As others see us

In Brief

As he and others see me”: seeing himself in the mirror held up by Mulligan, Stephen recalls two well-known lines of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96). Burns wrote, "O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!" The thoughts that follow in Telemachus ("Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin") make clear that Stephen knows the whole poem and is thinking about its message: objective representation threatens subjective self-satisfaction, and the body humbles the mind. Bloom knows the poem too, and thinks about its crucial line in similar ways.

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Burns' lines come from a poem titled On a Louse: On seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church, and they cannot be properly appreciated without contemplating the scene that is vividly set out in the poem's opening stanzas:

Ha! Whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly,
I canna say but ye strut rarely
Owre gauze and lace,
Tho' faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an' sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her—
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Such a sight was all too common in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Stephen will think later in this episode of his mother picking lice off her children and squishing them between her fingernails. The image recalls a similar event in A Portrait, and also another moment in that book in which Stephen snatches a louse from his neck and rolls it between his fingers. On the latter occasion, the thought of being louse-infested makes him doubt the value of his exquisite intelligence.

Burns pursues similar thoughts about how the body's infirmities can humble the mind's pretensions. The image of an ugly, creeping, blasted louse crawling over a respectable and presumably self-pleased lady leads him to his moral at the end of the poem:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
People are liberated, Burns asserts, by their ability to see themselves objectively—i.e., as objects, from the outside—because the reality of our existence never quite measures up to our flattering self-conceptions. Shortly after Stephen thinks of Burns while looking at himself in the mirror, Mulligan alludes to an Oscar Wilde saying about mirrors that has similar implications of unflattering self-knowledge.

In Lestrygonians, Bloom recalls Burns’ famous line as he watches men “wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food”: “Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man.” Shortly later he associates it with a similar line from Hamlet, thinking, "Look on this picture then on that." At this moment in act 3 scene 4, Hamlet forces his mother to look at portraits of her first and second husbands. Just as Hamlet forces Gertrude to behold Claudius' ugliness and think about herself ("O Hamlet, speak no more: / Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul; / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct"), Bloom beholds ugliness and wonders about himself.

He is still thinking along such lines in Nausicaa. When an unknown “nobleman” passes by on the beach after supper, Bloom imagines following him to observe what he is like: “Walk after him now make him awkward like those newsboys me today. Still you learn something. See ourselves as others see us. So long as women don’t mock what matter?

JH 2011
Cropped image of oil portrait of Robert Burns by Robert Naysmith, held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of mother picking head lice from a child in Jan Siberechts' 1662 painting Cour de ferme, held in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
Hamlet forcing his mother to compare the pictures of her two husbands, in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film. Source: thirdarchive.net.