would have come up with it on my own, that Bloom and Stephen and Molly had all had versions of the same dream the night before the day of the action of the book. In our meetings, I was able to recall my impression, but I couldn’t find the evidence. I’ve finally put together the quotes I was thinking of (references are to Gabler). It’s a little less clear than it was in my imagination. I had written 1) a defense of reading Ulysses at all (why do I feel I have to defend that?) and 2) a long interpretation of the passages below that ties them in with a certain aspect of the book’s overall architecture, but I thought better of both. Too much work.

From Stephen’s day:

After he woke me last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell. That was the rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who. (3:365-9).

Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered. street of harlots after. A creamfruit melon he held to me. In. You will see. (9: 1207-8)

Mark me. I dreamt of a watermelon… (Extending his arms.) It was here. Street of harlots. In Serpentine Avenue Beelzebub showed me her, a fubsy widow. Where’s the red carpet spread? (15: 3922, 3930-1)

From Bloom’s day:

Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish. Wore the breeches. Suppose she does? Would I like her in pyjamas? Damned hard to answer. (13: 1240-2)

Leop. Bloom there for a languor he had but was now better, he having dreamed tonight a strange fancy of his dame Mrs Moll with red slippers on in pair of Turkey trunks (14: 507-9)

He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation. (17: 2241-3)

From Molly’s day:

he was on the cards this morning when I laid out the deck union with a young stranger neither dark nor fair you met before I thought it meant him but hes no chicken nor a stranger either besides my face was turned the other way what was the 7th card after that the 10 of spaces for a Journey by land then there was a letter on its way and scandals too the 3 queens and the 8 of diamonds for a rise in society yes wait it all came out and 2 red 8s for new garments look at that and didnt I dream something too yes there was something about poetry in it (18: 1314-1321)

Id love to have a long talk with an intelligent well-educated person Id have to get a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell (18: 1493-5)

Angry marks

I lost my temper Friday night, and I slapped a telephone pole. I really went after it too; I slapped it more than once, right palm and then left, and then right again. There was lots of gummy-looking stuff on its surface, but that stuff turns out to be pretty stiff. There are nails, staples, and splinters as well; all kinds of hazards.

I have five cuts on my hands today that still sting, and somehow I managed to get a piece of the gummy stuff from the outside of the pole underneath my skin. The skin grows together over the wound. That’s a bizarre thought for me, I have pole surface-stuff in my body now, I’m busy chewing on it and taking it apart and seeing what I can take from it; or at least I’m trying, for some values of I.

There’s one scrape a little larger than the others, it developed a red swelling around it, which had disappeared by this morning. The swelling had a similar shape to the wound, but it was much larger, and it was displaced, not evenly distributed around the wound. In effect it was like a shadow of a walking man cast from behind him against a far wall by a streetlamp he had just passed by.

The part of the wound that is left has three layers: the diamond-shaped tear in the skin, the rawer, healing red layer of under-skin exposed, and at the center of that, a deeper crater that looks like a tiny eye.

Retrospectively, it’s a little terrifying that I lost control of myself so completely. Imagine, what if I had swung at a person instead? Couldn’t it have happened that way?

The following could reassure me, but somehow doesn’t: what I was feeling at the moment I took the swing wasn’t the anger, but the glee, the pure, free joy of expressing that anger. That thought could reassure me, because I, taking me for me, I can’t freely express my anger like that on a person. If I expressed it, I wouldn’t be acting freely. I would be under control of my anger. People aren’t blank slates for my expression, the way that things I can’t damage can be.

But it doesn’t make me feel better, because it’s a new problem: if it feels so pleasant, who knows where it might take me next time, that free spirit, that glee. Since pleasant isn’t even the right word. I just felt liberated, in that moment, and I am afraid of that freedom. How far it took me, in one quick moment, before it left me so completely.

Studies in the spring

Three students were sitting at a wide table, well apart. Their books were open, and they had notebooks too. They had been laughing about something, it was spring outdoors and they had the wide windows open. There was a stream of fellow feeling flowing in the room.

The one with the knit sweater went to make more tea. The other two caught themselves smiling at each other. There was another stream, running under the stream that had borne the laughter in, only the other flowed slower, deeper, and in a different direction.

