Maud Ellmann, ‘Polytropic Man: Paternity, Identity, and Naming in The Odyssey and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, in James Joyce: New Perspectives, ed. Colin MacCabe (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1982), pp.73-104.

Note: A revised version of this paper appeared in Mark A. Wollaeger, ed., James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook (Oxford 2003).

[Ellmann begins with an epigraph from Ezra Pound’s Cantos: ‘and Rouse found they spoke of Elias / in telling the tales of Odysseus ????S/ ????S / “I am noman, my name is noman” / But Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin / or the man with an education / and whose mouth was removed by his father / because he made too many things / whereby cluttered the bushman’s baggage / vide the expedition of Frobenius’ pupils about 1948 / to Auss’ralia / Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the named / thereby making clutter.’ (“Canto 74”, in The Cantos, London: Faber 1975, pp.436-27)]

Part I

The Odyssey, which fascinates the modernist epic, is as agonistic towards paternity as Joyce’s writing. When Athena asks Telemachus, a counterpart of Stephen Dedalus, if he is really the son of Odysseus, his answer casts partnity into irremediable doubt: “My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part do not know. Nobody really knows his own father.” (Odyssey, trans. Richard Lattimore, NY Harper 1967, I, 215-16.) In Ulysses, Stephen bring Telemachus’s doubt to bear not only on the mortal father but the question of divine paternity:

Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. [...] Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son? (Ulysses, Penguin Edn. 1967, p.207.)

God or man, the father comes to represent at once a founding void and a founding action. The “father” stands for singular creation, for unique authorship: 'from only begetter to only begotten.” But the question that he introduces is prolific. By no means is this the last time that Athena’s question, explicit or implicit, will be readdressed in Joyce. “Where did thot’s come from?” demands a nameless voice in Finnegans Wake (FW, 567) [i.e., thoughts/tots]. (p.76.)

If Telemachus cannot be sure who his own father is, he cannot guarantee his own “entelecy” (U, 190): his name, his lineage, or his substantial unity. Nor is is his scepticism towards paternity the only instance where The Odyssey casts doubt upon identity. It may that what attracted Joyce’s writing, as it attracted Pounds’, to Homer’s ramifying postscript to the Iliad, was not so much the sanctity of its antiquity (as Eliot suggests), but the questions that the Odyssey revolves - about the nature of the self, its history and its fictions. (p.77.)


First of all, the scar, in Joyce and Homer, allies itself illicitly to nomination. It is Odysseus’s scare which betrays his name to Euryclaeia: while in Portrait, Stephen’s name itself - as we shall see - dissolves the scare. In a perversion of the Incarnation, the name becomes the point where word and flesh meet in a single scar. [77] / The scar, then, represents the trace of a transaction: the conversion of the word into the flesh. This “transaction” bring us into the domain of “circulation”.’ [. As the Church, for Stephen, founds itself upon unlikelihood, and like the world revolving in the void, the subject comes to circulate around the scar that hollows out his name. (p.77-78.)


According to Joyce [... i]t does not suffice [...] to hinge the name upon a scar: the name itself must suffer scarification.

The most famous instance of this mutilation occurs when Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is nobody (O, IX, 366-67.) Nobody, or “noman” as Pound and Joyce translate it, is what the first half of “Odysseus” means when the second half, according to Joyce, has been lopped off. (Richard Ellmann, The Consciousness of Joyce, 1977, p.13.) The hero severs “Zeus” from Odyssey - much as Pound severs “Ouan” from “Jin” - and noman - [????]S -s the stump that he retains.

Most Greek scholars would contest this etymology. But where to words come from? It is the very waywardness of etymologies and genealogies that Joyce and Homer’s odysseys enjoy. The texts set words, as well as flesh, adrift: no word can every quite regain its roots, its Ithaca . This derivation of Odysseus does not misfit the text’s impertinence towards origins. If we suspend our disbelief towards Joyce’s etymology [outis], though it conceals the name “Odysseus”, also betrays the name’s true nature. [outis] is literally the scar of the dismembered name Odysseus.

