My father's a bird

My father's a bird

In Brief

Mulligan's poem in Telemachus strives to offend Catholic sensibilities twice in one line: "My mother's a jew, my father's a bird." Christians have long thought of Jesus and his blessed mother as something other than Jews, and when they put doves in Annunciation scenes they do not think of the Holy Spirit literally as a randy bird. The second joke returns in Proteus, with the dove demoted to a mere "pigeon," when Stephen recalls a work called "La Vie de Jésus by M. Léo Taxil."

Read More

In Nestor Mr. Deasy repeats the old canard that by killing Jesus the Jews "sinned against the light," ignoring the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew. In Eumaeus Bloom recalls how he enraged the Citizen by saying "your God was a jew," reflecting that "mostly they appeared to imagine he came from Carrick-on-Shannon or somewhere about in the county Sligo." In the context of such ethnocentrism, Mulligan's "My mother's a jew," while factually unremarkable, is effectively insulting.

Saying "my father's a bird" goes further into the realm of blasphemy, by reading a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit literally and imagining avian-human intercourse. The gospel of Luke recounts the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary in what became known as The Annunciation. The angel says that the Holy Spirit "will come upon you" (!), and that Mary will become pregnant with the Son of God. In later pictorial representations, the Holy Spirit often took the form of a dove. So, in Mulligan's mind, a testosterone-maddened pigeon came upon Mary and inseminated her.

Mulligan's image fills Stephen's imagination as he walks toward the Pigeonhouse in Proteus. He recalls a very brief exchange from a ponderously long (389 pp.) work titled La vie de Jésus, published in 1884. In that work, writing under the pen name Léo Taxil, Gabriel Jogand-Pages tells how Mary's cuckolded husband, Joseph, demands, "Qui vous a mis dans cette fichue position?" ("Who has put you in this rotten position?"). Mary's orthodox account of the paternity is marred by a choice of words very similar to Mulligan's "bird": "C'est le pigeon, Joseph" ("It was the pigeon, Joseph"). This blasphemy enraged the Vatican, and Jogand-Pages was forced to apologize to the papal nuncio and travel to Rome for what Gifford calls "a well-publicized papal absolution" (53).

In Oxen of the Sun, Stephen is still thinking of the passage: "parceque M. Léo Taxil nous a dit que qui l'avait mise dans cette fichue position c'était le sacré pigeon" ("because M. Leo Taxil tells us that it was the blasted pigeon that put her in this rotten position"). In a personal communication, Ole Bønnerup tells me that when placed before a noun, rather than after it, the adjective sacré changes its meaning from "sacred" or "blessed" to something like "bloody" or "goddamn," so Stephen is adding his own linguistic irreverence to Taxil's. 

The thought that a pigeon sired Jesus sends Stephen's mind on to a young man he knew in Paris named Patrice Egan. It was Patrice who recommended La vie de Jésus to Stephen. But Patrice has more than an incidental connection to the conceit. Since his father Kevin Egan is a "wild goose," he too can truthfully say, "My father's a bird." As in Stephen's conceit about algebra, where morris dances and Moorish turbans combine with the Moorish art of mathematics, the pieces interlock wonderfully.

JH 2014
Annunciation by Auguste Pichon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
"The Suspicions of Joseph," an illustration from La Vie de Jésus. Source: JJQ 19.2 (1982): 155.
A proud king pigeon and his satisfied mate. Source: Wikimedia Commons.