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Intertextual Metempsychosis in Ulysses: Murphy, Sinbad, and the "U.P.: up" Postcard

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 1, Fall 2007
pp. 97-114 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0034

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When Bloom and Stephen enter the cabman's shelter in the "Eumaeus" episode of Ulysses, they meet the last significant character to make a first appearance in the novel: W. B. Murphy, the "redbearded bibulous" sailor (U 16.337). Murphy is an enigmatic character who resembles both Bloom and Odysseus in different ways and who, as Jennifer Levine puts it, "seems to illustrate the more general semiotic point about character: that a Murphy (like a Stephen or a Bloom) has no essential identity and is most properly understood as a set of attributes temporarily clustered around a proper name."2 Upon entering the shelter, Stephen drunkenly philosophizes about names, saying, "Sounds are impostures . . . like names," and letting drop Juliet's famous plaint about Romeo: "What's in a name?" (U 16.362-63, 364).3 Bloom soberly responds by giving the issue of names a very different inflection: "Of course. Our name was changed too" (U 16.365-66). Bloom's comment refers not to the abstract idea of semantic arbitrariness that Stephen and Juliet invoke ("That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet"—II.ii.43-44) but rather to the concrete historical phenomenon of family names changing over time and geography. In addition, without quite realizing it, Bloom articulates the theme of metempsychosis in Ulysses: just as souls may transmigrate from body to body and era to era, changing only their outward appearance in each incarnation, so may a family name such as Virag be transplanted and translated, retaining like the rose something of its original "bloom" (the meaning of "virag" in Hungarian).

But Bloom's observation that his "name was changed" also resonates with the metatextual dynamics of Ulysses, since it recalls the transmigration of characters from ancient to modern texts—a process I call intertextual metempsychosis—which is so intrinsic to Joyce's methodology. As the "Odysseus" of the novel, Bloom's "name was changed" in the sense that Joyce decided to call him "Bloom" rather than "Odysseus" or "Ulysses." It is therefore significant that Murphy's first act in the novel is to "board" Stephen by asking, "And what might your name be?" and that this interruption provokes Stephen to say "Dedalus" (U 16.368, 370, 374). Since Stephen's character corresponds to (among other characters) the maker of wings and labyrinths, "Dedalus" is the only appellation in Ulysses that overtly links a character to a mythic figure and thus the only name that is, in a sense, unchanged.4 The sailor's "boarding" of the mythic-intertextual aspect of Stephen's identity is, in fact, the first in a series of labyrinthine cues indicating that Murphy is more than just a minor, colorful character in the novel. Rather, after the wild ride of the "Circe" episode, Joyce quietly deploys Murphy as a sophisticated rebus, an elegant exercise in literary disguise that enables Ulysses to recognize and to complicate the knotty issues of intertextual metempsychosis and of character representation generally.

To understand Murphy's importance, it is necessary to recall that even before Joyce wrote "Eumaeus" many of his contemporaries saw him as the principal architect of what T. S. Eliot would dub the "mythical method," in which a writer builds on a text like the Odyssey to manipulate "a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity."5 Since this method of reclothing mythical characters and stories in modern garb inspired a multitude of subsequent variations, it can be considered a kind of subgenre within modernism.6 But there is a key aspect of Joyce's use of the "mythical method" that rarely reappears in later examples of the subgenre: allusions to earlier allusions to the same myth. Rather than simply knowing and using the Odyssey as a template, Joyce became a Homerist. As W. B. Stanford writes:

Professor Stanislaus Joyce has kindly informed me that his brother had studied the following writers on Ulysses: Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Fénelon, Tennyson, Phillips, d'Annunzio and Hauptmann, as well as Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey and Victor Bérard's Les Phéniciens et l'Odyssée, and the translations by Butler and Cowper.7


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