Little pills

In Brief

Demonstrating his familiarity with all parts of the globe, "skipper Murphy" reveals a solemn mystery of the Far East: "— I seen a Chinese one time, related the doughty narrator, that had little pills like putty and he put them in the water and they opened and every pill was something different. One was a ship, another was a house, another was a flower. Cooks rats in your soup, he appetisingly added, the chinks does." Not only could these toys have been found in Europe in 1904—no travels needed—but they were most likely Japanese in origin. Joyce probably encountered them in Marcel Proust's monumental novel In Search of Lost Time: it was being sequentially published in France at the time that he was writing Ulysses, and when he wrote Eumaeus he was living in Paris. If this inference is correct, then the seemingly inconsequential little recollection resonates with implications about the survival of the past in the present, in a chapter preoccupied with that theme.

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Only once in Eumaeus is Murphy called the "narrator," and it comes just before an echo of the foremost example of first-person narration in 20th century fiction. The most famous passage of Proust's long novel, at the end of the first chapter of Swann's Way (1913), tells how the little village of his youth which he calls "Combray" became miraculously present once again when he tasted a bit of cake dipped in tea. In this marvellous passage the narrator recalls how the visual details of the village "rose up like a stage set" in his memory. Then, in an extended simile featuring one of the novel's many bits of japonerie, he heightens the magic by describing how the same thing can happen when little pieces of folded paper are dropped into a bowl of water.

Here is the passage, in Scott Moncrieff's translation: "And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."

I have never seen "little pieces of paper" precisely like the ones Proust describes, but as the accompanying video by artist Étienne Cliquet demonstrates, such origami is still being practiced in France. All folded paper tends to unfold in water, perhaps because folding stretches the wood fibers and loads them with potential energy, while wetting the fibers (which happens slowly, through capillary action) gives them a way to return to a lower energy state. Today, one can buy many other toys that expand in water, including some containing small sponges that have been cut into recognizable shapes and packed inside pill capsules. When one of these capsules dissolves in water, the sponge inside opens and swells to become an animal or a vehicle or an action figure. Joyce's "little pills like putty" may perhaps be a precursor to these, since gelatin capsules for delivering medications were invented in 1833. But even if this is the case, his account of all the things packed inside the pills ("One was a ship, another was a house, another was a flower") seems clearly to owe its inspiration to Proust.

The observation that Joyce's passage echoes Proust's was first made by James H. Maddox, Jr. in "Eumaeus and the Theme of Return in Ulysses," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16.1 (1974): 211-20. Maddox sees the allusion as tipping the reader off to the fact that in Eumaeus the characters are always threatening to become reincarnations of great figures from the past: Ulysses, Christ, Charles Stewart Parnell. If he is right, this is not the end of the passage's implications. Bloom, for instance, is forever revisiting the past: the day on Howth when he asked Molly to marry him, the day when she became pregnant with Rudy, the afternoon of the inquest into his father's death, and so on. In Oxen of the Sun he stares at a bottle of Bass ale, lost in thought, "recollecting two or three private transactions of his own." Several paragraphs earlier, the reader has learned what these private memories are: a day when he headed out for high school with a bookbag over his shoulder, a day a year or so later when he was practicing his father's trade of traveling salesman, the night when he first visited a prostitute named Bridie Kelly.

Stephen too revisits vivid memories from his past, as does Molly. To list them all would be tedious, but a copious account of the three characters' recollections would show how right John S. Rickard was to speak of Joyce's Book of Memory. Not only does Joyce clearly believe what Stephen says in Scylla and Charybdis—"I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory"—but he appears to hold a Proustian view that the past never really goes away. When we re-collect or re-member, we simply allow the shapes to assemble again, like little pieces of paper on water. As another modernist writer, William Faulkner, famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." From this insight hinted at in Eumaeus, it is only a small step to Finnegans Wake.

JH 2019
Cover of the first edition of Proust's first volume. Source:
Sponge capsules. Source:
Sponge capsules expanded. Source: