On Mint Chocolate and the Meaning of Life: Joyce’s Ulysses | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 23, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:24 AM, January 23, 2021


On Mint Chocolate and the Meaning of Life: Joyce’s Ulysses

"Chotto Kaka, I'm not afraid of the bogey-bug (coronavirus) when I have a tummy full of ice cream." When my seven-year old nephew made this demand, I thought, he could really have taken a leaf out of Ulysses – a masterpiece by the great Irish maverick, James Joyce. "What's your favorite flavor?" I asked my nephew. "Mint Chocolate," he replied. Personally, I never understood the logic of mint chocolate. "You know what'd go great with chocolates?" Certainly not, "TOOTHPASTE!"

Though it accumulates a tremendous amount of human experience including hateful resentment, rampant bigotry, chronic depression, emotional paralysis, and outrageous injustice, the symphony of Ulysses floats on human voices, laughter and tears, memory and desire, and the immutable flair for everything that makes life worth living. But, why does Joyce take a hero who is almost three thousand years old – Ulysses, the Latinate Version of Homer's Odysseus – as the subject for his modern monograph?

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The answer lies in the adjective Homer uses to describe Odysseus: polutropos – of many turns – jack of all trades, master of some. After laying siege to the impregnable walls of Troy for ten grueling years, Ulysses masterminds the trap shaped as a wooden horse, left at the gates of Troy to fake a Greek retreat. Taking it as a peace offering to the gods, the Trojans push the bait right inside their fortified city. When darkness lulls the Trojans to sleep, Ulysses with and comrades-in-arms come out from the wooden horse and raze the glorious city to the ground.

The calm after the storm of destruction mires Ulysses, the mariner and his crew, in another decade of misery; they get stranded at sea. During the voyage home, Ulysses survives devastating shipwrecks, siren songs of enchantresses, entertains demigoddesses, escapes Hades – the underworld, outsmarts man-eating monsters, wriggles out of traps, and finally, slays the suitors of his wife to retake possession of Ithaca, his Kingdom. Odyssey, the Homeric epic is one of the earliest to claim the primacy of intelligence over brute force. 

In conversation with his friend, Frank Budgen, Joyce calls Ulysses the "complete man in literature" because, apart from being a son, a father, a husband, a lover, a King, and a warrior, "[Ulysses] was an inventor too. The tank is his creation. Wooden horse or iron box, it doesn't matter. They are both shells containing armed warriors." Ulysses, published in 1922, was written against the backdrop of World War I (1914–1918) when the corpse-lit battlefields of Europe were, for the very first time, patrolled by the machines of mass murder; i.e. tanks, fighter planes, and chemical weapons.

Joyce's counterpart for the Homeric hero is Leopold Bloom, a 38-year old man of Hungarian Jewish extraction residing in a predominantly Catholic Dublin. Though his father converted to Christianity, the Dubliners see Bloom's Jewishness as a dis-ease written into his DNA. No matter how hard he tries to blend it, Bloom is forever the outsider.

Throughout the novel, Bloom is snubbed by his boss, cheated on by his wife, and ridiculed by friends and foes alike for his lack of "manliness" and closeted Jewishness. His sea-voyaging exploits are limited to a single afternoon in the Dublin Bay, paddling a boat and nearly swamping his wife and daughter. Above all, he is haunted by the suicide of his father and the untimely death of an infant son. In the late American lingo, Bloom is a "total loser." Yet, he resembles, in Joyce's imagination, the great warrior king of ancient Greece. How?

One word unlocks this puzzle: reincarnation. Reincarnation is revival, resuscitation, regeneration, not replica. Just as the genes of an individual is a patchwork of her/his  ancestors going back thousands of years, just like the cross-pollination of two plants breeds hybrid seeds, so do ancient experiences in novel contexts strike us with uncanny déjà vu. Birth and death, happiness and misery bind the first human to the last. "What is the age of the soul of man?" Joyce asks. Ulysses' soul wanders for 3,000 years to be reanimated in Bloom in an entirely different historical period and geographical location.

While Ulysses devises a state-of-the-art killing machine, Bloom harbors within himself an indomitable living machine. Though he has been the butt of many jokes and anti-Semitic slurs, though he undergoes countless setbacks and personal defeats, though none of his fellow Dubliners makes it easier for him to go on, Bloom cherishes everything passing him by – music poured out by the cooing of songbirds, the fragrance melting though blooming primroses, the warmth of cuddling the loved ones on a chilly night. Therefore he resolves not to give into distress and despair but to drink in the mirth and miseries of life with equanimity.

"Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you," Bloom muses while attending the funeral of Paddy Dignam, a fellow Dubliner, "Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life." Seeing a rat grown fat on the cold corpses squeeze out of the cemetery, Bloom reverses the clichéd phrase of funeral services; from "In the midst of life, we are in death," to "In the midst of death, we are in life!" Get up and fight, or lie down to die? Bloom has his work cut out, and so do we.

Ulysses and Bloom are woven together by their insatiable thirst for all life has to offer; if life is a work of art, death is its masterpiece. As darkness gives light its radiance and pain makes pleasure pleasant, the boredom of "stay at home" orders make us nostalgic for that which we took for granted – free movement. Only one thing could fashion the shackles of quarantine into a garland on the spirit of humanity: kindness – to neighbors, to strangers – kindness to oneself in relishing the simple delights. So, sit back, relax, enjoy a scoop of mint-chocolate ice cream (if you don't mind the tooth-pasty flavor), and occasionally, lend a helping hand to others, for shouldering the burdens of those in need makes humanity humane indeed. Perhaps, one day, we could share the joy of swimming in the sun again.


S M Mahfuzur Rahman is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).

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