It’s Bloomsday, the anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s 1904 ramble around Dublin in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses. I guarantee you that most of what you read about Ulysses today will emphasize its shock of the new, its revolutionary style, its impact on the avant-garde. All true, but I thought it might be fun to mention one aspect of the book that’s thoroughly 19th-century: Richard Wagner.
Joyce was an amateur opera singer, and, according to evidence, rather a good one—he himself occasionally only half-jokingly wished he had pursued singing instead of writing. He knew the repertoire, and his works abound in operatic references. The use of Wagner, though, goes a little deeper.
The most famous Wagnerian bit in Ulysses comes in the “Circe” episode, when Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Stephen carries an ashplant cane that becomes an ersatz version of Siegfried’s sword:
STEPHEN: AH NON, PAR EXEMPLE! The intellectual imagination! With me all or not at all. NON SERVIAM!
FLORRY: Give him some cold water. Wait. (SHE RUSHES OUT)
THE MOTHER: (WRINGS HER HANDS SLOWLY, MOANING DESPERATELY) O Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on him! Save him from hell, O Divine Sacred Heart!
STEPHEN: No! No! No! Break my spirit, all of you, if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!
THE MOTHER: (IN THE AGONY OF HER DEATHRATTLE) Have mercy on Stephen, Lord, for my sake! Inexpressible was my anguish when expiring with love, grief and agony on Mount Calvary.
(HE LIFTS HIS ASHPLANT HIGH WITH BOTH HANDS AND SMASHES THE CHANDELIER. TIME’S LIVID FINAL FLAME LEAPS AND, IN THE FOLLOWING DARKNESS, RUIN OF ALL SPACE, SHATTERED GLASS AND TOPPLING MASONRY.)
Certainly there’s a lot going on here, but the “Nothung” reference to Siegfried’s sword, importantly, echoes one of Joyce’s Irish compatriots, the writer George Augustus Moore. Moore packed his novels with music, especially Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa, both of which concern music and music-making, abetted with copious detail. (“I hear it has to be played on the piano,” Oscar Wilde once quipped about one of Moore’s books.) Moore consciously tried to emulate Wagnerian leitmotif structure in his work, which was not unusual for novelists of the time, but the quest for a specifically “Irish” literary identity gave Moore’s efforts extra urgency. Towards the end of his autobiography Hail and Farewell, Moore writes this aria:
Ireland has lain too long under the spell of the magicians, without will, without intellect, useless and shameful, the despised of nations. I have come into the most impersonal country in the world to preach personality—personal love and personal religion, personal art, personality for all except God…. I asked myself if I were Siegfried, son of Sigmund slain by Hunding, and if it were not my fate to reforge the sword that lay broken in halves in Mimi’s cave. It seemed to me that the garden filled with tremendous music, out of which came a phrase glittering like a sword suddenly drawn from its sheath and raised defiantly to the sun.
At this point in the text, Moore inserts, in musical notation, Wagner’s “Nothung” motif.
Stephen’s swordplay, is then, in the prism of Moore, as much a reflection of his aspiring-writer character as it is a Joycean operatic flourish. Hail and Farewell was first published in 1914, and it’s highly unlikely that Joyce didn’t read it—Joyce has Stephen name-drop Moore elsewhere in Ulysses. Both Moore and Joyce knew and were influenced by the French writer Edouard Dujardin, Joyce crediting him with inspiring his own stream-of-consciousness style. Not coincidentally, Dujardin was a thorough Wagnerian, co-founding a Révue Wagnérienne and providing the template for much of the Irish Wagnerian experimentation. The ashplant brandishing is as much satire as mythmaking, but it points up the deeply Romantic underpinnings of Ulysses. Moore and Joyce were asymptotically converging on a myth of Irishness reminiscent of the way 19th-century German’s attempted to construct their own national identity. Isaiah Berlin, in lectures published as The Roots of Romanticism, put it this way:
Therefore we must have modern myths, and since there are no modern myths, because science has killed them, or at any rate has made the atmosphere unpropitious to them, we must create them. As a result there is a conscious process of myth-making: we find, in the early nineteenth century, a conscientious and painful effort to construct myths—or perhaps not so painful, perhaps some of it could be described as spontaneous—which will serve us in the way in which the old myths served the Greeks.
As the most successful mythmaker of the Romantic era, Wagner was an inspiration to an entire generation of Irish artists catching up to the century-old idea of a created cultural nationalism. For all its modernity, the energy of Ulysses is just as much about making up for lost time.
Further reading: Alex Ross highlights more Wagner allusions. If you have JSTOR access, you can read William Blisset’s 1961 article “George Moore and Literary Wagnerism” and Timothy Martin’s “Joyce, Wagner, and the Artist-Hero.” Martin’s full-length study Joyce and Wagner is out of print: hunt around.