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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 484-488
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Chaos Theory and James Joyce's Everyman
Chaos Theory and James Joyce's Everyman by Peter Francis Mackey. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Pp. xiv + 234. $49.95 cloth.
In an early episode of Ulysses, a minor character, Bantam Lyons, asks to borrow Leopold Bloom's newspaper. Bantam Lyons mutters about the upcoming Gold Cup race: "Wait . . . Half a mo. Maximum the second." Bloom tells him to keep the paper: "I was just going to throw it away" (Ed. Hans Walter Gabler; New York: Vintage, 1986; episode 5, lines 532-4). Bantam Lyons asks him to repeat himself. Again hearing the phrase "throw it away," "Bantam Lyons doubted an instant, leering: then thrust the outspread sheets back on Mr. Bloom's arms.—I'll risk it, he said. Here, thanks" (5.539-41). During the chaotic "Wandering Rocks" episode, about halfway through the book, two other minor characters, Lenehan and M'Coy, briefly discuss how Lenehan has prevented Bantam Lyons from betting on "a bloody horse someone gave him that hasn't an earthly" (10.518-19). Lenehan identifies Bloom as the source of the tip. Later, Lenehan tells his friends at Barney Kiernan's pub that Bloom "had a few bob on Throwaway and he's gone to gather the shekels . . . Bet you what you like he has a hundred shillings to five on. He's the only man in Dublin has it. A dark horse" (12.1548-58). When the allegedly enriched Bloom later fails to stand drinks for the crowd at the pub, a disagreeable nationalist called the Citizen grows increasingly angry with him. The episode concludes [End Page 484] with the Citizen throwing an empty biscuit-tin at Bloom and Bloom transformed by the narrator into Elijah ascending to heaven "like a shot off a shovel" (12.1915).
In his compelling new book on Ulysses, Peter Francis Mackey analyzes the "Throwaway" episode in terms borrowed from "chaos theory," or the theory of complex systems. Joyce's Dublin is a complex social system in which minor incidents, such as Bloom's lending the paper to Bantam Lyons, can have magnified consequences. The familiar example from chaos theory is Edward Lorenz's hypothesis that the flap of a butterfly's wings in South America could conceivably cause a tornado in Texas. Mackey writes that "Moment by moment . . . Bloom finds himself affected by social contingencies that complicate his life and provide fertile soil for the exponential growth of trivialities into crises across his community's common ground" (154). Bloom's (and Joyce's) fascination with fate, kismet, continually calls our attention to this tendency of contingent events to have huge consequences. Moreover, as readers of Ulysses, we stand in something like the position of the interpreters of huge systems like the weather or the stock market: a seemingly infinite amount of apparently trivial information needs to be sifted in order for us to identify an underlying pattern in the novel's apparent chaos. Earlier novels incorporate apparently chance events into their carefully crafted plots, but Ulysses seems unique in paying such detailed attention to the most random and insignificant occurrences and in showing how they all ultimately contribute to what appears retrospectively as a meaningful chain of events.
Some interpreters would argue that Joyce specifically frustrates our attempts to force these random events into meaningful patterns. For example, a man in a macintosh appears at Paddy Dignam's funeral and reappears frequently throughout the course of the novel, notably in the "Circe" episode at the brothel of Bella Cohen. Our readerly attempts to find the identity of the man in the macintosh resemble those of the reporter Hynes, who mistakenly records "Mr M'Intosh" as among those who attended the funeral. Joyce's critics have vainly sought a meaningful interpretation of the anonymous postcard that Dennis Breen receives with the message "U. p." Often enough, Joyce shows us contingent events that do not apparently lead to magnified consequences.
This objection, however, does not rob the application of chaos theory to Ulysses of its...