Almost human

Almost human

In Brief

Figure of speech. Listening to the sounds in the printing press room, Bloom thinks "Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doing its level best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt." Later in Aeolus this principle is put into dramatic action when some dental floss speaks a line of dialogue, and Mr. O'Madden Burke uses it narratively to tell an allegory of Youth and Experience. Most of us today know the principle as personification or impersonation; ancient rhetoricians called it prosopopoeia, a device whereby the speaker adopts the voice of absent persons or inanimate objects. 

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Prosopopoeia (PRO-so-po-PEE-uh, from Greek prosopon = face, visage, person, dramatic character + poiein = to make, to do) implies "doing the character" of someone or "making a person." Quintilian writes that this device gives the orator the power to "bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states." Well-known oratorical examples of impersonation include Cicero's Pro Caelio, in which he speaks as an old man named Appius Claudius Caecus, and Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, in which he stages a debate between Republicans and the South. In a similar vein, it has been argued that in the first three books of Romans, when Paul says that God's wrath will fall on the wicked, he is actually miming the arguments of his opponents.

The second, more poetic kind of prosopopoeia, personification, pervades the Bible. Many of its books attribute emotions to the heavens, the earth, the human body, and other inanimate entities, essentially personifying them, and in some passages these things acquire language. In Job 38:7 the stars are said to have sung. In Psalm 35:10 the bones of the psalmist speak. In Jeremiah 47 the sword of the Lord conducts a dialogue with the prophet. In Sirach 24:1-3 Wisdom says, "From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and covered the earth like a mist." In 1 Corinthians 12:15-16 Paul imagines feet, hands, and eyes debating aloud. In Revelation 6:9-10 the dead cry out, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, doest thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"

Gilbert and Seidman identify the passage in which Bloom imagines a paper-feeder "Doing its level best to speak" as prosopopoeia. Although he only imagines the machine acquiring a voice here, Bloom does repeatedly think "Sllt," adopting its voice. Strangely, neither commentator cites a later passage when an object actually does speak: "He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth. / — Bingbang, bangbang."

John Hunt 2023
Randolph Caldecott's pen and ink, gouache, and watercolor illustration of "And the dish ran away with the spoon", in the book Hey Diddle Diddle and Bye, Baby Bunting (Routledge, 1882). Source: Wikimedia Commons.