The ever-insouciant, controversial Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941), in what is arguably his most notorious and fêted work, Ulysses (1922), introduced the Odysseus of his Odyssey with the following words: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” In that brief description someone begins to take shape. Known as Poldy, as Henry Flower, as L. Boom, it is Mr. Leopold Bloom, the most (in)famous Jew of Modernist literature.
But who is this Mr. Bloom? Why does Joyce pluck him from the air and set him down on paper? And perhaps most pressingly: why should we take notice of him?
Through the character of Leopold Bloom, a sea-change in English letters occurred. With this simple man, Joyce disrupted and interrogated the antisemitism present in the main corpus of non-Jewish literature, which read at that time like more or less vicious renderings of T. S. Eliot’s, “And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner, / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp” (“Gerontion”). From Marlowe’s Barabas to Dickens’ Fagin, an inflected tone accompanied each presentation of a Jew, making out of every single one, “the Jew.” Joyce presented to the reading public, in that first quarter of the last century, not a Jew, but a sympathetic, human character, who was – it happens – courageously, outspokenly Jewish. Neither saint nor sage, sinner nor boor, Bloom is an extraordinary average human being; an every(wo)man.
Further, Joyce created more than an empathetic character. He rejected the hackneyed myths and models of Jews that litter great novels, like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and ridiculed them. Ulysses, in this, as in many other things, was revolutionary. For example, Bloom is a parody of the Wandering Jew, a relentless trope that reached from late antiquity to modernity, as he spends the greater part of Ulysses dandering around Dublin. But by exactly this quality, Joyce, here, makes him an Odysseus, and his home is apparent. Not Ithaca, but 7 Eccles Street, where Bloom begins and ends his sojourn through the day. Bloom is heroic in his minor mode, with a home in Ireland. Yet, in his own eyes, he is no less a Jew than an Irishman. “What is your nation if I may ask?” “Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland . . . . And I belong to a race too, says Bloom, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.” Again and again – insulted, admired, defended – he rallies to his heritage and remembers the nature of his otherness, his uniqueness.
Nothing, then, could startle a reader more than Bloom’s casual admission, while narrating to his companion, Stephen Dedalus, a run-in he had with an inebriated anti-Semite, “He called me a jew and in a heated fashion offensively. So I without deviating from plain facts in the least told him his God, I mean Christ, was a jew too and all his family like me though in reality I’m not.” This offhand confession jolts a first-time reader. There have been hints, but little to suggest that Bloom was anything other than an assimilated Jew. It is hard not to remember Joyce’s title for the chapter where this unveiling occurs: “Eumaeus.” Eumaeus, in Homer’s rendering, is the first person Odysseus meets on his return to Ithaca. Disguised, fabricating and dissembling, Odysseus hides his identity from his dear friend Eumaeus and his own son Telemachus. Joyce’s chapter is no different as lies pile on tall-tales and masks disintegrate.
What, then, can be made of this (non-)Jew?
Baptized three times; the son of Rudolf Virag (Jewish) and Ellen Higgins (Protestant); convert to Roman Catholicism (in order to marry Marion “Molly” Tweedy); known by all and sundry as a Jew; and identifying openly with the Jewish faith, he is – evidently, I suppose – not a Jew. Yet, his relation to others in Ulysses is often dictated, paradoxically, by the very Jewishness he apparently lacks. In a dark and ironic line, a character cries out, threatening Bloom, “By Jesus . . . I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will.”
Based on Jewish men Joyce had known and befriended, like Teodoro Mayer and Ettore Schmitz (author of Zeno’s Conscience, under the pseudonym Italo Svevo), Leopold Bloom yet recalls a bevy of conflicted (non-)Jews down through history: Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law and ‘honorary Jew,’ eventually to return “home” after his time with the Israelites; Gustav Mahler, the famed composer who was an unhappy, if pragmatic, convert to Catholicism; and the mischlinge (crossbreeds) of Nazi racist ideology, persecuted for their Jewish heritage, although many were born and raised Christians (Bloom, if certain hints are picked-up regarding his mother’s family, may have been, by such standards, ¾ Jewish).
Joyce saw in Judaism (like many before and after him) the archetype of the foreigner, Other, exile, as well as an analogue for the Irish, and for himself. But he was also not unaware of the fun-house mirrors he had erected around the display of Bloom’s identity. Layers of ambiguity cloak Ulysses. Classic oppositions – male/female, high-art/entertainment, anarchy/order – are skillfully subverted and perverted throughout the text. And Joyce makes a bid to transform the position of Jews in literature at the same time he consciously disrupts for the reader the very concept of the Jew. Fellow Irishman Frank O’Conner followed Joyce in transforming identity in just the manner he had advocated and attempted when he said that “Jewish literature is the literature of townsmen, and the greatest Jew of all was James Joyce.”
Leopold Bloom walks uneasily through the outer dark; an encampment visible in strobing firelight is separated from him by faint, circling boundaries in the sand. As a Jew and a gentile he questions, implicitly, the lines of demarcation. His Judaism is an assumption in various senses. It is assumed by others; he assumes it; it elevates him in prestige and scorn; it is an impertinence. As Joyce frames Bloom’s tacit question:
What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom and about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen?
He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not.
So, too, does Joyce frame Bloom as question mark. And when Bloom sees, in a startling vision, his long-dead infant child Rudy – grown eleven years – holding a book, he sees that Rudy is reading “from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.”
What do we make of Leopold Bloom? What do we make of those who wander in the outer dark? Who are and are not; who were and will be; who seem and dissemble? To be a Jew.