Cybernetic Plot Of Ulysse Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.