Flying Dutchmen

In Brief

Bloom's recollection of a performance of "the Flying Dutchman, a stupendous success," adds one more narrative to the blizzard of seafaring tales in Eumaeus. If the opera is Wagner's, it has clear relevance to Bloom's status as a wandering Jew and also to his marital situation. But this may not be the version of the story that was produced in Dublin in 1877: details in Circe suggest that Bloom is remembering a more popular English production that associated the story of a phantom ship with industrialism. Wagner nonetheless plays a significant part in Joyce's many echoes of the story.

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The Flying Dutchman is the mythic tale of a ghost ship that was eternally doomed to roam the seas after foundering in a gale off the Cape of Good Hope. The story was first recorded in print in the 1790s but it probably dates back to the 17th century era of Dutch maritime glory. In Scotsman John Howison's 1821 short story "Vanderdecken's Message Home; or, the Tenacity of Natural Affection," a captain named Hendrick Vanderdecken refuses the chance to shelter in Cape Town's Table Bay after struggling all day to beat past strong contrary winds: "May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment." According to most versions of the story, sailors around the globe catch glimpses of the unlucky ship from time to time, and it is an ill omen. Countless short stories, novels, poems, stage plays, operas, songs, video games, and movies have drawn on this myth, from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean.

In 1840-41 Richard Wagner wrote the libretto and score of Der fliegende Holländer, which many lovers of his music, affirming the composer's own opinion, consider the first of his mature operas. Wagner was inspired by an 1834 Heinrich Heine tale which made the captain of the ship a kind of wandering Jew, cursed by the devil to sail the seas endlessly because he had committed blasphemy, but with the sarcastic proviso that he could be saved by the love of a faithful wife (an unlikely possibility, in the devil's view). Wagner made this challenge the motive of his plot. Some of the opera's action takes place in Norway, reflecting the impact of a difficult sea crossing that the composer made from Riga to London in 1839 with his wife Minna, in the course of which their ship sheltered from bad weather in a Norwegian fjord.

In Wagner's libretto, a sea captain named Daland takes refuge from a storm in southern Norway. At night a ghostly vessel appears alongside his ship and grappling hooks bind the two vessels together. A pale black-bearded man, dressed all in black, comes aboard and tells Daland that he has been cursed to roam the sea forever, but that every seven years a heaven-sent wave casts him ashore, giving him a chance to find a woman who will be faithful to him and release him from the curse. Hearing that Daland has an unmarried daughter, he offers the captain treasure from his ship for her hand. Daland agrees, and the two set sail for Daland's home.

There the daughter, Senta, has been gazing on a picture of the legendary Flying Dutchman and wishing that she could save him. She discards her former boyfriend Erik, and when her father arrives with her new betrothed she vows to be faithful to him to the point of death. But the Dutchman later overhears Erik complaining to Senta that she once swore to be true to him. This news fills the mariner with despair and he resolves to sail away once more. As his ship departs, Senta throws herself from a cliff, repeating her vow of fidelity until death. The curse is broken, the phantom ship disappears, and Senta and the Dutchman ascend to heaven.

Thornton infers that when Bloom thinks of "Ludwig, alias Ledwidge, when he occupied the boards of the Gaiety," he is recalling a performance of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. It is tempting to assume that he is correct. Not only does this operatic fable offer clear parallels to the story of a Jew condemned to wander the earth eternally as punishment for some blasphemy against the Christian religion, but it also involves the wanderer in a domestic drama of sexual fidelity. The Dutchman's dependence on a woman for his salvation, and his uncertainty about whether he owns her heart given her connection to another man, would seem to make him a perfect analogue for Joyce's outcast protagonist—as useful as anything in Homer, Shakespeare, or Mozart. In The Case of Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche laughed at the composer's reliance on this trope: "Someone always wants to be saved in his operas . . . If it were not for Wagner, who would teach us . . . that even the eternal Jew gets saved and settled down when he marries?"

In a well-researched article that quotes these sentences in a footnote, "Joyce, Wagner, and the Wandering Jew," Comparative Literature 42.1 (1990): 49-72, Timothy P. Martin observes that Wagner saw himself as a Wandering Jew or Flying Dutchman seeking sexual and artistic homecoming, and that the young Joyce loved Wagner's mythmaking in general and the music of Der fliegende Holländer in particular. Martin notes many echoes of the opera's story in Joyce's works: in "Eveline" a sailor woos a domestic woman and a domestic woman waits for him; in A Portrait Stephen Dedalus is an exiled wanderer seeking redemption in the love of a woman; in Exiles Robert Hand longs to fall from a high cliff into the sea and die in the arms of the woman he loves; in Proteus and Aeolus Stephen's vampire fantasy involves a deathly lover on a ghost ship coming to kiss a woman; in Eumaeus the long-exiled mariner drinks "Holland gin"; and in section II.3 of Finnegans Wake the tailor has a daughter whom the wandering Norwegian captain agrees to marry. Martin advances many other details in support of his claim.

