The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses
A paper delivered at the CALIFORNIA JOYCE conference (6/30/93) To quote the opening of Norbert Wiener's address on Cybernetics to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in March of 1950, The word cybernetics has been taken from the Greek word kubernitiz (ky-ber-NEE-tis) meaning steersman. It has been invented because there is not in the literature any adequate term describing the general study of communication and the related study of control in both machines and in living beings. In this paper, I mean by cybernetics those activities and ideas that have to do with the sending, carrying, and receiving of information. My thesis is that there is a cybernetic plot to ULYSSES -- a constellation or meaningful pattern to the novel's many images of people sending, carrying, and receiving -- or distorting, or losing -- signals of varying import and value. This plot -- the plot of signals that are launched on perilous Odyssean journeys, and that reach home, if they do, only through devious paths -- parallels and augments the novel's more central journeys, its dangers encountered, and its successful returns. ULYSSES works rather neatly as a cybernetic allegory, in fact, not only in its represented action, but also in its history as a text. The book itself, that is, has reached us only by a devious path around Cyclopean censors and the Scylla and Charybdis of pirates and obtuse editors and publishers. ULYSSES both retells and re-enacts, that is, the Odyssean journey of information that, once sent, is threatened and nearly thwarted before it is finally received. We are talking, of course, of cybernetics avant la lettre -- before Norbert Wiener and others had coined the term. But like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain discovering that all along he's been speaking prose, so Leopold Bloom might delight in learning that he is actually quite a proficient cyberneticist. Joyce made his protagonist an advertizing canvasser at the moment when advertizing had just entered the modern age. Bloom's job is to put his clients' messages into forms that are digestible by the mass medium of the press. If Bloom shows up in the National Library, for instance, it will be to find a logo (in what we would call clip art) for his client Alexander Keyes. The conduct of spirit through space and time is what communication's about. And James Joyce was interested, as we know, in the conduct of spirit: his own, that of his home town, and that of his species. * * * Once they're sent, what are some of the things that can happen to messages? They can be lost, like the words that Bloom starts to scratch in the sand: "I AM A..." Signals can be degraded by faulty transmission, like the telegram that Stephen received in Paris from his father back in Dublin: "NOTHER DYING. COME HOME. FATHER." A slip of the pen -- as in Martha Clifford's letter to Bloom -- destroys intended meanings, but it also, as Joyce loves to point out, creates new ones. "I called you naughty boy," Martha wrote to Henry Flower, "because I do not like that other world." Signals can be abused and discarded, like the fate of "Matcham's Masterstroke" in Bloom's outhouse. Signals can be censored, pirated, misprinted, and malpracticed upon by editors, as happened the text of this novel itself. Signals can fall into the wrong hands, like the executioners' letters in the pub, or they can land where they're sent but make little sense, like the postcard reading "U.P. up" that Dennis Breen gets in the mail. And signals can, finally, reach their intended recipient with the intended meaning, as in Bloom's pleasure in reading Milly's letter to him in the morning's mail. And what about that book that Stephen is going to write in ten years? There's a premonitory cybernetic allegory for you, and one with a happy ending to boot. * * * I would like to sketch for you, then, a brief and cursory chapter-by-chapter account of the cybernetic plot of Ulysses. But lest the listener persist in harboring doubts, as we say, concerning the cybernetic signature of the Joycean narrative, let me anticipate the first sentence of the 'Lotus-Eaters' episode: BY LORRIES ALONG SIR JOHN ROGERSON'S QUAY MR BLOOM walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher's, the postal telegraph office. As befits the narcotic theme of the episode, this first sentence is itself not quite sober. Even the first two words -- "BY LORRIES" -- are ambiguous, since the mail moves "by lorries" in a parallel but different sense of Mr Bloom walking "by lorries." Most significantly for our reading, this first sentence of 'Lotus-eaters' ends in "the postal telegraph office," suggesting that the episode, like the novel at large, is concerned with sending messages. STATELY, PLUMP Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. That mirror will be used shortly for heliography, when Mulligan will have "swept the mirror a half circle in the air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea." This is idle signal-sending, with no clear sense of a recipient. Up close, Buck has just hurt Stephen's feelings on the subject of his mother, and is about to hurt them again. In other words, between the two men, communication is poor. The signals don't get through. Also in the first episode, the old milkwoman prompts a Homeric thought attributed to Stephen: "Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger." "Maybe a messenger!" Cyberneticists love ambiguity, particularly about subjects like messages and messengers in disguise. The Homeric scheme for the novel tells us that the elderly milkwoman as messenger stands for or signifies the goddess Athena disguised in the form of Mentor. From the first, sending a successful signal is understood from that great cyberneticist Homer to require a disguise. The wire that conducts truth, in an image that Pynchon favors, must be insulated. Furthermore, our best ideas, the Greeks thought, come to us as if from without. Thus, Telemachus receives his prompt from Athena disguised as Mentor, just as Stephen is metaphorically roused from inaction by the old milkwoman. A signal gets through, not despite but thanks to its padding, and for both Homer's and Joyce's young man, the signal prompts new ideas. History, the subject of Stephen's instruction in 'Nestor,' is what remains of signals from the past. Education itself is the ultimate cybernetic challenge, and Stephen grapples with it in trying to explain a math problem to a slow student from Vico Road. Throughout the novel, ignorance and stupidity -- respectively, a lack of knowledge and a lack of intelligence -- pose threats to both the characters and the culture. They are not helpful insulation; rather, they interfere with and frustrate successful communication. "My patience are exhausted," writes Martha Clifford to her penpal Henry Flower. Stupidity threatens to reduce signal to noise just as surely as the citizen later threatens to bean poor Bloom. The bigotry of anti-Semitism that Mr. Deasy incarnates at the end of 'Nestor' epitomizes noise, then, in the form of injurious stupidity. In 'Proteus,' the third episode, Joyce combines the references to space and time, respectively, of the first two episodes, by allowing the sight of the midwives on the beach to prompt Stephen's thoughts of a navelcord telephone to Eden. The famous telegram from his father, containing the typo which Joyce deliberately repeated from the actual telegram but which his editors from 1934 until 1986 insisted on correcting, also appears in this episode. "Nother dying. Come home. Father." Accidental noise in the signal seemed to Joyce to possess profundity, alluding as the error did to the universal condition of mortality -- a theme dear, as we know, to the author of "The Dead." Near the end of the 'Proteus' episode, Stephen on the strand at Sandymount wonders "Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice." Stephen has just torn off the bottom of Mr Deasy's letter to the editor, so as to jot a poetic idea on it, and showing that for him the medium of a signal means nothing; only its spirit, or content, matters. Bloom will write letters on these sands, too; it's as if proximity to water brings out the playful side in signal-sending, as with Buck's earlier mirror-flashing. There is a kind of playful, throwaway signal-sending that we indulge in for the pleasure of NOT knowing who will receive it. "I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to earth, I know not where." Sending real messages is serious business; sending pseudo-messages, or non-messages to random audiences, is play. Stuff for the beach, not the town. In 'Calypso' (the first Bloom chapter), velopes themselves carry meaning; the one from Blazes to Molly scorches poor Bloom's heart. But the (quote) "letter for me from Milly" does Bloom'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. 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 recapitulated 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.