He reentered and was about to make a point, but he stopped. He stiffened his shoulders, sat down and opened his black notebook. But his own writing didn’t make sense to him.

They returned to work. The student in the sweater did not feel the stronger undercurrent and felt himself again borne along on the stream.

They put aside their work after another quarter hour, and talked about Socrates. What was his irony. The youngest said it was like the deep blue sky outside: nothing that happened below it could change it, and everything happened below it; even low, heavy clouds covering it only hid it from view.

The one with the sweater thought it was disengaged and dangerous, and unserious; while the third student felt that Socrates played verbal tricks in order to disorient people and return them to ground, and it was inspiring and at the same time disgusting, the fury with which he pursued it.

Language learning

Learning a language is a neat trick. I’m not sure I understand how it’s done. I’ve done it before, but I don’t think I quite caught myself in the act, I don’t know the trick of the trick. I can speak French with some confidence and read without a dictionary, although when I took French in high school, I did poorly at it, understanding very little.

However when I got to college I found I could read it and understand it, and even do it for pleasure. However, then I didn’t know how to speak it, and I had little confidence I would ever learn. But after a week or so of exposure, I found I could use it for any of my needs, I could communicate about myself and who I was, and I could understand what was communicated to me.

The same thing happened with Russian; more quickly than I myself noticed, I went from understanding and knowing little, struggling to put letters together into words, to being comfortable expressing myself in a range of settings with this new instrument: like using a pen that is at first unfamiliar and then seems to recede into your hand and be only an extension of it; and then when I began to read, I found with time I could read it, and enjoy reading, and lose myself in a book. And it happened at a different speed than I experienced it, I was talking above my level, or making elementary mistakes without noticing after a long period of having an advanced skill.

I don’t think applied study is the answer. It’s not like learning facts. It isn’t simply repeated exposure either, I’ve been exposed to much that I haven’t learned the first thing about. It’s more like: there’s a tug of war between what you’re hearing and what you’re trying to express. You hear something new, and understand it, you try to put it in your speech. You try to say something new, fail, and then you suddenly hear how it should be said. It’s a triangular tug of war, in the back and forth see-saw, you drift slowly towards knowledge. As you hear better you speak better, as you improve how you speak you begin to hear things you had not heard before.

I haven’t ever really applied my self to learn, successfully. It’s a knack you get from repeated practice, but taking it faster than it wants to go is only going to frustrate me, and intimidate me. I started Armenian less than a week ago; I haven’t learned the alphabet yet, but I know a few phrases, some of the grammar is starting to become clear; I can tell an infinitive from a participle, and I know a few pronouns. I can’t hear the difference between the aspirated and unaspirated letters yet, and I don’t know anything about its conjugations, tenses, or declensions, but these things will come in time. I look a little, I listen a little, daily, without goals or any intentions.

It might be a little like getting to know a person: it’s only accomplished over time. You recognize their face first, you get to know thing slowly about their style, you see their face in only a limited range of expressions, then over time you come to know them better, only if you try to get to know someone as a deliberate project, they are more likely to hide themselves from you, hide what is essential to them, and make the process longer.

Misallocation of force

I haven’t been sleeping well, I think it’s because I’m excited. It doesn’t feel like excitement: It just feels like ordinary, miserable insomnia.

I can’t really control my feelings, but can make them into something else. I twist them and try to make them serve other purposes, or to put them on hold. This is after-the-fact reasoning, by necessity: the control that I am trying to exercise over them somehow is going on behind my back and has already actually gone on behind my back, my feelings hit the stage in the wrong costumes.

They enter my sphere chained, already restricted feelings, dangerous feelings with resentment and violent tendencies. They have been causing havoc. They don’t feel good, or hopeful, or energetic, or any of the things they are. They feel anxious, and tired, and angry and irritable and ready to contest.

Since I have displaced them from their proper objects, they kind of hover: they don’t have any objects. They are like the ghosts of feeling, but angry ghosts that can manipulate in this world. That’s how I’ve reasoned it out. Though you might think anxiety is appropriate: It can’t be easy to give up a life, even if it’s one you don’t care for. It’s still the only one you have.

