An epical forged cheque: William Empson reads Ulysses

Empson’s insightful errors, no. 2

In the London Review of Books, 1982, William Empson published (in two parts) “The Ultimate Novel”, a lengthy but entertaining partial explication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. A revised version appeared in Using Biography two years later. Empson waited till very late in this long essay before spelling out explicitly what he thought was the intended endpoint of Bloom’s odyssey. Perhaps he felt it necessary to lay out the groundwork as persuasively as possible before asking the reader to accept the sensational secret. The postponement of the denouement may help to explain why Empson’s reading isn’t better known and more widely discussed. It’s possible, even likely, that some readers have fallen away before the end. Others, who stayed the course, may have felt that the earlier pages of the essay provided sufficient insulation to absolve them from tackling the explosive conclusion directly. It seems certain that scholarly readers, in particular, have felt that Empson’s hypothesis is too far-fetched or too scabrous even to be worth refuting. That’s unfortunate, because even a failed attempt at refutation would be illuminating.

I think it’s more advisable to try to grab the reader’s attention from the outset: Bloom has, with some difficulty, persuaded Stephen Dedalus to come to Bloom’s home in Eccles Street, Dublin. Although he hasn’t said so in so many words, Bloom wants the younger man’s assistance in conceiving a male child. His plan is that Stephen should start to have sex with Bloom’s wife, Molly, while Bloom looks on. At a certain point, when both of the Blooms are sufficiently aroused, Stephen will withdraw and get out of the way, allowing Bloom to have sex with his wife and (if all goes well) impregnate her.

No contact [between the two men] will be needed: that is the point of making Bloom a voyeur. Still, Bloom has to be gazing while Stephen and Molly perform the act, and when Stephen has reached crisis the thoughtful husband will need to see that the condom is still in place and unbroken. Stephen will then retire to the spare bedroom, no doubt making one of his jokes, and Molly is pretty sure to be still unsatisfied: thus the married couple are in an ideal condition to overcome their obstacle. (Using Biography, pp. 252–3)

If Bloom gets his wish, the pregnancy will go to term and Molly will be delivered of a son, Bloom’s heir.

The participation of Stephen (or someone like him) is required because the Blooms no longer have sex with each other, and he can’t imagine it happening without some kind of catalyst. Molly is having an affair with Hugh “Blazes” Boylan, a concert promoter on whom she is partly dependent for bookings as a singer. Bloom (using the alias Henry Flower) is engaged in a clandestine flirtatious correspondence with a woman calling herself Martha. It seems that his sex life now mainly consists of opportunistically getting an eyeful wherever and whenever he can, and (if the witnesses in his nightmarish “trial” in Nighttown are to be taken literally) in exhorting respectable women to behave scandalously.

The Blooms once had a son, Rudy, who would now have been eleven years old but who died in infancy. Bloom thinks about Rudy at various moments during the day. In the afternoon, he’s eating a meal in the Ormond Hotel and, through the open door of the bar, listening to Ben Dollard sing. Dollard’s song is “The Croppy Boy”, a nationalist lament containing the line “I alone am left of my name and race”, which prompts Bloom to reflect:

I too. Last of my race. Milly young student. Well, my fault perhaps. No son. Rudy. Too late now. Or if not? If not? If still.

He bore no hate.

That evening, Bloom goes to the maternity hospital in Holles Street to ask after Mina Purefoy, who has been suffering a protracted labour with her ninth child. The child is finally born safely. At Holles Street, Bloom runs into Stephen, who is buying drinks for a group of medical students. The conversation turns to questions of science, of which Bloom has two:

There may be, it is true, some questions which science cannot answer — at present — such as the first problem submitted by Mr L. Bloom (Pubb. Canv.) regarding the future determination of sex. … The other problem raised by the same inquirer is scarcely less vital: infant mortality.

This is consistent with Empson’s account: Bloom is weighing the uncertainties of trying to conceive a new heir. Assuming that Molly were to become pregnant, how could they be sure that the child would be a boy or that he would survive any longer than Rudy did?

Stephen and the medical students move to a bar. Bloom catches up with him again in Nighttown. He questions his “choice” of Stephen:

What am I following him for? Still, he’s the best of that lot. If I hadn’t heard about Mrs Beaufoy Purefoy I wouldn’t have gone and wouldn’t have met. Kismet. He’ll lose that cash.

The evidence for Empson’s conjecture is far from conclusive but, so far as it goes, it seems to support the theory: Bloom does indeed think about the loss of Rudy, and wonder if it really is too late for him to have another shot at begetting a male heir. He thinks that Stephen may have some assistance to provide, though he is (as Empson acknowledges) not at all explicit about what form that might take. Most importantly, Molly seems to be receptive to the idea (Using Biography, pp. 239–41). Of course Stephen might flatly refuse to take part but at least by the end of the book he is open to meeting Molly in her home and exchanging Italian lessons for voice training.

