The cold of interstellar space

The cold of interstellar space

In Brief

Stephen's departure in Ithaca brings a feeling of desolation: "Alone, what did Bloom feel? / The cold of interstellar space..." Nothing here particularly suggests a literary allusion, but the scene is almost certainly informed by the moment in Dante's Purgatorio when the protagonist finds that his companion and guide has deserted him: "But Virgil had left us bereft" (30.49). The ways that Joyce sets the scene, deploys characters, and shapes language all recall ways in which Dante presented the devastating loss of Virgil's companionship. 

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The presence of an allusion begins to dawn when one examines the contexts of the two departures. Virgil leads Dante through Hell and Purgatory only to hand him off to another authority who will guide him through Heaven. Walking with Virgil and Statius in the Earthly Paradise (Eden) atop the purgatorial mountain, Dante witnesses a magnificent procession that ends with a chariot drawn by a griffin. Angelic heralds announce the Christ-like arrival of a woman in the car, dressed in a green mantle and red dress, showered with lilies, sun-like in brilliance. Although he cannot clearly see her, Dante knows her to be Beatrice. Thunderstruck, he turns to Virgil like a frightened child running to its mother, to tell him how powerfully the old flame of love has seized him. But Virgil is not there. In a manner that is not represented and for reasons that are not explained, he has silently left his charge to return to Limbo. Dante is left to face Beatrice's stern reproaches alone.

Joyce's passage in no way emphasizes what is probably its most revealing single correspondence with this scene, the setting. Dante loses Virgil in the garden of Eden. Where is Bloom when Stephen leaves him? In his garden.... Similarly inconspicuous but undeniably present is the third figure in Dante's scene. No woman is standing before Bloom when Stephen leaves, but only a little earlier Bloom has directed his attention (as Dante tries to do with Virgil) to "the mystery of an invisible attractive person, his wife Marion (Molly) Bloom, denoted by a visible splendid sign, a lamp." Molly is lying in bed upstairs with a paraffin lamp burning. Her "splendid" association with light, her position above Bloom on the second floor, and the scorn that she feels for his sexual insufficiency all ally her with Beatrice. Later in Ithaca, after Bloom gets into bed with his wife, he contemplates "The upcast reflection of a lamp and shade, an inconstant series of concentric circles of varying gradations of light and shadow," recalling the visions of God in circles of light to which Beatrice gives Dante access in Paradiso

In The Shaping Imagination Mary Reynolds does not notice these structural similarities, but she does find a clear allusion: "In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, Joyce reverses Dante's pattern, for it is Stephen who leaves Bloom. Dante sometimes makes such reversals of Virgil, and it is clear that Joyce has deliberately constructed a parallel to the farewell scene in Purgatorio 30" (37). In defense of her argument she notes that "On the naturalistic level of the narrative Virgil may be said to be in 'interstellar space'" because "He does not go back the way he came. He must leave the Mountaintop and return to Limbo by some magical route, perhaps the route of the Heavenly Messenger of Inferno 9:81, and he is certainly alone" (38). This may be so. It is no less true that Dante is standing beneath the stars through whose orbits Beatrice will conduct him upwards to God, and he, not Virgil, corresponds to Bloom in this analogy. Bloom stands deserted beneath stars that have held Dantean resonances in Joyce's text from the moment he exited the house with Stephen and beheld a "heaventree." Solitude is linked to the starry heavens in both texts.

Reynolds also comments (36, 38) on the musical effect of the long "o"  vowels in Joyce's prose. These are indeed striking, and they are amplified by other sounds ("oo," "ow") produced far back in the mouth: "Alone, what did Bloom feel? / The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reaumur." These haunting sounds, Reynolds observes, recall the mournful "o" sounds with which Dante laments the loss of his poetic father at 30.49-51: "Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi" (in my translation, "But Virgil had left us bereft of himself, Virgil the sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation"). Joyce's echoing of these lines goes even further than Reynolds notes. The triune repetition of  "Virgilio," with its long "o," returns also in two questions: "Alone, what did Bloom hear?" and "Alone, what did Bloom feel?"

Joyce adapted enough details from the Purgatorio for one to say that he staged a kind of reenactment: when Bloom stands in the garden bereft of his new friend and preparing to meet his scornfully adulterous wife, he is like Dante bereft of Virgil and turning to meet the accusations of Beatrice. But the modernist author also made the scene his own. Molly is no vehicle of disembodied revelation, and Bloom's loneliness is hopeless in a way that Dante's is not. Stephen's departure makes him feel "the cold of interstellar space," reflecting not only his intellectual conviction that the universe is vastly unconcerned with human suffering but also his emotional association of happiness with simple animal warmth. At the end of Hades he has thought, in a most un-Dantean way, "Feel live warm beings near you. Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life."

As Stephen walks away down the alley, Bloom thinks of all the people who accompanied him on his morning trip from Sandymount to the Glasnevin cemetery. Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, and the rest are all "in bed," but the final person on the list, Paddy Dignam, is "in the grave." This somber note is still sounding in his thoughts after Stephen is gone:

Of what did bellchime and handtouch and footstep and lonechill remind him?

Of companions now in various manners in different places defunct: Percy Apjohn (killed in action, Modder River), Philip Gilligan (phthisis, Jervis Street hospital), Matthew F. Kane (accidental drowning, Dublin Bay), Philip Moisel (pyemia, Heytesbury street), Michael Hart (phthisis, Mater Misericordiae hospital), Patrick Dignam (apoplexy, Sandymount).

A lifetime's worth of losses inform this new experience of solitude, renewing Bloom's long familiarity with "lonechill."

JH 2022
Carl Wilhelm Friederich Osterely's 1845 oil painting of the meeting of Dante and Beatrice in the garden of Eden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.