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  • The Role of Elijah in Ulysses's Metempsychosis
  • Tekla Schell

"Elijah, as we shall see, is Bloom. Announcing Stephen as artist, Mulligan also announces Bloom" (139). William Tindall's comment on the "Telemachus" chapter of Ulysses in his A Reader's Guide to James Joyce has persisted as the primary reading of the Elijah/Elisha relationship that Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus develop in the novel. This reading accepts that Bloom is a representation of the prophet Elijah, and permits all of the associations of the "Wandering Jew" to be even more securely attached to Bloom than his assertion of Jewish-ness would otherwise allow. It also centers the father-son relationship of Bloom and Stephen that develops throughout the novel within the context of prophecy. The symbolism of the transfer of prophetic power from Bloom to Stephen in the novel is highly suggestive and, given the popularity of Elijah in multiple religions, widely recognizable even to casual readers of Ulysses. Because of this rather obvious connection, other potential aspects of the role of Elijah in the text have seldom been explored. Indeed, despite the frequency with which Elijah appears in the text, the figure is often not even mentioned in study guides to the novel. Although Tindall's reading of the relationship as emerging through the figure of Elijah is accurate, Elijah also plays a pivotal role in developing Ulysses as a representation of Joyce's larger literary theories. Traditionally a figure of both eternal life and transfiguration, Elijah also has a historical connection with thunder; and it is this aspect of Elijah that indicates the development of the relationship between Stephen and Bloom, which suggests Stephen's potential to become an artistic figure. In Giambattista Vico's cycles of human and social development, the human response to thunder is language, intrinsically metaphoric and poetic. In Ulysses "Elijah the Thunderer" signals a new Vichean cycle, which leads to the death of Bloom in his present form in chapter 17, his reincarnation in the divine mind of Molly, and the potential transformation of Stephen.

Joyce's use of Vico's theories in the structure of Finnegans Wake has been widely acknowledged, but he had read Vico much earlier, at least [End Page 426] as early as his Trieste years, when he was working on Ulysses (Verene x, Ellmann 351). Joyce invokes the Vichean cycles several times in Ulysses, and he mentions metempsychosis and thunder throughout the novel. Metempsychosis is the "transmigration of the soul, passage of the soul from one body to another . . . the transmigration of the soul of a human being or animal at or after death into a new body of the same or a different species" (OED). Critical discussion of metempsychosis in Ulysses has largely been focused on the transformation of the main characters within the text or of their mythical counterparts,1 although recent discussions of metempsychosis have begun to examine the importance of the idea to the underlying structure of the novel. In Irish Ulysses Maria Tymoczko observes, "Metempsychosis is the philosophical center of the reanimation of all mythologies in Ulysses . . . the center of Joyce's mythic architectonics and mythic method in Ulysses" (44). Similarly, James Ramey has argued for an "intertextual metempsychosis" through the inclusion of Sinbad and The Arabian Nights in "Eumaeus" (97). Tymoczko is careful to note that, although metempsychosis is important in Finnegans Wake, "its subordination to the Viconian cycles alters its role in the later work" (44, footnote).

In Ulysses, however, instead of being subordinate to Vico's ideas, metempsychosis is directly aligned with them. As Joseph Mali indicates, Vico was convinced of the importance of mythology in understanding history, and in 1920 Joyce asserted his intention to make myth relevant for our time (34). In the transformational figure of Elijah, myth and metempsychosis become linked throughout Ulysses, and through him Stephen, Bloom, and Molly emerge as poetic beings. The figure of Elijah represents the importance of myth and provides a basis for understanding the structure of the novel.

The relationship between the main characters and metempsychosis begins as early as "Proteus." In that chapter, Stephen thinks, "God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. Dead breaths...


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