His wealth of evidence leaves little doubt that Joyce was thinking of Wagner's Flying Dutchman from early in his writing career until the end, but—alas for the search of tidy answers—it seems unlikely that Bloom could be thinking only or even primarily of this opera. Although it was one of only two or three Wagner works performed in Dublin before 1940, according to Martin, it seems unlikely that 19th century Dubliners would have made a "stupendous success" of such an avant-garde performance, and even more unlikely that Bloom in particular would get caught up in the enthusiasm. As he walks across Beresford Place discussing music with Stephen at the end of Eumaeus, the narrative makes clear that his tastes are less daring: "Wagnerian music, though confessedly grand in its way, was a bit too heavy for Bloom and hard to follow at the first go-off but the music of Mercadante's Huguenots, Meyerbeer's Seven Last Words on the Cross and Mozart's Twelfth Mass he simply revelled in." 

There is another, much more specific reason not to associate Wagner with the 1877 performance at the Gaiety: it apparently involved a captain named Vanderdecken, but Wagner never specifies the identity of his Flying Dutchman. Thornton quotes from an 1896 commemorative history of 25 years of the theater's productions: "Ludwig was also in the Company, and the season was made memorable by his extraordinary and unsurpassed performance of 'Vanderdecken' in the 'Flying Dutchman,' with which his name has since become so inseparably identified.'" This can hardly be a reference to Wagner's opera, since the name, which became common in English versions of the myth after Howison's story, does not appear in his libretto.

Perhaps goaded by awareness that this name is absent from Der fliegende Holländer, Gifford notes that "the opera with which Ludwig was most intimately identified was a musical version (by G. H. B. Rodwell) of Vanderdecken; or, The Flying Dutchman (1846), a popular play by the English playwright T. P. Taylor." His inference is strengthened by the fact that that name has showed up in the previous chapter of Ulysses. As he campaigns for high civic office in Circe, Bloom promises to build a tramline from the cattlemarket to the river, in contrast to certain eponymous capitalists: "That's the music of the future. That's my programme. Cui bono? But our buccaneering Vanderdeckens in their phantom ship of finance . . . " Wagner's music was often associated with the phrase "music of the future" or "art of the future." Cui bono? means, To whose benefit (would this be)? So Bloom's plans may be Wagnerian in the sense that they will be good for the city.

But buccaneering Vanderdeckens (who show up again in Finnegans Wake II.3 as "bugganeering wanderducken") are another matter. The name sends Bloom off ranting against industrialists in the manner of a Marxist labor organizer: "These flying Dutchmen or lying Dutchmen as they recline in their upholstered poop, casting dice, what reck they? Machines is their cry, their chimera, their panacea. Laboursaving apparatuses, supplanters, bugbears, manufactured monsters for mutual murder, hideous hobgoblins produced by a horde of capitalistic lusts upon our prostituted labour."

Bloom's strange reworking of the Flying Dutchman myth to include oppressive financiers and their sinister machines derives from a play on names. Gifford infers, and most later commentators concur, that Captain Vanderdecken here has merged with the fabulously wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th century American railroad magnate whose name became a byword for predatory capitalism as well as generous philanthropy. There is an uncanny rightness about the identification. Vanderbilt was descended from Dutch immigrants. He was called "the Commodore" for his fiercely competitive nature: his name, Gifford notes, "together with that of his heirs, became a household word for the 'buccaneering' financier." And by an odd coincidence he died in the same year that Taylor's play was performed at the Gaiety, 1877.

As the epithet suggests, swashbuckling mariners and rampaging captains of industry have something in common. The 1870 cartoon reproduced here depicts the rush to build railroads across the American continent as a thundering horse race, with the dashing Vanderbilt literally riding the rails by straddling two iron beasts. But the machines harnessed by his capitalistic lusts are steam locomotives, not ships. Could these iron horses of the prairie really equate to oceangoing vessels in Bloom's imagination? Well, yes, and for reasons that knowledge of the Tom Taylor play might elucidate. In Eumaeus, after thinking of Ludwig's acclaimed performance, Bloom muses on the unlikelihood of this theatrical production triumphing over its unwieldy setting: "though ships of any sort, phantom or the reverse, on the stage usually fell a bit flat as also did trains."

The second act of Tom Taylor's Vanderdecken takes place on the deck of a ship, and the first act explains Bloom's association of the Flying Dutchman with machines and captains of industry in a way that Wagner never could. The play opens in a Dutch shipbuilding town where the newly launched, "entirely black" Flying Dutchman lies at anchor, waiting on favorable winds to begin its maiden voyage. Several sailors sit drinking the health of Adrian Spiegelhalter, the rich capitalist who built the vessel: he has transformed their miserable little fishing village of Saardam into an industrial powerhouse, and his philanthrophy to the poor and the sick endears him to all. Spiegelhalter enters and sings the praises of the new ship: "This beautiful vessel, built with every modern appliance, has also a peculiar mode of propulsion, possessing very important advantages, and will, if I am not greatly mistaken, prove herself the swiftest craft afloat. Her reputation is increasing daily in Holland, and even in mighty England, who has till now disputed with us the mastery of the main."

