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A Space Odyssey

“Ithaca” is a seemingly infinitely expansible episode in that each answer to each question yields further questions. Beyond this proliferating enumeration, the expansiveness of this episode also extends heavenwards. While working on “Ithaca” in early 1921, Joyce explained part of his strategy to Frank Budgen: “All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents . . . Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze” (SL: 278). This claim is not entirely an exaggeration. After Stephen leaves Eccles Street, Bloom prepares to go to sleep until finally, in the narrative’s peroration, Bloom’s thoughts of the day’s past wandering and exile are mapped out onto the solar system, if not beyond:

Would the departed never nowhere nohow reappear?

Ever he would wander, selfcompelled, to the extreme limit of his cometary orbit, beyond the fixed stars and variable suns and telescopic planets, astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space, passing from land to land, among peoples, amid events. Somewhere imperceptibly he would hear and somehow reluctantly, suncompelled, obey the summons of recall. Whence, disappearing from the constellation of the Northern Crown he would somehow reappear reborn above delta in the constellation of Cassiopeia and after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors, a dark crusader, a sleeper awakened, with financial resources (by supposition) surpassing those of Rothschild or the silver king.

(U 17.2012–23)

The question is phrased as a triple negative, “never nowhere nohow,” thereby projecting a space of supposition, a journey into the subjunctive.1 [End Page 163] In this duly hypothetical answer Bloom is equated with a comet roaming through the darkest reaches of the solar system and elsewhere. His Dublin odyssey is translated and projected into outer space. But there is more to this passage than simply an exaggerated cosmic scale. This is a very dense paragraph that brings together a number of key referential clusters that have been threaded through the text of Ulysses. The identification of Bloom as a comet proceeds by incorporating several other identifications and figurative equivalences in a way that suggests how symbolism might work, or not work, in Ulysses.

Joyce chose “comets” as the symbol of this episode in the Gilbert schema. In an earlier scene in “Ithaca,” when Bloom and Stephen are in the garden discussing matters astronomical, the pertinence of comets to this episode and to Ulysses becomes apparent as Bloom describes “their vast elliptical egressive and reentrant orbits from perihelion to aphelion” (17.1113). The extreme elliptical orbits of comets take them from very close to the sun (perihelion) to very, very far away (aphelion). But, no matter how far a comet travels, it will turn back toward the sun, even if the time between successive perihelia is several millennia. Despite the vast distances they traverse, comets remain “suncompelled,” that is, susceptible to the sun’s gravitational influence. And so Joyce uses a comet as an astronomical figuration of, say, Odysseus, in that it inevitably returns after a lengthy absence. But, of course, in Ulysses Odysseus is hardly the only thing to return, and so in the astronomical odyssey passage, the cometary Bloom accrues a few other figurations.

Even as Bloom is being figured as a comet, the comet is already becoming something else. On the one hand, the aphelion is impossibly far: “beyond the fixed stars and variable suns and telescopic planets, astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space.” Bloom is far out, man. Because comets remain within the solar system, the claim that they would travel to the extreme boundary of space is clearly hyperbolic. On the other hand, even as Bloom’s trajectory is described in cometary terms it is also being described in earthly terms: no matter how far he travels he still remains terrestrial as he travels “from land to land, among peoples, amid events.” Two orders of space are conflated here, the celestial and the earthly. Bloom may travel far, but he also travels amidst earthly events. The symbolic order (the astronomical) is enmeshed within the literal (the earthly).

Now, Bloom, in his...