restricted access Planetary Parallax: Ulysses, the Stars, and South Africa
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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...