restricted access The Metamorphoses of Ulysses
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The Metamorphoses of Ulysses

"the greybounding slowrolling amplyheaving metamorphoseous"

(FW 190.31)

"but here till youre martimorphysed please sit still face to face"

(FW 434.31–2)

"metandmorefussed to decide whereagainwhen to meet themselves"

(FW 513.31)

On September 21, 1920, James Joyce sent a letter to Carlo Linati proposing to send "una specie di sunto—chiave—scheletro—schema" for his novel in progress, Ulysses (SL 270). To this he added the bracketed caveat: "per uso puramente domestico."1 Despite Joyce's instructions that the scheme was meant solely for private consumption, the elaborate list of correspondences that he outlined first for Linati and later, in a slightly different form, for Frank Budgen, quickly moved from the domestic to the public sphere.2 When Joyce first conceived of the story of a Dublin salesman who would mirror the adventures of Odysseus around 1906, he began to sow the seeds for what would grow into an elaborate set of correspondences between Homer's epic and his own. The publication of a version of the schema in Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses in 1930 made evident the extent of Joyce's structural interplay with Homer, and the parallels, parodies, and subversions of Homer's epic have provided ample material for critics intent on tracing the Odyssey in Ulysses.3 And yet in Ulysses Joyce also licenses us to read for other structural parallels, other intertexts and metatexts. A long paragraph in the "Ithaca" chapter playfully charts the day along Biblical lines rather than Classical ones, [End Page 67] beginning with "The preparation of breakfast (burnt offering)," skimming through a series of events and related ceremonies including "premeditative defecation (holy of holies)" and "the eroticism produced by female exhibitionism (rite of onan)" and concluding with "nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman's shelter, Butt bridge (atonement)" (U 17.2044–58). This rapid sketch of an alternate design is not meant to displace the Homeric analogue, or simply to undercut it humorously. Rather, it is meant to indicate that the narrative contains multitudes, numerous doors left open for alternate schemas, parallactic texts, and parallel universes. One of those doors leads to Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In his article "Ovid and the New Mythologists," Charles Altieri treats Ovid's Metamorphoses as a "prototype" for postmodern fictions.4 Altieri labels Ovid as a writer who "for the first time . . . clearly accepted and turned to his own purposes the field for free play created by the utter fictiveness of the myths he inherited" (32). He emphasizes the continuity between Ovid's subject and his theme, "for the theme of flux, like the multiplicity of stories, by its very nature asserts both the absence of all permanent informing structures or principles of form and the equality of all present moments" (33). In Ovid, Altieri writes, "[I]magination is sheerly secular and almost entirely concerned with surfaces. Its activity is much closer to play than it is to secondary creation, or to discovery, or to the embodying of 'symbolic forms' " (36). For Altieri, Ovid exemplifies both the ecstasy and the constraints of writing within a field of play; stories are the "only adequate response to the human condition" but "cannot reveal meanings latent in a permanent structure of reality"; at best, the new mythologists provide "aesthetic and momentary" (37) engagement with reality. For Altieri, Ovid prefigures the postmodern preoccupations with dazzling surfaces, with decentered narratives, and with supreme fictions that spurn the safety of the solid ground.

Curiously, Altieri excludes Joyce from those he calls the "new mythologists," instead reading his work in Eliotic terms as a quest "for a myth that can help order, interpret and ennoble the flux of contemporary experience" (31). But the Ovidian play of Ulysses is in tension with its Homeric structure, and pays homage to Homer while undercutting him in a mode remarkably similar to Ovid's own irreverent rewriting of Homer's Ulysses in Metamorphoses. Ulysses might aptly be described not, as in Karen Lawrence's title, as an Odyssey of Style but as a metamorphosis of style.5 The dazzling perspectivism of Joyce's novel, its quicksilver shifts in tone and point of view, its narrative...