Noman is the name that undoes nomination: it unnames what it names. W?hat taxonomy can we ourselves attach to such a signature? The Wake, perhaps, suggests a classification. The second chapter of the Wake pretends to trace the fallen father’s name back to its origins. It calls his name an “occupational agnomen” (FW, 30) [italics added]. “Noman” whispers in agnomen, and gives the name a taint of anonymity. It implies that the name of the father will not be traced to an originary fulness of identity. Rather, the further back one seeks its origins, the more the name unravels into anonymity [85]: “First you were Nomad, next you were Namar, now you’re Numah and it’s soon you’ll be Nomon.” (FW, 374.)

Here agnomens come thick and fast. The name itself becomes a nomad, like the erract characters it names. This series mocks the very notion of an etymology which might restore the person to his name. One cannot sift the source from its derivatives, the original name form its corrupted forms. The first name in the series no more reliably identifies the hero than the last. One agnomen leads only to another agnomen, as every story only yields a scar.

Part II
A Portrait of the Artist, too, as I shall try to show, conceives identity as a scar without an origina - without an author: and at last, without even a name. But I should specify, at once, that Joyce’s work is not 'about’ a scar. To say that the test is 'about’ something is to reinstate the false dichotomy of form and content which no writing more than Joyce has so flagrantly transgressed. The scar that lodges in the text is not the secret, to be uncovered by a probing exegesis: it is so unhidden that like Poe’s puloined letter, we overlook it if we search for it too hard. Nor is it a key that will unlock the text, a final meaning into which the text’s opacities dissolve: as if A Portrait were nothing but a euphemism for a scar. The signification of the scar consists in what it works, not what it is, for it is nothing but the principle of structure. It resurges in the epidermis of the text itdself. The cuts and repetitions of the narrative rehearse the act of mutilation through which - to borrow Davis’s Irishism from A Portrait - identity is “disremember[ed]” (Portrait, 185) endlessly. In short, the scare becomes a form of punctuation. (p.86.)


[Discusses Stephen’s encounter with the word 'Foetus’ during the trip to Cork with his father.] Although the father’s rehearsal of his past, and his excavation of his name, seem to repossess his lost identity, the real motive of the journey belies this sentiment. For he returns to his origins only to sell them away. He is to auction his belongings, and to dispossess himself and his resentful son. (A Portrait, ed. Robert Scholes, London: Jonathan Cape, 1968, p.90.)

What is more, another scar intrudes itself into the narrative, and seems to usurp or obliterature the cutting leters of his name. Remembering reverts to disremembering. [Quotes 'They passed into the anatomy theatre . hid his flushed face.’ Portrait, 92-93.)

[...] No explanation ever comes to gloss this episode, no trope induces it to circulate. For when, in 'sudden legends’ like this word or “Lotts”, the economy of literature breaks forth, its letters like a “littoral”: a shoreline or horizon that circumscribes the “vital sea” or flow and influence, and severs words and flesh from their circulation. As “literature”, or speech in storage, “Foetus” introdcues a lacuna in the tissue of the text - and the word itself remains imprisoned, strangley, in its very unequivocality. Neither Stephen, nor the reader, nor the text itself, can broach the littoral, or quite digest the literality of “Foetus” which erupts so inexplicably.

If the text does not divulge the sense of this inscription, it all too palpably insists upon the act of cutting it. We can almost here the scraping of the knives. A wound more than a word, “Foetus” scores the text and flays the desk with one full cicatrix. Its sorcery arrests the narrative: the text fives way to “tales within wheels” (FW, 247) (or better, “weals”).

For this scar, like Odysseus’s has a tale to tell. But like all scars, it needs a reader to inflame it and to let its story out. Stephen, reading it, unlocks the narrative and vents the wound.

That is, he misreads it. Notice how Stephen turns the Fcetus’s plurality into a singular event:

he read the word Foetus cut several times in the dark stained wood. The sudden legend startled his blood.... A broadshouldered student ... was cutting in the letters with a jackknife. ... [Itals. added.]

‘Cut several times’: this inscription is apparently prolific. Who is to say that it has fewer authors than (dis)figurations? However terrifying his hallucination, Stephen incorporates the scar into the fiction of a single author, and resurrects a father for the letter. The student, long ago, who slashed the desk with this uncanny legend, leaps back, with his accomplices, into sadistic life. This word, unlike the father’s memories, can resurrect the dead.

In three ways, then, this mutilating word encroaches on the father’s empire. Firstly, it breaks out where the father’s name should be. Then it lets forth that vision of the dead which Simon Dedalus’s words - according to his son - had been “powerless to evoke”. Finally, its repetitions resist the fiction of a singular begetting. How can we trace a first creation in a word “cut several times” by untold hands? Repeated, the scarletter refuses the “Creation from nothing”, “from only begetter to only begotten”, to which paternity at last refers itself and justifies itself (U, 43; 207). But the initials which “Foetus” has pre-empted or effaced must also stand for Stephen Dedalus.

Psychoanalysis would invite us to diagnose castration in the cutting letters of the father’s name. Indeed, the psychoanalytic critic almost yawns to find that S.D. has been turned into surgery. But why, in this account of things, should another word achieve priority, and an older wound forestall the laceration of the name? And why, of all things, does this cicatrix spell “Foetus”?

Why, if not because this first scar is a navel, from which the Foetus amputates itself? A navel, where the mother’s namelessness engraves itself upon the flesh before the father ever carved his signature? For why should such a word, or wound, evoke such dread, if not because the phallus has surrendered to the omphalos?

The first time that the artist meets the horror of the omphalos occurs in the Epiphanies:

[Dublin: in the house in Glengariff
Parade: evening]

Mrs Joyce - ( crimson, trembling, appears at the parlour door ) ... Jim!
Joyce - ( at the piano ) ... Yes?
Mrs. Joyce - Do you know anything about the body? ... What ought I do? ... There’s some matter coming away from the hole in Georgie’s stomach ... Did you ever hear of that happening?
Joyce - ( surprised ) ... I don’t know ....
Mrs Joyce - Ought I send for the doctor, do you think?
Joyce - I don’t know What hole?
Mrs Joyce - ( impatient ) The hole we all have . here (points).
Joyce - ( stands up )

Epiphanies, No. 12, in The Workshop of Dedalus, ed. Scholes and Kain, Northwestern UP 1965, p.29.

“The hole we all have”: the hole through which identity, like Georgie, ebbs away into the amniotic flood of its first world. “The cords of all link back,” thinks Stephen of the navelcord in “Proteus” (U, 43). This cord links all the dying generations back to Edenville and yet beyond, to disappear into a prior nameless unbegotten world. It links the “Foetus” to the mother”s ancient anonymity. The scarletters of “Foetus” therefore unsex Stephen and unname him just as “noman” must unman Odysseus. As a navel, “Foetus” flaunts the father’s name and patrilineage.

In “Proteus”, and in “The Oxen of the Sun”, Stephen twice repudiates the notion of a “belly without blemish”: of flesh unblotted by its nameless scar (U, 43; 389). just so, in Michelangelo”s “Creation” in the Sistine Chapel, Adam’s navel, in mute blasphemy, foreswears the fatherhood of God. The umbilicus, which Stephen calls the “strandentwining cable of all flesh”, belies the firstness of the father, and the originality of his creation. For rather than an origin, this blemish is the footnote of the flesh.

In A Portrait, “Foetus” opens up the”hole we all have”, the “void”on which the world, the Church, the father so precariously rest. It plunges both the subject and the text toward “agnomenity” and seimotic anarchy. (pp.76-97.)

Part III

[Epigraph:] “They are disguised hands, except the letter,” Holmes said, presently, “but there can be no question as to the authorship. See how the irrepressible Greek e will break out. .”’ (Conan Doyle, “The Sign of Four”; Complete Sherlock Holmes, Penguin 1981, p.96.)

Perhaps Joyce thought of Conan Doyle when he forged his letters to Marthe Fleischmann with Greek es instead of Roman es in the name ‘James Joyce’. In the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Bloom, likewise, reminds himself three times to ‘write Greek ees’ to Martha Clifford ( U, 278). (By what is likely to be more than a coincidence, the Greek e must break forth twice and irrepressibly from “Henry Flower”, as it doubles necessarily in James Joyce.) A pseudonym - or rather, pseudo-letter - the Greek e works like Odysseus’s agnomen: for while enabling Bloom, or Joyce, to slip out of the clutches of their Martha’s, it condemns them also to Odysseus’s anonymity. This letter is a “squirtscreen” that, like Shem or Shakespeare, Bloom and Joyce have “piled up to hide [them from themselves]” (FW, 186; U, 197). The e by which they hide their own identity is also that which gives them irrepressibly away.

The irrepressible Greek e breaks out again in Finnegans Wake . Turned upon its side, this letter marks - as “Foetus” marks for Stephen - the broken father and his broken law. [E in M position] is the siglum of HCE.

When HCE is dormant, the Greek e, too, must go to sleep. His siglum turns upside-down: [E on back]. It thus presents itself as the initial of the Wake itself: asleep and a Wake at the same time. That the sleeping e resembles female genitals only helps it to undo the father’s name.

In its somnolent position, we may detect the e in William Shakespeare’s name in “Scylla and Charybdis”. Here Stephen speaks of Cassiopeia - whose stars dispose themselves into a W, or [E on back] as “the recumbent constellation which is the signature of [Shakespeare’s] initial among the stars” (U, 210).

The e recurs in a headline in “Aeolus”: “HOUSE OF KEY(E)S” where the parenthesis enables us to isolate its properties (U, 122). In this chapter Bloom has been commissioned to insert an advertisement in the newspaper for Alexander Keyes. This ad is to portray the sign of crossed keys which represents the Isle of Man, and also [98] figures forth the name of the commissioner. This awkward pun is meant to cast an attractive “innuendo of home rule” (U, 122). The itchy copy editor does not seem to think that anyone will catch this innuendo. No more would it be possible to catch the “(E)” that crosses “KEY(E)S” were we confined to spoken utterance. We can’t bear it. Inaudibility, indeed, is what distinguishes this e from the mob of the alphabet. The “ees” that riddle Bloom’s erotic letters, or the irrepressible Greek e that hides in “KEY(E)S” - these es resist the blandishments of voice. They double-cross the realm of speech.with the inaudible, occulted impudence of “literature”.

The letter “E” is set adrift from Keyes, and slips away unheard, as Odysseus slipped by the blinded Cyclops. (For Odysseus, another irrepressible Greek character, demands a reader to be recognised. It is eyes, not ears, that read the letter, read the scar. Only Odysseus’s dog, who dwells outside the realm of literature, can recognise the hero by his voice - and die.) Under the silent ambush of the e, the word dismembers and unwrites itself. “Silently emptied of instantaneous sense”, its letters “set to band and disband themselves in wayward rhythms” (Portrait, 182). Rather than a “key” that will unlock the hidden secrets of the text, the e dissolves the word’s semantic chastity. It sets its letters swimming - to preserve the text’s digestive metaphor - in alphabet soup.

Greek es, as we begin to see, thread through Ulysses like an umbilical cord. And as the siglum of the fallen father, the letter E is littered through the Wake as well. ...

Inevitably, we return to the question we began with: “Where did thots come from?” What haunts the Wake is an unspoken version of the prolific question of origination: “Where do letters come from?” It is a question which the reader may already have begun to ask about one letter in particular: the E. In the Wake, we only know this question by the polytropic range of its replies: by the interminable gossip, speculation, commentary, paraphrase and exegesis that envelop the “untitled mamafesta” of ALP (FW, 104). This “mamafesta” is the unknown letter which the “mama” plucked out of the midden, where the tribe’s discarded dialects are stored.

Now in the middle of the earth, if not the midden, an anonymous initial was inscribed. It was scored into the stone that Zeus had marked to be the middle or the “navel” of the world: the Delphic Omphalos. Plutarch wrote an essay on this ancient graffitto, which Joyce read. (Vide Richard Ellmann, The Consciousness of Joyce, 1977, p.13.) Only Joyce could rival the abundance of its glosses, guesses, and unlikely explanations of a letter.

