Stephen Dedalus is featured in ten of the eighteen episodes of ULYSSES, eleven if we include the Stephen sighting of episode six. It is not a very good day for him:
starting with all the signs of a hangover on the heights of the Martello Tower and winding up in the gutter, after a British soldier has given Stephen a wallop for insulting the King.
In 1904, Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe, and the underemployment of Dublin accounts for much of the social activity we encounter in the novel. It is notable that our chief characters, Bloom and Stephen, actually go through the motions of a workday.
Stephen’s day offers a range of career opportunities available for a bright lad: as a parasite, or hanger-on; a journalist; a man of letters. Stephen rejects them all, The second episode of ULYSSES presents Stephen on the job (it is, in fact, payday) at Mr Deasy’s small private school, not far from the Martello Tower and on the road to Dalkey. Stephen will decide to resign his position in the wee hours of June seventeenth.
At the instigation of and in consultation with James Joyce, Stuart Gilbert hammered out the first book length study of ULYSSES in 1930, eight years after the novel’s publication, and three years before the book was legally available in the United States. Gilbert presents the major themes of the novel, offers liberal quotations from the text, and established many of the homeric correspondences.
Joyce would later say that he regretted Gilbert’s guide, and indeed I have always found its rather ponderous lecturing an odd counterpoint to the buoyant reading experience of ULYSSES. Gilbert approaches the job like a diligent schoolboy, following the hints dropped by his Master (in this case, Joyce himself) and then nailing them to the floor. Though authorized, Gilbert’s guidebook is far from the final word, even on a subject as seemingly exhaustively studied as the presence of Homer. It is easy enough to form the simple equation that Deasy embodies Nestor, and in the main, Gilbert tries to establish for every episode a character who represents the essential Homeric reference (Molly equals Penelope, Bella Cohen equals Circe, and so forth). Useful in opening a portal of discovery, but also a kind of limitation. And I don’t wish to seem harsh: Gilbert deserves our gratitude, and inasmuch as Joyce’s regrets came after the fact, they are merely tangential. We might say that Deasy assumes something of Nestor’s role, but he is no Nestor! Nestor was both heroic (taking an active part in the history he recounts) and wise; Deasy is known around Dublin for having been clobbered by his wife; his wisdom rests upon common cliché. These rather obvious differences between ULYSSES and the ODYSSEY point towards Joyce’s strategic undermining of the heroic, the topsyturvy handling of the Homeric to create the modern hero, Leopold Bloom. Ultimately the greatest problem with Gilbert’s guide is that he reveals no sense of humour. Perhaps Stuart Gilbert was a handy Parisian embodiment of Joyce’s glum squarejawed brother Stan.
Teaching is an obvious career path for Stephen, though he lacks the necessary temperament for the work. Presumably, like Joyce, he had graduated University College, Dublin, in 1902. There is much to consider regarding the difference in value a college degree possessed between that time and ours, although we have reason to believe that the kind of knowledge Stephen displays was not part of the general curriculum. I believe, technically, Stephen’s job title would have been an “usher” – a kind of teacher’s assistant. Stephen has been employed at the school for little more than six weeks, not enough time to become either loved or feared by his students, and although only 22 years old, to the boys he must seem as nearly as ancient as Mr Deasy! The language of the boys weeklies, where public schoolbook stories still flourished, appears later in ULYSSES through the mediating mind of an avid fan, but this episode runs against the grain of the traditional schoolbook by its realism. (I use the term "schoolbook" to describe those fictions descending from Tom Brown's Schooldays. Joyce's Portrait is a grown-up's schoolbook, and Catcher in the Rye a later variation on the theme.) However interesting it may be to us, Stephen’s interior monologue is a sign of a poor teacher, one who is not paying attention to his students. No disciplinarian, Stephen’s class is notable, in the context of schoolbooks, for its absence of terror, but because we share Stephen’s perspective, and because this is not a boarding school, there is also missing the aura of camaraderie of the classic schoolbook: indeed, NESTOR presents different aspects of loneliness: Stephen’s, the student Sargent’s, and finally Mr Deasy himself. True, there is the rising collective energy of the class in preparing for hockey, but the ideal schoolbook sporting spirit is spoiled by the squabbling that arises when Cochrane and Halliday find themselves on the same team.
The Art of “Nestor”, as set forth by Joyce himself in his famous reductive scheme for Ulysses, is History, and the episode begins with a history session: how can one not be pleased by the honesty present in Stephen’s checking name and date in his textbook? Stephen recalls William Blake’s apocalyptic vision “the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry” —— this episode which so importantly presents the notion of received History, opens with a vision of the end of time: it may be a kind of wishful thinking on Stephen’s part. For those who are fans of Stephen, his Bloomsday represents his Pyrrhic victory: slamming the doors on each of his opportunities as they crop up, Stephen concludes his day far more alone, far more an outsider in Dublin.
