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Planetary Parallax:
Ulysses, the Stars, and South Africa

Leopold Bloom is worried. What if Blazes Boylan has contracted a sexually transmitted disease? What if he gives it to Molly? The thought is shocking, and he tries to shake it off: “Think no more about that.”1 In an effort to distract himself, he raises his “troubled eyes,” and sees the timeball on the Ballast Office (Ulysses, 126). “After one. Timeball on the ballastoffice is down. Dunsink time. Fascinating little book that is of sir Robert Ball’s. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him. Par it’s Greek: parallel, parallax” (126). This is a fittingly inauspicious entry into the novel of one of its most evocative words—“parallax” slips in on the back of an STD, serves as a nervous distraction from the main issue at hand, and is only imperfectly understood by Bloom. Indeed, how the timeball would make Bloom think of parallax is not clear, unless the reader happens to know that Sir Robert Ball was Astronomer Royal of Ireland, based at Dunsink Observatory (the site that determined when the ball would drop), from 1874 to 1892. Even then the connection is tenuous, for Bloom remembers later that the ball “falls at Greenwich time. It’s the clock is worked by an electric wire from Dunsink” (137). As Greenwich time was twenty-five minutes ahead of Dunsink time in 1904, Bloom’s original calculation of the time may have been wrong, for the ball would have fallen at 12:35 pm.2 He admits defeat shortly afterwards, agreeing that he will “Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always. Gas: then solid: then world: then cold: then dead shell drifting around, frozen rock” (Ulysses, 137). “Gas” is a word he has used before in “Lestrygonians,” but [End Page 67] in the sense of blowing off, making meaningless noise or chatter, and indeed “gas” is essentially what all of this is to Bloom (132, 134). This confusion over basic questions of astronomy is explained much later, when we learn that Bloom believes that “his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science” (559). For now, though, he continues to try to muddle his way through parallax, and thinks that perhaps he should go to the Dunsink Observatory and ask for clarification from Professor Joly, the Astronomer Royal in 1904. But he is worried that he will be kicked out if he approaches the subject too directly and in the process betrays his ignorance of the basic principles of astronomy (137) (fig. 1).

Bloom’s ignorance does not signal a similar ignorance in Ulysses, which is replete with astronomical knowledge and references of all kinds. The novel is obsessed with the stars—just as much as Bloom is, but with more access to scientific knowledge—and its greatest obsession is with parallax. As many scholars of Joyce have argued, there is good reason for this, as parallax is a basic principle for understanding Ulysses’s delayed and refracted decodings. Yet it also appears in the novel, I will argue, in its original guise, as a technique for the measurement of the distance of the stars and planets, those “gasballs spinning about” that confuse Bloom so much.3 In this article I want to expand the scale of inquiry into astronomical allusions in Ulysses, insisting that they function not simply as a guide to reading practices, nor as a metaphor for structure or character relations, but also as a marker for the overlooked planetary ambitions of the novel and its gesture towards the larger geographical context in which it operates. In recent decades, Joyce’s work has largely been claimed by Irish studies, thanks to a much needed corrective to his earlier reception as either unproblematically British or a deracinated international modernist. The move has been revolutionary not just for Joyce studies but also for modernist studies, as it has allowed scholars to engage more fully with Joyce’s interest in history—in short, to make Joyce political. But it has also had the effect of understating Joyce’s own commitment to a politically inflected internationalism, a commitment equally occluded when he was perceived as a rootless cosmopolitan writer. In reading Ulysses as a planetary novel, I hope to establish a détente between Irish and internationalist camps, claiming that Joyce’s local political interests now so evident to any reader attuned to the novel’s Irishness are shadowed by a much larger commitment to an anticolonial politics that emerges in the novel in oblique and surprising ways. Joyce is at once Irish and internationalist, his critique of the politics of empire requiring a scale that reaches far beyond the local, while also being rooted in it.

I examine this expansiveness of scale by looking at how Joyce mobilizes the discourse of astronomy in the novel and how the novel’s references to South Africa form a continual counterpart to Dublin. While these two aspects of Ulysses might seem unrelated, they come together in the novel’s interest in parallax. Parallax is about location and scale as much as (if not more than) about narration and character—it suggests a way of reading that gathers together the spaces of the globe across vast distances. Parallax is, in fact, the formal means by which Ulysses enters into a dialogue with the colonial world outside Dublin; the minutiae of Dublin life are not limiting and limited, but [End Page 68] open up in unexpected ways to a planet. In Ulysses, the expanded scale is signaled by, among others, references to the Anglo-Boer War in particular and South Africa in general. Anticolonial sentiment is not to be found only in the crude shouts from the street—“Up the Boers! . . . Three Cheers for De Wet!”—but in less obvious suggestions of a mode of reading and apprehension that is appropriate to the modern world, which gesture towards the scales at which anticolonial resistance must proceed (Ulysses, 133). South Africa is, in this way, a cipher for every other part of the colonized world, which can only be grasped through a parallactic vision that relies on trans-hemispheric scales to do its work. In making this claim for the planetary ambitions of the novel, I am conscious of the urgency of Eric Bulson’s recent call for an engagement with the historical context of Joyce’s work that can expand beyond the British Isles and take into account its global networks of both allusions and circulation.4 This work of what Bulson terms “estranging Joyce” may take place at the thematic level, but it will be most effective when it engages with the novel’s formal elements (“Joyce World Literature,” 144).5 Bulson’s call, of course, draws much from Fredric Jameson’s insight that “the structure of imperialism . . . makes its mark on the inner forms and structures of that new mutation in literary and artistic language to which the term modernism is loosely applied.”6 Parallax is one of those “inner forms,” and its appearance in the novel not only echoes the “structure of imperialism,” but also strikes a resistant tone.

