Notwithstanding analyses that treat the abounding peculiarities of "Circe" exclusively as hallucinations induced by epilepsy and absinthe or as "instances of textual free play,"1 a complementary interpretation of the episode discovers a common thread between form and content that has been largely taken for granted. It has to do with aerodynamics. There is, after all, a certain aerodynamism to Stephen Dedalus, who is identified with mythology's Daedalus, the old artificer who committed himself to unknown arts in order to fashion a pair of wings and fly out of the labyrinth at Crete. But Stephen is even more closely associated, especially in Ulysses, with Icarus, whose escape failed when he flew too near the sun, melting the waxen wings on which he soared.
Toward the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen says he intends to "try to fly by those nets" of nationality, language, and religion (P 220), and pursue his artistic dream on the continent. But in Ulysses he has already plummeted back to Dublin after a less than successful flight. At one point he ridicules himself: "You flew. Whereto? Newhaven-Dieppe, steerage passenger. Paris and back, Lapwing. Icarus. Pater, ait. Seadabbled, fallen, weltering. Lapwing you are" (U 9.952–54). But a moment later he swells with pride and rejects defeat, recalling a dream in which "Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered" (U 9.1207); and elsewhere he revives the dream, fiercely: "No. I flew. My foes beneath me" (U 15.3935). Ulysses follows Stephen through a course of minor victories and defeats, moments of solace and inspiration countered by moments of dejection and self-loathing, a whole series of ascents and falls, plotted out as though he were an Icarus whose wings melt and resolidify as he attempts flight again and again.
Leopold Bloom has no such symbolic correspondence, though he is of course associated with Odysseus, a nautical hero.2 Nonetheless, the narrative tracks his day about Dublin in much the same way it does Stephen's, cataloguing Bloom's flights of fancy, which bring him both exciting ideas and reminders of his cuckoldry and self-doubt. Instead of an Icarus alternately soaring and plunging, Bloom is an Odysseus returning and vanishing again and again from the shores of Ithaca. [End Page 476]
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"Circe" recreates the anxieties and fantasies of the two main characters through a succession of hyperbolic, absurd set pieces. The episode's stylistics are at least in part the product of the force with which the whole day's worth of ascents and falls are compressed, skewing and lumping everything together. In the episode it is evident that—to borrow as the novel often does from Hamlet—the time is out of joint.3 The theatrical and cinematic convention that one page of script equals one minute of action, if it is any guide, would dictate that "Circe" should take up nearly two and a half hours. But by Joyce's own account and others, all of it somehow occurs within the space of one hour.4 It's a discrepancy that's explicable only if the hallucinatory or metatextual portion of the episode exists outside of time or represents a compression of time.
A chart of the episode might use a straight line to represent reality and the hour of actual time that passes during "Circe." This straight line would intersect at both ends a curved line, more than twice as long, that follows the narrative as it peels away from reality and the normal flow of time. In a way it echoes the episode's departure from the rest of the novel, a dramatic interlude that breaks with the prosaic remainder. Here, instead of the action taking place on the streets of Dublin and in the minds of the characters, everything is set upon a stage with elaborate sets and pyrotechnics. "Circe" overarches the rest of the novel, its themes, and most of...