The literary portion of the class focuses on Milton’s elegy, Lycidas. As Stephen’s strongest point is his literary talent, the reader may sit up, hoping for some special insight from our poetic hero. But Milton does not seem to especially interest Stephen: during Talbot’s recitation, there is a gap of five lines (about 30 seconds) while Stephen’s attention is elsewhere. Over the years, I have often pondered the selection of Milton here, which by the way clearly does not reflect Stephen’s choice. It is an odd selection to present to a room of kids for many reasons, but of course, Lycidas is based, as the popular appeal runs, upon a true story: Milton wrote this poem in mourning a schoolfriend who had drowned in the Irish Sea. This poem won’t dissipate the gloom that hangs over Stephen, and drowning in the Irish Sea is as likely a future for Stephen as anything, both literally and metaphorically. The presence of death is a common feature in schoolbooks, here rendered by the poem’s lifeless reading. By removing the sense of companionship, by placing at the centre of the class an elegy, Joyce sets up a pointlessness to the entire enterprise which is subtle but palpable. But, the kids’ work day will soon be over: in establishing the important fact of the date, we learn that Thursdays were a half-day at Deasy’s place.
Sargent stays after class for some remedial attention: the scene that follows may be as close to actual schoolwork as to be found in any schoolbook! Stephen regards Sargent with a touch of pity, but there is nothing of the sentimentality that so often clouds the prose of the traditional schoolbook. The experience is charged for the reader by two remarkable passages: Stephen’s recollection of his own mother, recounted in third person, and the dance of the figures across the workbook page. These two passages stand out sharply against what we might expect from History, from Mathematics, informed as they are by Stephen’s hangover inspired mysticism. For Stephen, the visionary is a form of liberation.
How old is Mr Deasy?
By the sheer repetition of the word “old”, I think we can say that he is not so old as we might think. He may be as young as 60, and his reference to seeing three generations a bit of juggling. On the whole, I would rather cast Deasy on the younger side, as it heightens the common prejudice regarding age, but we are free to age Deasy as much as we’d like, though I don’t think he can be much past 75 years at top. Nevertheless, the word “old” is applied to Deasy over half a dozen times in the course of the episode.
But let us begin as Mr Deasy begins: by taking care of business. It is payday, and Deasy calls Stephen into the office to pay, in cash, the two weeks wages. Stephen’s salary, 3 pounds and twelve shillings, may not seem much by modern standards, but there is the shocking and amusing fact that, penny for penny, Stephen starts his day with a pocketful of money: for the morning at least, he is one of the wealthier people we encounter in the entire novel, though of course, by the close, he has pissed away his security on booze for worthless comrades. (Mrs Kearney demands payment of 4 pounds 8 at the close of "A Mother." She departs without it.) The history of money would be a subject that inspired Ez Pound; it is enough to say that Joyce’s precision (two pound notes, one of joined halves, a sovereign, two crowns and two shillings: in my lifetime, it has become necessary to annotate this for younger readers) was unusual, to say the least, in the novelistic realm. The economic thread that we can follow through the course of Ulysses may give us some insight into Dublin as the capital city of one of the poorest nations of Europe.
Mr Deasy is a representative of the “single bullet theory of history” which should be familiar to anyone who listens to the Pacifica chain of events. By this I mean that history can be boiled down and explained as the fault of Jews or Women or whatever; in Deasy’s case, women and Jews are the cause of the world’s undying dilemma. Clio is a muse much abused, frisked by calloused historians for that single key: jews women commies cause it all! It could be said that there is no greater evidence of the fundamental failure of systematic courses of education than the persistence of such world views. However, I must confess admiration for Joyce’s handling of this, most of which is presented through Stephen’s rapid perusal of Deasy’s hard-hitting letter to the editor: the act of reading is frequently presented in ULYSSES, and it is simply a fact, ULYSSES is “about” reading ULYSSES: it is the reader who is the true hero of this novel, rising above the wealth of commentary and confusion to say, loud and clear: this is for me. By the way, I think that Deasy typing the letter is a great moment: this represents his “modern affiliations”, set a novel in say 1980, and present an oldster like Deasy working at a computer, and you may have a notion of how much along the cutting edge Deasy imagined himself to be!
The phrase “trust but verify” is of enormous value in regarding Nestor, indeed in regarding all of Joyce. A background suspicion may lead you to investigate each and every thing Deasy states as a fact: I think you will find that he is always off by just a little. Except what he owes Stephen.
And yet, though he may hold obnoxious opinions, Deasy is no villain: just one of dozens of minor characters who crop up in ULYSSES and who are given such presence as to reward attention. In this world, fortunately, you need not like everybody: Deasy is familiar to us all, the old man trying to be young with forthright declarations of tired thinking.