On the 5th of January, we started ‘Sirens’. In line with previous discussions about how to approach the opening of the episode, we treated the first 63 lines as a block, before proceding into the rest (i.e. the remaining 1,231 lines – probably a tad more than four years for this one).
Moving from ‘Aeolus’ to this episode saw an immediate comparison made between the content of this ‘block’ and the headlines of the earlier chapter. The matter of these lines is all drawn from the text to come, but with elements of distortion, compression and distillation. It was also pointed out that the lines do not appear in the order they should, if strict sequence were a concern (a parallel with the ‘coda’ at the end of ‘Wandering Rocks’ and with that episode more broadly – what looks like a model turns out to be no such thing).
We then discussed whether this could be thought of as an ‘overture’, the commonest critical shorthand in thinking about this section. The principal objection that arose was that an overture ought really to be comprehensible by itself, whereas this needs a reading of the episode as a whole in order to make any sense of it. Then again, is making sense of it the point?
We moved on to the idea that these lines present themes or motifs, in musical fashion. Clearly this does work with some of the words and phrases – those which recur, in particular “bronze” and “gold” – but it hardly seems to apply at all to others. We took note of the fact that the chapter would have needed to be complete before the opening could be finished
On the whole, then, we concluded that the ‘overture’ looks rather more meaningful than it turns out to be. We noted that there are some handholds, though, various ways in which the opening makes clear its relation to the rest of the book: the connexion with ‘Wandering Rocks’ (which introduces the reader to Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, “gold by bronze”, at 10.1198-99); “O rose! Castile” is Lenehan’s riddle come round again (7.591); the various mentions of “bloom” and “blooming” too. Nor is it quite as mechanical as it appears at first sight, since it is not mere transcription of what follows.
We also considered the idea (possibly Hugh Kenner’s, though no one could remember where from) that this is better thought of as an orchestra tuning up. Which then led us to think about the quality of its fragmentation in other ways. While the opening of ‘Sirens’ might – probably should – startle readers of Ulysses as a book (we thought about some other chapter openings and concluded that only that of ‘Oxen’ comes close to this in terms of discombobulation), readers of The Little Review might have been more used to this kind of fragmented, experimental writing in the context of that publication. Both Ezra Pound and Harriet Shaw Weaver expressed reservations about this episode: Margaret Anderson presumably did not.
We also spent more time considering the links with ‘Aeolus’, which we thought were not merely the arbitrary product of us moving from that episode to this, that there are some meaningful connexions here: ‘Aeolus’ was appearing in The Little Review at the same time as Joyce was writing ‘Sirens’. January 1918 also marked the appearance of a second edition of Chamber Music – at this point we belatedly realised that we were looking at this, as a piece of published writing, precisely a hundred years after its first readers had done so. We shared a moment or two of wonder and then we pushed on.
Having decided to treat the first 63 lines as a whole, we made something of an exception of the final line: “Begin!” This does not appear at the end of the episode and is clearly different in kind from the rest as a result. Who might be imagined as saying this? Who is being invited to begin? The orchestra? The reader? Joyce?
To the episode proper, then, which reponds to the injunction to “Begin!” by sending us back to the beginning of this episode and, beyond that, back to the final section of ‘Wandering Rocks’. We discussed the potential redness of “Bronze” and the idea that there is a comparative value being set on the two metals here and, by extension, the two women themselves (this, we felt, was the sort of consideration that may well get lost in a reading of the episode as a whole).
The names of the two women are of considerable interest, in that Joyce might have chosen pretty much anything he liked – these are wholly fictional characters in a way that many of the others are not – but ‘Douce’ is clearly musical (French, but ‘dolce’ by another name), whereas ‘Kennedy’ is not. The “crossblind” we remembered from ‘Aeolus’ (7.440) – and from James Joyce Online Notes – a blind covering the lower part of the window (precisely so that those like Kennedy and Douce could look over the top while passers-by on the street could not see in). Horseshoes are made from iron – as “hoofirons” confirms – making “ringing steel” (“steelyringing”) a little mysterious.
We spent some time with the ‘heads’ and the idea that these are ‘hearing’ – but “Bronze” and “gold” are nouns here and may be the agents which hear instead. We also considered how this picks up on ‘Wandering Rocks’ and the idea that the ‘coda’ represents what may be seen from the carriages (so merely the heads of the two women); also the idea that we are moving directly on from one episode to the next in a way that isn’t usual. (Of course, we are actually going back in time a little from the very end of ‘Wandering Rocks’).
Precisely because ‘Wandering Rocks’ has told us, we know exactly who is in these carriages as Douce and Kennedy do not – ‘her’ is Lady Dudley, which Miss Douce knows as Miss Kennedy does not. (Something I’ve noticed only in writing the blog – it’s miss Kennedy and miss Douce here, but Miss and Miss in ‘Wandering Rocks’.)
Miss Douce’s response to Kennedy’s question is not preceded by a dash – so are these her exact words, or a distillation, a condensation of what she says? Is “sitting with his ex” (His Excellency) her abbreviation or something performed by the episode itself in that case? Speech seems undistorted elsewhere, but we were conscious of this as something that will need attending to as we go on.
That “pearl grey and eau de Nil” are both colours had not occurred to all of us in looking at this for the first time (the latter is a kind of green). That this might refer to Lady Dudley’s outfit and hat led us to discuss the significance of the two young women’s uncovered heads and the unlikelihood of the presence of any women not actually working in a pub in a pub (or even a hotel). Eau de nil recurs in the episode (11.465, 661), seemingly as an object of reverie; the combination of grey and green the height of fashion (see the bridal dress in ‘Cyclops’, “a creation carried out in green mercerised silk, moulded on an underslip of gloaming grey,” 12.1280-81).
In the light of all that, we wondered whether Miss Kennedy’s response – “Exquisite contrast” – was her own, exactly: received opinion on the fashions of the day? Or is there even a trace of irony, a kind of drollness about this? Miss Douce, already “agog”, becomes more eager still – looking slightly ahead, we deduced that the two of them could not be at the bar, but must be quite close to the window. Again, we can identify “the fellow in the tall silk” – “the honourable Gerald Ward A. D. C.” (10.1179) – as they cannot, but the synecdoche, “silk” for silk hat, we took to be theirs. Ward is not in uniform, as the other two men in the carriages presumably are.
We will resume at line 71 on the 2nd of February.