Except when I contemplate my feelings, or let them go, give them room to unfold – I have a technique for doing this that involves getting myself half-asleep, if you can call zoning out a technique – I am really excited. It’s a very thrilling feeling, I feel like a child, or even better, I feel relaxed and excited and happy. Something like: going to see a movie I wanted to see with a friend I want to see more of at a theater I enjoy in my favorite neighborhood at the end ofa long happy day. I have energy, I have hope and I am open and responsive and my world can barely wait to show me its possibilities. This is the hidden feeling underneath my anxiety, discontent, and fatigue.

It’s a strange overall picture, and I don’t know how to account for it. But I notice it not only when I zone out and give the feeling a free playing field to express itself. Exploring a topic related to my service, exploring the language, doing anything related, and I can feel myself expand, I feel the spring in me as usable energy, and I get a lightness in my chest. It’s unfathomable to me why it should be this way: my energy is earmarked for a particular purpose, and if it is not used, or used for something else, it rebels and makes trouble where it can.

Two roommates

Two roommates were avoiding each other. One would come, the other would leave. It was month four in a six month lease. One night noise outside brought them both to a window.

They watched, straining their eyes. The noise ceased. One turned the corner to get a glass of water. The sink was full.

Can’t you wash your dishes?

You told me not to run the dishwasher until there was enough for a load.

I can’t even live here anymore. This is rotting, not living.

They couldn’t talk without an intermediary. The involuntary: the coughs, the shuffling, clearing the throat, slouching; became intolerable.

Once he came home late, stomping. He beat his head against the wall. He screamed Stupid, blind. He pounded the washer, he spun in place and struck himself on the chest and head. He shouted: Virgin forever.

Glass was smashed and other damage done in the basement hallway that night. Next morning, the debris was neatly piled up in the shower. They hadn’t talked since.

Coming out from the kitchen, he saw the other in a bathrobe. It hung open, and his gaze wandered down; he scowled in disgust and they turned away from each other.

Then they met in his office. No bathrobe, no slouching. We should get together sometime. Yes, definitely. You’re looking well. No, I’ve been gaining weight.

I have to get back to work. I have to go.

He spun his chair back to the window, he turned the corner to the stairwell.

Discomforts

There’s an oppressive feeling in the air today. I feel like I’m struggling to breathe. It’s a huge effort. I know I’m not struggling, I am breathing normally, regularly, and easily. But everything seems like an effort, even what I’m doing easily. I have to tell myself it’s easy.

The weather is blinding bright overcast, the walls are lined with a horrific purple-grey static wallpaper and there are sickening patterns in the carpet, made of multi-colored thread that manages to look grey in combination. I can’t look anywhere. There’s either clutter or complete disorder.

Is this short-timer’s syndrome? It was never easy to get attached to this place. But the urine on the floor of the bathroom, the thick, locker-room stench in there that never changes, the artificial-looking (but horribly alive!) plants crawling over every desk, the dozens of filing cabinets in every corridor, storing party supplies or ancient records or boxes of useless symbols, and then on the wall, what, I suppose it must be art, walking a fine line between abstract and representational, of course with the advantages of neither. It looks like the wall rug. The pedantic, hectoring tone in the conversations near me.

Everything is intensely boring but I can’t seem to direct my energy anywhere. It’s helpless to any stimulus that comes along, the filtering has been turned off and everything contentless is coming through, without any context or any meaning. My forehead doesn’t seem to be the right temperature but I can’t tell if it’s too hot or too cold: it feels tight. My bowels are clutching spasmodically. I don’t think I want to be here.

It’s certainly a funny way I have of expressing it. Last time I felt like this for any length of time, I got shingles, and then pneumonia. I grew inches of beard, lost fifteen pounds, dumped gallons of sweat in my bed; and then I felt a lot better. So there’s a part of this that just has to be endured, I think. But there’s another part that points to some unacknowledged problem.

And this has always been my weak point; I don’t have a good method for determining the problem: the first step to solving it. I suffer it like the dog, stuck outside in the storm. Loyalty demands I not abandon a certain position. But remaining at my post I only cause discomfort for myself and annoyance to others.

