The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses A paper delivered at the CALIFORNIA JOYCE conference (6/30/93) Good afternoon. 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 Keyes. 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 mail. 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: BY LORRIES ALONG SIR JOHN ROGERSON’S QUAY MR BLOOM walked soberly, past 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 through.
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 disguise. 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 Dead.” 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 …