María Isabel Porcel García

María Isabel Porcel García. Interrelaciones de los personajes en Ulises de James Joyce. Sevilla: Editorial Kronos, 2003, 195 pp.

When most of the dusty ‘Joycean industry’ is devoted today to the supposed inventions of new critical jargons and futile explorations, projected in narcissistic pieces of writing that reflect themselves upon the empty mirror of their own vacuity, only read and consumed by a thankfully scarce and limited circle of scholars, the humble purpose of addressing a stylistically clear and thought-provoking book to general enthusiasts and students of Joyce’s Ulysses –whether at the first phase or in a more advanced stage of their learning— cannot convey anything but good news to the unprejudiced reader. In her intelligent and stimulating book, María Isabel Porcel’s main intention is to examine carefully the interrelations of the characters in Ulysses, considering her work as an incipient reading guide both for beginners and connoisseurs of Joyce’s complex novel. And the author carries out her purpose with a rare combination of diligence and sensitiveness, amalgamating practical erudition and insightful appreciations, and never avoiding personal nuances when required, this last feature being in my opinion one of the most valuable qualities of her research.

Throughout her study, Porcel attempts at demystifying the fallacy of the ultimate illegibility of Ulysses, persuading the reader of the immense richness that Joyce’s narrative language contains and reveals, pointing to infinite combinations and interpretations. The eventual finality would be that of helping the readers to achieve the possibility of re-writing or re-creating their own Ulysses, a task that can be applied to any literary work, but that becomes especially rewarding with this climatic example of opera aperta.

The Protean attributes of Joyce’s characters in the development of the plot of his conspicuous epic and the ideas of ambiguity and transformation are the primordial instruments upon which Porcel bases her theory, assisted by a healthy and appropriate utilization of Joycean bibliography, an exhaustive list that, on the whole, is pertinently and carefully used throughout her well-documented enquiry. Paradoxically enough, it is an uncommon peculiarity in the academic sphere to find scholars that quote from the texts when it is truly necessary and relevant. Quite on the contrary, Porcel exhibits the infrequent ability of citing adequately from theoretical works. She has read Ulysses attentively, perceptively and passionately, and the illustration of her arguments through exemplification, both taken out from Ulysses and the secondary sources (first-rate critical books, with few exceptions), is almost always significant and flowing. Porcel’s erudition –for there is clever erudition in her book— is not vacant but constructive and unobstructed.

Porcel’s implicit point of departure is that Ulysses is an organic whole where everything is interrelated. Many people may defend the same idea from an intellectual perspective, but the important thing about her in this respect is that she puts it into textual practice, demonstrating that it is essentially accurate with regard to characters: both primary and secondary dramatis personae in Joyce’s epic are all inexorably interconnected. Furthermore, ‘Characters are to the novel what corporal fluids are to the body’ (19; my translation). The sense of continuity in Joyce’s fiction is a fact that Porcel takes into consideration throughout her analysis, presenting in the introduction a brief history and a useful evaluation of preceding studies of characterization in Ulysses and other Joycean works.

In the first chapter, ‘Characters in Ulysses’, the Spanish scholar tackles her subject in a broad perspective, emphasizing the importance of language –the authentic protagonist— in the narrative and the fact that, like in Dubliners, characters operate within two levels of action: private life, and the social environment of the Irish city and her history. Thus, Porcel studies the relations among characters that are brought about by necessity, cohabitation and dependence, and social obligations. She also analyses the interrelations of characters taking their common features into account, and stresses for the first time in the text the importance of the transformations in Ulysses. Porcel could recite those lines at the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/ corpora, for this is going to be one of the relevant leitmotivs of her investigation and one of her most significant contributions. On the other hand, the assertion that Ulysses could be seen as a forerunner of the so called ‘magic realism’ (42) –interesting though it is— seems to be somewhat hyperbolic and would deserve further examination.

Also in this first chapter, Porcel –who alludes conveniently to other Joycean works apart from Ulysses— continues to study the interrelations of characters through the encounters with acquaintances, friends and relatives, and underlines the interesting thought that characters in the novel usurp the language of other authors, together with their ideas. Consequently, Joyce would be warning us about the difficulty that resides in the originality of Art (sic). A more specific epigraph deals with the interrelations between Leopold Bloom (the urban antihero) and the secondary characters, insisting in the metaphorical importance of the dead and of images of darkness, death, hallucinations, lethargy and drowsiness, all of them connected with the act of dreaming itself. This is an ancient and attractive concept: Cicero said that nothing is more similar to death than dreaming (Nolite tam simile mortuum quam somnum), and, although modern psychology has utterly rejected this viewpoint, it is true that the Joycean microcosm seems to be imbued by it up to a certain extent.

Porcel also detects the narcissistic aspects derived of the fact that the characters in Ulysses –like people in what we call ‘real life’— reflect themselves on the others, eager to look for their blurred identity. Porcel distinguishes here the essential greatness of the method of characterization applied by Joyce in his novel, which consists in the capacity of creating characters that possess features of combination that lead to the infinite, perhaps a way of showing the heterogeneous diversity of human nature. Other appealing ideas contained in the same epigraph concern the ambiguity generated by falseness and deceit as a common element in the symbolic associations among characters in Ulysses, a fact that contributes to the uncertainty that permeates the text. Linked to this aspect, Porcel describes the interrelations of the characters through some of the different topics in the book, emphasizing those of treason, usurpation and adultery. Porcel also looks at the themes of voice, feet, ghosts and death by drowning as they appear in Ulysses.

