On Friday 12th February 2021, the group convened online to read 13 lines of ‘Sirens’. ‘Musemathematics’ (11: 834) largely seems to reproduce the theme already discussed, the common ground of music and mathematics, but we also wondered if the ‘Muse’ was signalled. It’s a suitably Homeric term (‘Tell me, O Muse …’), and there is a fair amount of ‘musing’ in the chapter, though the Nine Muses of classical myth are artistic and don’t include one for mathematics; this word might call for an addition.
‘And you think you’re listening to the etherial’ (11: 834-5; the i in the last word is altered to an e by Rose and O’Hanlon’s 2017 online edition, rightly or not) means: you think you’re hearing something transcendent but it’s really just numbers. Though it could be said that numbers themselves are, if not etherial, then at least ideal and conceptual, rather than mundanely material. In ‘But suppose you said it like: Martha, seven times nine minus x is thirtyfive thousand’, the ‘But’ continues to contradict the starting premise that music feels ‘etherial’: you could put it differently and it would ‘Fall quite flat’ (11: 836). ‘Martha’ refers to a song that Leopold Bloom has recently heard, but we wondered about the sum. ‘seven times nine minus x is thirtyfive thousand’ suggests that x is a huge minus number: – 34, 937. This element makes the sum seem daft, which is probably the intention. Bloom is primarily trying to indicate the fanciful nature of such sums, their arbitrariness and lack of relation to the music we hear. Some members of the group, though, did try to parse the sum differently, for instance proposing that we should read ‘seven times nine’ as seven times nine thousand’, with x becoming 28,000. It was also noted that the postal order that Bloom sends to Martha Clifford is 2 shillings and 8 pence (17:1468), though as there were 12 pence to a shilling this does not add up to the possibly relevant number of 28 pence, but rather 32.
‘It’s on account of the sounds it is’ (11: 836-7) is a bathetic statement that amused us. Theorisation about music that ends up saying ‘It’s on account of the sounds’ appears to have sunk into tautology, though it may also be called accurate. The ‘it is’ at the end of the sentence also looks rather feeble, as the sentence started the same way (‘It’s’); but we thought that ‘it is’ was a Hiberno-English touch.
‘Instance he’s playing now. Improvising’ (11: 838): that is, Bob Cowley is currently improvising at the piano in the other room, doodling away in the background after Simon Dedalus’s triumphant performance. (Note 11:799: ‘Father Cowley, who played a voluntary, who nodded as he played’.) This is an ‘Instance’ of a larger principle, which we tried to identify. ‘Might be what you like, till you hear the words’ (11: 838-9), we thought, means either: ‘The musical piece might be anything, until you hear the words, and then you can identify it’; or: ‘The musical piece might be something you enjoy, until you hear the words and they take away your enjoyment’. The former seems a little more likely, but we’re not certain. ‘Want to listen sharp’ (11: 839) seems to say: you need to listen closely to identify such a piece of (improvised, unknown) music, especially without words to identify it. ‘Sharp’ is a musical pun, almost twinned with ‘Fall quite flat’ in the paragraph above – and ‘sharp-eared’ is a recognisable idiomatic phrase. Nonetheless ‘listen sharp’ doesn’t sound quite right (as ‘look sharp’ does), so Bloom corrects himself to ‘Hard’. The sense is ‘Listen hard’, meaning ‘Listen carefully’ – though a sense also develops of listening as hard, that is, difficult.
‘Begin all right: then hear chords a bit off: feel lost a bit’ (11: 839-40) describes an experience of listening. An unproblematic start is followed by hearing ‘chords a bit off’ – meaning played wrongly? Probably not: probably this means that the chords are unexpected and take the listener away from, for instance, the key they thought they’d stay in. Hence the listener will ‘feel lost a bit’. Bloom extrapolates listening to a sentence-long metaphor: ‘In and out of sacks, over barrels, through wirefences, obstacle race’ (11: 840-1). Listening (never mind playing) here is akin to an assault course. It seems that we have to imagine such a course including the task of getting in and out of a sack, jumping over barrels, and climbing through a wire fence. Some readers wondered if the elements of the course were supposed to resemble musical instruments: for instance the ‘wirefences’ could be guitar strings, or even a stave of written music. ‘Time makes the tune’ (11: 841) is a resonant phrase that sounds proverbial. Joyce wrote the phrase in a notebook, which suggests that it could possibly be from an external textual source. It was suggested that the phrase is in fact used by music teachers to emphasise the importance of timing and rhythm in playing. The obstacle race’ presumably involved time (one competitor racing against to finish in less time than the other), but time in this sentence has a different role: not something that you race against but a necessary component of accurate performance. The sense may be that tunes rely on timing rather than just the correct sequence of notes.
Leopold Bloom, we noted, is in the midst of a brief reverie which is almost like a lecture about music to an imaginary audience. ‘Question of mood you’re in’ (11: 841-2), he goes on: that is, whether you enjoy a piece of music depends on your pre-existing mood. This quite plausible statement would signal a radically subjective approach to criticism. (We noted also that ‘Time makes the tune’ could be recycled into this statement, if taken as ‘what sort of “time” the listener is having affects their enjoyment of a tune – but this secondary sense may not be relevant.) ‘Still always nice to hear’ withdraws the radically subjective approach, replacing it with something unusually bland: ‘It’s always nice to hear a bit of music!’. (It’s conceivable that ‘Still’ is another veiled musical pun.)
In his ongoing dialectic or interior dialogue, Bloom then immediately swings back again to a case where music is not, in fact, nice to hear: ‘Except scales up and down, girls learning’ (11: 842). That listening to scales played over and over is not enjoyable is a normal judgment. But why are the imagined players of these scales girls? Perhaps because Bloom has had a daughter he can remember practising scales; perhaps because more girls than boys learned the piano; perhaps because of a certain association of females with imitative, unimaginative performance. ‘Two together nextdoor neighbours’ heightens the idea: not one but two girls mechanically playing scales, making them both seem the more unimaginative. The sound would surely be worse still, as the two unrelated scales at once would likely produce discord. We were unsure, by the way, whether the ‘nextdoor neighbours’ are imagined as occupying adjacent houses, perhaps just through the wall from each other; or as playing on either side, left and right, of the house of the unfortunate listener. ‘Ought to invent dummy pianos for that’ seemed to us like a bad Bloomian idea (as with a dummy piano you couldn’t hear whether you were playing it right), but we were assured that the idea has, in fact, had some use in training pianists.
‘Milly no taste. Queer because we both I mean’ (11: 844) means: Milly has no musical taste, which is odd because both Leopold and Molly Bloom do. (We might think that in this sphere, at least, Molly is ahead of her husband.) ‘Blumenlied I bought for her’: Bloom bought Milly the sheet music of Blumenlied by the German composer Gustav Lange (1830-1889), possibly because he thought it was an appropriate piece, or possibly because he was guided by the coincidence of ‘The name’ (but the name might just have been a secondary pleasure). Milly, we assume, was ‘Playing it slow, a girl’, on a particular night that Bloom now remembers: ‘night I came home, the girl’ (11: 845). This looks quite innocuous; could ‘the girl’ be the same girl as ‘a girl’, who was Milly?
Apparently not. The James Joyce Digital Archive points us to a note, contained in the National Library: ‘bought Blumenlied for [Milly] found her playing it when home from whore’. This leads us to think that the night that Bloom remembers hearing Milly play the music was one when he had been out with a prostitute, who is ‘the girl’ at the end of the sentence. This is an unusual case of our reading being strongly guided by additional genetic material, rather than the finished text. Would we even suspect the presence of the ‘whore’ here without the note? But perhaps we would, as the paragraph goes on and ends: ‘Door of the stables near Cecilia street’ (11: 845-6). Cecilia Street is just south of the Liffey, in Temple Bar – not really far, in fact, from Essex Bridge and where Bloom is now. The sentence appears to imply that Bloom had a sexual encounter with the prostitute inside these stables, or up against their door – ‘near’, though not on, Cecilia Street, so we don’t know exactly where. We noted that Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music, so Joyce has been very deliberate in choosing a thematically relevant location for the memory.
Apart from being an unusual textual crux in which we were prompted by an unpublished note, the lines somewhat surprised us, making us wonder about Bloom’s fidelity to Molly and whether his use of a prostitute was typical or plausible. We think of him as very uxorious. But there is also evidence in the novel of some such encounters, including with a passing prostitute later in this very episode (11: 1252). A further issue is how this remembered sexual encounter shades his memory of Milly. She’s ‘a girl’ and the prostitute is ‘the girl’: does the shared noun create an uneasy likeness between them? More simply, is there something uneasy about coming home from an illicit sexual encounter to find your young daughter practising the piano piece you’ve bought her? If Bloom thinks this, we don’t find out, because the text immediately cuts away from his thoughts and doesn’t return for 9 lines. This is a subtle cut away from something sensitive: the switch of attention to other characters, while Bloom, perhaps, reminisces about the sexual encounter, is easy to miss – especially as in the finished text, the sexual encounter is almost invisible.
We will resume next time with ‘Bald deaf Pat brought quite flat pad ink’ (11: 847).