Lestrygonians

Lestrygonians

In Brief

Episode 8, called "Lestrygonians" in Joyce's schemas, presents a relatively straightforward response to a short passage in Homer's Odyssey. Having left the newspaper offices at about 1:00, Bloom strolls southward down O'Connell, Westmoreland, and Grafton Streets and then heads east along Duke and Molesworth Streets to end up at the National Museum on Kildare Street. He is hungry. The chapter begins with him pausing at a candy shop, taking in its smells. As he walks on he sees famished people, and people selling food. Eventually he finds a place to have lunch, after being nauseated by the ambience of the first restaurant he enters. Inspired by the Homeric analogue, the chapter's prose relentlessly throws up figures of food, hunger, eating, digestion, excretion, baiting, feeding, killing, and cannibalism. Reflecting on food's passage down the alimentary canal (echoed by his own long passage down urban corridors hemmed in by large buildings, at the end of which he will search for a statue's anus), Bloom thinks also of time's passage and the changes it wreaks in human lives.

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In book 10 of Homer's epic, just after the story of Aeolus and the winds, Odysseus recounts how his men rowed for six days to reach the land of Laestrygonia, where they found a harbor like a mouth:

We reached the famous harbor, all surrounded
by sheer rock cliffs. On each side, strips of shore
jut out and almost meet, a narrow mouth.     (88-90)

Most of the ships dropped anchor inside this harbour, but Odysseus cautiously moored his vessel just outside it. Three men were dispatched to go inland and see who lived there. They met a girl fetching water—the daughter of the king, Antiphates—and she took them back to the palace, where her mother, a giant, grabbed and ate one of the men. A force of giants led by her father pursued the other men back to the harbor, wrecked the anchored ships by bombarding them with huge boulders, and speared the floating sailors for supper. Only Odysseus and his crew escaped.

Since Joyce identified the art of his chapter as "architecture," it seems likely that he meant for the imposing buildings flanking Bloom as he walks—the Ballast House, the "surly front" of Trinity College, the Bank of Ireland, the canyon of Grafton Street, the bend into Duke Street—to evoke the cliffs that frame the Lestrygonian harbor. Other details in the two schemas neither require conjecture nor add much to the impressions that any attentive reader will take from the chapter's prose. The Linati schema identifies the color of the chapter as "sanguigno" (blood-red), the technique as "peristaltic prose," the organ as the "esophagus," and the symbols as "bloody sacrifice: food: shame." The Gilbert schema adds a correspondence between the Lestrygonians and "Teeth."

In addition to countless mentions of food, most of them benign and some wonderfully funny, Joyce's chapter features some decidedly dark thoughts about the brutal business of eating. As in many other chapters of Ulysses, the violent interpersonal conflicts of Homer's poem are recast as conflicts within the human psyche. Bloom is horrified by meat-eating in Lestrygonians, but his modest vegetarian lunch does not begin to absolve him of his species' carnivorous murderousness. Feeling compassionate sympathy for butchered cows and sheep, as he does, does not change the fact that he and most of his kind regularly eat them.

Other animals are no different. When he feeds some gulls from the O'Connell Bridge, moved by pity for "Those poor birds," Bloom becomes "Aware of their greed and cunning" and does not waste a second penny. Life on earth inevitably involves taking life from others, and thinking of the whole bloody business can leave even the cannibals at the top of the food chain feeling cannibalized: "This is the very worst hour of the day. Vitality. Dull, gloomy: hate this hour. Feel as if I had been eaten and spewed." The Linati schema identified the Sense/Meaning of the 8th chapter as "L'abattimento" (dejection, despondency).

Although Bloom has no particular horror of the stuff that comes out of the intestines (rather the contrary), he does feel discouraged by the unending daily need to eat: "stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung, earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine." The cyclicality of food becoming waste and re-entering the mouth reconstituted as food has been anticipated earlier as he stood on the bridge, gazing at the feces-laden Liffey: "If I threw myself down? Reuben J's son must have swallowed a good bellyful of that sewage." The alimentary channel forms a torus through which the physical environment flows uninterrupted. Eater and eaten, food and excrement, make up an endlessly repeated cycle.

The elemental need to fill one's stomach day after day discourages Bloom. In one brief passage of a few paragraphs, he thinks of how dinner invitations bait young men into joining the revolutionary cause; how trams and policemen go in and out, in and out, every day of the year; how dead bodies are "carted off," and screaming babies "tugged out," every day of the year; how an entire "cityful" of people is replaced with a new "cityful" of people, over and over again; how cities themselves, and their wealth, are "worn away age after age." His conclusion: "No one is anything." Later, his contemplations of transience become personal as he remembers kissing Molly on Howth Head and accepting the chewed seedcake from her mouth while a nannygoat walked by, "dropping currants." The passage of food reminds him that the passage of ten years has destroyed his marital happiness: "Me. And me now."

Aeolus announces the coming end of what Joyce called the "initial style" of his novel: experimental but still recognizably conventional third-person objective narration, stuffed with interior monologue and with free indirect discourse that pulls the narrative into the orbits of particular characters' thoughts. The all-caps headline-like titles of the newspaper chapter are the first of many bold departures from this initial style. Subsequent chapters explore entirely new ways of telling the story, but Lestrygonians affords a pause. Like the relief that Calypso offers to the exhausted reader of Proteus, this chapter draws back from the strangeness of Aeolus to offer one last experience of a by-now accustomed mode of narration. It is an oasis of familiarity before the coming disorientations.

JH 2020
Stephen Crowe's giclée print illustration of Lestrygonians for a de Selby Press edition of Ulysses, date unknown. Source: invisibledot.storenvy.com.
Fourth panel of the Odyssey Landscapes painting, ca. 60-40 BCE, held in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  Modern rendering of the Roman painting in an illustration in C. Andrä's German-language Greek Heroic Stories for Young Readers (Berlin, 1902). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of 1920 Bartholomew map of Dublin with overlays showing the course of Bloom's walk in Lestrygonians (blue), Lemon's candy store (red), Burton's restaurant (orange), Davy Byrne's pub (green), and the National Museum (purple). Source: John Hunt.