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"Love at a Distance ( Bloomism )": The Chance Encounter and the Democratization of Modernist Style

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 247-261 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0043

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We all know the feeling: in the waiting room, the checkout line, the middle seat on a long-haul flight. Almost everywhere we go and in the course of almost everything we do, we come into contact—often quite close contact—with strangers to whom we do not speak. Georg Simmel thought that this sort of situation was a benchmark experience of modernity or, in his terms, of the "big city":

Someone who sees without hearing is much more uneasy than someone who hears without seeing. In this there is something characteristic of the sociology of the big city. Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the ear. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.

Simmel's point is at once extremely simple and earthshaking in its implications. For eons, one's family, the folks that live and work nearby, and perhaps a slightly larger group at church or market, were literally the only people that most humans would encounter in the course of their lives. And then in a flash, there is the railway compartment and hours of sitting still and simply looking. It would be rude—and worse, weird—to do anything else.

We are accustomed to the evocation of such "epiphanies" of the modern in theoretical descriptions of alienation, individuation, and deracination. But the question remains, does anything good come of such a situation? Cast out of the ostensibly Edenic agrarian village, stripped away from family and the parish priest, and thrown into the modern city and the throes of agency-evacuating commodification, is it possible that modern women and men might devise a new form of community or even communion in the midst of such a paradoxical blend of physical proximity and social distance? I argue that the "Nausicaa" episode of Ulysses is a fictional case-study of this form of modern experience and a (partial, ambivalent) diagnosis of its revolutionary potential. Most importantly, the formal quality of this section of Joyce's work has as much to say as its objective contents about the changing nature of modern relationships and community.

I am not the first to deploy Bloom's encounter with Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount strand as a sort of case-study. In his lecture notes on Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov identifies what happens between Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell in "Nausicaa" as emblematic of Bloom's situation as a whole. Just as chains and leather inevitably conjure the names of that infernal pair, the Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade, this episode represents, in Nabokov's formulation, another entry for modernity's casebook of eponymous syndromes—Bloomism: "Of the stream of Bloom's thought little needs to be said. You recognize the situation: love at a distance (Bloomism). You recognize the stylistic contrast between the rendering of Bloom's thought, impressions, recollections, sensations, and the vicious parody of literary girlishness in the first part of the chapter."

But what exactly is "love at a distance"? Better yet, why love at a distance? For Sigmund Freud, distance is the essential quality in the definition of perversion, whether we are talking about the physiological remove from the primary sexual organs or the teleological movement toward coitus proper and eventual consummation: "Perversions are sexual activities which either (a) extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union, or (b) linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim." "Nausicaa" renders these gaps between the sexual subject and object tangible, as Bloom's engagement with Gerty is an affair of the eye and mind more than of the genitals and, further, remains content to linger at the level of the masturbational rather than plunging toward the "final sexual aim." But are these perversions of erotic space and time what Nabokov...

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