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“Our eyes demand their turn. Let them be seen!”: The Transcendental Blind Stripling

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2008
pp. 203-225

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

this slow blind face
its virginal nonentity
against the light
Pure purposeless eremite
of centripetal sentience
Upon the carnose horologe of the ego
the vibrant tendon index moves not1

Mina Loy, like James Joyce, is preoccupied with language; her poem has a linguistic jouissance that resembles that of Ulysses. In addition, Loy’s blind youth bears an interesting likeness to Joyce’s blind stripling: both are nameless “nonentities.” Each has impeccable hearing (as they are defined in terms that signify sound). Each has as his prevailing trait his blindness, which is built into his common label. The two share the role of purposeless hermit in the eyes of their respective communities. More abstractly, the interesting personification of a clock, which Loy grafts onto her Kriegsopfer, connects him with mechanical time, just as Joyce unites his piano tuner with musical time. The one crucial difference in their behaviors is that the “vibrant tendon index” of the blind soldier “moves not,” while the blind stripling is impressively mobile, taptaptapping his way across the pages of Ulysses. The potential for Loy’s 1923 poem to be read as a response to one of Joyce’s least critically discussed characters is legitimized by a poem entitled “Joyce’s Ulysses” in the same collection as “Der Blinde Junge.” The coordination of ideas between the two writers at least informs the critic of the modernist consciousness of figures who are disabled. More important, the two works critique liberal complacency which, for Loy, produced the war that blinded her soldier and, for Joyce, caused the colonial imbalance that bred a Dublin plagued by infighting and marginalization.

The blind stripling is but one of a distracting number of characters with disabilities in Ulysses. His blindness forces an evaluation of Joyce’s interest in disability, how he perceived people with disability, and why his interest was so strong as to warrant its formidable presence in Ulysses. My thinking about Joyce’s concern with disability grows out of an initial interest in how he introduces immobility into a text centrally concerned with an ostensibly able-bodied wanderer. This is not to suggest that the terms “immobile” and “disabled” are interchangeable, for not all physical disabilities presuppose or even suggest immobilization. However, the most prominent disabilities in Ulysses share this common thread, for Joyce draws on the presence of characters, disabled or otherwise, who struggle with mobility. This trend prompts a reevaluation of how Irish political immobility manifests itself in the novel.

Principally, I contend that the disabled body bears a created social identity that Joyce regarded not with ambiguity, but with as strong and as defined a conscience as has been discovered in recent investigations of his postcolonial voice. Joyce possessed a disability consciousness: that is, a capacity to understand and react to the injustices of living with a condition that is almost universally misunderstood and traduced. This comes out in Joyce’s effort to disclose disability’s inherited connotations, and summarily to defend disability against the parties who abuse its symbolic properties in order to define normalcy. I contend that Joyce understood disability and its connotations because of his own personal experience: Joyce’s near-blindness affects in him a deep empathy, not merely sympathy for people who experience disability and its stigmatization. Joyce’s own disability provides the basis for the considerate tone Ulysses takes toward characters with disabilities, a tone that challenges Western methods of reinforcing normalcy.

The interactions that the blind stripling, a nameless secondary character, has with Bloom and the patrons of the Ormond street bar reveal Ireland’s resistance to pacifistic transformation; the stripling transcends a complacent Ireland, whose pathological state taxed Joyce’s patience. The stripling further functions autobiographically, providing a model for Joyce beyond the disengaged Stephen, and a different platform through which Joyce’s political voice might be heard. Indeed, Joyce’s own problems with sight invite us to read the stripling as an embodiment of the novelist who metafictionally finds a place in Ulysses. In making this argument, I will address historical transformations of reading blindness as metaphor, and the methods by which Joyce uses disability to characterize the stripling as a figure of moral complexity and as...

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