Battling bodies

Battling bodies

In Brief

Having recalled his own childhood while contemplating Sargent and his mother, Stephen once again looks back as he hears the boys' shouts on the hockey field, imagining himself pathetically weak among the scrum: "You mean that knockneed mother's darling who seems to be slightly crawsick?" But the horror of their "battling bodies" also takes his thoughts forward in life to the military struggles for which field games prepare boys.

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The clashing sticks of the hockey game and the shouts of the boys become "Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men's bloodied guts." The prose has offered other hints that the hockey game could be seen as a battle: "the scrappy field where sharp voices were in strife," the unfortunate boy whose name is "Sargent."

Clearly, many games (field hockey, ice hockey, hurling, rugby, soccer, American and Gaelic football, lacrosse, chess) are sublimated and stylized substitutes for battle. In Stephen Hero an earlier avatar of Stephen had criticized field sports as "mimic warfare" (34), picking up on the phrase "mimic hunt" that he had used for them in an early essay vesion of the novel. But when he was writing Nestor in 1917 Joyce had a specific struggle to think about: the Great War which had been chewing up Europe's youth since 1914. As he listens to his students playing, and helps maintain order on the field for an old commander who does not listen to what people are saying, Stephen finds himself implicated in militarism, just as teaching ancient Roman history implicated him in imperialism.

In "Nestor and the Nightmare: The Presence of the Great War in Ulysses," Twentieth Century Literature 32.2 (1986), Robert Spoo observes that Stephen's characterization of history as "a nightmare" slightly later in the chapter uses an image that was applied to World War I by Henry James, W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and others. Spoo argues that not only the hockey game but the entire episode raises the specter of war. Pyrrhus' futile battle becomes all battles: "Any general to any officers." The physically decrepit but boisterously jingoistic Mr. Deasy becomes an antiquated Homeric general, at a time in European history when people were complaining about the confident old men who were sending millions of young men off to die horrible deaths. Stephen's skeptical response to Deasy's talk of generosity and justice—"I fear those big words...that make us so unhappy"—resembles the criticism of noble militaristic sentiments by writers like Wilfred Owen, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Graves.

Spoo aptly notes that "the boys Stephen teaches in 1904—most of them from well-to-do families with English or Scottish names like Cochrane, Talbot, and Armstrong—will be officer material in ten years. They were being killed as Joyce created their fictive counterparts." He also observes that Leopold Bloom is, in the words of the narrator of Eumaeus, "only too conscious of the casualties invariably resulting from propaganda and displays of mutual animosity"; bellicose rhetoric brings "misery and suffering" to "fine young fellows, chiefly, destruction of the fittest, in a word."

In the symbolic economy of the book, this makes Bloom a better father figure than Deasy, who counts on Stephen to maintain order on a battlefield of which he himself knows little and cares less. Stephen's role in the school sports is perhaps analogous to the British officers in the war who were stationed behind the front lines and charged with the task of murdering any men who disobeyed orders by retreating from the carnage. At the end of his math tutorial with Sargent, he tells the boy, "You had better get your stick and go out to the others." The pathetic boy answers, "Yes, sir" and, when his name is called from the playing field, Stephen adds, "Run on...Mr Deasy is calling you."

John Hunt 2012
The battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297, in which Scots led by William Wallace defeated the English. Source:
Dead bodies in a WWI trench. Source:
The Shot at Dawn Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire, which commemorates the 346 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed for desertion in WWI after courts-martial (untold others were simply dispatched behind the lines by their officers). The statue was modeled on 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.