Leopold Bloom: the Jewish Irishman or the Irish Jew?


On the 99th Bloomsday, Terence Killeen reflects on the Jewishness of the Irishman Leopold Bloom

Ulysses, James Joyce stated in one of his rare comments on the book, "is the epic of two races (Israel - Ireland)". The novel frequently deploys parallels between the two peoples: the well known set-piece speech in the newspaper episode involves an extended analogy between their histories and their (possible) destinies: the contempt with which efforts to revive the Irish language and promote Irish culture generally were viewed in some quarters is compared to the contempt with which the culture and language of the subjugated Jews in Egypt were viewed by the haughty citizens of that land.

And the point is made forcefully that by staying true to their "local and obscure idol" (no idol, actually), the Jews fulfilled their destiny as the chosen people and the bearers of "the tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw". Such, it is implied, might well be the destiny of the Irish if they too remain true to their culture and beliefs.

Towards the very end of the book, moreover, there is a lengthy list of parallels between the two peoples, though by that stage readers, assuming they have got that far, are no longer sure what parts, if any, of the work to take seriously, making the status of the passage problematic.

The joint status of the Jews and the Irish as subject races (both historically and in the time of the novel) is an important part of the analogy the book postulates between them: Ireland/Britain corresponds to Israel/Egypt and to Jews/oppressors anywhere in the contemporary world. In the pub episode, one (Irish) character remarks of the Jews: "Well, they're still waiting for their redeemer. For that matter so are we."

Having set up this parallel, Ulysses proceeds to complicate it. It is one thing to draw an abstract analogy between Jewish and Irish experiences; it is quite another to blend the two together in the one character. Yet this is what the book does, in a very concrete fashion, in the figure of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish Irishman, or the Irish Jew.

Bloom's Jewishness embodies the sharp challenge posed to unitary concepts of statehood, for almost two millenniums, by the presence of a people who retain a separateness without having had a state of their own to back it up.

Actually, his Judaism is of the most vestigial kind, much more a matter of racial origin than of religion: he is non-believing, non-practising and sceptical about Zionism. Similarly, Bloom's racial origin has no effect on his sense of Ireland as being his country (when asked what his nation is he replies simply "Ireland. I was born here. Ireland").

But none of that saves him from his predestined role as the embodiment of difference, of otherness, among a people whose homogeneity is all too obvious. "One of those mixed middlings he is", the "Cyclops" narrator remarks, admittedly in a different context, but it is the blurring, the crossing-over of borders that is the source of Bloom's alienation from the other characters.

It is in the pub episode, "Cyclops", that these issues receive their sharpest focus. Recent critics, most prominently Emer Nolan, have called into question a simplistic opposition between "modern, progressive" Bloom and the "atavistic, barbarous" Citizen. And in a sense she is right, since it is in fact the nationalistic discourse of the Citizen that carries the day historically, and that is the vehicle of modernity, as opposed to the would-be universalising discourse, the "new Bloomusalem" of Bloom. But this is merely to reverse the value assigned to different discourses.

Bloom remains the outsider, all the more an outsider because he cannot be simply cordoned off as a citizen of another state. The issue of Bloom's difference goes far beyond a mere difference of opinions. Anti-Semitism, as we are all too well aware, is a far more visceral matter than that.

On the analogy the book has posited, the characters in the pub episode should be welcoming and appreciative of Bloom, seeing the parallel between the situation of their race and his. (The analogy is even explicitly made by Bloom in the course of that episode: "And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. . .")

But it is one thing to see a parallel in the abstract, it is another to be faced with difference, otherness in the presence of a living, breathing Jew in front of one's eyes. One is reminded of Shylock's great speech in The Merchant of Venice: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions?" etc.

Does this mean, then, that Ulysses is saying the analogy between the Irish and the Jews is a false one, or is at best theoretical, breaking down under the pressure of lived experience? (It has been noted in other contexts that shared oppression does not necessarily mean shared sympathy.) No, because in a final reversal, it turns out that the analogy does hold, but only under certain conditions.

When Stephen Dedalus, the alienated young would-be Irish writer, sits in Bloom's kitchen towards the end of the book, and when both exchange quotations and songs from their equally scanty stores of Irish and Hebrew respectively, and when Stephen hears "the accumulation of the past" in the "profound ancient male unfamiliar melody" that Bloom chants, a note of deep affinity is being struck, an affinity that transcends the particular historical situation of each. It also transcends the modernist high jinks that are the semi-permanent literary mode of the book at this late stage.

The condition of this affinity, however, is that both are outsiders from their society: the one by inheritance, an internal exile; the other by choice, soon to be an external exile. In this necessary precondition their experience is true to that of the writer whose great work we are celebrating today.

Terence Killeen is a Joyce scholar and a journalist with The Irish Times.