In Brief

Ulysses is a comic novel and it begins comically, with Mulligan aping an odd Catholic rite and then starting in on Stephen's odd name: "–– The mockery of it! he said gaily." His irreverent, lighthearted banter continues throughout the first chapter, upstaging the gloomy and resentful Stephen enough to make readers wonder if he is being replaced as a protagonist. But this is a kind of feint on Joyce's part: Ulysses is very funny but also deeply serious, and there is nothing serious at stake in Mulligan's clowning. The penultimate chapter announces a different measure of comedy when Stephen and Bloom drink cocoa "in jocoserious silence." Joyce uses the word only this one time, but it seems central to the aesthetic of his novel.

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Mulligan is genuinely funny, and he gets the novel off to a roaring start with jokes about transubstantiation ("A little trouble about those white corpuscles"), urination ("God send you don't make them in the one pot"), masturbation ("I'm the candle remarked"), circumcision ("The islanders...speak frequently of the collector of prepuces"), nationalist scholarship ("Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum"), nationalist language revival ("He's English...and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland"), patriotism ("Ireland expects that every man this day will do his duty"), divinity ("My mother's a jew, my father's a bird"), miracles ("He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine"), resurrection ("Olivet's breezy... Goodbye, now, goodbye!"), and philosophy ("He who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord. Thus spake Zarathustra"). Joyce's narration makes Mulligan even more winning by painting him with cheerful brushstrokes. He makes his jokes "gaily," "in friendly jest," "laughing to himself," with "A pleasant smile" on his lips." He is "gay," a "Tripping and sunny" presence.

Stephen proves a morose and dauntingly serious foil to this charming showman. He displays a gift for comedy exactly once, when Mulligan asks him, "is mother Grogan's tea and water pot spoken of in the Mabinogion or is it in the Upanishads?" His "gravely" uttered answer, "I doubt it," gives readers a glimpse of what may be, at other times, a great two-man comedy act. But the morning of June 16 is not one of those times. Upset about Haines's deranged behavior, torn by grief and guilt over his mother's death, resentful of Mulligan's flippant attitude about such things, discouraged about his own aspirations and his nation's, uncertain of how to escape the mind-control of the church and redeem its otherworldly symbols in art, Stephen can only look forward to the liberation provided by alcohol later in the day. But as the novel proceeds his "rare thoughts" fill the screen for long stretches and his comical bent emerges, making him more and more interesting and sympathetic, while Mulligan's empty gaiety starts to seem a stale commodity.

From the clash of these two characters a kind of template emerges for the entire novel, according to which even the most riotous mockery may invite serious appreciation. Styles of writing and speech are uproariously parodied but also thereby accommodated within the book's dialogic babel of competing voices. Homeric correspondences imply mock-epic deflation but grow into thought-provoking resemblances. (Sadsack Bloom a mighty Odysseus? Lustful Molly a chaste Penelope? A truculent barhound the Cyclops Polyphemus? A romance-besotted girl the noble Nausicaa? Hilarious! But worth considering.) This wickedly intelligent book also gores countless sacred cows: Catholic piety and Theosophical mysticism, imperialism and nationalism, heroic resistance and pacifist toleration, Christian love and Jewish adherence to the law, masculinity and femininity, authentic Irishness, vegetarianism, socialism––the list goes on. But in every assault something survives the leveling.

Joyce seems to be highlighting this balance between laughter and sobriety when Stephen drinks cocoa in Bloom's kitchen and learns that he is being given the favorite teacup and a generous measure of cream: "His attention was directed to them by his host jocosely, and he accepted them seriously as they drank in jocoserious silence Epps's massproduct, the creature cocoa." The OED cites an early use of  the word "jocoserious" in Thomas Fuller's History of the Worthies of England (1662). It has never had wide currency, but some 18th and 19th century writers found it appealing. One whose usage seems especially close to Joyce's, as Gifford recognizes, was the minor English poet Matthew Green. In The Spleen (1737) Green talks of seeking companionship at a coffee-house to drive away his melancholy:

Or to some coffee-house I stray
For news, the manna of a day,
And from the hipp'd discourses gather,
That politicks go by the weather:
Then seek good-humour'd tavern chums,
And play at cards, but for small sums;
Or with the merry fellows quaff,
And laugh aloud with them that laugh;
Or drink a joco-serious cup
With souls who've took their freedom up,
And let my mind, beguil'd by talk,
In Epicurus' garden walk,
Who thought it heav'n to be serene,
Pain hell; and purgatory spleen.

The scene resembles the one in Ithaca, and Green's effort to keep his soul afloat on the dark waters of reality is a value shared by all the main characters of Ulysses: Bloom, Molly, Stephen, and Mulligan too.

John Hunt 2024

Robert Bell, Jocoserious Joyce: The Fate of Folly in Ulysses (1991).