Proteus

In Brief

Episode 3, called "Proteus" in the schemas, is an exceptionally difficult read. Stephen Dedalus is alone here, doing nothing but walking on the tide flats of Dublin Bay, so the interior monologue that supplemented the narrative and dialogue of the first two chapters balloons to occupy nearly all of the text. Linati's schema identifies the episode's "technic" as "soliloquy," while Gilbert's says that it is "monologue (male)." Readers are alone with what Telemachus has called Stephen's "rare thoughts," and must work hard to follow along. They must also struggle to make sense of the Homeric analogy, whose outlines are much less clear than in the first two chapters. But there is method to Joyce's madness, and diligent readers will be richly rewarded. (One tangible reward: much easier chapters will follow.)

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In Book 4 of the Odyssey Telemachus has traveled from Nestor's palace in Pylos to the hall of Menelaus in Sparta, seeking information about his father. Menelaus tells him that his journey back from Troy was interrupted when his ships were becalmed off the sandy island of Pharos, north of Egypt. Ignorant of which god might have stilled the winds, and facing starvation, he was pitied by the nymph Eidothea, daughter of the sea god Proteus. She told him that the Old Man of the Sea might answer his question, if Menelaus could capture him on the beach during his resting hour at noon, and hold him fast while he assumed the shapes "of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire." Following her advice, Menelaus ambushed Proteus when he arrived to nap among his seals on the sand, endured the transformations, and was rewarded with information about the winds. He learned also of Odysseus' whereabouts on Calypso's island.

Joyce's chapter does not refer to Menelaus or Eidothea, and it makes no reference to Proteus until very near the end, when Stephen thinks briefly of "Old Father Ocean." It does develop the parallels with Telemachus. Stephen too has continued journeying, from Deasy's school in Dalkey (south of the Sandycove tower) to the Sandymount beach (north of it). Stephen thinks about his plan to meet Mulligan at "the Ship" at 12:30 (the ambush planned by Antinous in Book 4), and he resolves not to return to the tower (affirming his sense of usurpation). He thinks briefly of his quest for spiritual fatherhood, and both he and Kevin Egan observe that he resembles Simon Dedalus, just as Telemachus resembles Odysseus. At the end of the chapter he sees "a silent ship" floating into Dublin on the tide, "homing," which suggests Odysseus' stealthy return to Ithaca.

But by far the most powerfully suggestive analogue to Homer's story lies in Stephen's restless, relentless, protean meditations on change. Everything around him is in flux: the incoming tide, the changing weather, rotting and rusting objects, burping sewage gases, people and animals and ships and breezes passing by. Language, his medium for contemplating the world, is constantly shifting as English gives way to French, Latin, Italian, German, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, and 17th century gypsy "cant." Memories flood in, taking him to Paris, the slums of Dubin, his aunt's house in Irishtown, Clongowes Wood College, the Howth tram, the Sandycove tower, churches, an antiquarian library, a bookstore. Imagination takes him to scenes of starvation, war, exile, and political intrigue through all the long centuries. Stephen's internal landscape too is shot through with change. He replays past follies and pretensions and obsessions and temptations, personal connections that have helped make him who he is, an imaginary doppelgänger, another self in a past life, another self on a distant planet.

The human fear of change is rooted in the fact that life itself is a transitory phenomenon whose accomplishments, joys, and satisfactions are threatened by inevitable extinction. The third of Leopold Bloom's chapters, a journey to the graveyard, represents Bloom's unsentimental, irreligious contemplation of mortality. The thoughts in Stephen's third chapter are very similar. Everywhere he looks he sees death: the shells of former sea creatures crunching beneath his shoes, a dog rotting on the seaweed, the corpse of a drowned man surfacing from its ocean grave, a midwife's bag containing a dead fetus, bits of wood from the wrecked Spanish Armada, whales stranded on the beach, Viking rampages, a murdered post office worker, a buried mother.

It might be argued that all the changes filling Stephen's consciousness align him with the Proteus of Homer's poem. But the Linati schema associates Proteus with "Prima materia," the stuff that Stephen is wrestling with, and identifying him with Proteus would not take account of his struggle to find answers. He seems more like Menelaus in his search for enduring truths amid the flux. His first word, "ineluctable," implies a desire to struggle out of the illusions of the sensorium into apprehensions of absolute reality. He searches for Boehmian mystical signatures, Berkeleyan ideal signs, Blakean primal faculties, the Christian divine substance, the Edenic paradise, the Aristotelian "form of forms," the "word known to all men" that is love. He seeks the meaning of a prophetic dream, rejects attachments that smack of suffocation or entropy, rebukes himself for the egotistical delusions and false hopes he has pursued. He yearns to be loved, to be properly known, to accomplish the artistic work that he is capable of.

This thread of scrutinizing, aspiring, determined spiritual search ties the chapter together, and although Stephen does not acquire definitive answers as Menelaus does, he does enact something like Menelaus' successful struggle. He stares down his depressing family connections, his morbid fear of water, his physical cowardice, his continuing attachment to Catholic religion, his social and artistic pretensions, his misogynistic distance from women, his alienation from all others. A mood of hopefulness infuses the chapter, and becomes stronger as it proceeds. It is the hope of someone who can comically and freely accept the world as it is. In beginning to see the adult he may become, Stephen is both Menelaus holding fast to his vision of the god, and Telemachus growing into Odyssean maturity.

As with Nestor, Joyce's two schemas disagree on the time frame for Proteus, but in this case Gilbert's hours, 11-12, fit the details of the text better. The 10:00 start specified in the Linati schema probably would not allow Stephen enough time even to finish his meeting with Deasy, much less to travel all the way from Dalkey to Sandymount Strand. And several details in the text suggest that the hour of noon is approaching.

JH 2017
Menelaus wrestling with Proteus, by an unknown illustrator. Source: gordonstounodysseyblog.wordpress.com.
Man transforming into a werewolf in a 1722 German woodcut, artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Japanese painting of Kuzunoha the fox woman, casting a fox shadow. Source: Wikimedia Commons.