restricted access Stephen's Handles
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Stephen's Handles

still I liked him when he sat down to write    the thing out . . . his nose intelligent

U 18.1172-73

Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell appears in Ulysses carrying a stick and an umbrella. Richard Ellmann reports that his character is based on James Boyle Tisdell Burke Stewart Fitzsimmons Farrell, a Dublin eccentric widely known as "Endymion," and reputed to have always on his person a fishing rod, an umbrella, and two swords (JJII 365). Farrell, in other words, is a man of many handles, both in the sense of having several given names or nicknames and in his habit of continually clinging to "part[s] of . . . thing[s] . . . made to be grasped by the hand."1 In "Lestrygonians," Josie Breen and Bloom look on as Farrell insistently skirts lampposts: "Is he dotty?" asks Mrs. Breen, an adjective suggesting feebleness of gait or mind, and an apt description of Farrell, who cannot travel any distance without support and who has distinctly eccentric mannerisms (U 8.301). Though in possession of an inordinate number of objects designed to be readily grasped, Farrell, it seems, cannot "get a handle on" the world around him.

As the expression "get a handle on" implies, handles are the means by which something—or in the case of names, someone—can be controlled, approached, or known; the saying strives to make palpable the unquantifiable grapplings of the human mind. By extension, "flying off the handle" implies a lack of command through excitement or lost temper; it is this sense of getting carried away that Joyce portrays in the excessively handled Farrell.2 In an extension of these hysterical associations, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the utterance "to go off the handle" was used throughout the nineteenth century in reference to death, the event over which human beings exert no authority whatsoever. Within the etymology of "handle," then, lies an intertwining of knowledge and mortality, themes inextricable since Genesis, and ones also fundamental to Joyce's depiction of Stephen Dedalus's continually grasping intellect. Indeed, Joyce's work regularly intertwines naming, knowledge, handling, and death in a way that brings the concrete profoundly, and sometimes painfully, to bear [End Page 51] on the abstract ruminations of his most esoteric characters, among whom Stephen arguably reigns supreme.

Stephen shares with Farrell a surfeit of names and a tendency to carry a stick. Consider "Kinch," the nickname Buck Mulligan thrusts upon him (U 1.551), and the ubiquitous ash-plant. Throughout Ulysses, these two handles are repeatedly connected with Stephen's determination to pierce the significant heart of everything, a tendency foreshadowed in A Portrait and Stephen Hero by his curiosity about names and nouns—still more handles—and by his interest in the epiphany, a name he refashions. Stephen's longing for dead certainty in all that he manipulates is matched by his preoccupations with the finite: deathliness permeates his earliest intellectual explorations. In Ulysses, Stephen's defining drive to work things through to finality is severely challenged by the all-too-final demise of his mother. Put another way, his mother's "going off the handle" prompts Stephen's recognition of the sheer slipperiness of any intellectual hold, even as Joyce's narrators and characters repeatedly poke fun at the vestiges of his absolutism. Problems of an intellectual nature prove less vexatious for Bloom, a figure well acquainted with deathly totalities, who more freely immerses himself in the sensory, external world with all of its knotty, unknowable contradictions. For Bloom and Stephen, grief facilitates a letting go of the drive for mastery, and, just as mortality impinges upon the desirability of intellectual certainty, so too does Joyce increasingly prioritize the machinations and experiences of the physical world over those of the mental one. In other words, tactile, sensual experience takes precedence over theoretical grappling, a premise nicely conveyed in the portrayal of Stephen's most tangible handle of all, his ashplant.

Naming, Epiphanies, and Death

Perceiving the world and naming its various components is nothing short of an obsession for the young Stephen Dedalus. Pained as he is by the fact that he does not know where...