We rounded out the 2017-2018 season with a further fifteen lines of the ‘Sirens’ episode (and it’s not entirely clear that we’re done with the last of those). Some of the following we think we got, the rest we at least had a crack at:
We scrutinised the sentence bookended by ‘by’s, but decided this was mere repetition, perhaps for the sake of the rhythm, describing a circle. Bloom’s “eyes went by” and, we trust, the rest of him too. The word “blessed” sets up a contrast with Bloom’s “dark eyes”, but the plurality of “virgins” tickled us, as did “white under” the blue robe, with its profane suggestion of nakedness. We related “come to me” to the Blessed Virgin’s intercessionary power, her role as “Refuge of sinners” (13.442), but noticed that it not only anticipates the climactic, identical line in Lionel’s aria from Martha (watch this space), but that Bloom had himself quoted, or even silently sung, the preceding two lines in ‘Aeolus’: “Co-ome thou lost one,/Co-ome thou dear one!” (7.59-60).
“God they believe she is: or goddess”: already pious belief and the subject of long controversy (and I do mean long), the Immaculate Conception of Mary, rendering her born without stain of sin, was proclaimed in 1854. Pius IX’s bull became dogma with the recognition of papal infallibility in 1870, while the doctrine of the Assumption – the direct ascent to heaven of Mary – was similarly dogmatically defined in 1950 (I have to put my hands up to some post-seminar fact-checking here, but we did have the gist of it on the night). Speaking of gist: we noted that Bloom is here boiling down to its very barest bones something expressed at greater length by Stephen in his thoughts in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ on “the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe” (9.839-40). We noted the “they” and Bloom’s distance from specifically Catholic Dublin and we also discussed the use of the colon in musical notation (its appearance after the key signature).
What follows is Bloom’s version of events, regarding his being caught out looking at the statues of goddesses in the National Museum in ‘Scylla’. As Mulligan tells Stephen there, Bloom’s eyes “were upon” the statue’s “mesial groove” (9.615). We can deduce here (the “fellow spoke”) that Mulligan must have interrupted Bloom by saying ‘good day’, since, at the end of ‘Scylla’, he says “Good day again” to Bloom (9.1204). This point was where Bloom saw the “student” (Mulligan) with “Dedalus’ son” and conditionally puts a name to the face, remembering what Simon had to say in ‘Hades’: “Was that Mulligan cad with him?” (6.49).
The statues in the museum and Bassi’s statues are here conflated, the heathen goddesses and the Mother of God: “All comely virgins.” Blasphemous in this formulation, the logic is nevertheless that underpinning Stephen’s objections in ‘Scylla’, the madonna’s absorption of and association with prior forms of goddess worship. The whiteness of the naked statues brings in “those rakes of fellows” who are students like Mulligan (Bloom is here suggesting that the Buck was in the Museum for no better reasons than himself); but the whiteness of Mary’s vestments brings in sinners also; and it was hard not to see a third layer of meaning, whiteness in its relation to virginity and brothels (as when Bloom is put up for auction by Bello in ‘Circe’: “Must be virgin”, 15.3100).
“By went his eyes” is a nice piece of internal rhyme and a third repetition of ‘by’. This is voiced by the narrator and what follows is not clearly interior monologue: the actual book Sweets of Sin Bloom has in his pocket, of course; and an attempt to separate the sin from the sweet – “Sweet are the sweets” – is answered by that knowing, mock-portentous “Of sin.” We thought these two lines might be in lieu of Bloom’s thoughts, which may well have turned to Boylan and Molly and so, in typical fashion, have then shut off and turned elsewhere. Bloom has been made unavailable to the reader of ‘Sirens’ once more, for now at least.
The “giggling peal” is of laughter rather than bells, though there is the suggestion of harmony here. The word “young”, repeated soon after, directs us back to Bloom’s response to Sweets of Sin in ‘Wandering Rocks’: “Young! Young!” (10.624); although we are back in the bar, something carries over, perhaps, “Douce” returning us to ‘sweet’ also. In “goldbronze” the voices are fused, but we wondered whether the two women might have their heads together here. The repetition of “your other eye” and then “your other” might be actual repetition or the same phrase echoing – no time seems to have passed at all while the narrative was away dealing with Bloom.
We discussed the neologisms, “gigglegold” and “freefly”. It was suggested that something Homeric was going on here, the sirens letting fly, “screaming”, “piercing” – even throwing “young heads back” . . . having eaten the rest; the mysterious “signals” (hand gestures, pointing at their eyes, perhaps) adding to this reading. Conflated as he has been with the old fogey, Bloom is on some level the object of the laughter and we discussed female laughter in its effect on men, the fear of ridicule and so on: Bloom remembers Molly “screaming” with laughter at 11.557. The final word “notes” brings us back to music again.
The word “foredone”, as in put out of existence, is an archaism, as is “mirth”, which doesn’t seem right here in any case; unless it is allied with the “panting” passing into “sighing” (repeated, once for each of them, maybe) which might be the two women resuming a more conventionally feminine mode once again, quietening down after letting their laughter “freefly” in proper, unrestrained hilarity.
A demonstration was given of the difference between lipping – the edge of the cup meeting the lips – and sipping – the cup then being raised so that the tea may be drunk – not the first time that what looks like a musical wording is in fact (or simultaneously) capturing a very precise motion, a rather ladylike one in this case. We liked “gigglegiggled” but took it to be principally mimetic, with a link to “gigglegold”.
At which point, having waited for her friend to a) settle down a bit and b) be in possession of a mouthful of tea, Miss Douce sets the whole thing off again by repeating her imitation of the old fogey. Just as we’d had problems with ruffling the first time, so here “fattened” left us confused – puffed up around the eyes from laughter, or are the eyes themselves ‘fattened’ somehow? – and the rhyme of “rolled” and “droll” did not help, for all it was suggestive. We do not see this mimicry and perhaps the language is making a point in preventing us from reconstructing it precisely.
We were struck by the idea that “Kennygiggles” masculinises Miss Kennedy here (and the ‘Miss’ is dropped, for only the second time in the episode) – this is filling in for a name, in rather the way that “Bloowhose” and the like fills in for Bloom’s. We wondered precisely who or what is stooping here: Miss Kennedy or the “fair pinnacles of hair” (given separate agency, much like Bloom’s eyes)? These things are happening while she splutters: “showed” is an active verb, but it is the hair doing the showing?
At which point we ran out of time and thought we probably hadn’t quite exhausted the last line (all those questions). So we will resume there, with the hair and the tortoise (wordplay I notice only now as I write), at the next seminar, in September: final dates for next year will be confirmed as soon as I have them. Hope you all enjoy the summer and the upcoming Bloomsday especially.