Salt cloak

In Brief

Bloom's nightmarish vision of a blasted Palestine in Calypso afflicts him viscerally: "Grey horror seared his flesh. . . . Cold oils slid along his veins, chilling his blood: age crusting him with a salt cloak." The allusion to Lot's wife, a continuation of his earlier contemplation of the Lot story, casts Bloom as an aging man looking back on his best years, feeling that life has passed him by. Later chapters confirm this destructive fixation on lost happiness: the trauma of losing a child has crippled his sexual life, and he cannot move beyond it.

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In Genesis 19 one of the angels tells Lot, "Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed" (17). Lot argues with the divine command and is allowed to escape to Zoar rather than climbing into the mountains. As he and his family enter the town, fiery destruction rains down on the other cities of the plain. "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (26). Various explanations have been advanced for this odd punishment. One allegorical reading, relevant to Bloom, holds that Lot's wife was blasted because, by looking back, she showed her continuing attachment to her old life in Sodom.

§ Bloom's salt-encrusted paralysis suggests the peril inherent in dwelling sorrowfully on the failures in one's past. Throughout this day he will dwell on the infant death of his second child, a tragedy that has blighted the sexual bloom of his marriage and made him feel like an evolutionary dead end. Although the loss is not mentioned in Calypso, his preoccupation with sterility clearly shows how much it occupies his thoughts: "A barren land, bare waste. . . . It bore the oldest, the first race. . . . The oldest people. . . . multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman's: the grey sunken cunt of the world."

In Hades Bloom thinks of Rudy's death not only as a trauma but as a personal failing: "If it's healthy it's from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time." In Lestrygonians he recognizes that grief has undermined his sexual relationship with Molly: "I was happier then. . . . When we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy. Can't bring back time." In Sirens he thinks that his procreative days have probably ended with the loss of his one male heir: "Last of my race. Milly young student. Well, my fault perhaps. No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If not? If still?"

There is an immense personal component, then, to Bloom's fantasy of Palestine as a dead land and the Jews as a geriatric race. Looking at the facts of his personal life—a dead son, an arrested sex life, a wife looking elsewhere for satisfaction, a maturing daughter, an age past the midpoint of the biblically allotted threescore and ten—Bloom sees himself on a downward slope. Looking back in this way is deadly. Several paragraphs later in Calypso, the motif of a backward glance will return. The context and the literary allusion are different, but they imply the same need not to substitute regret for forward motion.

JH 2017
Lot's wife looking back the city of Sodom, in a mosaic in the cathedral of Monreale in Palermo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Rock formation on Mount Sodom in Israel that is often called the Lot's Wife pillar. Source: expressivesoughl.wordpress.com.