Electronic Voice Phenomena       


Unspeakable Telephony: Ulysses

Posted 18 January 2013 by | Comments (1)


James Joyce gets phone tapped. Honor Gavin publishes the results.

11.00am, 16 June 1904. Stephen Dedalus strolls Sandymount Strand, the strip of sand that skirts the city of Dublin. The day before, across a country and an ocean, a passenger ship called the General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York City’s East River. An estimated 1,021 people died. News of the disaster punctuates the day Stephen, in Dublin, walks through. A character called Father Conmee passes Grogan’s the Tobacconist ‘against which newsboards leaned and told of a dreadful catastrophe in New York’. There’s a remembered conversation between a Kernan and a Crimmins that mentions the disaster as well: ‘Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand causalities. And heart-rending scenes.’ The news is a signal in Ulysses of connectivity, of modern communication and its ability to infiltrate a city at speed. But the sunk Slocum also signals death. On Sandymount Strand, around 11.00am, Stephen contemplates the Irish Sea and — as if the cadavers of Slocum’s passengers had bloatedly swum thousands of miles overnight — thinks about a ‘corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow’, about a bundle of ‘corpsegas sopping in foul brine’. Then he sees a midwife come down to the shore ‘flabbily’ and wonders what she has in her bag. ‘A misbirth with a trailing navelcord’ is his mind’s answer. And then, being Stephen Dedalus, Stephen says to himself: ‘The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.’ ‘Aleph’ is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet; ‘alpha’ the first letter of the Greek. Stephen dials Eden via an aborted umbilical cord with a number that splices Judaic and Christian cultures and then — with its ‘nought, nought, one’ — pulses its way back to the beginning, to there being something rather than nothing. Navel-gazing Stephen (‘omphalos’ is the Greek word for belly-button) gazes through his navel back in time. But, weirdly, this is also a telephone number to the future: if aleph and alpha both stand for first or one, then the code of what Stephen dials is effectively binary, ‘1,1,0,0,1’. Telephone cables are navelcords and codes outgo technology. Everything connects. Everything gets aborted. Connectivity is deadly.

11.00am, 16 June 1904. Leopold Bloom attends the funeral of Patrick Dignam in Glasnevin Cemetery. The gravediggers take up their spades and toss ‘clods of clay in on the coffin’. Bloom can’t bear to watch. ‘And if he was alive all the time? Whew! By jingo, that would be awful!’ There should be some way of checking that the corpse is absolutely dead. They should stab its heart as you do the hearts of vampires — it’s as if Bloom believes that all humans are as morbidly immortal as vampires. ‘Wonder does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down’, he wonders. ‘Underground communication.’ There should be an ‘electric clock’ buried alongside the body, Bloom thinks. Why? So the poor rotter would know what time it was were he suddenly to wake up? And why an electric clock? What sort of electric clocks were common in 1904? A man called Alexander Bain was granted the first patent for one in 1841, but they weren’t that useful till electricity became more widely available in the 1890s. But then — how would a buried electric clock power its tock? Again, it’s as if Bloom believes all dead bodies are really timebombs, waiting to go off in all manners of the phrase. Later in Ulysses, in the drunken and disorderly Nighttown scenes, the dead corpse of Dignam actually does return, ‘showing a grey scorbutic face’. ‘It is true’, says Dignam in ‘a hollow voice’. ‘It was my funeral’. How is his return to the world possible? ‘By metempsychosis’ answers the ‘ghouleaten’ Dignam: ‘Spooks’. Whether or not he telephoned in advance from his coffin to say he was coming, we never find out.

Noon, 16 June 1904. Bloom, an adman, is in newspaper offices in the northeast quadrant of Dublin. IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS (as this section of Ulysses’ opening headline has it) trams shunt, sacks of letters get flung into mailcars, and the GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS gather. A telegram boy delivers an envelope and then steps off ‘posthaste’ — as hastily as the post, as if his own swift body has absorbed the technology of communication. Except that telecommunications are meant to be bodyless, independent of the fast horses that delivered the post in the old days. And so, as if to prove so, the telephone in the inner office whirs and instead of being immediately answered A DISTANT VOICE interrupts things. This voice is not the voice on the telephone because someone is yet to pick up the phone. The voice just hangs there, discombobulated, a story or news item out of context.

The telephone whirred.


– ‘I’ll answer it’, the professor said going.

In ‘Aeolus’, the name of this newspaper section of Ulysses, the imaginary, interspersed headlines all do this: they all hang there, connected to the narrative yet at the same time ‘out of it’, mad, abstract. The gentlemen of the press hear voices.

3pm, 16 June 1904. Many various characters traverse the streets of Dublin, each one a ‘wandering rock’. Their paths are simultaneous, yet separate: this section of Ulysses is a series of interpolations, scenes that spatially and temporally interlap like simultaneous scenes do in the movies. In one, Blazes Boylan, lover of Bloom’s wife Molly, buys a basket of fruit in a shop called Thornton’s. He flirts outrageously with the girl who serves him. Biting a red carnation, Boylan pokes a peep into the shop girl’s blouse and asks whether he might say a word to her telephone — even if we aren’t sure what precisely the telephone stands in for, Boylan’s comment is definitely, downright dirty. Something to do with pressing the girl’s buttons, or her omphalos, maybe. But the call Boylan places is also another sort of connection — a connection across Dublin, and across the text of Ulysses. After an interspersed scene featuring Stephen, we skip to the office of Boylan’s secretary, Miss Dunne. Hiding ‘the Capel street library copy of The Woman in White far back in her drawer’ (does she consider Wilkie Collins a bit fruity?) and rolling ‘a sheet of gaudy notepaper into her typewriter’, she clicks ‘16 June 1904’ into the keyboard and then by her ear the telephone rings ‘rudely’. The telephone rings rudely: by way of telephone cables, Boylan’s roguish comment has morphed into a rude, discordant sound. Is this the metempsychosis of voices? And why are disembodied voices dirty?

Midnight, 16 June 1904. Nighttown. The brothel. The scene is lewd and hallucinatory. ‘In a medley of voices’ a chorus formed from ‘THE SINS OF THE PAST’ comes to haunt Leopold Bloom. Amongst the sins enumerated is this one: ‘Unspeakable messages he telephoned mentally to Miss Dunn at an address in D’Olier Street while he presented himself indecently to the instrument in the callbox’. Disembodied voices are dirty, this suggests, because disembodied voices are bodily: disembodied voices are anybody’s. But Bloom’s sin is itself contradictory. Are not telephone messages by their very nature eminently speakable? Or is it because Bloom imagined saying exactly nothing into ‘the instrument’ — maybe just ‘unspeakably’ breathing very heavily — that what he thought about is ‘unspeakable’? Is the Miss Dunn he mentally telephoned the same Miss Dunne aforementioned, Blazes Boylan’s secretary, divested of the silent ‘e’ of her name? Does this divesting suggest that Bloom only knows Miss Dunn sonically, vocally, that he has never seen her name written down? Whether Miss Dunn/e ever got Bloom’s messages, just as whether Dignam ever telephoned from his underground digs, we don’t know. But we do, by now, know this: telephony is dirty, deadly, bodily, disembodied, discombobulated, mad, quick. Telephony is dead. Telephony lives fast.


Honor Gavin is a writer, musician, and academician born in Birmingham and now based in Berlin. Her work includes the multi-media cityscape Midland, the sonic installment of which will be released by the whenwebuildagain collective early next year. She is creating a new work for the EVP programme, 0121 Stimmtausch.


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