Invisibility

Invisibility

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 associates with the greatest kinds of literary art, and he may aspire to wield it himself.

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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 three lines of light verse may possibly spark some serious thoughts in Stephen. Just after reciting them in memory, he thinks of his mother "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, encoded on the spiritual plane that a person enters after death. Since his mother has entered that hidden dimension of existence, and is now perfectly recalling all the events of her life, not to mention those of all other lives, she might very well say, "I am the girl that can enjoy invisibility."

Stephen may also be thinking about invisibility and perfect mental possession in relation to himself. 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 thus far found no 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.” 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.” 

The man in the macintosh who mysteriously appears in Hades, and just as suddenly disappears, seems to share in this uncanny power: "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?"

JH 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: www.akg-images.com.