Fig. 1. Section of the Dome of Dunsink Observatory, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 13.
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Fig. 1.

Section of the Dome of Dunsink Observatory, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 13.

[End Page 69]

This article, too, works by way of parallax, offering four complementary readings of the novel and the history of astronomical research that do not resolve themselves into a linear argument, but rather offer some sense of the multiple, complementary ways that parallax undergirds so much of Ulysses and how it can be linked to a planetary politics of the novel.


We meet the word “parallax” first in Bloom’s musings on the timeball, though Stephen has already introduced us to the related concept of stereoscopic vision by this point in Ulysses, so we are in some way primed, though we do not know it (40). The full effect of Stephen’s musing on the stereoscope is not revealed until we hear echoes of it at another time, in another place, and in the head of another character. For Hugh Kenner, whose reading of parallax remains remarkably influential, “parallax makes possible stereoscopic vision,” which Kenner links to what he calls an “aesthetic of delay, producing the simplest facts by parallax, one element now, one later,” which provides “an experience comparable to that of experiencing the haphazardly evidential quality of life” (81).7 The reader’s efforts to understand the word “parallax” itself, for example, are frustrated (or enhanced) by the novel’s slow drip of information about the principle, mimicking the character of knowledge acquisition in everyday life. Parallax is, in this reading, an epistemological principle. But it is also a narrative principle, for the whole novel, as we know, is focalized mostly through three characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom. Patrick McCarthy writes that through this process, “we see Dublin through Bloom’s eyes and Stephen’s (and eventually through Molly’s as well), and while each viewpoint is limited, the juxtaposition of various perspectives hints at the larger, fully human, viewpoint toward which Ulysses reaches.”8 The principle of parallax determines the novel’s compendium of styles. Similarly, Barbara Stevens Heusel argues that parallax is also a metaphor for the structure of the novel.9

In the proliferating explanations for the appearance of the word in Ulysses, we see a perfect example of what we all know well by now—that the novel and its meanings can only be grasped parallactically. While we may strive for knowledge, we can only do so through a process of piling up subjective experiences, assembling a series of overlapping and fleeting images that might all come together in some coherent whole, but also might not. In Deborah Warner’s neat formulation, “what you see depends on where you stand. Thus parallax was both a symbol of absolute knowledge and a metaphor for subjectivity” (“Time Ball,” 863). The search for objective truth is indissociable from subjective experience. It is a search that we know is vitally important, for Bloom returns to it at the height of the hallucinations in “Circe,” fantasizing about having spoken to Robert Ball and his wife at the viceregal lodge (Ulysses, 379). It is no wonder that Bloom returns to his musings on Ball, for the word of his that occupies Bloom’s mind on and off throughout the day—and consequently the reader’s mind too—sets out epistemological, characterological, narratological, stylistic, and structural principles for the novel. This has been the standard reading of the place of parallax in the novel, and [End Page 70] it is compelling. But to this we must add that parallax can teach us something about Ulysses’s locations too, and its place in the world. Parallax is, after all, fundamentally concerned with co-location—the distance of an object can be measured by the use of trigonometry only if it is observed from two or more vantage points simultaneously.

The phenomenon is explained in rather clear terms by Ball, and, as a number of commentators have pointed out, it is surprising that such a technologically oriented mind as Bloom’s would not be able to grasp it. Here is Ball’s practical suggestion:

Stand near a window whence you can look at buildings, or the trees, the clouds, or any distant objects. Place on the glass a thin strip of paper vertically in the middle of one of the panes. Close the right eye, and note with the left eye the position of the strip of paper relatively to the objects in the background. Then, while still remaining in the same place, close the left eye and again observe the position of the strip of paper with the right eye. You will find that the position of the paper on the background has changed. . . . This apparent displacement of the strip of paper, relatively to the distant background, is what is called parallax. Move closer to the window and repeat the observation, and you find that the apparent displacement of the strip increases. Move away from the window and the displacement decreases.10

Thus, the principle that observation of a phenomenon can only be effectively made from more than one perspective. But where and why parallax is explained by Ball yields a more compelling puzzle when applied to the novel. At this point in his book, Ball is describing the importance of the transit of Venus across the face of the sun—a phenomenon that occurs less than once every century, and then again eight years later—which allowed astronomers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, guided by Edmond Halley’s instructions, to measure the distance from the earth to the sun:

It is this principle [parallax], applied on a gigantic scale, which enables us to measure the distances of the heavenly bodies. Look, for instance, at the planet Venus. . . . Instead of the two eyes of the observer, we now place two observatories in distant regions of the earth; we look at Venus from one observatory, we look at it from the other; we measure the amount of the displacement, and from that we calculate the distance of the planet.

(182) (fig. 2)

Knowing the distance from Earth to Venus means knowing the distance of the sun, as Kepler had calculated the relative distances of the planets from the sun. When the distance of Venus is measured, the scale of the solar system can be deduced.

The transit of Venus in 1761 was, according to Nick Lomb, “the first global scientific event,” with 176 astronomers viewing it from 117 locations around the world, many of them temporary observatories.11 For all that, the observations were not especially successful, as they offered multiple conflicting accounts of the distance to the sun. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon made the most successful observations of the transit in the Southern Hemisphere, at Cape Town, just a year before they were asked to sail for North America to settle the border dispute that resulted in the Mason-Dixon line (Lomb, Transit, 59–62). The next transit, in 1769, was a similarly global phenomenon, but with a more immediate connection to colonial history, as it was observed from [End Page 71] Tahiti during Captain Cook’s first voyage. This was, in fact, the principal object of the voyage, which subsequently and only incidentally resulted in the mapping of the coast of New Zealand and the discovery of the existence of Australia (76–97).

Fig. 2. Venus on the Sun at the Transit of 1874, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 147.
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Fig. 2.

Venus on the Sun at the Transit of 1874, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 147.

When the transit reoccurred in the late nineteenth century, the distribution of astronomical observatories had increased significantly. Among the dozens of sites of observation of the transits in 1874 and 1882, the latter of which Ball describes seeing at Dunsink, was Cape Town, the site of the first permanent observatory in the southern hemisphere (The Story of the Heavens, 184–88). While many travelling expeditions were sent out (the French alone sent six in 1874 and ten in 1882), these transits saw the use of a new network of permanent observatories that allowed them to be viewed from “different hemispheres” (183). The phenomenon was observed and recorded by astronomers using newly installed telescopes in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Wellington, Madras, Mauritius, and Cape Town (Lomb, Transit of Venus, 106–63) (fig. 3). The “reflecting telescope,” admired by Bloom in “Ithaca,” may have been “once [End Page 72] revolutionary,” but it was “common” by the beginning of the twentieth century (Ulysses, 559). Not only had the large-scale astronomical telescope spread across the major cities of the world by this time, but smaller telescopes had increasingly become affordable commodities that amateur astronomers could count among their possessions. But while the enthusiast of 1904 might have been able to afford a telescope in the back garden, he or she would not have been able to observe the transit of Venus, for the next transit after 1882, as Ball writes, would not occur “until the flowers are blooming in the June of A.D. 2004” (The Story of the Heavens, 188). Both Bloom and Henry Flower would have been pleased to note that the date is the centenary of the action of Ulysses.

Such multi-point observations as Ball describes took place not only at times of unusual phenomena like the Transit of Venus, but became a staple of astronomical research over the course of the nineteenth century. Studies of the problem of parallax and the measurement of the parallax of the stars were undertaken, according to Ball, principally in two places: Dunsink in Dublin (of the parallax of 61 Cygni, by Ball and his predecessor, Franz Brünnow) and at the Royal Observatory in Cape Town, where Thomas Henderson first determined the distance of the star α Centauri (450–51). Henderson in fact, produced the first “reliable evidence of the measurable parallax of any fixed star.”12 It was for this very reason that the Observatory at the Cape had been founded—there was a recognition of the need for a permanent point of observation in the Southern hemisphere that would afford a corrective and a parallactic position to complement the observatories in the North. The South, and the Cape, then, were an integral and necessary part of the formation of knowledge of the planet and its situation in the universe. When Thomas Maclear was appointed Astronomer at the Cape in 1833, his letter of appointment stipulated particularly that he undertake “an uninterrupted series of observations of the sun, moon and planets . . . especially at such parts of their orbits as (in conjunction with corresponding observations made in Europe) may be essential to the determination of their respective parallaxes” (Gill, A History, xx). What the observatory at the Cape offered was simultaneity and difference—celestial objects could be measured on more or less the same line of longitude in Europe and the Cape Colony, but at vastly different lines of latitude in the different hemispheres. Measuring the parallax of the stars is a truly global effort—it requires dispersal of technologies, people, and expertise. So when Bloom contemplates the heaven-tree of stars in “Ithaca,” and returns to his earlier musings on parallax, what he, and the readers who follow him, are confronted with is an explosion of the scale of the novel. We cannot, in the light of the researches of the nineteenth century, and the material history of the telescopes and observatories that allowed them, confine our reading of parallax to a metaphor for a narrative technique—we must recognize the unwieldy, unthinkable, awkward scales of the planet and the cosmos that intrude into the novel through this one figure, and that are given weight by the novel’s constant and yet halting attempts to grasp the events of a colony on the other side of the globe as they give shape and structure to the everyday lives of ordinary Dubliners.

As Vincent Cheng writes of Dublin in the early twentieth century, “the cultural and linguistic constructions of daily life are inextricably (and often unconsciously) [End Page 73] enmeshed with those of Empire.”13 In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we see flashes of those hidden structures, which emerge in the novel as moments of blindness or incomprehension that are not resolved by the time of Stephen’s anticipated flight. “India mittit ebur” he learns, but it is not coded within the economy of the world ivory trade, but within the sexual and educational economy of the novel—ivory skin is what it finally signifies.14 Ulysses, on the other hand, pays attention to the traces of the planet always present—but often invisible and intangible—even in the most local, the most narrowly geographically defined places. Bruce Robbins writes of the realist novel that it “produces knowable communities only at the cost of blindness to international effects, determinants, and analogues.”15 The modernist novel, in its assault on the neat consistencies of realism, might just afford us a glimpse of those international effects and analogues. And Dublin, as Jameson recognizes, hovering as it does between center and periphery, is the ideal place from which to launch this new kind of novelistic representation of the sublime scale of empire and planet.

Fig. 3. The path of Venus across the Sun in the Transits of 1874 and 1882, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 149.
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Fig. 3.

The path of Venus across the Sun in the Transits of 1874 and 1882, from Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1885), 149.

This sense of the sublimity of both modernity and colonialism is consistent with the reading of parallax I have been sketching out. Here is Ball on one of the outcomes of the parallax research: [End Page 74]

This star [61 Cygni] must therefore have been about ten times as far from the earth 400,000 years ago as it is at present. Though this epoch is incredibly more remote than any historical record, it is perhaps not incomparable with the duration of the human race; while compared with the vast lapse of geological time, such periods seem trivial and insignificant. Geologists have long ago repudiated mere thousands of years; they now claim millions and many millions of years, for the performance of geological phenomena

(The Story of the Heavens, 453).

The prose, more florid than is usual in Ball’s book, may orient us towards a similar passage in “Ithaca,” when Bloom is describing the “heaventree of stars” to Stephen:

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

(Ulysses, 573)

Joyce mimics Ball’s scientific sublime: Ball’s and Bloom’s astronomical observations demand a scale of time and space that is vast and almost infinite, that exceeds the limited spaces of Dublin, Ireland, Europe, indeed the planet, and calls Stephen, Bloom, and the reader to an awareness of the novel’s place within an entire system, always moving, always changing, never at rest.

Given pride of place in Ball’s account of the researches in parallax in his 1900 edition of The Story of the Heavens is the McClean photographic (or astrographic) telescope at the Observatory in Cape Town, where the astronomer David Gill had first produced a photographic map of the stars: “The southern part of the heavens, most of which cannot be seen in this country, is watched from various observatories in the southern hemisphere. Foremost among them is the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, which is furnished with first-class instruments. We may mention a great photographic telescope, the gift of Mr. M’Clean” (27). The telescope he refers to was made in Dublin by Howard Grubb, but Ball was being previous, as the telescope did not actually function until 1901. Grubb began to build and ship the telescope in 1897, and the last pieces, including the object-glasses, were delivered in 1899, much later than expected, and after acrimonious disputes over money and specifications between Grubb, Gill, and McClean. When the telescope was finally set up, after years of delays, it was found that the twenty-four-inch photographic object glass—one of two on the [End Page 75] telescope—was faulty.16 It took more than a year for the lens to be shipped back to Grubb’s workshop in Dublin and re-calibrated. It was surprising that Grubbs should have sent out a defective lens—especially as an almost identical object glass, with no error, was produced at the same time. A rumour spread that the error was the result of sabotage on the part of some of the workers in Grubb’s factory. The workers’ pro-Boer, anti-imperial sympathies, it was said, caused one of them to purposely scratch the lens that was to be sent to the British colony in the Cape, where the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), was raging.17 Indeed, McClean was fast friends with Rudyard Kipling and staunchly pro-British when it came to the war. Whether the rumour of sabotage is true, the telescope was figured at once as an enabler of both colonial conquest and anticolonial protest.

Astronomical telescopes offer a glimpse of the sublime, but they are also material objects that are bought and sold and circulated around the world, carrying with them meanings that exceed their limited brief. In their cheap and readily available form, which only emerged in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, they are consumer commodities, and in their large, institutional form they are industrial machines, grinding out images and figures night after cloudless night. They are, to borrow from Raymond Williams, “as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet [they operate] in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity.”18 The astronomical telescope is a key structure of feeling for global modernity. In the early twentieth century, with the proliferation of telescopes and observatories throughout the world, the telescope brought some of the most breathless scientific headlines, as the size of the universe became apparent, and the scale of the planet came into sharp focus. Telescopes were also generators of shifting geographies of knowledge production as they moved around the world, and offered alternative sites of origins of knowledge, even if that knowledge was produced under the imprimatur of the European scientific societies. By the turn of the century, Grubb’s instruments, for example, could be found in observatories all over Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South America. They were crucial to a large number of advances in astronomy and physics, not least of which occurred in 1919, when, using lenses made by Grubb, Arthur Eddington observed a solar eclipse on Principe, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, and proved by observation that the light of certain stars did indeed bend around the sun, deflected by its gravitational field, thus confirming one element of Einstein’s theory of general relativity (Elliott, “Grubbs of Dublin,” 59).


I want to recall Ball’s observations that the studies of stellar parallax in particular shuttled back and forth between two discrete sites in different hemispheres, Dublin and Cape Town, for Ulysses at times performs the same oscillation between hemispheres. Joyce himself appears to have returned to the idea of living in South Africa at several points in his life, for he thought about applying for a job there more than once. When he wrote from Trieste to the South Africa Colonisation Society seeking a position, the [End Page 76] reply must have been disheartening: “I much regret to inform you that we have no vacancy on our books of the kind you require in South Africa, and I cannot encourage you to hope that there will be any such post available for some time to come.”19 The society doesn’t in fact seem an especially promising place for Joyce, for it was an outgrowth of the British Women’s Emigration Association, one of whose leaders, a Mrs. Joyce (no relation), spoke in these terms of the purpose of imperialism: “Why do we urge Imperialism? Not from Selfish views, not from mere pride of race, but deep down in our hearts, we believe that God had set us to be not only pioneers or civilisers, but evangelists. The gift of the genius of Colonisation, which is so essentially English, must not be stifled, it is God given for Evangelisation.”20 It is difficult to see Joyce, at any point of his life, subscribing to this opinion, but he may indeed have been interested in the society’s method of bringing its mission to completion: it aimed to relieve the pressure of a “surplus” of single women by sending them to the colonies. In 1939 Joyce thought again about emigrating to South Africa, having heard from Samuel Beckett that a lectureship in Italian was vacant at the University of Cape Town. He decided in the end not to apply, and Beckett did, though he was unsuccessful in his application.21

Just as it does in Joyce’s life, South Africa, which appears in Ulysses mostly through repeated references to the Second Anglo-Boer War, remains “outside and beyond . . . dominant allusive circles.”22 At the very beginning, in “Telemachus,” we see a reference to how Haines came to make his money: “He’s stinking with money . . . His old fellow made his tin selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle or other (Ulysses, 6). This form of casual reference recurs, with mention of the “Zulu king,” or Blazes Boylan’s father’s scheme to make money selling horses twice over to the cavalry for the war (274, 262, 617). At other points the war appears in stark detail, as when Molly remembers her lover, “Gardner lieut Stanley G 8th Bn 2nd East Lancs Rgt” dying of “enteric fever” (616).23 The references to the war are astonishing in their frequency—Don Gifford and Robert Seidman identify twenty-one, but there are in fact many more.24 On the surface, it is no surprise that the war would loom large in the novel, given its status as a cause célèbre in Ireland at the turn of the century. Many Boer sympathizers and anti-war activists in Ireland and elsewhere insisted that South Africa, if the attacks on Boer freedom were to be continued, would become a new Ireland overseas. A Stop the War Committee in 1900, for example, issued a placard that stated, “WE DO NOT WANT ANOTHER IRELAND IN SOUTH AFRICA.”25 Michael Davitt, the Irish nationalist MP, resigned his seat in the House of Commons over the war, saying that, “my sympathy goes out to a small nation of your own blood and faith, whom you intend to rob of its independence . . . I side with a people less in number than the population of Birmingham, in a contest forced upon them by the Member for Birmingham [Joseph Chamberlain] in the name . . . of the British Empire.”26

This analogy, of course, spectacularly misreads the landscape of South Africa, writing out of existence the source of free and cheap labour that sustained the colony—a large and subjugated African population. This misreading resulted in a sometimes unproblematic identification by many Irish people with the Boers as a wholly oppressed population rather than also population of oppressors—a situation in which Ireland found [End Page 77] itself, as supplier of troops, missionaries, and administrators to the empire, but was largely unable or unwilling to recognize.27 While these historical connections between Ireland and the Second Anglo-Boer War have seen a small industry of scholarship, the reading of Ulysses through the lens of South Africa has been the subject of very little attention.28 Elleke Boehmer has recently written that Joyce’s work, along with that of D. H. Lawrence, “presents rich testimony to the impact of the South African War across the seas.”29 Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) and Ulysses, she writes, “allow the main characters’ awareness of the Boer War to percolate gradually into their lives” (“Perspectives,” 251). But this understates the case quite significantly, for in the case of Ulysses it is a much more concerted engagement with what could be a throwaway element that instead emerges, like another throwaway in the novel, as a focal point, a place of return and rearticulation that becomes familiar to us, as if it were indeed a part of the fabric of the everyday life of Dublin.

In “Circe,” as Bloom is attempting to establish his pro-British credentials for the two policemen in night-town, he claims that Molly’s father won his majority at Rorke’s Drift, in the Zulu War of 1879 (Ulysses, 373). In order to further prove that he is “as staunch a Britisher” as the policemen, Bloom claims that he himself had “fought with the colours for king and country in the absentminded war under general Gough in the park and was disabled at Spion Kop and Bloemfontein, was mentioned in dispatches. I did all a white man could” (373). Of course, of all the battles that Bloom would claim to have taken part in he would have to choose Bloemfontein. The general whom he refers to as having a statue in Phoenix Park is not the Gough who commanded the troops in South Africa and subsequently led the quasi-mutiny at the Curragh in 1914, but his uncle, who commanded in India (Gifford and Seidman, Ulysses Annotated, 463). Bloom, like Molly, has divided loyalties on the question of war, now favouring the Boers, now the British. His reference to “the absent-minded war” echoes earlier discussions, in “Scylla and Charybdis.” Stephen offers a translation of “le Distrait,” the subtitle of a French Hamlet, as “the absentminded beggar,” which is the title of a pro-British Boer War poem by Rudyard Kipling, friend of McClean, summer resident at the Cape for ten years, and drum major for the British side.30 The title leads Stephen to conjecture that “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot. The bloodboltered shambles in act five is a forecast of the concentration camp sung by Mr. Swinburne” (Ulysses, 154).31 Shakespeare, as Stephen implies later in the chapter, is as complicit in the violence as Kipling and Swinburne. “His pageants, the histories,” Stephen says, “sail fullbellied on a tide of Mafeking enthusiasm” (168).32

The appearance of South Africa in the novel is not always so easily visible to the reader, however. Jack Power, in the “Hades” episode, suggests that Parnell’s grave doesn’t contain his body, but a coffin filled with stones (Ulysses, 93). In “Eumaeus,” we learn that Parnell is rumoured to be hiding out in South Africa, having changed his name to De Wet, the Boer general—a species of anticolonial metempsychosis that is perhaps both held up as a model of transnational political action and ridiculed as fabulist (530).33 Even more obliquely, Bloom thinks three times of a certain turncoat named Carey—Peter or Denis, he cannot recall—a sort of political man in the mackintosh [End Page 78] (Ulysses, 66–67). When the Chief Secretary to Ireland was murdered while walking through a park in Dublin, for a long time the police made no headway in their investigation, but eventually, in January 1883, they arrested a James Carey, one of the leaders of the Irish National Invincibles. Within a month of being arrested Carey had betrayed his accomplices, five of whom were executed. For this his own life was spared, but he was in danger of losing it because he had turned Queen’s witness, so he was put onto a steamship bound for Cape Town. He spent a few days there before boarding a ship for Durban, but his cover was blown when he was recognized on the street in Cape Town, and when the boat was just off Mossel Bay, he was shot by a fellow Irish passenger who was outraged by Carey’s cowardice.

The traces of South Africa spread throughout Ulysses, and the novel shuttles back and forth across hemispheres in subtle and only half-visible ways, throwing shadows of distant lands. But why should Joyce have chosen South Africa in particular? South Africa is a site neither of alterity nor of analogy in Ulysses—two comparative modes of imperial discourse that feature in the novel—but of parallax, a refractory and resistant form of comparison for a new anticolonial politics. Parallax is a planetary principle, expressed formally, that allows us to link together the trans-hemispheric locations of the novel.

Proper Motion

There is another principle of astronomy, shocking when first proposed and then confirmed, that makes a brief appearance in Ulysses, but that bears on the questions of the novel’s interest in the scale of the cosmos: proper motion, or the perpetual movement of the entire universe, where nothing is at rest. The astronomer who proved this by observation was Sir William Herschel, whose discovery is fêted by Ball:

He saw that the stars were animated by proper motion; he saw also that the sun is a star, one of the countless host of heaven, and he was therefore led to propound the stupendous question as to whether the sun, like the other stars which are its peers, was also in motion. Consider all that this great question involves. The sun has around it a retinue of planets and their attendant satellites, the comets, and a host of smaller bodies. The question is, whether all this superb system is revolving around the sun at rest in the middle, or whether the whole system—sun, planets, and all—is not moving on bodily through space. Herschel was the first to solve this noble problem; he discovered that our sun and the splendid retinue by which it is attended are moving in space.

(The Story of the Heavens, 456–57)

Herschel’s discovery, as told by Ball, appears in condensed form at the end of the “Ithaca” chapter. Molly and Bloom are lying down, and the catechist seeks to determine their position: [End Page 79]

In what state of rest or motion?

At rest relatively to themselves and to each other. In motion being each and both carried westward, forward and rereward respectively, by the proper perpetual motion of the earth through everchanging tracks of neverchanging space.

(Ulysses, 606)

When viewed locally, they are at perfect rest; when viewed cosmically, they are hurtling through space. The system goes on around them; they are at times oblivious to it, at times aware of it. The novel, however, constantly produces a counterpoint between this limited, local vision of stasis and paralysis, and a planetary and cosmic consciousness that is perhaps only fully available to the reader as both Bloom and the peculiar narrator of “Ithaca” slip into unconsciousness. Molly is waking up at this point, and her own soliloquy at the end of the novel expands this cosmic sense as it acrobatically collapses times and spaces, replaying and revisiting scenes from her life and from the rest of the novel as if they were all taking place at once. Which, on a cosmic scale, they are. The final observation in “Ithaca,” that we are hurtling inexorably through vast tracts of apparently “neverchanging” space, revisits the observation of the insignificance of human life from earlier in the chapter. Change the scale of space and time, and the preciousness of the human, or even of this planet, dissolves.

It thus appears that the permanence of the sidereal heavens, and the fixity of the constellations in their relative positions, are only ephemeral. When we rise to the contemplation of such vast periods of time as the researches of geology disclose, the durability of the constellations vanishes! In the lapse of those stupendous ages stars and constellations gradually dissolve from view, to be replaced by others of no greater permanence.

(Ball, The Story of the Heavens, 454)

At this scale, we are no more than a mere dot, the last orthographical marker of Bloom’s narrative. And at this scale too, the entire planet resolves into a tiny sphere, hurtling through space, on which the distance from one end of the earth to another is rendered invisible. South Africa and Ireland blend into one, the particularities and singularity of the latter challenged by the constant trace of the former.


My argument here seeks to challenge the spatial and temporal boundaries of canonical modernism, despite the fact that Joyce is one of the most canonical of modernist authors and Ulysses a novel that has surely been all but exhausted by repeated attempts to plunder it for more and more meaning. By reading parallax as a formal response to colonialism, I wish to suggest that even at the centre of the European networks of modernism we can find a surprising and compelling orientation to the global, though that orientation cannot always be approached head-on. Jahan Ramazani claims that a transnational poetics emerged when “modernists translated their frequent geographic displacement and transcultural alienation into a poetics of dissonance and defamiliarization.”34 [End Page 80] But Jessica Berman has argued that this is a rather limiting frame, based on empirical realities of the era. For Berman, to think transnationally, we need to do more than simply take cognizance of broader networks of affiliation to expand our own interpretive frameworks and think about how transnationalism is (or ought to be) also a reading practice of the twenty-first-century scholar—an ethical commitment to making new constellations of texts and contexts.35 This is a productive emerging methodology, and yet there is a danger here that scholars will assemble ad-hoc constellations of texts in the hope they will converse, willing a world into existence through sheer force of critical imagination, in the face of real difference. But we can think about transnationalism in the modern era another way that I hope emerges in outline form in my reading of Ulysses. Joyce searches for formal strategies in Ulysses that seek to capture the world outside the city and the nation, reaching beyond the limits of authorial travel and textual circulation. He seeks to capture some sense of the totality, not of the globe or the world, but of the planet, in its pages. The terms of the distinction I am making come from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

I [propose] the planet to overwrite the globe. Globalization is achieved by the imposition of the same system of exchange everywhere . . . in the gridwork of electronic capital, we achieve something that resembles that abstract ball covered in latitudes and longitudes, cut by virtual lines, once the equator and the tropics, now drawn increasingly by other requirements—imperatives?—of Geographical Information Systems. The globe is on our computers. It is the logo of the World Bank. No one lives there; and we think that we can aim to control globality. The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, indeed are it.36

I borrow the term because of the critical force of the word “planetary” in Spivak’s use, its capacity to imagine the earth from a position of resistance and skepticism, to rethink the circuits of goods and ideas so necessary to a global imagination for the European and American empires, whose legacy is globalization. If Ulysses is reimagining the planet, it gestures towards these alternative circuits of anti-imperialism. I also turn to Spivak’s invocation of the planet because of its connection to discourses of astronomy—the humility of “planet-thought” rests on the fact that we are bound to recognize that the earth is just a planet among planets:

If we imagine ourselves as planetary accidents rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us, it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away—and thus to think of it is already to transgress, for, in spite of our forays into what we metaphorize, differently, as outer and inner space, what is above and beyond our reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous.

(Aesthetic Education, 339)

The genesis of the humility that Spivak describes here can be found in the insistence by Giordano Bruno, one of Joyce’s intellectual heroes, that our sun is just one among countless number of suns in an infinite universe without an identifiable center. To think in planetary ways is to radically decenter ourselves as the generators of individuation [End Page 81] or alterity; if we were to think in terms of the novel, planet-thought decenters character as the generator of meaning. We might find this a little hard to swallow if we think of Ulysses as a complex sketch of at least three richly developed characters, but I don’t offer planetarity as an alternative to previous ways of thinking about the novel—this would be to center it as a hermeneutic in ways that would undo its critical force—but as a complementary reading, a parallactic view that opens the novel to a greater geographical scale, which is already embedded in the novel itself in the insistent turn from the earth to the stars, and from Ireland to South Africa. The stars explode the temporal and spatial location of the novel, their scale making a mockery of the idea that any meaning can be derived from the minute movements of a couple of dozen characters around a fictionalized city on June 16, 1904.

But it is also an incomplete planetarity, a failure in some senses—“Ithaca,” the climax of the planetary in the novel, is as much about obfuscation and humour as it is about earnestness and science. The novel deflates its own planetary ambitions as much as it touts them, recognising both the planetary imperative and its impossibility. The scale of colonialism and anticolonial politics can only ever, perhaps, emerge in the shadows of the novel. Indeed, recent moves in modernist studies to expand the geographical and temporal boundaries of modernism claim a planetary scale but are necessarily bound to a certain kind of failure.37 Planetarity, by its very definition (at least in Spivak’s sense of the word) is an incomplete endeavour, and yet we can recognize the already existing tendrils of planetarity in modernism. It is a feature indigenous to certain of what we might think of as modernism’s canonical and semi-canonical texts: from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm to Gandhi’s novelistic autobiography, and from Conrad’s Under Western Eyes to Ulysses, a range of modernist novels are committed to challenging the scales of nation, capital, and colonialism.

Cóilín Parsons

Cóilín Parsons is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature (2016) and co-editor of Relocations: Reading Culture in South Africa (2015), and his current book project is on astronomy, scale, and Anglophone modernism.


1. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchor (New York: Vintage, 1986), 126.

2. On the subjective and political aspects of these discrepant times, see Deborah Warner, “The Ballast Office Time Ball and the Subjectivity of Time and Space,” James Joyce Quarterly 35, no. 4 (1998): 861–64; and Luke Gibbons, “Spaces of Time through Times of Space: Joyce, Ireland and Colonial Modernity,” Field Day Review 1 (2005): 70–85. Warner’s short note indicates that Bloom may have been even more confused, for in 1904 there was likely only one time on display at the Ballast Office, and that was Dunsink time.

3. While some critical attention has been paid to astronomical allusions in the novel, and modernists’ interest in the stars has begun to be investigated, the field remains remarkably untouched, given the confluence of the popularization of astronomy in the early twentieth century and the emergence of the modernist novel. On astronomy in Ulysses, see Mark E. Littmann and Charles A. Schweighauser, “Astronomical Allusions, their Meaning and Purpose, in Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly 2, no. 2 (1965): 238–46; Daniel O’Connell, “Bloom and the Royal Astronomer,” James Joyce Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1968): 299–302; David Chinitz, “All the Dishevelled Wandering Stars: Astronomical Symbolism in ‘Ithaca,’” Twentieth Century Literature 37, no. 4 (1991): 432–41; and Justin Kiczek, “Joyce in Transit: The ‘Double Star’ Effect of Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly 48, no. 2 (2011): 291–304. On astronomy in A Portrait, see Katherine Ebury, “‘Mulrennan Spoke to Him about Universe and Stars’: Astronomy in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Dublin James Joyce Journal no. 6/7 (2013–14): [End Page 82] 90–108. For recent work on modernists’ fascination with the stars, see Katherine Ebury, Modernism and Cosmology: Absurd Lights (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Holly Henry, Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). See also Michael H. Whitworth, In Einstein’s Wake: Relativity, Metaphor, and Modernist Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). A similar study, but of Victorian writers, is Anna Henchman’s The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

4. Eric Bulson, “Joyce and World Literature,” in James Joyce in Context, ed. John McCourt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 137–47.

5. Nicholas Brown also turns to questions of form and global scale in his placement of Ulysses within the frame of postcolonial African writing. See Nicholas Brown, Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth–Century Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 37–58.

6. Fredric Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism,” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 43–68, 44.

7. Hugh Kenner, Ulysses (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980), 75.

8. Patrick A. McCarthy, Ulysses: Portals of Discovery (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 5.

9. Barbara Stevens Heusel, “Parallax as a Metaphor for the Structure of Ulysses,” Studies in the Novel 15, no. 2 (1983): 135–46. Stevens offers a close reading of each of the eight appearances of the word in the novel.

10. Robert Ball, The Story of the Heavens (London: Cassell, 1900), 181–82.

11. Nick Lomb, Transit of Venus, 1631 to the Present (New York: The Experiment, 2012), 53.

12. David Gill, A History and Description of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1913), xvii.

13. Vincent J. Cheng, Joyce, Race, and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 170.

14. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Penguin, 1992), 193.

15. Bruce Robbins, “Telescopic Philanthropy: Professionalism and Responsibility in Bleak House,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), 213–30, 213.

16. For a thorough account of the process of ordering and building the telescope, which was far from smooth, see Ian S. Glass, Victorian Telescope Makers: The Lives and Letters of Thomas and Howard Grubb (Bristol: Institute of Physics, 1997), 155–81. For a more general history of the Grubb telescope company and their telescopic exports, see Ian Elliott, “Grubbs of Dublin: telescope makers to the world,” in Science and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, ed. Juliana Adelman and Éadaoin Agnew (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011), 47–61.

17. Ian S. Glass, “The McClean Telescope and its History” (lecture, South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town, March 24, 2012). See also saao.ac.za/about/history/.

18. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001), 64.

19. Tony Voss, “Notes on Joyce and South Africa: Coincidence and Concordance,” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 26, no. 1 (2014): 19–28, 25.

20. “Thirty Years of Girls’ Friendly Society Imperial Work,” Imperial Colonist, August 1912, 152, quoted in Politics and Society: The Journals of Lady Knightley of Fawsley 1885–1913, ed. Peter Gordon (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 37.

21. Anthony Cronin, Beckett: The Last Modernist (New York: Da Capo, 1997), 251, 308. See also Beckett Remembering/Remembering Beckett, ed. James and Elizabeth Knowlson (New York: Arcade, 2006), 74–77. While Joyce may not have made it to South Africa, his novel certainly did. The first copy of Ulysses to be sold in South Africa were imported in the early 1930s by a Johannesburg bookshop owner named Fanny Klennerman, whose Vanguard Booksellers was a haven for all that was revolutionary and modern in South Africa of the 1930s. The book entered South Africa while it was still banned or unavailable in most of the Anglophone world, a fact that confirmed the aspirational name of Klennerman’s business. See Jonathan Hyslop, “Gandhi, Mandela, and the African Modern,” in Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis, ed. Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 119–36. Hyslop draws on the “Cyclops” episode in his argument for the [End Page 83] inherent modernity and radicalism of Johannesburg of the first half of the twentieth century. I am grateful to Hedley Twidle for the reference.

22. Barbara Temple-Thurston, “The Reader as Absentminded Beggar: Recovering South Africa in Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1990): 247–56, 249.

23. Though most references to the war favor the Boer side, as Andrew Gibson points out, Molly’s loyalties on the question are divided, to say the least. See Andrew Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 266–67.

24. Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). The most comprehensive account of both the scale and importance of the references to the Anglo–Boer War in the novel remains M. Keith Booker, Ulysses, Capitalism, and Colonialism: Reading Joyce After the Cold War (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000), 85–103. See also Marilyn Reizbaum, “An Empire of Good Sports: Roger Casement, the Boer War, and James Joyce’s Ulysses,” Kunapipi: Journal of Postcolonial Writing 23, no. 1 (2001): 83–96.

25. Pro–Boers: The Anatomy of an Antiwar Movement, ed. Stephen E. Koss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 72.

26. After resigning his seat, Davitt traveled to South Africa to visit the Boers and wrote one of the classic accounts of the war, The Parliamentary Debates (London: Wyman and Sons, 1899), 128. See also Michael Davitt, The Boer Fight for Freedom (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1902).

27. The work of Keith Jeffery and Donal McCracken and a small number of others alerts us to the importance of the Irish to the Anglo–Boer war, and vice versa. See Keith Jeffery, “The Irish Soldier in the Boer War,” in The Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image, ed. John Gooch (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 141–51; and Donal P. McCracken, Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo–Boer War (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2003).

28. Booker devotes a chapter of his book on Ulysses and capitalism to South Africa, while Temple-Thurston’s short 1990 piece in the James Joyce Quarterly sketches out a number of the South African connections in the novel, and Voss has produced a lengthy, if somewhat disjointed survey of South African references in the novel. Cheng makes multiple references to the appearances of South Africa and the Boer War, but does not engage with them as key constitutive parts of the novel’s complex of empire, focusing instead on Anglo–Irish relations.

29. Elleke Boehmer, “Perspectives on the South African War,” in The Cambridge History of South African Literature, ed. David Attwell and Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 246–61, 255.

30. “Absent-minded,” as Boehmer points out, not only calls to mind Kipling’s jingoistic poem, but also J. R. Seeley’s claim that the empire was acquired neither systematically nor deliberately, but in a fit of absence of mind (“Perspectives on the South African War,” 253).

31. By linking the phrase “don’t hesitate to shoot” to the British in South Africa, Stephen effects a seemingly effortless suturing of political strife in Ireland with that in South Africa, as the phrase was reputed to have first been used by a police officer during a riot in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, in 1887 (Gifford and Seidman, Ulysses Annotated, 202). There is a long argument to be made, and Cheng and Booker do so, to varying degrees, about Stephen’s thoughts on the collusion between canonical and popular cultural production in Britain, and the bloodbath overseas in South Africa. See Booker, Ulysses, Capitalism, and Colonialism, 85–103; and Vincent Cheng, Joyce, Race, and Empire, 227–34.

32. For a reading of the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic importance of the references to concentration camps in the novel, see Leona Toker, “‘Khaki Hamlets Don’t Hesitate’: A Semiological Reading of References to the Boer War and Concentration Camps in Joyce’s Ulysses,” Journal of Modern Literature 38, no. 2 (2015): 45–58.

33. Parnell features in this tale in another way, for Daniel O’Connell notes that Joyce read Kitty O’Shea’s biography of Parnell in which she writes that Parnell “devoured the little book of Sir Robert Ball’s.” At 568 pages, Ball’s book is far from “little,” so it is curious that Joyce should attribute O’Shea’s description of it as a “little book” to Bloom (O’Connell, Bloom and the Royal Astronomer, 302).

34. Jahan Ramazani, A Transnational Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 25. [End Page 84]

35. Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 1–36.

36. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 338.

37. See, most recently (and perhaps most audaciously), Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). [End Page 85]