Dead sea

In Brief

The disappearance of the sun in Calypso sends Bloom's reveries into a very dark place. Where the Near East had inspired pleasant thoughts, first of wandering through the streets of an Islamic city, then of owning shares in a Palestinian plantation, and finally of enjoying the fruits of that region with Jewish friends, it now centers on the "dead sea," a "Vulcanic lake" that makes him think of the biblical story of the destruction of the "cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom." The story of Lot's family seems emblematic to Bloom of the fate of the entire Jewish people. Soon it will be clear that he is thinking also of his own life.

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Of "Vulcanic lake, the dead sea," Gifford observes that "In the mid-nineteenth century, the Dead Sea was assumed to occupy the giant crater of a dead or inactive volcano, but by 1903 the New International Encyclopedia could announce: "The region is not, as has been supposed, volcanic." Bloom's slightly outdated science allows him to connect the Dead Sea to the fire and brimstone that the Bible often associates with divine wrath: "Brimstone they called it raining down." Brimstone is the biblical name for sulphur, whose strongly unpleasant odor often accompanies volcanic eruptions. Elemental sulphur is highly flammable.

Numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament threaten the wicked with fire and brimstone, e.g. Genesis 19:24, Deuteronomy 29:23, Psalm 11:6, Isaiah 30:33 and 34:9, Ezekiel 38:22, Revelation 19:20, 20:10, and 21:8. Bloom seems to be thinking mainly of the first of these, the chapter of Genesis in which YHWH's angels direct Lot and his family members to leave their city of Sodom: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground" (19:24-25).

This chapter does not list all the "cities of the plain" (29), but in an earlier chapter of Genesis Sodom and Gomorrah are grouped with Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar as cities that "were joined together in the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea" (14:2-3). The Valley of Siddim is usually understood to be on the southern shores of the Dead Sea, and Zoar was almost certainly located just south of that salt-laden lake. Bloom mistakenly remembers "Edom," a desert region slightly farther south, as having been one of the five cities.

This "barren land, bare waste"—sunk deep in the earth, blasted by volcanic ash, sterilized of life, reeking of sulphur, bordering the "poisonous foggy waters" of a weedless, fishless sea—returns in Oxen of the Sun, where the biblical "waste land" is now "a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa." In this passage of Oxen, huge animals "come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. . . . Onward to the dead sea they tramp to drink, unslaked and with horrible gulpings, the salt somnolent inexhaustible flood."

In Calypso the blasted condition of the land images the fate of the Jewish people. For Bloom they are "the oldest, the first race," "The oldest people." The polar antithesis to Zionist dreams of making the desert bloom, in his imagination, is the thought that Jews have "Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere," and now have no home to return to. The land that gave their lives meaning has no more life to give: "It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman's: the grey sunken cunt of the world." The focus on childbearing in these sentences makes clear that Bloom is thinking not only of the Jewish people, but also of his own life as a husband, a father, a bearer of family lineage.

JH 2017
The Flight of Lot from Sodom by Gustave Doré, one of his engravings for the Great Bible of Tours (1875). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Possible locations of Sodom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah, and Zeboiim. Source: dabrownstein.com.