‘Ulysses’: The Book That Never Stops Changing – The Atlantic
When I was a kid, the axis around which Dublin revolved was a huge Doric column that had stood at the center of the city since 1809. On the top was a statue of the English naval hero Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Even to a child, his presence seemed anomalous. It was as if Washington, D.C., were dominated by a giant memorial to King George III.
One day, when I was 8 years old, my father and his cousin Vincent led me and my brother up the 168 steps that wound through the hollow interior of the monument we Dubliners called Nelson’s Pillar. I had never before seen the city from a vantage point so high that you could take in the whole place, the bay to the outlying mountains.
But there was, for me, an edge of unease. Vincent had bought half a dozen plums in a fruit shop. When we got to the top of the pillar, he opened the brown paper bag and gave us each one. He and my father started laughing about how they could spit the stones down on the people below. I found this deeply unsettling because I did not know my father could be like that, that he could joke about something I was sure would get us into big trouble. It was also darkly mysterious. The adults clearly thought there was some meaning in all of this—but what did plums have to do with Nelson?
More than a decade later, I found out. I was reading, for the first time, James Joyce’s Ulysses. The centenary of the novel’s publication is being marked in Dublin with official enthusiasm climaxing on Bloomsday, June 16. But back then it was still—as it should be—a thrillingly strange and dirty book, full of provocations and subversions. I came to an episode in which the author’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, is passing Nelson’s Pillar with some other men. He tries to impress them with a story about two middle-aged Dublin women who save their money for a day out. They buy a lot of plums and climb the pillar. Then “they put the bag of plums between them and eat the plums out of it, one after another, wiping off with their handkerchiefs the plumjuice that dribbles out of their mouths and spitting the plumstones slowly out between the railings.”
Reading this took me back to my childhood and explained an incident that was both vivid in my memory and oddly obscure. Now I knew what my father and Vincent were joking about and why we were eating plums way up there above the streets of Dublin. The book was in their heads, and they were inhabiting simultaneously Joyce’s comic parable and the present-day city. But if the passage in Ulysses illuminated a moment in my own past, I still could not understand Stephen Dedalus’s story. Why were those apparently respectable women spitting the hard pits of a fruit down onto the heads of their fellow citizens?
What I wanted to do then was go back and climb the pillar again. Surely the best way to grasp what the women were doing was to retrace their steadily mounting steps. This was the great privilege of reading Ulysses as a native of the city it has immortalized: The fictional world of the book mapped onto the physical reality of the streets and buildings, so that each could radiate into the other.
Except that, by the time I was reading Joyce, the pillar had vanished. In 1966, not long after our family adventure with the plums, some members of an Irish Republican Army splinter group had planted a bomb under Nelson’s statue that blew it off its plinth and shattered the top part of the column. The sad stump was then demolished by the authorities.
The bombers very deliberately erased one kind of memory—the idea of Dublin as a British city, visually dominated by a very English hero. But they also obliterated an important part of Joyce’s city.
In Ulysses, the pillar is described as the “heart of the Hibernian metropolis.” That heart was ripped out. From that moment, a very specific experience became impossible—a visual and spatial sensation of hauling your bones up through the dark interior of a huge stone tube, emerging into the light and then seeing the city and its hinterland in every direction. Joyce undoubtedly did that, and the topography imprinted itself on his imagination. I had been lucky enough to do it once, but I was painfully aware that no one could ever do it again.
Only much later, reading Ulysses for a second time, did I realize that in the book itself there is also an absent monument. If you know Dublin, you will be familiar with the obelisk just a few hundred yards up O’Connell Street from where Nelson’s Pillar had stood. It commemorates a much more appropriately Irish hero: Charles Stewart Parnell, who drove the cause of Irish Home Rule to the very center of British politics in the 1880s. The statue of Parnell is the only monument by the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the artist’s native city. For Joyce, it would have had a special significance—at the age of 9, he wrote a poem in praise of Parnell, his first published work; his proud father had it printed up as a broadside. The fall of the leader of Irish nationalism in the late 19th century, brought down by a scandal over his adulterous liaison with a married woman, was for him the most embittering event in recent Irish history. “ ’Twas Irish humour, wet and dry,” Joyce wrote later, “Flung quicklime into Parnell’s eye.”
