Where was Moses?

Where was Moses?

In Brief

Of the three "enigmas" that Bloom ponders as he prepares to enter the marital bedroom, the last, which he has brooded on for "30 years," sounds nonsensical: "Where was Moses when the candle went out?" And it is nonsensical: this riddle, apparently commonplace in Joyce's day, had nothing to do with the great Hebrew leader and it set the listener up for various jokey answers. Ithaca heightens the sense of absurdity by implying that Bloom, "having effected natural obscurity by the extinction of artificial light" (i.e., turning off the lamp), suddenly finds an answer which should not have required so long to become "selfevident": Moses was in the dark. But lurking beneath the childish silliness of this minor mystery are some sexual resonances that may be relevant to Bloom's current situation.

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Like the tongue-twister featured in Singin' in the Rain ("Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously"), some answers to the riddle were simply silly. In Weep Some More, by musicologist Sigmund Spaeth, Thornton found two of these nonsense answers in different versions of Where Was Moses When the Light Went Out?, a popular song which dated back at least as far as 1878, 26 years before Bloom's revelation. According to one version, Moses was "Down the cellar, eating sauerkraut." The other "implied that Moses had suffered the inferior extremity of his shirt to escape from its confinement"—i.e., he was "Down in the cellar with his shirt tail out."

Given Bloom's fondness for songs, ad jingles, and nursery-style rhymes, his head may well have become infected with such catchy pop-culture nonsense. But locating a couple of these rhymes as Thornton does—and Gifford and Slote follow his lead—sheds no light whatsoever on the Ithaca passage. The relevant idea, implied by both verses putting Moses in the cellar, is that he was in the dark. This straightforward answer to the riddle is not nonsensical, but it is mildly absurd: it embodies the "Duh!" (or Homeric "D'oh!") principle of realizing the obvious.

In a personal communication, Doug Pope observes that Joyce might have known of a literary precedent for Bloom's answer: the same solution is mentioned in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in the UK in 1884. In chapter 17, when Huck appears at the front door of a family's cabin in the dead of night, they cautiously take him in, ascertain that he is not a member of the murderous Shepherdson clan with whom they are feuding, and entrust him to the keeping of their son Buck, who "looked about as old as me—thirteen or fourteen or along there." Buck takes Huck upstairs to his room, gives him some clothes, brags about some small creatures he caught in the woods yesterday, "and he asked me where Moses was when the candle went out." Huck is flummoxed by the riddle, though his presence in a candle-lit cabin in the woods might well have suggested an answer, and Buck encourages him: “But you can guess, can’t you?” Finally, Buck supplies the answer himself: “Why, he was in the dark! That’s where he was!”

Riddles like this, stock in trade for 13-year-old boys, deliver a stupidly literal answer that seems head-slappingly obvious only in retrospect. Bloom is much older, and he has discovered the answer himself, but since his Eureka! moment comes only after 30 years of on-again, off-again pondering, he appears to no better advantage than the uncharacteristically slow-witted Huck. Joyce's allusion to the American novel, if such it is (and "candle" is convincingly specific!), shows him playfully making Bloom the victim of a joke.

But in some other variants of Where Was Moses When the Light Went Out?, the same implied answer, "in the dark," assumed more suggestive meanings. Instead of asking a boy to solve a riddle, the version whose lyrics are reproduced at the top of this note exploited his terrors and excited his early adolescent desires. In this song Moses is the singer's "christian name," and he recalls how a "nurse girl" who puts him to bed at night used to terrify him by narrating stories "of ghosts and goblins in a very awful way," then putting out the light and asking him where Moses was when the light went out. The poor boy would lie awake for hours after this sadistic manipulation. Eventually, though, he gets his own back: the nurse is fired, and after hearing that she has married a man named Moses Muggins he finds her in the street two days after the wedding and "innocently" asks her where Moses was when the light went out.

His sly revenge births further sexual innuendo 20 years later when a train on which he is riding enters a pitch-black tunnel, prompting a young woman sitting near him to ask where Moses was when the light went out. The song does not say whether she asks this question knowing what trains entering dark tunnels could symbolize, but its description of her as "lively" suggests that she does. As for the young man, hearing the Moses riddle again revives his cherished sadomasochistic memory of the servant girl. As they emerge from the tunnel he says to this new woman, "As you've waken'd up old memories you're the girl I'd like to wed." Singing the song years in the future, he says that he did marry the girl and they have produced six fine sons, who, when their father puts out the light at bedtime, sing, Where was Moses when the light went out?

If Joyce wanted his readers to call to mind some such version of the Victorian-era song, then Bloom's imagination of a Jew (his favorite Jew) finding himself in the dark brings with it an air of dread spiked with sexual excitement. These emotions are by no means irrelevant to Bloom's situation as he stands in his parlor, getting up the nerve to crawl into bed with the woman who has deliberately subjected him to sexual humiliation on June 16. Is he a candle whose wick has been snuffed? Or is he being called to plunge back into the dark tunnel? Penelope will show that Molly is thinking both thoughts, and looking for Bloom to decide which version of the story will come to pass.

Both the parlor song and Twain's story feature a young man placed in a position of awkward ignorance and challenged to find his way out. It is possible to hold both in mind while reading the Q & A in Ithaca. Like Huck, Bloom has set himself the task of solving a riddle, and the answer is revealed by his present situation: he has just turned out the light. But the blackness in which he is standing also evokes perils, as it does for the terrified boy in the song. Alarmed by the possibility that his marriage may be coming to an end, and keenly aware of his sexual connection to Molly, Bloom inherits both the boy-man's fears and his glimpses of sexual maturity. The allusion suggests that he may yet triumph over his ghosts and goblins by acting the part of a man. A silly song suggests the possibility of something heroic in him: overcoming sexual self-doubt. 

JH 2020
Advertisement, date unknown, for sheet music of "Where Was Moses When the Light Went Out?" published by Henry J. Wehman in New York, held in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Source: repository.duke.edu.
Sheet music of "Where Was Moses When the Light Went Out" in Max Vernor's Serio-Comic Character Songs, published in 1878 by Brainard's Sons, Cleveland and held in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Source: www.loc.gov.