In Brief

In Telemachus Stephen recalls his mother laughing at lines she heard sung in a pantomime: "I am the boy / That can enjoy / Invisibility." A magical rose gives the main character this power and he delightedly imagines how he can use it, singing "Invisibility is just the thing for me." The mood of the song is light and comical, but invisibility is a power that Stephen has already associated, in A Portrait of the Artist, with the greatest kinds of literary art. There is good reason to think that he is the boy that can enjoy invisibility.

Read More

Like Sindbad the Sailor, which figures prominently in Ulysses, Turko the Terrible, or, The Fairy Roses was a Christmas pantomime. Thornton notes that its first Dublin performance was in 1873, initiating a long line of pantomimes staged at the Gaiety Theatre. He quotes from an 1899 review in The Irish Playgoer that judged King Turko's ode to invisibility the most successful song in the show, and he observes that in Surface and Symbol Robert M. Adams suggests that the show Joyce had in mind was not Turko itself, but an 1892 performance of Sindbad which reprised this one highly popular song. The music survives, and in 2010 it was given a spirited rendition in a café theater presentation of Joyce’s songs in Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street. The artists, Sinead Murphy and Darina Gallagher, bill themselves as the Shannon Colleens.

These lines of light verse introduce a very serious reflection three sentences later. Stephen moves from his memories of his mother's trivial memories to the thought that she is now "Folded away in the memory of nature"––a reference to the theosophical idea of a universal memory of all events in the history of the cosmos, preserved on the spiritual plane that a person enters after death. His mother has now entered that ineffable dimension and can perfectly recall all the events of her life, not to mention those of all other lives. She might very well say, then, "I am the girl that can enjoy invisibility."

The text does not show Stephen thinking about the next step, but it is logically implied by things he has said earlier and will say later. If he succeeds in becoming the writer he aspires to be, this transcendently powerful "invisibility" may belong to him in this life. In part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist, he described three hierarchically ranked kinds of literary art: the lyric, the epic, and the dramatic. The “dramatic” artist exceeds the powers of the others because he transcends his own subjective position, submerging authorial consciousness in the presentation of how life is experienced by other people. This transcendence of ego makes the dramatist comparable to God: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Stephen has not yet found such sublime self-effacement. But by characterizing it as divinely creative he has given himself a goal to aim for, and the goal remains the same in Ulysses. In Scylla and Charybdis, he maps the figure of the self-effacing artistic god onto the dramatic artist par excellence, William Shakespeare, who in writing his plays, particularly Hamlet, became “a ghost, a shadow now, the wind in Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the seas’ voice.” The idea that Shakespeare miraculously inhabited the subjectivity of hundreds of different fictional people is an old one, but Stephen gives it the distinctive spin of ghostliness: personality that has somehow floated free of its individual boundaries and can blow into the lives of others.

According to one critic, Ulysses contains an actual ghost: the man in the macintosh that Bloom sees in Hades. This figure mysteriously appears among the mourners at Paddy Dignam's graveside and just as strangely disappears, filling Bloom with incredulity: "Where has he disappeared to? Not a sign. Well of all the. Has anybody here seen? Kay ee double ell. Become invisible. Good Lord, what became of him?" The ability to imperceptibly come and go, leaving slight traces of oneself or none at all, characterizes authors as well as ghosts. In Circe, as Stephen and Bloom gaze into a mirror, “The face of William Shakespeare, beardless, appears there, rigid in facial paralysis, crowned by the reflection of the reindeer antlered hatrack in the hall.” To Bloom, whose cuckoldry the antlers reflect, the bard speaks: “Thou thoughtest as how thou wastest invisible.

John Hunt 2011

Scene from a production of Turko the Terrible at London's Holborn Theatre, in an image from the 2 January 1869 issue of the Illustrated London News. Source: