Thick Giblet Prose

by M. Thomas Gammarino

Last year I had the pleasure of blogging here about the first line of Ulysses. This year, I jump ahead a few chapters to the beginning of the novel’s odyssey proper, where we first meet our (not-quite) titular (not-quite) hero dreaming of breakfast:

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

By this point in the novel, of course, the reader’s mind is no blank slate. A page ago, we followed the mind of Stephen, Bloom fils-spirituel, as it cast about Sandymount Strand musing on Aristotle and the fate of a drowned man before arriving at a vision of metempsychosis that is less proto-hippy than post-Nietszsche: “Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead.” The sense of revulsion Stephen evinces for the body is typical of his dualistic sensibility. Living bodies, it turns out, don’t fare a whole lot better, and even the brothel becomes for him either a displaced classroom or confessional. He is—to appropriate a phrase from Robert Ardrey—a fallen angel, not a risen ape. Bloom, by contrast, craves urinous offal, and while he is not so beastly as the men who will later repulse him with their eating habits at the Burton Hotel, he enjoys his primate nature in a way that Stephen never could. By and by we witness Bloom enjoying a good bowel movement, and in subsequent episodes we’ll find him masturbating alfresco, and indulging in that rarefied pleasure of sniffing his own toenail. The riches of the intellect are not wholly off limits to him—he’s of an amateur-scientific bent and fantasizes about writing a sketch—but like his mythic predecessor, he delights in the world outside of his skull as well. It’s one of the reasons we delight in him, and Joyce’s masterful juxtaposition orients us this way before we’ve known Bloom for even a paragraph.

And what a paragraph it is! Like the exquisite ending to “The Dead” but in a very different mode, these few sentences showcase Joyce’s synesthetic ear. The words “thick giblet soup,” for instance, mean something, of course, but they also are something, and what they are–sonically, even visually (Gertrude Stein insisted she wrote to please her eyes above all)–is gibletty, the prose equivalent of a few thick gobs of oil paint.

Quick digression: Ferdinand de Saussure may be the single name that looms largest over twentieth-century literary criticism owing to his on-the-surface-pretty-obvious observation that signifiers and signifieds are only arbitrarily linked. Even onomatopoeia is largely arbitrary, which is why a cat might say “meow” in English, “kurnau” in Finnish, and “ngeong” in Indonesian. Recently, however, I’m glad to see a few writers complicating this a bit. Roy Blount Jr., in his book Alphabet Juice, coined the word “sonicky” for words that sound like what they mean in some very physical sense (e.g. “fuzzy” vs. “sleek”), and V.S. Ramachandran in his new book The Tell-Tale Brain gets into the neural mechanisms underlying this sort of synesthesia. Essentially, they tell us that while language is by no means deterministic, it isn’t exactly arbitrary either, which, I’d suggest, is why no man in his right mind would call his girlfriend “pulchritudinous,” even if she is. It’s also why Mel Gibson, being disemboweled in Braveheart, had to cry “Freedom!” and not “Liberty!”—that latter of which, for reasons all but impossible to explain to a non-native speaker of English, would sound perfectly ridiculous.

Joyce was hyper-sensitive to these sorts of textual-textural nuances. He was a musician before he was a writer and in passages like this it’s clear he never really left that other vocation behind. Do this sometime: videotape yourself reading that meaty paragraph and then play back the video without sound. You will find yourself, more or less, chewing. What Joyce gives us here is no less than the music of mastication.

And before I leave cat speech altogether, I’d be remiss not to mention “Mkgnao” (and “Mrkgnao,” and “Mrkrgnao”) which even Ron Rosenbaum in his recent jeremiad against Ulysses (to which I can only say de gustibus non est disputandum) recognizes as felicitous. Cats don’t bend to our orthography and Joyce isn’t one to rest on orthodoxy. By circumventing convention and capturing some of the halting, glottal quality of cat speech, Joyce exhibits what Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 called ostranenie (literally “strange-making,” though usually translated as “defamiliarization”). According to Shklovsky: “Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” I don’t want to overstate my case, but let me anyway: Mkgnao, in its microcosmic way, embodies the governing aesthetic of this whole crazy novel: to take us to the universal by way of the sublimely particular; to make life lifey.

M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of the novel Big in Japan: A Ghost Story and The Abstraction Pool, a nice little piece of flash fiction, if we do say so ourselves.

