restricted access A Brechtian Epic on Eccles Street: Matter, Meaning, and History in “Ithaca”
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A Brechtian Epic on Eccles Street:
Matter, Meaning, and History in “Ithaca”
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In the late 1990s, the James Joyce Center in Dublin installed a new exhibit: the original doorway of 7 Eccles Street, an address made famous as the home of the fictional Leopold and Molly Bloom of Ulysses. This doorway, through which Bloom exits but does not reenter on returning home on 16 June 1904, had its own odyssey around Dublin after the houses on Eccles Street were demolished. It is now sealed up and on permanent display along with installations on the various episodes of Ulysses and furniture from an apartment in Paris where Joyce worked on translations of Finnegans Wake.1 The doorway prompts us to consider the relation between objects, texts, and history. “Ithaca,” the penultimate episode of Ulysses in which Bloom returns home and which Joyce described as “in reality the end” of the book, shows us that this relationship is not straightforward. 2 Though comparing the episode to the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht, we will see that the historical significance of things has to do with departures and unexpected returns, with productive estrangement and multiple meanings. The most materially detailed episode of Ulysses, “Ithaca” allows us to examine the relation between Ulysses’s objects and Irish history but also, through reexamining the [End Page 67] novel’s status as a modern epic, to consider the role of things in modernity’s understanding of itself.

Walter Benjamin warns us about understanding history as a “series of facts congealed in the form of things.”3 In the Arcades Project, he calls the kind of history “that showed the thing ‘as it really was’” an illusion and a powerful narcotic.4 This positivistic attitude to the past and to the physical world induces a loss of critical faculties. Yet, while Benjamin criticizes objective accounts, objects nonetheless play a vital role in his understanding of history:

The characteristic residue of this [reifying] conception is what has been called the “History of Civilization,” which makes an inventory, point by point, of humanity’s life forms and creations. The riches thus amassed in the aerarium of civilization henceforth appear as though identified for all time. This conception of history makes cheap the fact that such riches owe not only their existence but also their transmission to a constant effort of society—an effort, moreover, by which these riches find themselves strangely altered.5

In contrast to the idea that history can be displayed as a set of physical objects in a museum, Benjamin calls attention to the “constant effort of society” that leads to the ongoing transformation of things. In opposition to the diminution of the world by a history that “makes cheap” the fact of this work, Benjamin stresses the abundant [End Page 68] variety that this effort creates, “by which these riches find themselves strangely altered.” If we are to understand the relation of objects to history, then, we must consider an unfamiliar excess.

A physical remnant of the Eccles Street of 1904, the exhibited doorway is a nod to Joyce’s stated documentary ambitions for Ulysses; he famously told Frank Budgen that “he wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared it could be reconstructed from his book.”6 Joyce’s accuracy in writing Ulysses went as far as to lodge the Blooms at an address at which he himself had stayed and that he gathered was vacant in 1904.7 The doorway features explicitly in his research, as Joyce wrote to his aunt to ascertain the extent of the drop from street level to cellar level, a drop that indeed Bloom makes in “Ithaca” as he returns to the house without his front door key and enters by a devious route.8

After the wandering and confusion of the previous chapters, the episode promises a return to solid territory, taking the form of questions and answers in a scientific style.9 This catechism seems calculated [End Page 69] to defy Catholic antimaterialism with an understanding of the world grounded in physical facts and things...