In Brief

The sadism depicted in Ruby: the Pride of the Ring turns Bloom's thoughts to an act that he has personally witnessed in a circus show: "Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler's. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we'll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metempsychosis." Most of this is straightforward, but the last sentence is highly mysterious and textually problematic.

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"Hengler's Royal Circus," mentioned in Eumaeus as well as Calypso, staged its acts in large permanent structures—often round, hence the name. Frederick "Charles" Hengler (1820-87), one of the great circus managers of the 19th century, directed the construction of such buildings (sometimes called "hippodromes," to reflect his emphasis on equestrian acts) in various Scottish and English cities. When his circus came to Dublin, it apparently performed in the Rotunda, a large round performance space on Rutland Square. By the end of the century circuses were a staple of middle-class entertainment.

Victorian circuses featured acts of human acrobatic brilliance in the form of bareback riding tricks and performances on the "Trapeze," horizontal bars suspended from ropes high above the ground. The French name trapèze came from the trapezoidal shape formed by the bar and its ropes, and its adoption in Britain reflected the fact that much of the art had been developed by Frenchman Jules Léotard, namesake of the eponymous garment and inventor of the "flying" tricks in which performers jumped off platforms, swung through the air, released their hold on the bar, and were caught by other performers swinging by their knees.

Gifford infers that "Bloom has apparently witnessed a trapeze accident at the circus," but it is possible that he has merely been disturbed by the business of risking fatal accidents to sell tickets. Human beings will gape not only at actual falls but at feats that might result in a fall, their pleasure at the athleticism heightened by their awareness of the potential for bodily injury. It seems somehow characteristic of Bloom's timidity and pacifism to suppose that he "Had to look the other way" merely because some death-defying trick was whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

He goes on to think, "Families of them," because many trapeze artists were trained in the art from a very early age by their parents, in a tradition of family troupes which the Wallendas and others have continued to the present day. Training young children in such a dangerous sport counts as another form of "Cruelty" for Bloom, and it leads him to the strangest thought of this passage, "Bone them young so they metempsychosis." Several readings of this sentence seem possible, none of them entirely satisfying.

To "bone up" on something can mean to study it intensively, and metempsychosis means being incarnated in a new body, so perhaps Bloom is thinking of trapeze artistry as a kind of exotic life form: early training helps children metamorphose into the spectacular butterflies that eventually flit from bar to bar. (Explaining metempsychosis to Molly, Bloom briefly confuses it with metamorphosis, so he may be thinking along those lines here.) To "bone" something can also mean to remove its bones, so a variation of this reading might be to suppose that the children's early training, and their youthful resilience, renders them so flexible as to seem essentially boneless. But neither possibility extends the theme of cruelty that Bloom has been meditating on, and neither makes literal sense of metempsychosis. So perhaps "bone them" means something like "break their bones" (he has already thought, "Break your neck"), in which case the souls of the young circus performers may be liberated to seek out a less perilous line of work in the next life.

This last reading, suggested to me by Nariman Tavakoli, may be the best one, but the sentence remains obscure. Its oddness is only increased by grammatical irregularity (Bloom's awkward use of a noun as a verb) and by textual uncertainty: the first edition of Ulysses had "metamspychosis" instead of "metempsychosis." This oddity was corrected in the Odyssey Press editions of the 1930s, but Gabler's edition in the 1980s recorrected it, restoring the original reading.

JH 2022
1892 program for "Hengler's Grand Cirque." Source:
1890 lithograph of trapeze artists made by the Calvert Lithographing Company. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Carte de visite portrait of two child trapeze artists, ca. 1860s-70s. Source:
Another ca. 1890 lithograph of trapeze artists, these male. Source: