Joyce’s Ulysses (1914-1921) of course can be read and interpreted from many points of view; it can be seen detail by detail or globally; it can be analysed stylistically or in content, and so on, there are almost 1 000 pages to find some point of interest. My purpose here is to focus on a chapter -‘Nausicaa’-, especially on two scenes, and from there to propose a whole reading of the book.
In ‘Nausicaa’, Gredy meets Leopold on the beach and they have a sexual encounter. It takes place next to a Catholic church where a retreat is taking place. So, the two parallel scenes are a sexual intercourse out of marriage (have in mind it was written before the 20’s) and a spiritual retreat in a Church. Gredy wears blue clothes as well as the representation of the Virgin Mary in the Church. The structure in which it is presented clearly introduces a parallelism between these two women. To suggest that Gredy could be or is similar to the Virgin while she is “fornicating” is quite a provocative thought whose aim seems clearly to be an act of blasphemy, or to look for scandal.
The second scene, which I see as related to the one above, shows Leopold alone after the intercourse writing in the sand ‘AM.A’. Writing in the sand recalls a biblical scene, it is Christ who writes in the sand after helping the adulterous from the Pharisees. It should be noted that both men write in the sand after an adulterous act has take place; so Joyce seems to be presenting here another parallelism, the act of Leopold writing in the sand is purposively put on the novel. Moreover, Leopold writes ‘AM.A’, which can be read as ‘I am I’; that is one of the expressions Christ says to introduce himself to the apostles: ‘I am I’. If you take these two scenes, you have an identification between Gredy and the Virgin, and Leopold and Christ, in other words, you have a sexual act between the Virgin and Christ. It is blasphemy what Joyce was looking for.
Behind it, Classical mythology follows the same curse. The novel is called “Ulysses” and every chapter corresponds to a chapter of Homer’s “Ulysses”. Leopold is not just identified with Christ but also with Ulysses, and her wife Molly is identified with Penelope. Leopold and Molly present the vices which correspond to Ulysses’ and Penelope’s virtues.
Joyce is mocking the two great pillars of European tradition and he knows perfectly, due to his education of which there is no doubt, what is he doing. Homer’s “Ulysses”, moreover, was took as a Pagan example of Christianity during the Middle Ages, which makes the link even clearer. Joyce is contesting the whole Western tradition, I would say, going back even to the Old Testament as Leopold Bloom is Jewish (don’t forget that Christ is Jewish).
The whole novel is what I would call, not a religious blasphemy but more than that, an European one as Joyce destroys everything which has been proclaimed as the Western culture.