Loud lone crack

Loud lone crack

In Brief

As Bloom sits in his parlor, about to rise and enter the adjoining bedroom, he contemplates three minor mysteries: a "selfimposed enigma," a "selfinvolved enigma," and a "selfevident enigma." The first is self-imposed because it "involuntarily" impacts his thoughts: a wooden table in the parlor emits "a brief sharp unforeseen heard loud lone crack." Bloom's curiosity about the "cause" of this noise invites comparison to a moment in Homer's Odyssey when a thunderclap gives evidence of divine approval just before the slaugher of the suitors. But any suggestion of heroism is tempered by Bloom's hesitation to leave the parlor and join his wife in bed.

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Gifford suggests an allusion to the end of Book 21 of the epic poem, when Odysseus strings his mighty bow and prepares to slaughter the suitors. In the Robert Fitzgerald translation from which he quotes, the verbal echo is particularly strong: "Then Zeus thundered / overhead, one loud crack for a sign. / And Odysseus laughed within him that the son / of crooked minded Kronos had flung that omen down." "Coincidentally," Gifford notes, Carl Jung acquired a sense of spiritual purpose and began his search for numinous archetypes within the human psyche when he heard two "loud cracks" from pieces of furniture in the summer of 1898.

Joyce was reading some of Jung's work when he wrote Ulysses, but this personal anecdote apparently first appeared in print in the early 1960s (in Memories, Dreams, Reflections), and the two men first met in the 1930s—so, intriguing as the coincidence may be, there is little reason to suppose that it informs the passage in Ithaca. Leaving aside Jung's odd experience, though, the echo of the Odyssey, in a chapter teeming with such echoes, is sufficiently strong to introduce the notion that divinity can declare its presence in mundane sounds. In Nestor Stephen called God "A shout in the street." Other deities might manifest themselves in cracking timbers.

The evocation of supernatural support, if such it is, comes just after what Gifford calls Bloom's "prayerful" review of his day, in which various events have symbolically enacted Jewish religious rituals. If quotidian occurrences like making breakfast, going to work, listening to music, and masturbating may affirm a divine order, then the release of tension in a piece of "strainveined timber" may well do the same thing. The narrator encourages such a reading by inserting the word "unforeseen" into his long list of crisp monosyllables ("a brief sharp unforeseen heard loud lone crack"), and by mentioning that the sound has been produced by "insentient material." Inanimate objects produce sounds all the time, so why call attention to the fact unless to suggest that something extraordinary is happening? And saying that the event was unforeseen places it in the context of divine omens that men cannot anticipate.

It's quite reasonable, then, to suppose that Joyce here is encouraging his Odyssean hero to move forward with killing the suitors—an action which he will shortly perform in a remarkably nonviolent way, by examining his "antagonistic sentiments" toward the adultery, considering possible responses to it, and choosing acceptance rather than rage. For several hundred pages now, the novel has employed Homeric analogies to suggest that Bloom may prove to be a heroic individual: standing up to the Citizen, reclaiming his manhood from Bella Cohen, acting as a father to Stephen. If he can now master the longstanding sexual anxiety that Molly has brought to the surface and forced him to confront, June 16 may prove to have been a climacteric.

All of this may be implied by the answer in this brief Q&A, but different notes are struck in the meandering question: "What selfimposed enigma did Bloom about to rise in order to go so as to conclude lest he should not conclude involuntarily apprehend?" However one construes the syntax and references of the central words here, they create a picture of irresolution. Bloom is "about to rise" from his chair in the parlor, but his meditation on the cause of the table's cracking noise stops him. Why was he about to rise? It was "in order to go" into the bedroom. Why was he going to go there? It was "so as to conclude" something. What was that something? His waking day? His understanding of what happened during it? His differences with Molly? His marriage? Whatever it was, he wished to conclude it "lest he should not conclude." Etymologically, "conclude" means "to shut completely." None of Bloom's thoughts about his wife, his marriage, or his sexuality come within a country mile of that condition.

If the cracking timber does offer some hope that Bloom will succeed in the bedroom, it does so only within the context of his evident uncertainty, self-doubt, and hesitation. A similar mixture of anxiety and hope is implied by the allusion to a popular song in his final, "selfevident enigma." Here at the outset of the triad, "selfimposed" probably refers chiefly to the fact that the sound intrudes on Bloom's consciousness irresistibly. But nothing in nature requires him to search for its "cause," so it is Bloom too who is imposing the enigma on himself. Spending time on two more such mysteries before he departs for the bedroom—Who was McIntosh? Where was Moses when the light went out?—shows a reasoning mind in thrall to its emotions. Fear is the mother of procrastination.

JH 2020
Jason Weingart's recent photograph of a lightning strike in the United States. Source: www.jasonrweingart.com.