In Brief

Proteus may seem ponderously serious much of the time, but Stephen's meditations on his life and aspirations are shot through with jocoserious mockery. Having thought of the umbilical "cords of all" linking back to archaic times in a "strandentwining cable of all flesh," and having inferred that "That is why mystic monks" contemplate their navels as an avenue to divinity, he then becomes the "lovely mummer" that Buck Mulligan has declared him to be: "Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one."

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Entwined umbilical cords become telephone cables enabling Stephen to connect to the paradisal suburb of Edenville (though there was, in fact, an actual Dublin area called Edenville, off Merrion Avenue Upper). Dial the first Hebrew letter and the first Greek one (doubly invoking the biblical saying that God is the alpha and the omega), add "nought" and "nought" (doubly invoking primeval nothingness) to get "one" (the splendor of divine creation), and presto! you are on the phone with Adam and Eve, by a miracle of ancient technology. Stephen is clearly enjoying himself here, and—as in a mummer's play—his comedy involves resuscitation of the dead.

Telephones were fairly commonplace in Dublin by 1904, and they figure in several parts of Ulysses. The second such appearance, in Hades, seems to bear some occult correspondence to Stephen's whimsical thought in Proteus: Leopold Bloom thinks that perhaps undertakers should provide "a telephone in the coffin" to rescue living people who get buried by mistake, and shortly later he imagines being able to hear the voices of people who have died: "Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth." In both men's fancies, the dead can be brought back to talk to the living.

[2016] In Oxen of the Sun, Stephen is still thinking about the umbilical network back to Eden, imagining Eve as a "grandam" to "which we are linked up with by successive anastomosis of navelcords." An anastomosis, in medicine, is a surgically established connection between adjacent blood vessels, loops of intestine, or other tubular thoroughfares (e.g., umbilici) in the body. This medical meaning, so clearly relevant to Oxen, coheres with a broader meaning of the word as a cross-connection between adjacent channels in a network, which clearly applies to the telephony of Proteus.

JH 2013
Telephone wires in Bangkok, photographed by Nurmi. Source: www.vibrant.com.