Some Stuff To Know About Ulysses Before Reading It, Part 2: Ulysses and Exile

By JERRY GRIT

“You have to be in exile to understand me”
–J.J.

For “Lost” fans, I’m posting my next set of bullets to the theme of exile in Ulysses. The theme of being home-but-not-at-home resonates with the show in many ways. I’ve saved my comments on the show and Ulysses for the end.

  • Although the story is set in the Dublin, the home of main characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, these two avoid their nominal homes. They are exiles in their own city.
  • Joyce very much felt himself an exile. He wrote a play called “Exiles.” He lived most of his life in self-imposed exile from Ireland, moving to Greece, Zurich, Paris. One reason: He and Nora Barnacle boinked in sin (a big “no” in an oppressively religious country). Another reason: He wrote freely about masturbation and the pleasures of defecation. (More on that later!)
  • Joyce is voicing his own sentiments when Dedalus remarks in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets … Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”
  • For Dedalus in Ulysses, he’s still caught up in nets of nationality, language, and religion…leaving him unsettled in Ulysses. In perhaps the biggest “wah-wah” moment in western literature, after Dedalus’ dramatic resolution to leave Dublin at the end of Portrait to go to Paris to become a famous writer, we find him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses having completely flubbed his escape, slumming in a tower with a bunch of douchebags.
  • For Bloom, he is exiled by his own feelings of impotence (unable to satisfy a wife he loves) and guilt concerning his son’s death (death from illness, Bloom feels his deficient genes or a turn-of-the-century “life-force” were responsible…or something like that).
  • For story purposes, characters in exile is useful. Ernest Renan (I think) once described how feeling unsettled and “not-at-home” (unheimlich) is a moral feeling because it forces you to reconsider your established beliefs and life or whatever. So to have characters feeling “not-at-home,” you have them extra-sensitive to the strangeness of themselves and of their surroundings. Internal monologue, the style for a lot the book, is especially suitable. We’re confronted with their amplified sensitivity and uncertainty.

“LOST” AND ULYSSES

Picture 17

As the survivors return to the island toward the end of Season 5, Benjamin Linus is seen reading Ulysses (and the evil-or-good genius that he his, he bought the 1961 Vintage edition). I think it underscores the larger theme of exile and the longing for human connection in the show, but also draws attention to specific aspects of Ben’s character.

Ben Linus (“L.B.”; Leopold Bloom=”B.L.”) is very much a Bloom-like character at this point in the series. He is returning to his home, the island (Ireland’s on an island?). But he’s been ousted as the Others’ leader, and teleported by that steering-wheel-in-the-wall-with-ice-on-other-side thing. Ben, too, will be an exile in his own home. And once he’s on the island, he’s unsettled. He can’t get into shenanigans like the old days. I think it makes him a more likable and likely character, but also a vulnerable one, much more easily manipulated by black smoke and alterna-Lock. He once had the wit and cunning of an Odysseus, but now has the reduced status of Bloom. And like Bloom, he’s also haunted by a child who’s death he feels responsible for. But, sadly, he has no Molly. Or even a Stephen. Or does he? Might we look to Ulysses for clues to Season 6?

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