So, I’m including “the Bloom offer” in my short series on “Empson’s insightful errors” not because I believe he’s wrong exactly, but because he seems to be telling only part of the story. As I argued in an earlier issue, he is flat out wrong about the nature and import of the Chancery records involving Andrew Marvell’s widow. He accepts the assessment of those documents put forward by Fred S. Tupper, and is prepared to go to fantastic lengths to explain away nonexistent objections. And (as I hope to argue in a later issue), he raises a very pertinent question about what Marlowe’s Faustus can possibly be hoping to achieve, but then concocts a fanciful theory involving “middle spirits” and overlooks a more likely and persuasive explanation.

In the cases of Marvell and Marlowe, Empson raises a salient and significant problem to which he then proposes the wrong answer. With Joyce, he’s not so much in error as distracted by the more sensational, ostentatiously phenomenal half-answer. Where he is right is in seeing that the meeting of Poldy and Stephen is the prelude to an act of generation or conception. But what Joyce is hoping will be born as a result of this coming together is not a human child (though Bloom may well end up with a son as recompense for his labour) but something that (in Joyce’s view at least) something of more moment.

At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus has proclaimed his grandiose intention

… to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

Whatever Stephen might be accused of, it’s not a lack of ambition. But, by the time he came to write Finnegans Wake (1939), Joyce suggested that his earlier self had been copying “signatures”

… so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit

While this may sound like a repudiation of his youthful self-importance, I’d like to suggest that the point of the joke was that the author had come to believe that the “conscience of a race” is not something that could be forged in a smithy, with a hammer, anvil, fire and sparks, but must instead be produced by an organic process, analogous to conceiving a child. If Joyce was repudiating anything in making that joke, it was not the idea that a national consciousness could be created but rather the notion that its creation would be a mechanical process, like making weaponry or physical defences.

It’s striking that Stephen sees what passes for a national conscience in the Ireland of 1904 as being dominated by two authorities who behave like overstrict parents. Early on, he tells Haines that he is “a servant of two masters”:

—The imperial British state, Stephen answered, his colour rising, and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.

That night, after his escape from Bella Cohen’s bawdy house, he taps his forehead and says “But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.”

So, I think it probable that Joyce saw his task at the end of Ulysses as the bringing together of the parents of this new national conscience: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. They are complementary types. Poldy is down-to-earth, practical and sensuous, sensitive to tastes, smells and touch, not to mention sights and noise. He notices things that could be improved. There should be public WCs for women, he thinks, and a tramline from the cattlemarket to the quays, along the North Circular. Bloom is said to have given ideas to Arthur Griffith that Griffith used in his newspaper, The United Irishman, and that contributed to the founding of Sinn Féin.

Stephen is a contrasting figure: intellectually curious, well educated, inclined to abstract thought. He has lived for a while in Paris and Italy and speaks both French and Italian. He’s comfortable using phrases like “ineluctable modality” and giving an impromptu seminar on the significance of adultery in Shakespeare’s sonnets. He is half-paralysed by guilt, largely over the fact that his sisters are starving, while their father, Simon, wanders around town failing to provide for them, rather as he does himself. He feels particularly helpless about Dilly, who resembles him. (“My eyes they say she has.”) Handing her back her coverless copy of Chardenal’s French primer, he says:

Mind Maggy doesn’t pawn it on you. I suppose all my books are gone.

—Some, Dilly said. We had to.

She is drowning. Agenbite. Save her. Agenbite. All against us. She will drown me with her, eyes and hair. Lank coils of seaweed hair around me, my heart, my soul. Salt green death.


If we recognize Poldy and Stephen as the prospective parents of the new Irish “conscience”, it’s immediately clear which of them will be the mother. Bloom is described by Dr Dixon in the fantasy trial episode as an example of “the new womanly man”, following which the transformed Bloom says “O, I so want to be a mother”. Even before that episode, the anonymous narrator among the drinkers in Barney Kiernan’s describes Bloom as “one of those mixed middlings”, and goes on to elaborate:

Lying up once a month in the hotel Pisser was telling me once a month with headache like a totty with her courses.

This sounds like it might be just malicious speculation but later Bloom seems to confirm it, after his encounter with Gerty MacDowell:

That squinty one is delicate. Near her monthlies, I expect, makes them feel ticklish. I have such a bad headache today.

The moments at which Bloom seems to become more “womanly” are ambiguous in their implications, and I’d like to examine them in detail when I have more time. For now, it’s enough to note that the novel associates Bloom (at least some of the time) with womanliness, the female and potential motherhood, supporting the idea that its protagonists are capable of becoming the mother and father respectively of the (as yet) “uncreated concscience” that Joyce wishes to bring into being.

I should probably have said at the outset that I’m in no sense a Joyce scholar or expert, but I thought it best to get straight to the substance of Empson’s theory without preamble. Over the past 10 days or so, I’ve been rereading Ulysses in preparation for writing this essay. Before that, I hadn’t read it since about 1995, when I was an undergraduate. I certainly don’t keep up with Joyce criticism or scholarship. I hope, in spite of all that, that you’ll find my argument in this essay at least a little persuasive.

I haven’t given page references for passages from Ulysses because, not being able to find my paperback copy, I’ve been using two different ebook versions.

As I indicated above, I intend to write eventually about Empson’s interpretation of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. That will be the third of my discussions of “Empson’s insightful errors”. In the next issue, though, unless there’s a change of plan, I’ll be examining the very complicated plot of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith.