Writing on the wall
Writing on the wall
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.
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
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.
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
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.