Sinbad the Sailor

Sinbad the Sailor

In Brief

As Bloom drifts off to sleep at the end of Ithaca, his mind reels woozily through a long series of alliterative names, and then some inchoate thoughts about a fabulous bird's egg, both inspired by a Christmas pantomime. In Surface and Symbol, Robert Martin Adams observes that along with "Sinbad the Sailor," "Tinbad" and "Whinbad" were characters in the Sinbad pantomime performed in Dublin in 1892 and 1893 (80). Various other kinds of significance can be inferred from these sentences: Bloom's identification with the fabulous voyager Odysseus, his love of nursery rhymes, the fascination with wealth embedded in stories of the "roc," and much, much more. But the reader should not lose sight of the main object of representation: a mind entering the mysterious passage from daytime consciousness to sleep, where thoughts begin to morph into dream. Any coherence that may inhere in these images smacks as much of the obscurities of Finnegans Wake as of the lucidities of Ulysses.

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Bloom is an Odysseus who has returned home to his Ithaca, and at the end of his day the narrative says, "He rests. He has travelled." It then poses a question: "With?" The answer is Sinbad (or Sindbad), an 8th or 9th century Arabian hero whose seven voyages unquestionably owe much to those of Homer's hero. (The Odyssey was translated into Arabic by the 8th century, and the story of Polyphemos is retold in Sinbad's third voyage.) Sinbad thus joins Rip Van Winkle, Enoch Arden, the Wandering Jew, and a small host of fellow travelers who function as additional symbolic analogues for Bloom's Odyssean mental adventures.

The presence of Tinbad and Whinbad in the Christmas pantomime has evidently also prompted Bloom to transpose Sinbad's story into his beloved register of nursery rhyme, where silly verbal resemblances can drive a story forward and people can become fancifully identified with their occupations (Tinbad the Tailor, Jinbad the Jailer, Whinbad the Whaler, Ninbad the Nailer, Binbad the Bailer, Pinbad the Pailer, Minbad the Mailer, Hinbad the Hailer, Rinbad the Railer). It is perhaps not too great a stretch to hear in these phrases all the occupations that Bloom has encountered people practicing in the course of his day, or remembered himself practicing in earlier years, or imagined himself practicing in a different life. (In Circe Bloom's adventures of June 16 are cast as a similar-sounding series of hagiographic attributes: "Kidney of Bloom, pray for us. / Flower of the bath, pray for us. / Mentor of Menton, pray for us. / Canvasser for the Freeman, pray for us. . . .")

And then comes the final paragraph of the episode, when, asking itself the strange question "When?," the narrative locates Bloom on a temporal slide into unconsciousness: "Going to dark bed there was a square round Sinbad the Sailor roc's auk's egg in the night of the bed of all the auks of the rocs of Darkinbad the Brightdayler." The bed to which Bloom is going becomes the site of a bewildering host of associations, as if his mind is speeding up rather than slowing down. The bed is dark, anticipating the black extinction of consciousness expressed in the large black dot at the end of the chapter. And before any egg appears, we learn that it is "square round," a paradoxical figure that evokes the mathematical challenge referred to earlier in Ithaca as "the quadrature of the circle."

Why should Bloom be thinking such a thought at this moment? Given the temporal element ("Going to dark bed"), it seems reasonable to hear an echo of the end of the Paradiso, where Dante uses the famous mathematical challenge to characterize his last moment of ordinary human consciousness before the flash of mystical enlightenment.  Staring into the divine abyss, he describes his struggle to understand the mystery of Incarnation:

Like the geometer who fully applies himself
to square the circle and, for all his thought,
cannot discover the principle he lacks,

such was I at that strange new sight.
I tried to see how the image fit the circle
and how it found its where in it.                       (33.133-37)

Dante writes that he would have failed to comprehend an essentially transcendental entity (like God, the circle's constitutive principle of π has now been shown to be such an entity) "had not my mind been struck by a bolt / of lightning that granted what I asked" (141-42). After his mind's fruitless efforts at logical comprehension, a mystical vision sweeps him up into the Love moving the sun and the other stars and concludes the epic poem. If this allusion lurks within Bloom's phrase "square round," it serves to characterize Bloom's coming entry into the realm of sleep and dream, which waking intelligence cannot comprehend.