To give a meaning to this letter, Plutarch’s “Pythian conversation” meanders through the realms of grammar, numerology, geometry, astrology, epistemology, theology. Considered also is Apollo, who stole the Omphalos from the ancient Furies or chthonic goddesses. ('On the E at Delphi ’, in Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays, trans. C. W. King, London: George Bell 1882, pp.173-96.) His names and attributes and metamorphoses remind the reader ineluctably of joyce’s broken fathers, orphaned sons, dismembered artificers:

his turning and subdivision into airs and water and earth, and the production of animals and plants, they enigmatically term “Exile” and “Dismemberment”. They name him “Dionysos” and “Zagreus” and “Nycteleos” and “Isodi”; they also tell of certain destructions and disappearances and diseases and new births, which are riddles and fables pertaining to the aforesaid transformations: and they sing the dithyrambic song, filled with sufferings, and allusions to some change of state that brought with it wandering about and dispersion.`

What, then, could be the letter that betokens all these changes amidst these wanderings, dispersions, and divisions? It is the same letter that compulsively repeats the fall of HCE in Finnegans Wake. The initial in the middle of this muddle - the letter carved upon the Delphic Omphalos - was none other need I say it? than the Greek E.

Now, our friend Apollo appears to cure and to settle all difficulties connected with life, by giving responses to such as consult him; but of himself to inspire and suggest doubts concerning what is speculative, by implanting in the knowledge-seeking part of the human soul an appetite that draws towards the truth; as is manifest from many other things, and from the dedication of the E. For this is not likely to have been done by chance, nor yet by lot only, in settling the precedence of all the letters of the alphabet before the god, did it obtain the rank of a sacred offering and object of admiration: but either those that first speculated about the god saw in it some peculiar and extraordinary virtue of its own, or else they used it as a symbol of some important mystery. ... (Plutarch, “On the E at Delphi”)`

I would not be so bold as to insist that the letter ALP recovered from the midden is so simple and so single as an E. Once again I must decline to answer the unanswerable question, “Where did thots come from?” But the Greek E becomes a navel in the novels which succeed A Portrait of the Artist . It supplants the “Foetus” as the letter which undoes the father”s name. “In the beginning was the letter”, the Wake, as Joyce’s Genesis, seems to declare. If this letter is, indeed, an E, or any letter that could share its properties, it undercuts the very notion of beginning. “The cords of all link back,”we may remember: so even those in Edenville were not the first. Eve and Adam also had a blemish on their bellies, or an omphalos engraven with an E.

The name of the father, on the other hand, necessarily entails a first unstained creation. The patronyms of all link back to that “creation from nothing” (represented in the “telephone” number, nought, nought, one”) which Stephen mocks and then repudiates (U, 43). The scarletter on the belly tells another story, that has neither a beginning nor an end: that neither flesh nor words can ever say where they come from, or claim a unitary origin. All narratives and genealogies must end where they begin: in the middle - or the navel or the E.

A Portrait and the Wake are both, in their different ways, omphalocentric. “Gaze in your omphalos,” Stephen tells himself in “Proteus” (U, 43): and his Portrait contemplates the navel - with all the onanistic connotations of the act. In its repeated births, its repeated exiles, the subject and the text compulsively return to the rupture and the knotting of the navelcord.

Rather than the riddle of the sphinx, with all its Oedipal and phallo-centric consequences, the Wake slips in the riddle of the E to supersede the central Western mystery. (The “E”, in fact, could be read into the riddle of the sphinx itself - as the creature with “three legs (E in position of as M) in the evening”.) Here, narrative itself becomes omphalocentripetal. “Tales within wheels” (FW, 247), the cycles of the Wake, like the revolving stories of the Odyssey, suggest that these texts circumnavigate the navel, and circumvent the amputation of its scar. The Wake begins - as it ends - in the middle, or the navel, of a sentence, as if in yearning for the navelcord’s unbroken circuit. The Odyssey is equally umbiliform. Odysseus, like Bloom, begins in the middle with Calypso, in the “navel of the sea”.


[ back ]

[ top ]