I am glad to hear that you have managed to make something of Ulysses after all. Your reaction to the book (a feeling of sadness) is appropriate and shows that you have not misread it; but surely the sympathy you feel for the ageing Molly Bloom should be extended to Mr. Bloom himself (and, in a lesser degree, to most of the other characters)? Bloom has lost his first-born son, Rudi, and this had affected his relations with his wife: he himself says somewhere that he is now less happy than he used to be in earlier days.
Actually, when I first read the book, it was not so much the ageing of the characters that affected me as the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of all their actions and aspirations. They are busy, all of them, seeking their immediate satisfactions and avoiding their immediate discomforts; and everything that they do—whether it is making money, making music, making love, or simply making water—is quite pointless—in terms, that is to say, of an ultimate purpose or meaning in life.
At the time I read it—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce's characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our 'duty' is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the presentpleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha's statement, Pubbe cāham bhikkhave etarahi ca dukkhañ c'eva paññāpemi dukkhassa ca nirodham ('Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering') (M. 22: i,140), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—'What else' I exclaimed 'could the Buddha possibly teach?'
Had I delayed my return here for a few more days I should have missed a rare experience these times in Ceylon (though perhaps still common enough in India)—a fine foul corpse. After my early dāna this morning one of the villagers came to tell me that a man had been killed in the jungle by an elephant on Monday (5th) and that now, two days later (7th), his body had been found—should I like to go and see it? So, together with Ven. S., I went.
The body was lying in the jungle about a mile and a half from here, and about three hundred yards from the metalled road. The corpse was covered with kajans when we got there, but one arm, rather swollen, was exposed. On it, evidently at the site of a wound, was a heap of small maggots. The kajans were removed, but the head was covered with a blood-stained cloth. Taking a stick, I raised the cloth and pushed it back. The head, which was partly crushed, was seething with maggots, much larger than those on the arm. The face, what could be seen of it under the maggots, was quite unrecognizable, and the jawbone was protruding to one side. There was no hair on the head, and the maggots appeared to be crawling on the skull. The Visuddhimagga (Ch. VI) describes this kind of corpse as follows:
There is a worm-infested corpse when at the end of two or three days a mass of maggots oozes out from the corpse's nine orifices,[a] and the mass lies there like a heap of paddy or boiled rice as big as the body, whether the body is that of a dog, a jackal, a human being, an ox, a buffalo, an elephant, a horse, a python, or what you will. It can be brought to mind with respect to any one of these as 'Repulsiveness of the worm-infested, repulsiveness of the worm-infested'. ...Here the learning sign (uggaha-nimitta) appears as though moving; but the counterpart sign (patibhāga-nimitta) appears quiet, like a ball of boiled rice. (p. 198)
[114.a] Surely they are deposited on the corpse by flies and blue bottles? [Back to text]