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"In painted chambers loaded with tilebooks"

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 129-130 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0125

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An obscure allusion made by Stephen in the library scene in Ulysses has not been previously identified. When placed in its original context, the mysterious remark, "[i]n painted chambers loaded with tilebooks" (U 9.354-55), highlights how unhappy Stephen is. It confirms that he is, in William Empson's words, "in a terrible condition, near the edge of madness or of crime." As his agile mind tosses around images associated with ancient Egypt, Stephen repeats a phrase heard earlier in the newspaper office—"And I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest" (U 9.353-54)— and follows it with an exotic fragment from Richard Jefferies's The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography. The entire lavish sentence from Jefferies reads: "Remember Nineveh and the cult of the fir-cone, the turbaned and bearded bulls of stone, the lion hunt, the painted chambers loaded with tile books, the lore of the arrow-headed writing" (101-02). The tilebooks, then, are Assyrian antiquities, clay tablets marked with cuneiform inscriptions that represent an early achievement of literacy. Jefferies's oracular tone (a constant in his work) makes the comparison with a highpriest appropriate, but the quotation only resonates when read in its original context.

Jefferies's theme, often repeated in his essays, is the contrast between the dismal mechanistic modern urban world and the temporary peace he gains by visits to the British Museum and the National Gallery in London. But such respites are temporary and always end with feelings of despair and futility. His studies prompt the question: "Can any creed, philosophy, system, or culture endure the test and remain unmolten in this fierce focus of human life?" (101). He answers with a resounding "no," and his examples include the "tile books" ("an utter nothing"—102), the "papyri of ancient, ancient Egypt" ("Nothing; absolutely nothing!"—101) and the "aged caves of India" ("The indistinguishable noise not to be resolved, born of the human struggle, mocks in answer"—102).

Having dismissed the historical emergence of culture and literacy, he declares western philosophy from Aristotle and Plato to the present day to be "useless alike" (103). Such cultural Luddism is breathtaking in its scope but at least supports Jefferies's transcendent view that "[t]he sun was stronger than science; the hills more than philosophy" (23) and that one could establish a redeeming pantheistic rapport with nature. Whatever appeal such rapport had for Stephen at one time, he now only hears the oracle of despair.

Stephen's initial thoughts in this passage center on images of ancient Egypt. He describes the books in the library as "[c]offined thoughts … in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words" (U 9.352-53). Jefferies's passage also invokes ancient Egypt, so the question arises: why does Stephen change the subject to ancient Assyria? The simple bleakness of the image of the clay tablets may explain his decision, but Jefferies's section about Egypt that he avoids is suggestive: "is there anything slowly painted on the once mystic and now commonplace papyri of ancient, ancient Egypt, held on the mummy's withered breast? In that elaborate ritual, in the procession of the symbols, in the winged circle, in the laborious sarcophagus?" (101). The image of the dead body holding a book to its withered breast in the context of the funereal rituals described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead is all too pointed for Stephen, beset as he is by his mother's recent death.

Richard Bliss  

Richard Bliss has written articles on James Joyce as well as contemporary fiction for The Threepenny Review and other periodicals.


1. In "Ulysses" Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's "Ulysses," rev. ed. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 217, Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman resignedly gloss the line in the following: "Apparently a quotation, source unknown."

2. William Empson, Using Biography (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 204.

3. Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography (London: Longmans, Green, 1898). Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text. Jefferies (1848-1887), the last Victorian avatar of the Wordsworthian child of nature and an enormously popular writer in his day, may...

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