This past Tuesday, June 16, was Bloomsday, the date on which the action of James Joyce's Ulysses   takes place in 1904. In Dublin, the city meticulously represented in the novel, celebrations went on for days, as they do every year. The James Joyce Centre, for example, hosted four days of events that included walking tours, lectures, readings, and other activities. Such celebrations are not limited to Dublin. People all over the world now participate in Bloomsday festivities. The international nature of the celebrations is fitting, for although Ulysses is set in a city that was, at the time of its setting, quite provincial, the novel traverses international ground, repudiating the inward look that its intense focus on a single city could suggest and thereby a nationalistic tendency that could lead some Irish to regard the book as peculiarly their own.


The novel, in fact, tackles the problem of nationalistic pride in both straightforward and subtle ways. Among the more subtle means that Joyce uses to address the issue is through his employment of the idea of the omphalos, Greek for navel. The word first appears in Stephen Dedalus's mind during the Telemachus episode, concluding a thought that begins with the phrase "To ourselves," an English variation of the Irish nationalist slogan Sinn Fein, which was transformed into the name of the Irish nationalist party in 1905. The association of the slogan with the omphalos suggests that nationalism is a form of navel gazing. Dedalus's thought  is immediately followed by his telling Buck Mulligan that Haines, "the ponderous Saxon" or Englishman, should be allowed to stay in the Martello Tower, Dedalus and Mulligan's residence, and thereby illustrates Dedalus's rejection of such naval gazing.


Later in the same episode, Mulligan uses the Greek word to refer to the tower, stating "Billy Pitt had them built . . . when the French were on the sea. But ours is the omphalos." The allusion here is to the Delphic oracle and its navel-shaped stone, which marked the spiritual and physical center of the earth in Greek mythology, and suggests that Ireland is, at least for its nationalistically minded citizens, the cultural center of the world.  Part of the joke, it seems to me, is that Mulligan's omphalos was ordered built at the end of the eighteenth century by the British Prime Minister William Pitt to defend Ireland against the French, who were to aid Irish rebels. The complex of allusion thus spreads outward, calling attention to the un-Irishness of the Ireland that the Irish would have for themselves.


Mulligan more clearly links the idea of the omphalos to nationalism in the Oxen of the Sun episode, proposing "to set up a national fertilising farm to be named Omphalos . . . and to offer his dutiful yeoman services for the fecundation of any female of what grade of life soever who should there direct to him with the desire of fulfilling the functions of her natural." The fantasy here is clearly a hyper-patriotic one, for as Adam Parkes notes in Modernism and the Theater of Censorship  , Mulligan's boasting of his virility is an affirmation of his "fidelity to Irish Nationalism and to the Roman Catholic Church, twin causes sharing one creed."  


Dedalus, however, has undermined the ideality of the associations that the notion of the omphalos holds, having transformed it into a sign of the fallen world, rather than a spiritual center, at the beginning of the Proteus episode, when he spots a midwife: "What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. 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.  Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Womb of sin."


Our original parents, not being begotten but made, would have lacked navels. Thus, while the omphalos in the passage is our link to those parents--an idea that gives rise to Dedalus's imagined phone call to Edenville, a town that would simultaneously by a single city and the whole world, as Adam, before Eve, was simultaneously an individual and the entire human species--it is also the mark of original sin, a blemish on the pure seamless belly, that surface without borders that Eve could gaze upon in Eden, itself an image of a world without borders. Nationalism thus comes to be configured not as fidelity to truth, Catholic or otherwise, but a symptom of the world's decay, as the problem of the gaze that looks upon nothing but itself is a product of the "womb of sin."

About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.