Ulysses and fidelity

I read Ulysses during a long drawn-out summer holiday, when I had little to do, and was up for some heavy intellectual self-punishment. It was hard going. I got through it understanding about 40% of what was going on. Even so, figuring out the action in the scenes wasn’t all-important (I hope). Instead, what kept me reading was the opportunity to observe and get inside the heads of some really intriguing characters. I enjoyed the company of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and (eventually, when I finally met her) Molly. Through them, I think I grasped a somewhat blurry picture of the ideas that James Joyce was working through. One of them I’ve found particularly interesting.

Ulysses is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, set in Dublin during the course of one day (16 June, 1904). One of the effects of this set up is that it can serve as a contrast between ancient Homeric values, and the modern (utopian?) values Joyce had hoped the 20th century would bring. Thus ‘Odysseus’, the hero of the Odyssey, becomes the Latin ‘Ulysses’. The invincible warrior hero of epic poetry is replaced with a new moral exemplar, the bumbling, good-natured, wise, fallible Leopold Bloom. Some of the differences between the two can already be made out from a short summary of the plot of the two works.

Odysseus is a veteran of the Trojan War, journeying home to Ithaca. Because of various monsters he encounters along the way, this takes him 10 years. His wife Penelope is faithfully waiting for him, but most of Ithaca’s subjects believe him dead, and there are many offers for her hand in marriage. To frustrate her suitors’ advances, Penelope sets them a task of martial skill only Odysseus can pass. When he finally gets home, Odysseus enters his home disguised, passes the test, reveals himself, and slays all the suitors. Right. Leopold Bloom is a gentle-natured Irish Jew, and he spends his day wandering around Dublin, fretting about his wife’s infidelity with the affable and attractive Boylan. At the end of the day, we find out that Molly has been unfaithful, but that she still loves her husband.

In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom doesn’t slay the suitors in any recognizable way. The male pride and warrior’s honour of the Homeric universe demands that Odysseus avenge his wife’s ill treatment with blood, but the modern hero sees no need to. Instead, Leopold Bloom, whilst being aware of Molly’s infidelity, is content in the knowledge that he alone can possess her heart. A difference is made between frivolous, enjoyable flirtation and sex, and the deeper bonds of care and affection that make up love. The former is completely unimportant. The latter is everything.

I wonder if this can really work: qualifying sexual experience so that a couple allow each other to sleep with other people whilst maintaining their love for each other. It would require, to a large extent, the abandonment of pride (that cardinal sin) and jealousy that make such an arrangement unworkable. But possessiveness can often end up wrecking relationships, so I don’t think humility is such a bad thing. A ‘Bloomian’ relationship also requires a large amount of trust, as it can be difficult to distinguish between a purely sexual relationship, and something more serious. I think the latter really would be a betrayal, but I don’t see why the former should be. If true love involves a complete trust in another person, then I do believe promiscuousness can be tolerated, embraced even. It does not have to be the same as infidelity.

But what do I know...

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