The Cybernetic Plot Of Ulysses

.. ‘s heart good. Signals full of meaning, ones like Milly’s that land where they’re sent, and are properly understood, can do a world of good. “Metempsychosis” is the word in this episode that prevents Molly from understanding a sentence in the trashy novel she’s reading. The transmission of spirit across time and space is itself an idea that Poldy must translate into plain words in order for its meaning to reach Molly. But he does so, and she does understand.

Meanings need new clothes to cross some borders, but quick wits know how to smuggle those meanings across. The fate of the magazine story (“Matcham’s Masterstroke”) that Bloom reads in the outhouse shows that some signals belong in the toilet. The joke’s cybernetic subtext concerns the need to evaluate our culture’s signs, to digest them, and to dispose of the unworthy ones accordingly. In ‘Lotus-Eaters,’ the first sentence of which we followed into the post office, Bloom receives his letter from Martha Clifford, with its misspelled “world.” Noise threatens to wreck signal, to put meaning to narcotic sleep, but again (as with Simon Dedalus’ telegram about “Nother dying”) Joyce is fascinated by the meanings born of random error. Like the bicycle tire’s lemniscate that fascinates John Shade, in Nabokov’s PALE FIRE, the noise that seems to spell out its own new meaning offers another kind of pseudo-signal: not one without an intended audience, this time, but one without a real author other than chance itself. The Surrealists, of course, would have you believe that they cornered the market in such random marks believed to bear meaning.

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When Bloom tells Bantam Lyons that he was just about to “throw away” the newspaper, and Lyons thinks that Bloom is tipping him about the racehorse Throwaway, it’s a clear case of noise being mistaken for signal. That’s why the winning horse is named for disposable refuse (“Throwaway”) in the first place: some signals go about disguised as noise. Joyce, unlike Martha, DOES “like that other world.” In Hades, Bloom very simply and matter-of-factly draws the limits of communication at mortality. “Once you are dead you are dead.” No serious signals reach us from the other side, only ridiculous ones, as Christine van Boheemen reminded us on Monday. The cybernetic comedy of errors deepens here as an idle word, M’Intosh, is boosted to human status, one more erroneous conflation of words and things. ‘Aeolus’ is about communication, set as it is in the newspaper office.

The rhetorical devices that run rampant through the episode show the dangers of one’s medium going opaque on one, of language becoming windy through a fatuous obsession with its own sound. A thoughtful style strengthens, a thoughtless style weakens any signal. In ‘Lestrygonians,’ Bloom receives the novel’s third throwaway, the advertizing handout, which he throws to the unappreciative gulls. Signals only work on their intended human receivers, as we all knew already but Joyce still needed to show. As an advertising canvasser, as we’ve noted, Bloom’s occupation centrally concerns the sending and receiving of commercial messages, and so the cybernetic conundrums of the billboard floating on the Liffey and of HELY’S sandwichboard men go under instant analysis in Bloom’s mind.

‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ outside the novel, may perhaps best be seen behind the prudish censors on one side and the unscrupulous copyright violators who threatened the book’s successful publication on the other. Piracy we call this latter crime, unwittingly evoking a maritime metaphor of the novel as a ship on a dangerous journey. (Recall how apt it was of Wiener to name cybernetics for a Greek steersman.) In the case of Ulysses, a novel that faced and continues to face Odyssean obstacles at every stage of the journey, the metaphor is peculiarly apt. In ‘Wandering Rocks,’ Father Conmee furthers the cybernetic plot by posting a letter with the help of young Brunny LyNam. Boylan, meanwhile, plays the cybernetic flirt: “–May I say a word to your telephone, Missy? he asked roguishly.” Stephen and Bloom, meanwhile, are both eyeing the booksellers’ carts, seeking stray signals that may or may not be meant for them, ‘Sirens,’ for Joyce as for Homer, reminds us that some of the most beguiling signals intend us nothing but harm.

Survival may come only through voluntary paralysis, as when Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. As Bloom ties and unties his fingers with the elastic band, Joyce again shows us insulation proving an effective defense against hurtful thoughts; in this case, Bloom’s thoughts of marital betrayal. ‘Cyclops’ has that mock-theosophic signal from the other side, reporting that the currents of abodes of the departed spirits were (quote) “equipped with every modern home comfort such as tlfn,” and so on. ‘Cyclops’ is also where Joe Hynes reads aloud from the job application letter of one H. Rumbold, Master Barber, implicitly reiterating the need for moral discrimination in the matter of meanings received. “Still, it was a kind of communication between us.” So thinks Bloom of his silent tryst with Nausicaa in the form of Gertie MacDowell.

And of course: “For this relief much thanks.” Successfully sent and received erotic signals gratify in this narrative quite explicitly beyond the reach of mere music or language. ‘Oxen of the Sun’ allows that medium of transmission, language, to turn opaque again, to foreground itself at the risk of letting meanings die undelivered. (Quote:) “The debate which ensued was in its scope and progress an epitome of the course of life.” Some signals can be made to bear multiple meanings on levels of varying profundity. In ‘Circe,’ Bloom shows us that the recall and timing of information can be crucial to success. He remembers what he’s heard about Bella Cohen’s son at Oxford, and uses the information in a timely fashion to protect Stephen from harm.

Judgment of what to listen to, what to remember of what one’s heard, and what to repeat and when are all essential cybernetic skills. Bloom also, at episode’s end, picks up an imagined signal from the imagined spirit of his son Rudy, proving that to the artistic imagination, at least, mortality is no barrier to spirit after all. (Of course, readers of Dubliners had already learned that from Michael Furey.) Its absurd pedantic deadpan notwithstanding, the ‘Ithaca’ episode nonetheless communicates that even the worthless crumbs of Plumtree’s Potted Meat in one’s bed may be read as signal. ‘Eumaeus’ features yet more signal degraded into noise. The newspaper account of the funeral inadvertently drops an L from the name of L.

Boom. Even the mock sailor’s postcard from landlocked Bolivia furthers the episode’s theme of exhausted and phony meanings. In ‘Penelope,’ finally, communication comes once again to mean the successful transmission of spirit among bodies. The flesh assents all too indiscriminately in this episode, but Bloom is home safe, dominant at last in his wife’s thoughts, his message of unprepossessing love mocked, ridiculed, travestied, and betrayed, but ultimately received, understood, and acknowledged. The style of Joyce’s novel, with its access from the very first scene to Stephen’s own thoughts, and then to Bloom’s, and finally to Molly’s, implies that no communication, no means of meaning, succeeds so well as that of the artistic imagination.

When he said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Gustave Flaubert was teaching Joyce to disregard and ultimately to refute the supposed inscrutability and reputed inaccessibility of the Other. The lines may be down between husband and wife, they may be tottering between father and daughter, but between the author’s spirit and that of his characters, le courant passe, the current flows without impedance. Any signal, like a Homeric hero, is threatened with ruin by the alluring sirens of noise. Any piece of information, or any spirit afloat in our culture, that is, faces an Odyssean battle in order to make it through. Consider the obeisance of publisher to legal power that used to appear at this novel’s front gate, for instance.

This NOVEL had to undergo an odyssey before coming home to our minds. The law tried to stop it, pirates tried to loot it, but the text, like its characters, came through relatively unscathed. Cybernetic messages and the obstacles to their correct transmission present one of the manifold yet parallel plots in ULYSSES — with our own successful comprehension of the novel furnishing the happy ending to a cybernetic allegory in which character, action, and text all come through, finally, loud and clear. The book, that is, enacted a Joycean design over which Joyce himself could have had little control, for the book itself recapitulate d the Odyssean journey across perilous seas. Pirates, monstrous one-eyed censors, Procrustean editors kept mangling a Protean text.

And yet here it is, home free, safely harbored in our minds and in our hearts. Thank you very much.

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