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In Episode 8 of Ulysses, Joyce sends Bloom and the reader through a gauntlet of food that enlarges one of the novel¹s main linguistic strategies, that of gradual digestion. While Episode 10 may seem like a more appropriate choice for a spatial representation of the city, this episode maps digestion out like Bloom wanders the streets of Dublin, with thoughts entering foremost through the body and exiting them. In T.S. Eliot¹s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the stanzas deescalate the city from skyline to sea-bottom in accordance with the mock-hero¹s own inability digest thoroughly any complete thought all the way through.
Bloom describes the process of eating with realism appropriate to the task: “And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth good: have to feed it like stoking an engine” (144-5). Indeed, this is the path words take in the novel; they begin in a pure form, as written on a page (such as Martha¹s “Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy?” which, despite its impure implications, is at least black ink on white paper) and filters into every stage of Bloom¹s journey (as in Episode 8, 137). The gradual digestion of words fits with another of Martha¹s lines, the typographical error “I called you naughty darling because I do not like that other world” (131). These words become “worlds,” carving out a space as they travel throughout Dublin with Bloom. Bloom tosses the “throwaway” into the Liffey, and its words sail down not only the river, but alongside Bloom, causing him trouble and marking him as a throwaway himself. Words often hint at their own creation or foreshadow another episode: “Pen something. Pendennis? My memory is getting. Pen” (128) Speaking both to the “pen” Joyce wields and to Molly as Penelope, the words are empty until endowed with meaning. Consider “plump,” which starts the novel off ambiguously. “Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead” can be read with “plump” as an adjective for rotund or as a “sudden or abrupt fall or sinking down” (OED, 10.2), and eventually comes to stand for another of its 10 meanings prescribed by the OED, “cluster, bunch, clump” (OED, 1).
This kind of word-digestion finds its spatial form in the blind stripling Bloom helps cross the street. The stripling is initially delineated by his relationship to food: “Stains on his coat. Slobbers his food, I suppose. Tastes all different for him. Have to be spoonfed first. Like a child¹s hand, his hand. Like Milly¹s was. Sensitive. Sizing me up I daresay from my hand” (148). The stripling¹s sensitivity to food, his loss of dexterity compensated for by his other senses, makes him more aware of Bloom in other ways: “Sense of smell must be stronger too. Smells on all sides, bunched together. Each street different smell” (149). The stripling digests places differently; he must cautiously approach each one as if it were new, a piece of meat dangling precariously off his fork he must safeguard. His sense of space is circumscribed visually but takes on a different, imaginative form: “See things in their forehead perhaps: kind of sense of volume. Weight or size of it, something blacker than the dark. Wonder would he feel it if something was removed. Feel a gap. Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones” (148-9). Joyce boasted that Dublin could be rebuilt from the map of Ulysses and, indeed, we are led through it as the stripling is, with our own sensory mediation the sound of words and their gradual digestion and deployment.
“Prufrock,” too, scatters various phrases throughout its text to evoke a similar paralysis cloaking the city and its hero. The anaphoric refrain of “And” turns into a paratactic chain that bludgeons the reader with Prufrock¹s emasculated (a “prude” in a “frock”) anti-heroic inaction, forcing both Prufrock and the reader into “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” We are led down a path that corresponds with Prufrock¹s debased, muted voice. The “evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table,” emphasizing the paralytic (in a medical sense) telescopic view. The streets also bend to Prufrock¹s repetitive course, “follow[ing] like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent.” The opening imperative to “Let us go then, you and I” is distributed to the woman Prufrock sings his love song to as well as to the reader: we do follow the tedious argument, from the roof, window-panes, terrace and chimneys to the self-conscious descent of stairs to street level while Prufrock watches “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out windows” to “the floors of silent seas” to, finally, the “chambers of the sea” in which Prufrock drowns, keeping an eye and ear to the surface giddiness of “mermaids singing, each to each.” Our paralysis in reading “Prufrock,” from stanzaic symmetries (“And would it have been worth it, after all”/”That is not is, at all,” used twice with minor variations) that indicate Prufrock¹s stalled action to the anatomization of pluralized body parts (“eyes”/”arms”) that rest heavily on a local item while emphasizing its multitude and power, “Disturb[s] the universe” as much as Prufrock¹s own perambulations do, that is, not at all. He only sinks further down, drowning not only in other “human voices” but, more importantly, in his own constipation.
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