The "peculiar mode of propulsion" is not identified, but it can only be steam engines driving screw propellers. Since the 1780s steam power had been successfully harnessed to river boats and canal boats outfitted with paddlewheels, and oceangoing paddlewheel steamships, invariably featuring sail-bearing masts as an alternate source of propulsion, appeared in the 1810s, becoming steadily more efficient in the 20s and 30s. Iron hulls were refined throughout this time, and in the late 1830s screw propellers arrived, with Francis Pettit Smith securing a patent in 1836 and fitting one to the seaworthy ship Archimedes in 1839. Other propeller-driven steamships were built in Britain and America from the mid-1840s onward. The SS Great Britain, pictured here from 1844, used a chain drive to connect a traditional paddlewheel engine to a propeller shaft housed in a stern tube passing through the hull. Taylor's play, written perhaps as early as 1844 and no later than 1846, almost certainly reflects the excitement of these new "machines," whose conquest of the high seas endures today.

Taylor's ship is "overladen with sculpture" and "gaudy with paint and gold," which accords with Bloom's fancy of a luxurious "ship of finance." Its "high stern and poop elevated on poop," reminiscent of early 17th century vessels, may be responsible for his language of rich Dutchmen reclining on "their upholstered poop." But beyond these pointed verbal similarities it becomes hard to imagine how the play's melodramatic story may have inspired Bloom's hostility to the Vanderdeckens of the world. It seems possible, but hardly conclusive, that he responded to the language of devilry that constantly attaches to the captain, Philip Vanderdecken. The man has a reputation for reckless courage that makes men fear him as if he were the devil, and he employs a sinister uncanny double named Schriften who abducts Spiegelhalter's daughter Estelle, breaking the marriage contract that her father has arranged with another man. The ship's sudden, unauthorized departure from Saardam with a drugged Estelle on board perhaps contributes to Bloom's language of "lusts" and "prostituted labour."

The third act redeems Vanderdecken. After he and Estelle survive the wreck of the Flying Dutchman off the Cape, he tells her that he had nothing to do with abducting her, she casts off her arranged engagement, and the two agree to marry. A priest is sent for, but he pulls back his cowl to let the audience see that he is Schriften. In the next scene, a sailor recounts how a mysterious person came to the wedding as if to "forbid the banns," plunged the hall into darkness, and made both bride and bridegroom disappear. In the scene after that, Schriften appears in a dark basaltic cavern with Estelle draped over his shoulder. Left alone by Schriften's servant Pieter, she finds Vanderdecken lying unconscious in a ruined boat and revives him. He attempts to climb out of the cavern by some perilous rock steps, but Schriften intercepts him and throws him to his death.

The final act begins on a Portugese brig, where the sailors suspect a passenger, Schriften, of being a devil. He answers their threats like one, but urges them to interrogate a woman whom he brought aboard, the widow Estelle Vanderdecken, urging them to cast her adrift as a sorceress. The sailors cast off both passengers. Marooned on a rock and awaiting the tide that will drown them, Schriften offers Estelle a chance to kill the man who abducted her, scuttled the ship, and killed her husband. She refuses to commit evil and forgives him with all her heart. Astonished at encountering "the highest attribute of heaven," this "arch enemy of mankind" tells her that her husband did not in fact die, but then he leaves her to drown. Vanderdecken shows up on another ship to rescue her. Finis.

Phantom ships appear one more time in Ulysses, viewed skeptically through the lens of Bloom's amateur science. Near the end of Nausicaa, as he lies looking out toward Howth with darkness coming on, something like a ship appears in the sky: "Were those nightclouds there all the time? Looks like a phantom ship. No. Wait. Trees are they? An optical illusion. Mirage." By the end of the 19th century seamen's tales of ghost ships were being countered with scientific understanding of the phenomenon of "superior mirages": the refraction of light rays through air layers of different temperatures to produce an image of an object, either right-side up or upside down, above the object. Such images are usually more stable than "inferior mirages," which tend to shimmer, vibrate, and lengthen vertically or horizontally.

In "When We Must Not Believe Our Eyes," a chapter in Frank R. Stockton's Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy (1910), the author assures his young readers that many scary things which our eyes tell us are true are in fact not real. He describes an incident when "awe-stricken sailors saw a large ship, with all sails set, gliding over what seemed to be a placid ocean, for beneath the ship was the reflection of it. The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again."

The captain, who knows how disjunct layers of air can produce optical illusions, tells his men that "this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he said, when the sun's rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed—turned bottom upwards. This appearance in the air is called a mirage."

Directed by the captain to climb to the foretop, one of the sailors reports that "he could see on the water, below the ship in the air, one precisely like it. Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships" (277-79).

JH 2020
Albert Pinkham Ryder's oil painting The Flying Dutchman, ca. 1896, held in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, showing a ghostly ship bearing down on a small boat with a tattered sail. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Table Bay, 1863, late 17th century oil on canvas painting by Aernout Smit, held in the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, showing ships of the Dutch East India Company at a time when the Dutch merchant fleet was by far the largest in Europe. Source: Wikimedia Commons.