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Where Was Moses When the Candle Went Out?: Infinity, Prophecy, and Ethics in Spinoza and “Ithaca”

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 661-677 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0002

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Of the many enigmatic references in Ulysses, Joyce’s allusions to Baruch Spinoza present yet another elusive and underanalyzed aspect of the novel.1 In the “Ithaca” episode, Leopold Bloom first identifies Spinoza as one of the “anapocryphal illustrious sons of the law and children of a selected or rejected race” in his discussions with Stephen (U 17.720–21). Next, Bloom lists “Thoughts from Spinoza (maroon leather)” as one of the books on the shelf in his and Molly’s bedroom (U 17.1372). Furthermore, in “Penelope,” Molly remembers Bloom tediously expounding the philosophy of Spinoza to her in the past (U 18.1115–16). These references, as well as the narrative structure of “Ithaca,” suggest significant points of correspondence between the novel and tenets of Spinoza’s philosophy, thereby raising questions about the importance of the philosopher and his work for Joyce and Ulysses.2

This essay emphasizes just two of the many components of Spinoza’s philosophy reflected in Ulysses. First, Bloom’s moments of revelation parallel the types of spiritual insight afforded to the Spinozan prophet. Both Bloom’s and Spinoza’s revelations arise through contemplation of the “infinite,” a property variously residing in nature, in textual exegesis, and in the unknowable Other. While the theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have, at times, been applied to explain the nature of the “unknowable” in Ulysses,3 Spinoza’s philosophy actually offers a particularly apt and revealing frame for interpreting “Ithaca.” The inspiration experienced by Bloom and analyzed by Spinoza is fundamentally ambivalent: while it offers a source of infinite replenishment, it is paradoxically predicated upon the experience of irreparable foreclosure, the infinite void. Moreover, in Ulysses, this interdependent illumination and certain loss not only reside in the inspiration derived from the contemplation of physical matter and the literary text but also constitute the interpersonal. As such, they inform questions of ethics, which are ultimately shown to require a quasi-stoical comportment of piety, endurance, and devoted care. By analyzing what may be the central epiphany in the novel, I suggest that Bloom, at the end of “Ithaca,” reconciles himself to the contradictory, dual quality of his relationship with Molly.

Second, Bloom’s character is itself derived from Spinoza’s conception of the prophet. While many readers have envisioned Bloom as a Christ-like figure, the persona of an Old Testament prophet provides a more accurate analogue for Bloom. Thus, Talmudic (rather than Biblical) exegesis best pertains to the text of Ulysses.4 As in the Old Testament, Ulysses refuses a narrative of final redemption, and its glimpses of ultimate meaning are radically tenuous and uncertain, without any transcendent guarantees.

Before turning strictly to “Ithaca,” it is important to note the ways in which Ulysses gives literary expression to Spinoza’s philosophy. For one, the embrace of the visceral and the body in the novel captures Spinoza’s monism—his notion of the unity of mind and body, his celebration of the corporeal, and his deprivileging of the exclusively cerebral.5 A similar validation of the emotions is present for both Joyce and Spinoza.6 Finally, Bloom’s non-combativeness, his avoidance of aggression or antagonism, parallels Spinoza’s version of stoicism. As is the case with Bloom, Spinoza describes this disposition not as a type of passivity but as an active receptivity, requiring that the individual “follow[s] the common order of nature, and obeys it, and accommodates himself to it as far as the nature of things demands” (Ethics 157). Spinoza attributes the need for such a posture to various features of existence: the fragmentary nature of human knowledge,7 our captivity to the emotions,8 the lack of purpose or teleology in nature,9 and the absence of an entirely autonomous human will.10 In “Ithaca,” as elsewhere in the novel, Bloom repeatedly acknowledges his own qualities of “passivity.”11 Additionally, apparent connections between Bloom, Spinoza, and even Joyce himself emerge with respect to Spinoza’s Jewishness. Joyce’s artistic exile, for example, resembles Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam because of his unorthodox religious beliefs. Similarly, the lack of...

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