Chapter 2 of María Isabel Porcel’s discerning study explores with more detail the encounters between the main characters in Joyce’s epic, especially those concerning Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. To introduce the subject, she deals formerly with the process of elaboration of both protagonists, later going into the explicit encounter of these figures in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and ‘Eumaeus’, underlining the dramatic nature of the text and the masks used by the characters in order to hide their identities (Totus mundus agit histrionem). Some linguists, not devoid of confident pride, still sustain that language is the most important means of communication between human beings, but we, as well as Joyce, are aware of the fact that it is in exceptional occasions that we reach that blissful and unusual experience. Therefore, Porcel accentuates the role played by silence, phatic utterances and torrents of non-meaningful words in Ulysses.

Of course, language is the mask that veils our precarious selves and words are the barriers that thwart authentic communication between people and, by extension, literary characters. Accordingly, Bloom, that epitome of mankind, is a linguistic sign immersed in ambiguity and uncertainty. For instance, he is given a good number of different names throughout the narrative. Characters in Ulysses are heterogeneous, open to a multiple variety of interpretations, although all of them are united by the fact that they are ultimately human, with all the greatness and misery that this entails. In ‘Ithaca’, an episode that signals the end of the encounter between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the irony that pervades the whole text regarding the link between the characters becomes even more recurrent… and more painful.

On the other hand, Porcel also investigates the triangle composed by Bloom, Stephen and Molly. This latter female character fascinates the Spanish scholar, and of course she is not to be blamed for that. She considers Molly the point of balance in the triad of protagonists, the same as Anna Livia in Finnegans Wake. In the last chapter of her book (significantly entitled ‘Who Writes “Penelope”?’), Porcel pays particular attention to Molly’s meaning as the culminating character in Ulysses. Ever present in her husband’s mind, this female ghost permeates the whole text of the novel. In the end, she is the one that closes the narrative with her silenced voice (we should not forget that her stream of consciousness is the product of a mental, non verbal process). However, here María Isabel Porcel –after having a quick look to the most canonical interpretations of the character from the part of literary critics—theorizes about the possibility of Molly being a construction from the part of Bloom.

According to her, the ambiguous woman from Gibraltar would be indeed the product of Bloom’s fantasy: ‘The character becomes the narrator and “writes” the text imitating the female voice of Molly, appropriating himself of the feminine, both in form and contents, for he wishes to be mother-creator’ (179; my translation). And later: ‘“Penelope” could be the written representation of Bloom citing what he considers to be a piece of female discourse, like a ventriloquist of that which, following the common stereotype, constitutes the female voice, a style that, according to this interpretation, Joyce would be parodying’ (181; my translation). Eventually, Porcel says, the male author would be nothing but an imitator of the feminine, a thought that the Spanish scholar connects with fantasies of androgyny and transvestism, exemplifying the matter with the interchanging of sexual roles in David Cronenberg’s film M. Butterfly. In my opinion, Elizabethan and Jacobean plays would undoubtedly have provided a more illustrative case in point in this context. In the end, Porcel’s is undoubtedly a risky but intriguing hypothesis, the bolder idea in a book full of motivating and sensible proposals for analysis. In any case, her attempt at reading Ulysses having always the text as the main foundation of her arguments is noticeably praiseworthy.

Flaws? Some could be referred to. Although written in fluent Spanish, the text contains what I would consider some minor mistakes, mostly related to punctuation and repetitions. Some ideas are reiterated once and again (maybe the students to whom María Isabel Porcel addresses her book would be grateful for what I perceive as a slight defect in it). On the other hand, the intellectually bright analysis lacks some humour, and it is my personal impression that a book concerning Joyce’s works should always display this feature. I do not conceive of a study on the great Dubliner’s writings –mostly when the expected reading public is composed of students— without a recurrent deployment of irony and wordplay from the part of the writer. Sometimes we professors and literary critics compel ourselves to be too serious and solemn, afraid of the effect that our words are going to produce in the academic community. I have the personal intuition that, now and then, María Isabel Porcel refrains her impulses in this respect. But of course this is just an instinctive appreciation that would be very difficult to prove without the author’s own consent and estimation about the matter.

To sum up, the important thing about Porcel’s book is that it is fundamentally honest: she does not aim at being ‘original’ but coherent. Moreover, her study of the relations established between and among characters in Ulysses contains many additional open paths for the reader to explore by him/herself. In general terms, it could be stated that in this book there is the solid foundation of a very helpful guide for the interpretation of Ulysses: the parts imply the whole and vice versa. The volume will undeniably represent an important contribution to the more and more ample field of Joycean studies in Spain. Particularly many young readers will be grateful to María Isabel Porcel for her effort at putting things for them as clear as possible, and this is, I think, the best thing I can say in praise of the author’s straightforward critical attempt. After reading Porcel’s study of the characters in Ulysses, we are more aware of who are they when they are at home… or, for that matter, in the streets of that dreamlike Dublin that haunts our imagination.

Antonio Ballesteros González