AEOLUS. An Introduction by Ben Zweifach.
“My shipmates loosed the sack and all the winds burst out
and a sudden squall struck and swept us back to sea,
wailing, in tears, far from our own native land…
I bore it all, held firm, hiding my face,
clinging tight to the decks
while heavy squalls blasted our squadron back
again to Aeolus’ island, shipmates groaning hard.”
–Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey: Book 10
In the Aeolus episode of The Odyssey, Odysseus arrives at the island of the wind-god Aeolus, who seals all squalls and storms that could possibly threaten Odysseus’ quest home in a bag, and sets him and his shipmates on a safe course for Ithaca. Just when it seems deliverance is in sight, Odysseus’ shipmates greedily open the sack and set loose the hostile winds, buffeting their ships straight back to the wind-god’s island.
Ulysses’s “Aeolus” episode parallels the frustration of personal and communal quests for deliverance. Joyce cleverly puns on Homer’s “windbag” to replace troublesome meteorological containers with newspapermen who don’t know when to stop talking, as the episode takes place in a Dublin newspaper office. It’s a blustery setting, and the background noise of printing machines manufacturing rhetoric combine with the debates of the periodical’s publishers to create an ocean of noise. Joyce here begins to experiment with the form of his prose—using journalistic headlines as flag-posts throughout the narrative. Sometimes they accurately describe the contents of their article, and sometimes they blow the reader off course—Joyce’s point seems to be that the ‘windbags’ serve the same Homeric purpose: to frustrate progress and reinforce an environment of futility.
There are really five separate “stories” here, (to humor the periodicals motif), four intertextual quests that end in disappointment, and are useful to track simultaneously: Bloom’s labor to get an ad published, O’Molloy’s attempts to get a loan, Lenehan’s efforts to tell a simple riddle, the Jews’ journey towards the promised land in Exodus, and the Irish dream of “home rule.” Bloom’s efforts are overwhelmed again and again by the deafening roar of the Dublin newspaper office, his appeals ignored and dismissed in favor of rhetoric and idle story-telling. The office is paralyzing—its atmosphere creates a setting where ambition falls flat, goals are left unrealized, and individual pursuits end in frustration. The episode extends beyond the plight of the individual, and, like the Odysseus episode, inflates its scale to discuss the frustrated quest of the communal ship, and a people’s inability to rediscover its homeland and national identity. The most profound sense of futility and disappointment surrounds the dream of Irish nationalism. The journey towards “home rule,” for the Irish (like Odysseus), seems a distant shore.
Bloom’s personal struggle to get his ad published parallels the Homeric storyline of escalating optimism that ends in sudden, frustrated disappointment. At first, the possibility of Bloom getting his Keyes advertisement published seems dim. After struggling to talk over the noise of the office in describing the ad for the foreman, Bloom thinks, “Hell of a racket they make. He doesn’t hear it” (7.128). It appears at first that the environment itself is hostile to Bloom’s goal, that the very rhetoric of journalism that is supposed to educate, illuminate, and connect people is severing his line of communication with the foreman. Like the stormy squalls faced by Odysseus, the rhetoric and chatter of the office threaten Bloom’s quest. Hope appears when the editor Crawford, like Odysseus’s wind-god, cuts through the din and responds favorably to Bloom’s ad. Bloom had first been silenced by the blustery chatter of the office, but now that the editor – and controlling guardian of such forces – has offered his approval and assistance, Bloom’s goal approaches ever nearer.
Aeolus, however, refuses Odysseus the second time the Greek warrior asks his help, and when Bloom returns to Crawford with Keye’s proposal, Crawford abruptly retorts, “Will you tell [Keyes] he can kiss my arse?” (7.981). Crawford immediately follows this devastating dismissal by finally refusing Jack O’Molloy’s repeated requests for a loan. As the editor or wind-guardian, Crawford is a being with the supreme power to inspire hope but moments later unleash frustrated disappointment upon the lesser mortals.
An institution that is supposedly focused on the present, the entire newspaper office proves to be paralyzed by idle oratory and futile reflection on the past. Crawford, O’Molloy, Lenehan and others spend their time performing old speeches, telling stories and musing on historical parallels to the subordination of the Irish. The squall of storytelling is so deafening that Lenehan has to struggle repeatedly to get in a simple riddle. Stephen Dedalus describes one sample of oratory as “gone with the wind…miles of ears of porches…howled and scattered to the four winds…dead noise” (7.880-2). To Stephen, journalistic rhetoric is “dead noise” carried off with the wind. This idle chatter is worse than ineffectual, as Dedalus associates oratory with the poison poured into old Hamlet’s ear “porches” (7.881). The lazy surrender to discourse is not only futile and worthless, but deadly. At one point Crawford is in the middle of lauding the past genius of the famous journalist Ignatius Gallaher when Bloom interrupts this reverie by telephoning to discuss the Keyes’s ad; Crawford quickly instructs his aid to “tell [Bloom] to go to hell” (7.672) and resumes the story. The editor rejects a current prospective business opportunity in favor of story-telling about the past. MacHugh notes earlier that one may be “led away by words, by sounds of words” (7.485), and that is precisely what occurs in the newspaper office. Progress is blown off course by idle discourse. In “rais[ing] the wind” (7.999) of recreational rhetoric, Crawford and his team inhibit ambition and advancement; the office is not just held back, but like Odysseus’s ship, it is swept backwards, into the past.
Bloom’s design for the Keyes ad links the frustrated disappointment of individual or commercial quests to that of the greater struggle of Irish nationalism. In describing his idea for the Keyes advertisement to the foreman, Bloom says, “The idea is the house of keys. You know, councilor, the Manx Parliament. Innuendo of home rule. Tourist, you know, from the isle of Man. Catches the eye, you see?” (7.149-51). The ad itself is an intended reference to Irish home rule, a conscious symbol of progress and Irish nationalistic fervor. Bloom’s failure to get it published, therefore, is more than a devastating personal disappointment; it suggests the futility of the Irish struggle, the tantalizingly near but ultimately unrealized dream of deliverance from British dominance. Odysseus’s own quest to reclaim “home rule” from usurpers appears hopelessly futile after suffering the Aeolus setback, and here the Irish nationalistic dream is symbolically defeated; the ad remains only an idea in Bloom’s mind, and the tribute to Irish nationalism never materializes to become a reality in print.
Futility and frustrated disappointment overwhelms all of the individuals’ attitudes towards the Irish cause; national deliverance is a dream that seems to always remain just beyond the border of reality. In comparing the Irish-British relationship to the Greek-Roman, the professor references the Greek hero Pyrrhus and his valiant deeds in the name of his people, but ends with the dismal “Loyal to a lost cause” (7.569-70) to which Mr. O’Madden Burke adds (of those forces that rebel against a dominant oppressor) “They went forth to battle but they always fell” (7.572-3). Even when the newspapermen discuss a potentially moving, articulate speech by an Irish nationalist comparing the Irish need for revolution to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, still J.J. O’Molloy remarks somberly “And yet [Moses] died without having entered the land of promise” (7.872). The Irish plight is presented as hopeless; it remains a fleeting notion that may never become real. Stephen Dedalus’s first reaction to the mention of Moses is “Child, man, effigy” (7.852), an association with Michelangelo’s (aforementioned in the episode) Moses sculpture in Rome. Dedalus’s thoughts of the biblical liberator progress from the real, living child and then man blessed with the promise of deliverance, to an effigy – something marble, cold, lifeless, and utterly unreal. What first appears real and inspiring inevitably ends in disillusionment, and a heartbreaking encounter with an effigy – a creation that may never come to life. Just as Moses is teased with only a glimpse of the Jewish homeland, and Odysseus continuously tantalized with memories of his home in Ithaca, so too are the Irish tortured by a dream of “home rule” that seems futile and incapable of realization. (Stephen even pokes fun at the biblical allusion to exodus by telling his “Pisgah Sight of Palestine, or the Parable of the Plums).
Perhaps the Dublin individuals’ pessimism, and use of humor is a defense mechanism, is an effort to avoid the torment of repeated disappointment. After all, if one refuses to believe in the approaching shore, his hopes may never be shattered when hostile winds sweep his ship back to sea.
As “Aeolus” ends, the lifeblood of Dublin has stopped, as the “tramcars with motionless trolleys stand on their tracks, bound for or from Rathmines,Rathfarnham… all still, becalmed in short circuit” (7.1043-7). Irish nationalism is portrayed as Dublin’s trolley cars – stuck in motionless neutral with an infinitely delayed destination arrival time. Individuals within the newspaper-office seem content to romanticize the tragedy of the Irish struggle with ineffectual rhetoric, and the language of the press is less a source of civic inspiration and progress than an outlet for sentimental nostalgia. A free Ireland of “home rule” is but a dream, and Crawford and company regard it – as Bloom labels O’Molloy – as a “mighthavebeen” (7.303). Odysseus ultimately recovers from his disasters at sea, but for Joyce, the barriers to progress are even more powerful than the winds of Aeolus. Language and the idleness of story-telling itself have become obstacles to Bloom. Futility and frustration characterize the quests of Bloom and Ireland in “Aeolus,” as both share the heartbreaking experience of Moses standing above Palestine, and the infuriating frustration of Odysseus the moment quiet seas turn to stormy squalls– that disappointment of sighting a distant shore of deliverance, only to swept off course, “wailing, in tears, back to sea.”
Joyce’s lampooning of the political uselessness of the newspaper debaters recalls Stephen Dedalus’s disillusioned retreat from sociopolitical uproar in Portrait. Here, however, Joyce emerges from beneath the Christmas dinner table to re-engage with his fellow Irishmen, only to parody their posturing by casting them in the role of Odysseus’s foolish shipmates who unleash the bag of wind. Whether Joyce is here commenting on the limits and frustrating tendencies of his own art medium—in addition to political engagement—is certainly debatable. By combining newspaper clipping headlines—the media of unbiased perspective on events and the news—with the stream-of-consciousness, Joyce is merging the purportedly objective with the subjective, and satirizing the role of journalism in the process. On the one hand, the continual indictment of “words, words, sounds of words” appears to critique the power of rhetorical devices—even art itself, as in the reference to the stone, lifeless Moses of Michelangelo. But Joyce, at the same time, is drawing attention to his own expansion of narrative technique in this episode. We might ask whether Joyce succeeds in escaping his own prosecution of rhetoric, perhaps by distancing his own craft from previous literary forms; or instead is swept away by his own actions, like Odysseus’s greedy shipmates.
Fitzgerald, Robert, trans. Homer’s Odyssey. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: New York, NY, 1998.
Joyce, James. Ulysses, The Gabler Edition. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 1986.
All Yale Modernism Lab in-text citations of Ulysses have been formatted in the following style: