History is not my nightmare: Chapter 2 of Ulysses

Chapter 2 of Ulysses doesn’t quite contain two of the book’s most-quoted lines.

In a novel not otherwise famous for lending itself to pithy one-liners, two phrases (along with the celebrated conclusion, which is well-known but not exactly something you’d slap on a bumper sticker) are widely quoted:

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

God is a shout in the street.

But neither of them appears in the book. Not verbatim.

Both are pretty close to things that our protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, says to his employer, the conservative, Anglophilic, bigoted Mr. Deasy, master of the private school where Stephen teaches.

Oh, and contrary to an earlier assumption on my part? Not appearing in Ulysses at all is “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” which nobody understands and therefore inspired the name of a subatomic particle that nobody understands either. That one’s from Finnegan’s Wake.

“God is a shout in the street,” in particular, has been quite heavily compressed, compared to the source:

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

–That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

–What? Mr. Deasy asked.

–A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

Before you ask: the sound effects are the boys from the school playing field hockey outside. And no, Joyce doesn’t use quotation marks. Just those dashes. Yeah, there are reasons this novel has a reputation as being a challenging read, right?

Anyway, “History is a nightmare,” is quoted almost directly by comparison. But there’s an important difference.

–History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

It’s important, I think, that in Ulysses, those words are clearly being spoken by Stephen Dedalus.

I’ll get back to Stephen and his nightmare in a moment; first, a review of what happens in this chapter, which, the notes tell me, is entitled ‘Nestor’.

Stephen’s at his day job, as a teacher in a small private school. He seems to be responsible for a variety of subjects — Latin, history and math — so it may be the equivalent of homeroom. He clearly doesn’t care very much for the work, given that he needs to crib from the textbook himself, and is more amused than upset at one of his students cheating. He’s also keenly aware that, in contrast to his own money trouble, some of the pupils are from very well-off families. The disparity in privilege makes him disinclined to be much of a disciplinarian. Stephen seems to be lost in his own thoughts rather than in the classroom, but he’s present enough to know that allowing too much of a breakdown in order will reveal to the students how dependent he is on their — and their parents’s — goodwill, and he doesn’t want that.

When the boys head outside to play field hockey, one stays behind, Sargent, and it’s clear from Stephen’s internal monologue that he thinks the kid is, basically, dim, and an ill-favoured, unformed scrawny lump, too.  Sargent needs some extra tutoring, which Stephen provides, patiently if not especially helpfully. Watching Sargent struggle over the problems makes him reflect on mother love — it was established in Chapter 1 that his own mother has recently died, and he’s got a lot of guilt about it swirling around.

Sargent leaves to join the others, and Stephen meets with his employer, Mr. Deasy, to get his weekly pay. Deasy subjects him to a lengthy discourse on a number of subjects, including money management, religion, history, the diseases of horses, and how much he dislikes Jewish people. Stephen waits out most of this with restraint, and it’s clear that no matter how much some of it pains him, he considers putting up with the older man’s smug meanderings to be part of the job. He does choose to respond, mildly, to a couple of points or jibes, which provide the chapter’s most famous quotes (or, you know, paraphrases). He also, although it’s in his own ironic and passive-aggressive way, speaks up against Mr. Deasy’s anti-Semitism.

This is the most outspoken we’ve seen Stephen Dedalus be yet, towards someone who has some kind of privilege or power over him, and it makes me like him a lot more that it’s over Deasy’s bigotry.

There were hints of anti-Semitism in the previous chapter — from Haines, Buck Mulligan’s English guest. It’s interesting that the much more overt anti-Semitism here comes from Deasy, who’s presented as colonized to the very depths of his soul — thoroughly assimilated by the English, while claiming his Irishness must be respected on par with Stephen’s own. There are parallels being drawn between the Irish and the Jewish experience — two disestablished and long-oppressed people.

It’s clear that Mr. Deasy thinks of these meetings as his opportunity to match wits with his intellectual young employee; it’s equally clear on the other hand that Stephen, because he’s so desperate for money, is putting up with an asshole. Finally, Stephen gets his pay, promises to deliver a couple of letters Deasy has written to local newspapers to editors he knows (on the topic, happily, of the horse diseases, not Jewish people) and makes his escape as soon as courtesy allows.

In my discussion of Chapter 1, I noted that I was fonder of some of the people around Stephen Dedalus than of Dedalus himself. This chapter has turned that impression rather on its head, of course. Earlier, and right up until Mr. Deasy’s bigotry became all too clear, I found Stephen’s anger, resentment, sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness troubling. Understandable. Recognizable.  But troubling.

For me — a privileged person — the claim that history is a nightmare was part of that. It conveys more than a touch of melodrama, of adolescent affectation. And, although Stephen Dedalus isn’t literally an adolescent, his life and relationships convey to me a very strong sense of arrested adolescence.

That’s something, interestingly, that both Mr. Deasy and Stephen Dedalus himself seem to recognize, for all that the former is clearly many years gone into full-bore Old Man With Opinions and the latter is so trapped inside his own head that it’s surprising he can find his way home.

Not Mr. Deasy, but I can understand why you'd think so.

Not Mr. Deasy, but I can understand why you’d think so.

They both, for all their faults and their inability to understand one another in every other way, grasp that Stephen Dedalus still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. So no, Stephen is not entirely grown up by my standards, and it was easy for me to be dismissive.

But then, this summer. The awful summer of 2014, a summer of blood and rage and old hatreds being played out in the streets.

This summer has been a terrible but effective reminder: That history is still, for a great many people, a nightmare from which they are trying to awake. History is a nightmare for people who are unable to escape the past, not only because they won’t let go of it, but because they’ve been bound to it by an oppressor.

Stephen Dedalus, in the words he speaks to Mr. Deasy, is also of course speaking to the reader. And in reminding me that history is his nightmare, he has forced me to confront exactly what it is that troubles me about him — and what that reveals about me.

He reminds me that I am the privileged, judging the disprivileged. The colonizer, judging the colonized. I am someone for whom history is not a nightmare.

And it occurs to me that Stephen Dedalus would have understood, very well, one of the most profound statements to emerge from this summer of protest: “I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit!”

 COMING UP NEXT: Breaking In interviews with Jim Ottaviani and Suzanne Church. Plus, an update on my writing!

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