He thought that he thought

  He thought that he thought

In Brief

One of Joyce's brain-twisters in Ithaca—"He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not"—was clearly inspired by one of Dante's ingenious linguistic constructions in the Divine Comedy. Joyce pays the poet some exquisitely imitative homage by adapting to the conversation of Bloom and Stephen a line that Dante utters about Virgil in canto 13 of the Inferno, "Cred'io ch'ei credette ch'io credesse."

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In the circle of the violent Dante hears cries coming from a thicket of leafless thorn bushes because people who have committed suicide have been transformed into those plants. Instead of telling him what is going on, Virgil challenges Dante to use his eyes to see where the voices are coming from: "Look well— / you will see things that, in my telling, / would seem to strip my words of truth" (19-21). Thus commanded to discover the truth for himself, Dante does the opposite. He gauges his surmises against what he imagines to be his master's surmises about them: "I think he thought that I thought / all these voices in among the branches / came from people hiding there" (25-27). We are not told that Dante in fact thought people were hiding behind the bushes, or that Virgil thought that he thought it, but both things must be true because the narrative shows Virgil immediately reclaiming the initiative: "And so the master said: 'If you break off / a twig among these brambles, / your present thoughts will be cut short" (28-30). Virgil does not merely think that Dante thinks people are hiding among the thorn bushes, it seems. He knows it.

Joyce inventively repurposes this exchange:

     Did either openly allude to their racial difference?

     What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom and Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts about Bloom's thoughts about Stephen?
      He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not.
All of Dublin thinks of Bloom as Jewish, but the subject has not yet come up in Bloom's kitchen, and in Eumaeus he has told Stephen that "in reality I'm not," presumably because his mother Ellen Higgins was an Irish Catholic. So it makes sense for the narrative to refer only to Bloom's thoughts about Stephen's thoughts. As in Dante's text, however, the focus shifts to knowing: everyone knows that Stephen is an Irish Catholic, so Bloom knows that Stephen knows that he knows it.

Were the final two words of the question ("about Stephen") omitted, a reader would be encouraged to explore a still more subtle cogitation, inferring that what the two men know is that Bloom is not a Jew (because they both remember the conversation in the cabman's shelter). If Joyce had written the passage in this way it might have become even more evocative of Virgil and Dante in Inferno 13, with Bloom possessing some awareness about his ethnicity that Stephen is only beginning to fathom. But the maniacal logical proliferation of this passage is no doubt already complex enough for most readers!

JH 2022
Gustave Doré's illustration of Virgil and Dante in the wood of the suicides. Source:www.theparisreview.org.