The foundation stone for Parnell’s monument was laid in 1899, but by 1904, when Ulysses is set, it had still not been built. Joyce saw this failure as emblematic of what he called the paralysis of Irish life. In a lecture in 1907, he noted sardonically that “in logical and serious countries, it is customary to finish the monument in a decent manner … but in Ireland, a country destined by God to be the eternal caricature of the serious world … they rarely get beyond the laying of the foundation stone.”
In Ulysses, on the morning of June 16, 1904, as the protagonist Leopold Bloom is riding in a carriage to Glasnevin Cemetery for the burial of the hard-drinking Paddy Dignam, he passes an empty plinth at the top of O’Connell Street. His silent thought is: “Foundation stone for Parnell. Breakdown. Heart.” This is the other heart of the Hibernian metropolis, the broken one. It marks a place so sunk in lassitude that it cannot even honor its lost leader.
The sour irony is that Nelson, too, had an affair with a married woman. Stephen Dedalus calls him the “onehandled adulterer.” (Nelson had lost his right arm in battle.) Nelson’s sexual transgression does not prevent him from being immortalized in Dublin—while Parnell’s similar sin still clouds his memory. Because Parnell has not been properly memorialized, it is, in Ulysses, as if he has not been laid to rest at all. He is the unquiet ghost that haunts the book.
When Bloom is in the cemetery, one of his companions points to Parnell’s tomb: “With awe Mr Power’s blank voice spoke:—Some say he is not in that grave at all. That the coffin was filled with stones. That one day he will come again.” This notion is made all the more real because at various points during the day, we encounter Parnell’s living doppelgänger, his brother John Howard Parnell. (“There he is: the brother. Image of him. Haunting face.”)
Joyce embeds in Ulysses a complex set of thoughts and feelings about these two monuments—what’s there and not there, what is imposed on Ireland as official British memory and what has yet to be properly remembered at all. And all of this had become mixed up for me with my own memories of my family and my hometown. Nelson’s now nonexistent pillar, that paradoxical monument to oblivion, was, for me, an image of both the evanescence of the past and the way that odd parts of it linger and persist—an image, too, that had a beautiful color and a sharp taste: plum.
I still didn’t know, however, what Stephen Dedalus’s parable was about. In the bizarre but very Joycean logic of association that makes Ulysses such a constantly changing book, the meaning came to me from an apparently unrelated source. The chapter in which the parable is told is largely about rhetoric, and the conversation that precedes it recalls a speech by a 19th-century Dublin lawyer that alludes to Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. While I was rereading the section, I also read Martin Luther King Jr.’s staggering final oration, on the eve of his assassination, in Memphis: “I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.” King transforms himself into Moses, who gets to see Israel from the top of a mountain but at the same time is told by God that he himself will not live to enter it.
If I had read my Bible, which I had not, I would have known that the name of the mountain is Pisgah. In Ulysses, Stephen calls his odd story “A Pisgah Sight of Palestine or the Parable of the Plums.” If I’d had one of the many annotated editions of the novel that have since appeared, or if the internet had been invented, I would have understood the allusion. But I thought that Pisgah was just a Joycean invention—it does, in my defense, sound like a plausible vulgar expression of disgust that might have been current in 1904.
Stephen’s acrid joke is that the Moses who was supposed to lead Ireland to its promised land—Parnell—is unremembered; meanwhile, despite the expansive view, no Irish future can be seen from the top of the very British monument to Nelson. The women who take such trouble to climb it will not even be granted a sight of a new Ireland, let alone get to live in it. And why plums? Maybe just because they have the bittersweet tang of memory.
This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “The Book That Never Stops Changing.”