Dogs, Cats, and Schlemiels: A Brief Note on James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom

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Although I am in the midst of a few different reading projects, I recently decided to take a look at James Joyces’ Ulysses.   I haven’t read the book for a while and it’s been on my mind.  To be sure, his representation of Leopold Bloom is of great interest to me as it is the representation of a Jew by one of the best writers of the 20th century and because Bloom may very well be a schlemiel.

What interests me most about Joyce’s representation of Bloom is the contrast between two styles of writing that Joyce uses when writing about Stephen Dedalus and Bloom.  The contrast tells us a lot about how Joyce approached Jerusalem and Ithaca/Athens.   Joyce is at home and more familiar in the language and culture of Athens and Ithaca than he is in the language and culture of the Jew.

To bring this contrast out, I selected two animals that correspond to these characters.  In relation to Daedeulus, Joyce writes of a dog and in relation to Bloom he writes of a cat.  The Jew is close to the cat and the feminine while the gentile is close to the dog and the masculine. This contrast was certainly on Joyce’s mind.  And it comes out in his prose style.  When he writes about dogs these are the dogs of war and masculinity.  History, heroism, and war can be heard echoing in these lines;

Then from the starving cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayers’ knives, running, scaling, hacking in green blubbery whalemeat. Famine, plague, and slaughters. Their blood is in me, thei lusts my waves….The dog’s bark ran towards him, stopped, ran back.  Dog of my enemy.  I just simply stood pale, silent, bayed about. (56)

In contrast, when Joyce introduces Bloom to his readers, Bloom is attending cats and a woman.  He attends to the feminine.  It has been noted by a few Joyce scholars that he – like many writers in Europe – read the book Sex and Character by the “self-hating” German-Jewish thinker Otto Weininger.  He depicted the thoughts of Jews as “woman-like,” distracted, and hetoronomous (totally anti-Kantian and unable to be self-reliant).   Like Weininger, Joyce describes the thoughts of Bloom as feminine, wandering, and fragmented.  Bloom has no historical or intellectual basis for his reflections.  As Weininger would say, Bloom, like many Jews and women has “no essence” or foundation for his thoughts and actions.

Notice how much more the prose flows and fragments in Joyce’s representation of Bloom as he caters to his cat and his female acquaintance.  His mind isn’t on war, history, or honor.  His mind is on the movements of the cat and it moves from detail to detail:

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right.  She didn’t like her plate full.  Right.  He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire….The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high. 

-Mkgnao!

-O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again ….Prr. Scratch my head. Prr. (65)

Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss on her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.

As he prepares breakfast, his mind wanders more and more and becomes more fragmented.  This contrasts greatly from the prose and style of the above-mentioned section of Ulysses.  It moves more like a cat than a dog, so to speak.  His focus on detail is based on his immersion in experience – on things he has around him, be careful not to disturb anyone, and things he has to get – rather than on thought and history:

Stamps: stickyback pictures.  Daresay lots of officers are in the swim too.  Course they do.  The seated legend in the crown of his hat told him mutely: Plasto’s high grade ha.  He peedped quicly inside the leather headband. White slip of paper.  Quite safe. On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there.  In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.  Creaky wardrobe.  No use disturbing her.  She turned over sleepily that time.  He pulled the halldoor to after him very quietly, more…looked shut.  All right till I come back anyhow. (67)

Perhaps, for Joyce, what makes Bloom a schlemiel (a man-child) is the fact that, unlike his gentile friends, Bloom is a caring person who, in his attention to detail and getting everything right, is constantly distracted.  The question on my mind, upon rereading these passages, is how Joyce relates Bloom’s distraction to the historical awareness of Daedelus.  He famously says, in this novel, that “history is a nightmare from which we must awaken.”  And, in addition, Joyce puts an accent on the awareness of death which may be on the mind of the gentiles but is not the mind of a Jew like Bloom.

Bloom is caught up in life and Joyce suggests that Bloom lacks an awareness of death, evil, history, and heroism.  He is too distracted.  Nonetheless, as we can see from the above passage, this is not because he is cruel but because he is loving and caring for his cat and his lady-friend.  After all, he wants to make a good breakfast and doesn’t want to wake her.

But he doesn’t understand the “bigger things” like history, death, heroism, etc.  Joyce was astounded by the fact that Jews didn’t know how to live in the world.  And this astonishment comes out in the contrast between those who follow cats and those who are in the midst of barking dogs.  This simple distinction – which is based on the distinction between masculine and feminine – makes Bloom into a cat-man of sorts.  A man who leans toward experience and the effeminate.

I saw this motif recur in Gary Shteyngart’s novel, too. As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry, it was Vladmir’s Jewish mother who pointed out that his Jewish feet and “homosexual” hips may be the reason why he can’t be a success in society.  The irony of course is that Vladmir’s job is to help immigrants assimilate when he himself can’t.

But Shteyngart sees this inability of this “unlikely hero” as endearing.  We may feel the same with Bloom, but the contrast in Joyce is based more on figures who are not, by any means, comic like the figure of Vladmir’s mother (who is laughable).

And perhaps that difference makes all the difference.   For Joyce this may be a difference between dogs and cats, the masculine and the feminine, Jew and non-Jew.  Perhaps it’s the “schlemiel difference”… The question, however, is how we understand it.  Shteyngart, it seems, understands it differently from Joyce.  But, regardless of these differences, they both would agree on one thing about the schlemiel and that one thing is distraction.

(To be continued….)

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