The far east

The far east

In Brief

The opening paragraphs of Lotus Eaters can be said to reenact the action of the corresponding episode of the Odyssey. The first sentence reports that "Mr Bloom walked soberly" along Rogerson's Quay, and the reader of Ulysses will soon come to appreciate how much he embodies sobriety. But in the third paragraph he indulges a fantasy of "The far east" that is escapist, intoxicating, and reminiscent of the experience of Homer's lotus-eaters. Before long he recovers his sobriety by pondering the science of floating and falling bodies. Thus he plays the parts of both the men who lose themselves in a drug dream and the leader who pulls them out of it.

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Bloom's dream of a tropical Asian Eden is prompted by the mention of "the finest Ceylon brands" on a tea label, and he thinks of the "Cinghalese," the majority ethnic group of that country: "The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day. Sleep six months out of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes." Needless to say, Ceylon is not "like that." The travelogue that feeds many of Bloom's thoughts of the east, In the Track of the Sun, does mention the oppressive heat of the island, but the other details are fanciful.

Many western Europeans were indulging orientalist fantasies in Joyce's time, and this is one of many to fill Bloom's mind on June 16. Later moments in Lotus Eaters will find him pondering the meeting of the Palestinian Mary, Martha, and Jesus from a painting, and the look of the recumbent Buddha in a Burmese statue. The common element in these three fantasies is "Lethargy," "idleness," "lobbing" or "loll"ing about, being "lazy," "Taking it easy," "No more wandering about," finding a "Long long long rest," sleeping for months at a time. Such thoughts sit strangely with the fact that it is morning and Bloom has been out of his house for less than an hour. They make sense, though, as efforts to escape the anxiety aroused by Boylan's impending visit. The parallel with Homer's lotus-eaters, whose drugged state makes them lose their thoughts of home, is quite close.

Bloom doesn't simply dream as the lotus-eaters do; his daydream features something like lotus leaves. The best-known of the plants called lotuses are closely related to "Waterlilies," which come up in his thoughts three sentences later, though no lotus or water-lily plants have leaves big enough "to float about on." Probably no plant does. Bloom imagines people lounging on top of the leaves, in an image that one could imagine adorning a psychedelic album cover of the 1960s. At the end of Lotus Eaters he will imagine a more realistic way of being "buoyed lightly upward," in the warm water of a bathtub, and his penis will become the "languid floating flower." This revision of an escapist image from the beginning of the chapter may perhaps be seen as redemptive—the translation of an idle dream into something more achievable.

The inclusion of "cactuses" in Bloom's mental picture is a mystery, as it inserts a desert plant into a tropical jungle. Joyce added this detail after publishing a version of Lotus Eaters in The Little Review: "the garden of the world, big lazy leaves, shaky lianas they call them" in that 1918 text became "the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float about on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them" in 1922. A cactus is mentioned in another such passage that Joyce inserted into later page proofs of Lotus Eaters, Bloom's language of flowers monologue. There it appears to carry phallic overtones. Clearly cacti were on his mind, but what they meant to him may never be fully known.

The "snaky lianas" are less odd, and the adjective "shaky" in The Little Review must have been simply an erratum, because lianas are inherently snaky. The name does not refer to a species or genus or family (there are hundreds of liana species spread across multiple families), but to a growth habit. Lianas are woody vines, mostly found in moist tropical forests, that grow up the trunks of trees and often form bridges from one tree to another in the canopy.

Glossing "Sleep six months out of twelve" with information gleaned from Denys Page's Folktales in Homer's 'Odyssey', Slote comments that "Stephanus of Byzantium (sixth century), wrote in his geographic dictionary Ethnika that Aristotle had claimed, in On Wonderful Things, that the Lotus-Eaters sleep for six months (he also claimed that the Lotus-Eaters were a Celtic race). This is inaccurate; Aristotle never wrote a work with this title, and Stephanus was the first writer since Homer to say anything new about the Lotus-Eaters." 

"Flowers of idleness" sounds like an echo of Lord Byron's first volume of verse, Hours of Idleness (1807). Joyce was clearly thinking of this book when he wrote Ulysses, because one of its poems, "The First Kiss of Love," echoes throughout the novel. It may well be the book that Bloom gave to Molly during their courtship: "he made me the present of Byrons poems," she thinks in Penelope. If Bloom is punning on the title of the book, it would seem to be an idle reference, not expressive of any particular perceived connection between Byron and the flora of Ceylon.

"Azote" is a French word for nitrogen, though Bloom (or Joyce) strangely adds an "s" to the end. This element, now known to be one of the three most essential nutrients for plants along with phosphorus and potassium, was called "azote" by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-94) after the Greek azoos, "no life," because it could asphyxiate animals. The discoverer of the substance, Scotsman Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), called it "noxious air." By the early 20th century scientists knew that plants depended on it, and fertilizers rich in nitrogen, especially bird guano, were being intensively mined and applied to croplands.

In Calypso Bloom has thought about how valuable animal waste is for growing crops: "Want to manure the whole place over, scabby soil. A coat of liver of sulphur. All soil like that without dung. Household slops. Loam, what is this that is? The hens in the next garden: their droppings are very good top dressing. Best of all though are the cattle, especially when they are fed on those oilcakes. Mulch of dung." Manure is an effective fertilizer because most of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in farm animals' feed is excreted. Until chemists learned how to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers in 1909, the abundant nitrogen in the earth's atmosphere was useless for crops. It is unavailable for plant cells until it is "fixed" by certain bacteria that break its tight chemical bond with itself and form compounds like ammonium and nitrates. Bloom is therefore a bit right, but more wrong, to think that "The air feeds most."

This reflection on nitrogen, and indeed all of Bloom's thoughts about Ceylon, have a fragmentary, undeveloped, fuzzy quality, suggestive of a mind too painfully distracted even to concentrate on weaving a coherent fantasy. A moment later, when he turns to the physical principles responsible for bodies floating in water and falling through space, he struggles to remember details learned in high school classes but gets the gets the essential concepts largely right. Natural science seems to offer Bloom a means of grounding himself in the real world.

JH 2022
The lotus-eaters, by an unknown artist. Source:
W. E. F. Britten's photogravure illustration of the lotus-eaters in The Early Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1901). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2010 photograph by Nyanatusita of lianas in the Udawattakele Forest, Sri Lanka. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Lianas in the canopy of a tropical rainforest. Source:
2010 graphic showing the cycling of nitrogen from its elemental atmospheric form into bio-available forms and back again. Source: Wikimedia Commons.