Writing on the wall

Writing on the wall

In Brief

Amid the welter of attacks in Circe after Bloom's apotheosis as Messiah and before his immolation by the Inquisition comes one silent accusation from "A DEADHAND": "(Writes on the wall.) Bloom is a cod." This hallucination clearly recalls the writing on Belshazzar's wall in the Hebrew Bible, but one must look back to earlier passages in Ulysses, and forward to one in Finnegans Wake, for a full appreciation of its implications.

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Chapter 4 of the book of Daniel narrates the story of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who received a warning from the God of his Hebrew captives when he dreamed of a mighty tree that is hacked down to a stump. Summoned for an interpretation, Daniel announces that the dream means that Nebuchadnezzar will lose his throne and be driven away from the dwellings of men unless he forsakes his "sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by shewing mercy to the poor" (4:27). After the passage of a year, the king is still proud, and the dream's prophecy is fulfilled: he is driven away from the city and lives like a wild beast until he praises the kingdom of God and acknowledges the nothingness of mankind.

Chapter 5 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar's son and successor Belshazzar, who displays similar pride by staging a great feast in which wine is drunk from golden cups looted from the temple in Jerusalem, and idols are praised. "In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote" (5:5). When the shaken Belshazzar cannot get a satisfactory explanation from his astrologers and soothsayers, he sends for Daniel as his father did, asking for an interpretation of the words which the hand has written on his wall: "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" (5:25).

Daniel observes that Belshazzar has displayed the same sin of pride that brought down his father, and he glosses the strange words: "MENE; God numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians" (5:26-28). ("Peres" and "Upharsin" are forms of the same root word, "divide.") Belshazzar is killed "that night," and Darius of Media (no relation to Rupert Murdoch) takes over the kingdom (5:30-31).

The words on the wall do not figure in Ulysses, but Finnegans Wake shows that Joyce was well aware of them and the message they send: "Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to the Meades and Porsons" (18). As Roland McHugh notes, the Quran uses "We" to refer to God, "Thou" for Muhammad, and "Ye" for the reader, so these sentences challenge You the reader to interpret the meaning of words that God and His prophet have set out in divine script.

§ The interpretation of these sentences in the Wake must be at least glancingly political, as in the book of Daniel, because "thingdome" combines the kingdom of Babylon with the thingmote of Viking Dublin. But sexual suggestions predominate. Apparently the story of the world, told over and over again, is of "Many" sexual transgressions: one miscegenation after another. "Tieckle," in the context of people living and laughing and loving and leaving, suggests sexual play, and Buck Mulligan's words at the beginning of Scylla and Charybdis show that Joyce heard such an association: "First he tickled her / Then he patted her / Then he passed the female catheter." "Forsin" may evoke the Latin forsan (perhaps), but it also suggests the foreskin whose introduction follows the tickling.

Reading backward from this passage in the Wake, one may feel justified in listening for sexual as well as political meanings in Circe's writing on the wall. "Cod," which in Middle English meant bag, scrotum, or testicles, came down into modern usage through the penis-holding pouches of 15th and 16th century men's tights called codpieces. The Irish phrase "only codding," which originally meant "only kidding," may derive from the false implications of massive male endowment conveyed by these Renaissance equivalents of padded bras. By that logic, "Bloom is a cod" may mean that he does not have the goods in the wedding tackle department. But the fact that he has sired two children constitutes an effective rebuttal. It is not Bloom's natural endowment that is in question, but his willingness to put it to use. Read as an accusation modeled on the political indictment of Belshazzar in Daniel 5, the sentence may be sung to a tune from Oxen of the Sun: "You have a penis with testicles attached. Why are you not using it properly, to pleasure your wife and beget offspring? Your domestic kingdom is in serious peril, with a conqueror rapping at the gate with his loud proud knocker. You can be replaced."

A determined reader who knows the Bible and Finnegans Wake could get all this from brooding on just the ten words in Circe, but Joyce makes it a little easier by staging several earlier scenes in which Bloom sees some writing on the wall. In Aeolus, as he descends the staircase of the newspaper office, he thinks, "Who the deuce scrawled all over these walls with matches? Looks as if they did it for a bet." Who the deuce did it (God? one of Bloom's detractors? nobody remotely comparable?) is a minor mystery never explained, but the look of having been done "with matches" offers an interesting juxtaposition with the Bible's report that the hand "wrote over against the candlestick." The impression that this passage may echo Daniel 5:5 is supported by the fact that some versions of the Bible story say that the message was written in ash.

Two other linguistic echoes jump out. Calypso has played with the idea that "Matcham's masterstroke" is about people being "matched" in marriage. Does the writing on the wall suggest that Bloom is poorly matched and Boylan would be a better match? And why or how would Bloom possibly infer that the writing on the wall was done "for a bet," unless these two words merge to suggest that the writing was done to "abet" (assist, encourage, instigate) the crime that will be committed at 7 Eccles Street starting at about 4:00? Perhaps some other convincing explanation will eventually be offered for this strange passage in a strange chapter, but until then it is reasonable to suppose that Bloom is being shown some writing on the wall.

Bloom is an advertising man, and ads were plastered over every wall in Dublin in 1904, yet he can make little sense of the scrawled letters in Aeolus. He is given further opportunities, however. In Lestrygonians the thought of ads on walls makes him worry that Boylan may give Molly a disease: "All kinds of places are good for ads. That quack doctor for the clap used to be stuck up in all the greenhouses. Never see it now. . . . Some chap with a dose burning him. / If he...? / O! / Eh? / No... No. / No, no. I don't believe it. He wouldn't surely? / No, no." These remembered ads were posted on the walls of urinals by the quack doctor himself or by people he hired, not by an unknown hand, but the evanescence of the biblical letters figures in their temporal nature (Slote observes that ads for STD cures were illegal in Dublin at this time), as well as the fact that local wits have erased parts of other words to make ones more encouraging of hawking medicines: "Flybynight. Just the place too. POST NO BILLS. POST 110 PILLS."

As he stumbles into the streets of Monto early in Circe, Bloom sees yet more writing on the wall, this time with unmistakably sexual content. On "the wall" (unspecified) an image appears: "(He gazes ahead, reading on the wall a scrawled chalk legend Wet Dream and a phallic design.)" The captioned prick makes him think of his wife: "Odd! Molly drawing on the frosted carriagepane at Kingstown. What's that like?" Well, Kingstown sounds like kingdom, a wet dream represents an unfulfilled desire, and frost suggests icy disdain. Just as a Freudian dreamer delves into his dream through the waking associations it prompts, Bloom's thoughts about the hallucinated image point the way toward understanding it as a comment on the threatened state of his domestic polity.

By the time that a disembodied hand actually writes on the wall, then, Ulysses has gradually and subtly schooled its readers to think that such writing may offer some kind of prophecy about the ruination of Bloom's marriage, just as the obscure writing in Daniel prophesied the end of Belshazzar's kingdom. For a novel inspired by Homer and Dante, whose epics teem with prophecies about their protagonists, such dark writing should seem only par for the course.

Senan Molony and John Hunt 2020
Daniel Interprets the Writing on the Wall, engraved illustration by Gustave Doré in English-language The Holy Bible (1866). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Belshazzar's feast depicted in an oil on canvas painting by Rembrandt van Rijn ca. 1634-39. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Detail from a fresco ca. 1503-8 by Il Sodoma (Giovanni Bazzi) and Luca Signorelli in the cloister at Monteoliveto Maggiore. Source: www.pinterest.com..