I just don’t get it; see below

Reading about Nagorno-Karabakh. Sometimes it’s reported as if, or maybe it’s me, it’s just another example of third-world ethnic conflict, something civilized nations don’t understand, something to do with ancient hatreds. But of couse the conflict is between two states, not two ethnicities, and what is more, it is not irrational. You can figure it out: there is a clear territorial dispute at its heart. It was Soviet ethnic Azeris who were expelled, beaten, burned, raped and killed in Armenia; ethnic Azeris from Iran, who currently conduct most of Iranian trade with Armenia, are not harassed, expelled, or abused and are on the contrary welcomed. The story is not new and is not confined to one part of the world: a co-ethnic minority in a neighboring country requires our help, so we annex their territory. Sudetenland, Texas, etc. Nationalism only happens in ethnics when it is a defining term for nation, not otherwise. When loyalties go that way.

Certainly there are such things as ethnic differences. Groups linked by lineage and marriage share customs, language, and material culture. The traditional line from the civilized world, or maybe it’s just me again but that’s how it seems to me, the traditional line on these conflicts is incomprehension: why do people fight so viciously over such small or superficial or inconsequential differences. But they are not fighting over these differences. The differences are not a cause of war, the conflict is over incompatible claims put forward by political entities, which may or may not be defined by ethnicity, but are defined in some way, and ethnicity is one of many handy ways to define and mobilize a political entity. It is only one of many.

There’s a mythical kind of thinking I try to resist: Once upon a time, ethnic differences became a cause of war. Before that time, there were differences between human groups, but they were irrelevant to conflict, which had to do with power, not identity. That is to say, there was war, which was bad, and there were differences, which were good or neutral. States were ruled by a trans-national elite, and wars were not inspired by broad-based hatred. Then came the time of pollution, the rise of nationalism, where ethnic differences became part of what defined a state or nation. Good or neutral things became infected with evil.

This myth ignores many things. Ethnic cleansing, far from being a modern invention, has been around at least since the Babylonians deported the Hebrews from Palestine. Armed conflict breaking out along ethnic lines is as old. And occasional ethnic conflict doesn’t disqualify groups from living in peace most of the time. Pogroms and riots in 1905 and 1920 and mass deportations in the 1940s didn’t keep Armenians and Azerbaijanis from living together as neighbors, friends, coworkers and often even family until the 1980s. The point is that ethnicity is just one mobilizing force among many. It is a way to mobilize large groups quickly, like a fault line, or a wiring system connecting individuals. But nearly any difference between individuals can act be acted upon in this way: age, income, region, education status, dialect. People are wired to one another in multitudinous ways.

Each person has multiple identities. Each identity has its own loyalty. I am a son-in-law, a transplanted Oregonian, a Peace Corps volunteer, a college graduate, an atheist, a religious sympathizer, et cetera, and my actions are in part determined by these loyalties, in certain circumstances. All other things being equal, assuming no conflict with any other loyalties, I want the best for Oregon. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate these loyalties, any more than you could eliminate differences between individuals or their tendency to identify in groups. They are extensions of healthy self-interest. So far from being the cause of conflict, the increase of them can tend to reduce or complicate conflict. It is easier to kill the Kurd who you have never met than the one who is your uncle’s son-in-law and neighbor, who you have drunk tea with and sung songs with.

The point is there is nothing about ethnicity or ethnic differences that necessarily leads to war. Azeris and Armenians, interviewed now about the past, will say: we always lived together normally. While that wasn’t entirely true, it was generally true. They did live together. The peoples of the Caucasus have shared territory for a long time.

This is another pattern of mythic thinking I notice in myself: to imagine the current national borders follow some natural, pre-existing ethnic reality. The Armenians are from Armenia, look it’s right there on the map, the Turks belong in Turkey, and the Bulgarians have a space all there own there in Bulgaria.

Whereas: It’s commonly known that Armenians inhabited much of eastern Turkey, as well as Istanbul, Izmir, and other major cities. But in those same places as ethnic Armenians lived Kurds, and Turks, and Turkmen and Greeks, as well as members of other ethnicities. Armenia’s current capital, Yerevan, was a provincial town until the emigrations from Turkey in 1915; before that time then the capitals of Armenian culture were Van, now in Turkey, Tblisi, now in Georgia, Baku, now in Azerbaijan, and Istanbul, which is still not again the international city it once was. Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus were in general much more mixed. There were plenty of “muslims”, probably Turkish-speaking, Shi’ite Azerbaijanis, in Yerevan and Gyumri. There were Turks in Georgia, and Greeks were found all over the Black Sea coast, including Turkey, Russia, the Ukraine, until Ataturk in the 1920s and Stalin in the 1940s homogenized the regions under their control.

Temporary

The new temp didn’t seem very bright. Just something about him. He’d taught English in Korea and now he was home: he would always talk about that, or anime. The two ran together in the minds of the permanent staff.

He said the culture was different, it wasn’t easy to live that way. He would just get tired. At the first he loved being strange. He could say what he wanted. But now he would rather be home where things made sense, and relax.

It was suspicious, somehow. Did he have to talk so much? He was answering what nobody asked him. Was he stupid? You look up, and he was standing with his mouth open.

He didn’t seem to catch on to the work. What he could manage, he did slowly, and he filed the papers out of order and mis-stamped things, no matter what you did. And there was something superior in his attitude.

He was standing behind the older temp one day. He’d had to vacate his cubicle temporarily for repair work. He was standing there, staring at her back, whenever she looked, for half an hour. The work director passed by.

Were you needing some work, she said. He mumbled something. They went into another room. Later in the day the older temp asked where he had gone. He won’t be coming back. A frightened look across her face. We had to let him go, said the manager. She made a defensive gesture near her chest.

Beach hotel

We’re at the beach for the weekend. Our hotel is book-themed. Each room is named after an author: we’re staying in the Lincoln Steffens room, decorated with a desk and typewriter; and we have photos on our wall: of a grimacing Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson looking like the missing butler from the Munsters. They really look as dead as they are. Teddy doesn’t look like his end was restful. There are photos of authors everywhere, the hallways are hung with them all up and down their length, so dense they are at most a half a foot apart. Photos are standing on the bookshelves, arranged in layered rows on the mantlepieces, and for sale in the gift shop as postcards.

It’s kind of creepy. It’s not that I don’t like books, or authors. But that’s all these photos have in common: that they are all of authors. There’s nothing else; that’s the only aspect of their lives, characters, and interests they have in common, yet it is enough to make them symbols of some kind of alliance. It doesn’t feel comfortable. Even as a decorative principle. Regardless of whatever other alliances they may have had, whatever differences or hostilities existed between them as individuals, here all that is erased and disregarded. The shallowness is stifling. It’s like drowning in an inch of water.

But the view from the third floor library, where I am writing this, is extraordinary. The ocean doesn’t look large, visibility isn’t high enough, but it gives a sense of restrained power. The waves are irregular, and small, the ocean’s forehead wrinkled, worried by crossing winds. Last night I sat up and was reading, and the wind was blowing so hard my chair moved beneath, me, I could feel the walls ripple as it struck them, and the pipes sounded like a performance art troupe was hammering on them. Today the wind is still strong, there are birds levitating in place on it, hanging right outside the window.

On the beach, the sand is thick and wet and stays out of your shoes. It is flat and even and all homogeneous, apart from a half-made jetty, large rocks running down into the water. I walked out on them at low tide, just as the tide was turning to come in, and felt the barnacles and other clinging creatures making noise beneath my feet. There are streams running down from yesterday’s rain on the town, they make mini-ravines with abrupt, cliff-like sides, and they fan out into deltas with muddy islands as they descend to the ocean. And north from the hotel, there are large rocks rising out of the sand like monsters out of a swamp.

I spoke with a young boy: after I came off the rocks, he asked me if there was anything to see. He was holding a dog by the leash, a tall, nervous thing that kept stepping back and forward in a jerky way. I told him he could, on the far front of the jetty, see pools between the rocks the tide had left behind, and there were some sea-creatures to see there. I wonder when I will be by the ocean again: the air is unlike the air of the land, and it is good to bring my cares here, and spend some days in the company of any books, and with the sea there as a huge sink, bigger than whatever worries I can bring to it.