On this day…29 September

On 29 September 1920 Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen about the ‘Circe’ episode.

Joyce had been working on the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses at the same time as he was preparing to leave Trieste for Paris in the summer of 1920. Having relied on Frank Budgen as a sounding-board while he was in Zurich, Joyce continued explaining his work to him in letters from Paris.

Joyce began writing the ‘Circe’ episode in June 1920 and, when he and his family arrived in Paris at the beginning of July, his initial idea was to stay there for three months to complete ‘Circe’ and start ‘Eumaeus.’ By the end of July ‘Circe’ was half written, but his method of drafting and redrafting meant that by the middle of August he had written out most of ‘Circe’ four or five times. The episode wasn’t finished until the end of the year.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who has been banished to live on an island where she uses magic to trap hapless visitors by transforming them into animals. Some of Odysseus’ men have already been transformed into pigs and Odysseus is given ‘moly,’ a magical herb, by Hermes to prevent him suffering a similar fate. In Ulysses, the episode is set in the ‘nighttown’ district of the city, with Bella Cohen, the brothel keeper, as Circe. The episode is written in the style of a play with transformations and hallucinations reflecting the magical qualities of Circe’s island.

In September 1920, Joyce had been seeing Budgen’s friend Louis Sargent, the painter, in Paris and he told Budgen that he was incorporating some of Sargent’s stories into the ‘Circe’ episode. Joyce had asked Budgen to send him any ideas he had for ‘Circe’ but so far Budgen hadn’t come up with anything. Even so, as he told Budgen, the episode was becoming wilder and more involved as he wrote it.

One of the things Joyce had been exploring in correspondence with Budgen was the significance of Odysseus’ ‘moly’ which Joyce was trying to parallel with something suitable for Bloom. In a letter earlier in September, Joyce imagined ‘moly’ as being laughter, something that could kill off enchantment, but in his letter on 29 September he says that, as the gift of Hermes, ‘moly’ might also be something which saves in case of accident, and therefore something which might protect from syphilis. Joyce connects the word ‘syphilis’ with a Greek root meaning ‘swine-love’ which fits neatly with the transformation of his men into pigs. In Ulysses Bloom’s ‘moly’ is a small black shrivelled potato, given to him by his mother.

In addition to asking Budgen’s opinion on ‘moly’ Joyce asked him for ideas about costume, saying that ‘Circe’ was turning into a costume episode, and that already Bloom had been made to appear in five or six different suits. Joyce seemed to want to increase the number of costume changes, to fit with the episode’s theatrical and transformational themes.


Sources & Further Reading:

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.