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The Physics of Voice in Joyce’s “Ithaca”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 238-251

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

I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism. All events are resolved into their cosmic physical, psychical etc. equivalents . . . so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.

—Joyce, in a letter to Frank Budgen, February 28, 1921

. . . Ithaca—a mathematico-astronomico-physico-mechanico-geometrico-chemico sublimation of Bloom and Stephen (devil take ’em both)

—Letter to Claud W. Sykes, Spring 1921

As regards Ithaca the question of printer’s errors is not the chief point. The episode should be read by some person who is a physicist, mathematician and astronomer and a number of other things.

—Letter to Harriet Weaver, December 6, 1921

Joyce’s comments on the penultimate episode of Ulysses during its composition, drafting, and revision are a standard invocation—if not a Homeric one of Joyce as muse, then certainly a rhetorical one of authorial ethos—when writing about science and “Ithaca.” Listed together as epigraphs, they also form a microcosm of critical reactions to and interpretations of the chapter since its publication. For some, the bald, cold style of “Ithaca” suggests the possibility of a scientifically controlled nature, but not without also “reveal[ing] a bleak and terrifying universe in which man seems minute, insignificant and at the mercy of powers beyond his imagination.”1 Yet this pessimistic reading is, for the most part, overshadowed by emphases on the episode’s, and by extension Joyce’s, comedic impulse, “(devil take ’em both),” what William Empson succinctly describes as a “parody of both scientific and legal styles of writing [that] makes it almost impossible to find out what Bloom and Stephen are . . . even saying to each other,”2 or what he calls later in the interview, “the appalling style of this chapter” (34). Focusing on the chapter’s parodic power, many readings are variations of the assertion that “Ithaca” satirizes scientific discourse, and in doing so undermines the binary structures it constructs, challenging the perfect objectivity it supposedly mimics. I argue that “Ithaca” not only parodies the scientist, imported from nineteenth century discourses of determinism and British imperialism,3 but also provides, in conjunction with early twentieth century articulations of Einstein’s relativity theories in the press, an alternative model of the scientist—what I tentatively call here the “new scientist”—who is at once more human and more detached, more imperfect while being more objective.

I’d like to begin by considering the question of “Ithaca’s” narrative voice or, perhaps, voices. Richard Madtes maintains that Joyce is both the questioner and the answerer, or with a different inflection, the interrogator and the subject. Thus, he considers the episode to be a “one-man catechism, a double role, an apparently impossible dialectical soliloquy . . . which, needlessly, can disturb the undiscerning reader.”4 In contrast, Hugh Kenner suggests that dialogue occurs between the author and his muse: He asks and she replies. He is in direct communiqué with her, and she “answers tirelessly” with an arsenal of geometry, metrical poetry, “information about the characters’ pasts and about their innermost thoughts . . . and . . . information we never thought to want.”5 Yet attempts at characterizing the narrating presence are inherently complicated by what Andrew Gibson expresses as the episode’s “violations of its own patterns.”6 He gives a helpful survey of scholarly input on this point: A. Walton Litz argues that the catechism’s regularity is rendered flexible in “Ithaca” by “constant shifts in tone, rhetoric and quality of subject matter.”7 Katie Wales notes that the “impersonal objective tone” is under-cut by “an impression of playful animation from the rhetorical flourishes of antithesis and parallelism,”8 and Udaya Kumar remarks that there is “no continuity or homogeneity of attitude on the part of the narrator throughout the episode.”9 Grappling with the difficulty of tracing a coherent narrating presence, Karen Lawrence uses the term “lateral imagination” to describe the operation by which the episode “meticulously strings together facts without establishing any sense of priority among them.”10 Fritz Senn simply calls it “Some abstract entity, outside (or within or behind...

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