The roc's egg participates in these mysteries, but it carries multiple associations of its own. In the Sinbad stories, the roc is an enormous raptor, powerful enough to carry elephants and huge snakes to its nest to feed its young. In his second voyage Sinbad hitches a ride on a roc to the valley of diamonds, and then he tricks one into carrying him back to its nest. On another voyage, the fifth, his crew spots an immense roc's egg, breaks it open, and eats the chick,  bringing destruction down upon themselves from the avian parents much as Homer's men do when they kill the cattle of the sun god.

Joyce may still be injecting echoes of the Commedia into Bloom's thoughts here: Dante's pilgrim gets his first taste of mystical rapture in canto 9 of Purgatorio when, in a dream, an eagle carries him Ganymede-like into the sphere of fire, filling him with terror. But the roc also has powerful associations with Sinbad's great topic, the acquisition of wealth. (He tells his tales to a poor man, also named Sinbad, who wants to know why some people enjoy great riches while others must endure poverty.) Getting to the valley of diamonds by roc, and thence to a roc's nest, has enriched the hero with a trove of gems.

It seems highly likely not only that this part of the Sinbad story would appeal to the money-conscious Bloom, but also that he would think of it at bedtime. Earlier in Ithaca, he has contemplated various fantastic schemes for getting rich, one of them involving finding "an antique dynastical ring" that has been "dropped by an eagle in flight." The narrative asks why Bloom should think of such outlandish ideas. Answer: he has found that happily fantasizing about wealth before going to bed helps him to sleep well.

All of these speculations about Bloom's thought processes in his last moments of consciousness seem tenuous, and the chains of association become yet more slender at the end of the final sentence. Why does the roc become an "auk," a group of diving Atlantic sea-birds in the alcid family? Certainly not because of size: even the extinct (ca. 1852) great auk stood no higher than about 3 feet (1 meter). As with the nursery-rhyme variations on Sinbad, the link may be purely linguistic, one "oc" sound childishly engendering another. As for "Darkinbad the Brightdayler," Adams supposes there may be a "subtle reference to Max Müller's theory that Odysseus was originally a sun-god" (Surface and Symbol, 81).

But as Adams goes on to cogently observe, at some point such serious investigations should be cut off, because "the going-to-bed litany is a piece of inspired stupidity, like Charles Bovary's famous hat, containing layer after layer of meaninglessness—an unfathomable depth of mental void. Relaxing its hold on external reality, and on its own thought processes, the mind is shown drifting off into a mechanical word-cuddling, and so into complete darkness. The more we project conscious intellectual meaning into the process, the less it serves its overt purpose. Like a Rorschach-blot, the passage will absorb anything we want to put into it, but there is a point at which our insertions, by expressing 'us' all too richly, frustrate the ends of the novel" (82).

This caveat serves a valuable purpose. Bloom's muddy half-thoughts are certainly more than a little stupid, as are those of every human being drifting off to sleep. But readers can also benefit from the hindsight of knowing something of the book that Joyce wrote next. Finnegans Wake, the ultimate Rorschach blot, suggests that in sleep thousands of suggestive threads of meaning become tied together in patterns that do not respect the laws of daylight logic but are easily as complex as waking thoughts. Could Joyce already have been thinking of his book of the dark when he finished Ithaca? A note full of tendentious suppositions may as well conclude with one more: amid the list of Sinbad's alliterative cousins is one, "Finbad the Failer," whose name richly evokes the next defeated conqueror on Joyce's horizon.

JH 2018
"Having balanced my cargo exactly," colored drawing in The Arabian Nights Entertainments (1914) by illustrator Milo Winter. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
"The roc which fed its young on elephants" by Charles Maurice Detmold,  plate from The Arabian Nights, Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor (Hodder and Stoughton, 1924). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A square and a circle whose areas are both equal to π. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
"Les marchands cassèrent l'œuf," illustration from Sinbad's 5th voyage in Les Mille et une nuits (Galland, 1865). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Watercolor painting of seven kinds of auks by Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935), date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Black Circle, oil on canvas painting ca. 1923 by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Source: