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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:


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

sending messages.

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,

and acknowledged.

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.

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