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Bloom remembers his encounters at the butcher shop earlier in the morning:  Dlugacz’s voice and his Zionism (that’s what “enthusiast” means, according to Gifford), Agendath Netaim, the next-door girl.  He also looks ahead to possibly having a bath before the funeral (stay tuned for Lotus-Eaters to find out!).  He steps into the tiny outhouse, hopes for privacy, and gets to it.


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Rob has done an amazing job here of playing out another of Joyce’s jokes, this one rather elaborate, about high and low culture and Joyce’s own identity as an author–as well as taking on the interesting artistic challenge of depicting someone taking a crap in comic book form.

The penny-weekly Tit-Bits would publish a “Prize Titbit” in each issue, and the author would get the payment quoted here; at one guinea a column, Bloom calculates a total payment of 3 pounds 13 shillings sixpence (now this would be worth about $367.50, a lot for a little sketch but almost as much as what Stephen makes as a teacher).  Again, as with “Bath of the Nymph,” art is cast entirely in commercial terms.

Furthermore, Gifford points out the following:  “Matcham’s Masterstroke” is a reference to a story Joyce himself submitted to Tit-Bits as a teenager, for which he very much hoped to get paid.  Phillip Beaufoy was a real person who contributed to Tit-Bits, although like Paul de Kock, he was not the author of the actual piece referenced; his posh London address is somewhat at odds with the cheap publication he writes for.

But it’s that last thought bubble and the lower panel that adds another layer to the joke; unlike the “Prize Titbit,” Ulysses itself is monumental:  we hope it’s not too big.  Rob’s paralleling the narrator’s text boxes elaborating Bloom’s bowel movement point for point alongside Bloom’s thought bubbles on his reading illustrate beautifully Joyce’s playful attitude towards high and low culture.  Art and shit: it’s all the same.  And we don’t have to worry too much about what to do with Ulysses:  if we look at that last thought bubble and the final text box of the page on the lower right hand side, it seems the bigness and possible overwhelmingness isn’t the problem we thought it might be.


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Bloom continues his perusal of “Matcham’s Masterstroke”; the sentence he reads from the story is Joyce’s quotation from his own real-life submission for Tit-Bits (according to Gifford; if you want to read a dirty joke into the title of the sketch, be my guest).  Does the “Just right,” the “Neat certainly” refer to the story, or to what’s just fallen down the hole in the cuckstool?  Notice how Bloom uses this opportunity to perform a little amateur literary criticism, assessing the story the same way he assesses his bowel movement:  “Print anything now,” “Begins and ends morally,” “Smart.”

Suddenly writing for Tit-Bits doesn’t seem so hard, and Bloom begins thinking that he and Molly might collaborate on a sketch of their married life–perhaps a smaller, more manageable, “neater” version of Ulysses (without all the foreign languages, obscure references, and adultery).  Note he thinks of the two of them as Mr. and Mrs. L. Bloom, asserting their married state, in contrast to Boylan’s letter addressed to “Mrs. Marion Bloom.”  As he starts to tell a version of their story, he envisions Molly talking and dressing, the image and its thought bubbles taking on the yellow of the narrator’s text boxes as Bloom narrates his own life.  This page is a collage of storymaking:  the narrative of Bloom’s bowel movement, Bloom’s reading of the story in Tit-Bits, Bloom’s own stream of consciousness, and then Bloom’s composing his own sketch of his marriage in his head.


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This is the third time we have seen the tiled grid of images and associations–again, it’s a technique suited to those moments where Bloom is nostalgic, moving through a series of thoughts and pictures that take him someplace a little painful.  He remembers going to a dance with Molly, which turns into remembering that this was the first time she noticed Boylan.  This is not a story Bloom wants to tell.

The allusion to Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours comes from his opera called La Gioconda.  The plot involves the wife of the villain having a tryst with another man who turns out to be the hero (incidentally, Boylan will be referred to as “the conquering hero” in a later episode).  The villain tries to poison the wife in revenge, the wife in reality is only drugged and hidden, and then all resolves itself at the end (think The Winter’s Tale).  I hope by now you’re noticing that when Joyce refers to music, especially to opera, the rather convoluted plots involving seduction and mistaken identity usually echo what’s happening between Bloom and Molly:  this one, Don Giovanni, and another to come called Martha.

The Dance of the Hours, as Bloom points out in the lower left hand corner panel, is an elaborate ballet interpolated into La Gioconda, where different costumes represent the different times of day and their passing.  So Bloom’s imagined sketch becomes a much darker story of seduction and betrayal, and it also prefigures the passage of the day until he can come home; whether the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. L. Bloom will be righted remains to be seen.


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