“Me. And me now.”

In the year of James Joyce’s birth, the geometric problem of squaring the circle was proved to be unsolvable. Because π is not only an “irrational” number,  (that is, it can’t be expressed as the ratio of two integers), it is impossible to construct a square with precisely the same area as any given circle. In the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom admits he gave up this problem when he learned “of the existence of a number computed…to be of such magnitude and of so many places…that, the result having been obtained, 33 closely printed volumes of 1000 pages each…would have to be requisitioned in order to contain the complete tale of its printed integers.” Bloom abandons this problem because the problem’s unworkability makes the answer unattainable.
            If we can agree that Bloom’s wife, Molly, is also a pet problem for him, she is equally impossible as the quadrature of the circle, inasmuch as “what to do” with his wife, like the problem of squaring the circle, “frequently engaged his mind.” Joyce, himself, suggested that Molly’s monologue in “Penelope” is also circular: “[the chapter] turns like the huge earth ball slowly surely and evenly round and round spinning, its four cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb and cunt expressed by the words because, bottom […], women, yes”. As Bloom returns home, as he recollects the day, as he and Molly lie in a pattern that circles upon itself, so, too, does Molly circle through the persistence of the word “O,” returning us to the copulative act preceding birth, to the first and final “yes,” wherein the cycle completes and begins again. Bloom’s failure to square the circle, then, not only resembles his failure to complete carnal intercourse, but also exposes his continued veneration for the problems he cannot solve: the woman he cannot fully attain, the circle he cannot square.
            As readers, we are caught in the circle of Ulysses in the sense that when we reach the final “yes” of Molly’s monologue, we are not even certain what we have read. We return to the book, reread it again, this time more closely. But rereading offers no guarantees that we’ll ever be sure of what we’ve read: we will never know who the Man in the Macintosh is. We will never know what happens to the Blooms. We will never fully understand Stephen’s argument about Shakespeare or why he refuses to bathe, or how “U.P.: up” could be libelous. No rereading will ever yield these answers.
            Ulysses is thus not only an enigma, it is also frequently only slightly more coherent than the hallucinatory incomprehensibility of Finnegans Wake, insofar as readers must attempt, in the act of reading, to sort through the ever-filling textual warehouse of incoherent drunken babble, the associative-illogical musings of any number of narrators, hallucinations and mid-sentence character changes, scientific, literary and philosophical treatises, not to mention the innumerable references to history, politics, mathematics, art, mythology, religion, folklore, literature, references to allusions, allusions to allusions, allusions to allusions of puns, puns on puns, puns on puns on puns, ever unraveling without actually unraveling and so on until “nought nowhere was never reached”. The answers just aren’t there. The text is a circle we cannot square.

©2008 Dr. Lacy M. Johnson All Rights Reserved.