Thursday, March 22, 2007

`Grief Too Will Make Us Idealists'

The grief-stricken heart of Ulysses is the death of Rudy Bloom, the 11-day-old son of Leopold and Molly Bloom, in December 1893, more than 10 years before Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, the day on which the events of the novel take place. In the sixth chapter, “Hades,” Leopold Bloom ruminates during Paddy Dignam’s funeral:

“Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling that would be. From me.”

Eleven chapters later, at the conclusion of “Circe,” set in Bella Cohen’s brothel, Bloom has a vision:

“(Silent, thoughtful, alert, he [Bloom] stands on guard, his fingers at his lips in the attitude of secret master. Against the dark wall a figure appears slowly, a fairy boy of eleven, a changeling, kidnapped, dressed in an Eton suit with glass shoes and a little bronze helmet, holding a book in his hand. He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.)

“BLOOM (Wonderstruck, calls inaudibly.) `Rudy!’

“RUDY (Gazes unseeing into Bloom's eyes and goes on reading, kissing, smiling. He has a delicate mauveface. On his suit he has diamond and ruby buttons. In his free left hand he holds a slim ivory cane with a violet howknot. A white lambkin peeps out of his waistcoat pocket.)”

I have no recollection of this scene from my first reading of Ulysses as a teenager. The father-son theme that dominates the novel and the significance of Bloom “adopting” Stephen Dedalus were lost on me, I’m sure. I was not yet a father and I suspect the almost unendurable pain of this scene probably left me untouched. Today, as the father of three sons, “white lambkin” is almost more than I can bear.

I thought of this pivotal moment, ignored by critics too dazzled by Joyce’s technical effects, while reading Emerson’s Essays: Second Series, specifically “Experience.” Early in 1842, Emerson’s oldest son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever. Two weeks earlier, Henry Thoreau’s brother, John, had died of lockjaw. Waldo’s death damaged Emerson forever. On his deathbed, in 1882, he was reported to have said, “Oh that beautiful boy.” In the immediate wake of Waldo’s death, Emerson wrote an elegy, “Threnody,” in which he says “I mourn/The darling who shall not return.” Then he wrote “Experience,” a puzzling, painful, zigzagging essay. Emerson had always embodied contradiction and inconsistency, and in this he mirrored the shape-shifting republic that preceded him in birth by a mere 27 years. His paragraphs, culled sentence by sentence from his journals, shift persona and mood a dozen times, one of the reasons he is so congenial to moderns. In “Experience” he writes:

“Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, -- no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, -- neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.”

The force of emotion behind those words, and the effort to contain it, is stunning. Even for Emerson, the range of metaphor is impressive. In five sentences on the death of a child, he draws from law, finance and biology. “Caducous” is revealing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “Applied to organs or parts that fall off naturally when they have served their purpose; fugacious, deciduous.” In context, the definition is chilling. For a proponent of pop psychology, that one-size-fits-all balm of idiocy, to intone that Emerson is “in denial,” that he is not “in touch with his feelings,” that he’s in need of “closure,” would be an abomination. More so than Whitman, his most attentive student, Emerson “contained multitudes.” Here’s the conclusion to “Experience”:

“We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart! -- it seems to say, -- there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

Oddly, the essay never founders in despair. No conventional believer in an afterlife, Emerson sounds remarkably like William James: “It is not what we believe concerning the immortality of the soul or the like, but the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance and is the principal fact in the history of the globe.”

William James had been born on Jan. 11, 1842, 16 days before Waldo’s death. Later that year Emerson agreed to be William James’ godfather.

1 comment:

ken kurp said...

earlier in the same paragraph," There are moods in which we court suffering,in the hope that here,at least,we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.
I do not see the scene painting.