Samaritan

In Brief

If anyone in Ulysses can be called a good Samaritan it is Leopold Bloom, and the first sentence of Eumaeus shows him acting explicitly and exactly like the one in the Bible: "Preparatory to anything else Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion which he very badly needed." But Lotus Eaters slyly undercuts this altruism by having Bloom recall the question posed to Jesus just before the parable: "Who is my neighbour?" He thinks of it as he imagines checking out anonymous women in St. Andrew's church.

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Luke's gospel recounts an unbeliever's challenge which Jesus answers by invoking the two ancient commandments of Deuteronomy: "And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?" (10.25-29).

Jesus answers the lawyer's implicitly selfish question with the parable of a Jew who travels from Jerusalem to Jericho and runs into thieves who rob him of his clothes, wound him, and leave him "half dead" by the side of the road. A priest happens by, sees the man, prudently crosses to the other side of the road, and passes on. A Levite does the same thing. But a passing Samaritan, one of a sect that was bitterly at odds with the Jews, "had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (10.34). Which of these three men, Jesus asks, do you think was a "neighbour"? The lawyer can only say, the Samaritan, and Jesus tells him, "Go thou and do likewise."

Joyce scrupulously reproduces the biblical story: military thugs knock Stephen to the ground, where he appears half dead, and it is a member of a despised race, not one of Dublin's Christians, that helps him to his feet, restores his scattered articles of clothing, escorts him to a place of safety and recuperation (a cabman's shelter, standing in for the inn), physically supports him as he staggers out, and takes him into his own home. Bloom's action is admirable, but this mock-heroic novel will not let him play the part of a hero in any straightforward, sentimentally inspiring way. His words in Eumaeus, the prose style of the narrative itself, and his less than completely disinterested relationship to Stephen hold the reader at an ironic distance from any saint's worship.

And then there is the weird allusion to Luke 10 eleven chapters earlier. Bloom steps into the church, sees that there are not many people in it, only some members of a women's sodality, and thinks, "Pity so empty. Nice discreet place to be next some girl. Who is my neighbour?" His logic seems to be that if the church were more crowded, he could sit down beside some pretty girl and worship her from anear. If charitable love can be extended to strangers, why not libidinous love as well? The distinction between caritas and cupiditas is Augustinian, not biblical, but Joyce seems to be using it to add a Bloomian layer of polymorphous perversity ("free love and a free lay church in a free lay state," as Circe wickedly puts it) to Jesus' admonition to love selflessly. In Calypso Bloom directs his erotic attention to "the nextdoor girl" in the butcher shop. Now he asks "Who is my neighbour?" and justifies lusting after complete strangers.

JH 2019
Parable of the Good Samaritan, 1647 oil on canvas painting by Balthasar Cortbemde held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Good Samaritan, 1616 oil on canvas painting by Jacob Jordaens held in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source: Wikimedia Commons.