COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Joyce and the Pandemic Stuck in the Middle with Ulysses
17 June 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Professor and Joycean scholar Sam Slote from Trinity's School of English, speaks about the many learnings we can take from Joyce's Ulysses as we mark Bloomsday 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic.
Sam Slote, Associate Professor in English, School of English, TCD.
Ulysses is written on a human scale. Even with the abstractions of the ‘Ithaca’ episode, it remains grounded in the human and the everyday. Ulysses is filled with the kinds of mundane experiences that many of us missed in our various quarantines: randomly meeting people in the streets, going to shops and pubs, eating out, chatting amiably, and so on. Ulysses archives the bountiful, ephemeral quotidian.
The death of the Blooms’ son Rudy is just one of the reminders that the everyday is fragile. But, Ulysses also shows us that there is humour and even joy amidst this fragility. As Bloom thinks as he leaves Glasnevin, ‘Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you. Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life’.
Towards the end of the book, when Bloom and Stephen go out to Bloom’s back garden, Bloom shows off his astronomical knowledge, such as it is, and points out phenomena of ever-increasing scales: ‘to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity’. Attention next turns to the other direction, to ‘dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached’. The human parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity, fullblooded life as Bloom calls it, lies in-between these two realms of scale, the cosmically vast and the microscopically miniscule.
The Covid-19 crisis has certainly drawn attention to the fragility of our in-between. In quarantine we are besieged by forces on both the macro- and micro- scales, stuck within a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity in-between two forces. On the micro-scale we have the virus. While it is a complex point as to whether viruses qualify as living beings, they do exhibit the fundamental impulse of life: the transmission and perpetuation of genetic information. For this they need to use humans: we are the vehicles for their survival.
According to the English biologist William Hamilton, besides viruses, this is what our very genes do: use humans as expendable carriers in order that they might propagate. Directly following from Hamilton, Richard Dawkins famously coined the expression ‘the selfish gene’. Seen in this way, the selfish virus is a rival to our own DNA in that both exploit us for their own ends. In ‘Oxen of the Sun’, a drunken Stephen actually groks on to something like Hamilton and Dawkins’s point, but his masculinist perspective locates the propagational agency onto the sperm rather than the gene: ‘We are means to these small creatures within us and nature has other ends than we’. Seen from the gene’s perspective, humans are but the means for the propagation of genetic information.
We’re also confronted by a macro-force that likewise exhibits a kind of selfish viral logic. We call this force capitalism. Various politicians and commentators called for an easing or ending of quarantine in order to get the economy back on track. To take just one example, in April the Lieutenant-Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, implored an end to quarantine because ‘there are more important things than living’. Or, as Bloom awkwardly but trenchantly relates in ‘Eumaeus’, it’s all ‘a question of the money question’.
Watch: Bloomsday Webinar 'Ulysses, Pandemic and Social Distancing.'
Like the virus, capital thrives on human hosts for its propagation without regard for whether individual hosts live or die. Like nature, capitalism is not on the side of humans, it is a human endeavour, but it is not human, it has other ends than we. If we can say that capitalism is like a virus, then the converse analogy also holds: the virus is entrepreneurial, it exploits resources ruthlessly in service of its own propagation.
And so, we’re stuck in the middle between selfish micro- and macro-vectors tearing away at us. What we have here in our human scale is each other and warm fullblooded life. We’re alone, with others. As the song says, ‘stuck in the middle with you’. And in this pandemic, I’ve been stuck in the middle with Ulysses, which at least is not much of a change for me.
As readers of Ulysses, one of the things we’re used to is the idea of living with ambiguity and the unknown. I’m not just referring to the formal complexities of Ulysses, but rather in that how Ulysses shows us that life is difficult, but in its difficulties there can be joys. One of the lessons of Ulysses is to learn how to tolerate what Nietzsche calls the ‘rich ambiguity’ of living. In living on in the shadow of SARS-CoV-2, there are many unpleasant uncertainties that we have to deal with; our life, for the moment, is an exercise in trying to abide ambiguity.
Professor Sam Slote's primary area of work is in James Joyce studies. he has co-edited five volumes on Joyce: Probes: Genetic Studies in Joyce (1995) Genitricksling Joyce (1999); How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake (2007); Renascent Joyce (2013); and Derrida and Joyce: On Totality and Equivocation (2013). His annotated edition of Ulysses was published in 2012 by Alma Classics; it contains 9,000 all-new annotations to Joyce's text. He has also written a book on Joyce and Nietzsche, entitled Joyce's Nietzschean Ethics (2013). Since 1999 he has been one of five Contributing Editors for the ongoing 'Finnegans Wake' Notebooks at Buffalo series.
Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:
The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)
The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)
Distress and Disease at Sea with Killian O'Brien (30 April 2020)
Adapting in a Time of Crisis with Melanie Ní Dhuinn (28 April 2020)
Human Rights in a Time of Crisis with Donna Lyons (14 April 2020)
Solidarity in a Time of Crisis with Rory Montgomery (6 April 2020)
Art in a time of Pandemic with Rita Duffy (1 April 2020)
Leadership in a time of Crisis with Mary Doyle (25 March 2020)