Same wisdom

Same wisdom

In Brief

Many details in Nestor, and not just the prominence of horses and cattle in the chapter, invite a comparison between Mr. Deasy and the wise old counselor to whom Homer's Telemachus goes for advice in the Odyssey. But the analogy seems mostly ironic, and Stephen feels oppressed by "the same wisdom" as on his last two visits to the headmaster's office—unwanted advice, like a noose around his neck.

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Athena, disguised as Mentor, advises Telemachus to journey to Pylos to seek news of his father from Nestor: "Go to old Nestor, master charioteer, / so we may broach the storehouse of his mind." Deasy's invitation to Stephen, "Will you wait in my study," implies some wisdom on Deasy's part. It is also the place where Deasy will pay Stephen his month's wages, picking up on the metaphor of Nestor's mind as a storehouse. Stephen thinks, "And now his strongroom for the gold."

Athena urges Telemachus to "Ask him with courtesy," and overcomes Telemachus' reluctance when he objects that "for a young man to interrogate an old man / Seems disrespectful." Stephen treats his employer with impeccable courtesy, but he has no interest, bashful or otherwise, in interrogating him. Rather, it is Deasy who interrogates Stephen, badgering him with condescending and corrective questions and observations.

Athena says that Nestor must have wisdom because his "rule goes back over three generations," and Telemachus believes that he must know "the ways of men" because he is "so old, it seems death cannot touch him." Deasy is old, he is a unionist who identifies with Ireland's rulers, and he feels qualified to speak about Irish history because "I saw three generations since O'Connell's time." But his knowledge of the ways of men is undercut by his utter lack of resemblance to Daniel O'Connell.

Athena says that Nestor "will tell you history and no lies." Deasy's history is full of lies: that his ancestor Sir John Blackwood planned to vote for the Union, that "the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union," that there has been a conspiracy to sabotage Irish shipping interests, that women have sabotaged political order throughout history, that the Jews "sinned against the light," that Ireland "never persecuted the Jews" and has never had a Jewish population, that an international Jewish conspiracy is undermining the nations of Europe.

In his lack of respect for authority Stephen is much like the young Joyce, who was utterly unwilling to accept direction from his elders. Ellmann records a meeting with William Butler Yeats in which the young and completely unaccomplished writer impertinently asked the great poet how old he was. Yeats answered, and with a sigh Joyce replied, "I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old" (103). The meeting in Deasy's study represents one of several instances in the book in which Stephen finds the advice of an older man useless. The only exceptions to this pattern are Almidano Artifoni and Leopold Bloom.

John Hunt 2017
Nestor, on a 5th c. BC Attic red-figure vase, held in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Source: