A Perspective on Ulysses

We are incredibly proud of our students and the calibre of the work that they produce. The following essay was written by Sivan Piatigorsky-Roth in her grade 12 English class. It is a phenomenal example of the depth and sophistication of the literary study we undertake at Abelard.

The nature of James Joyce’s Ulysses makes it simultaneously impossible to understand without investigation, and impossible to reach conclusions on. It is a book about our obsession with finding meaning, and it is a book as well about what that investigation and inquiry means in and of itself. The thirteenth chapter in the mammoth novel, “Nausicaa” details the time between 8:00 and 9:00 on the day of June 16, 1904. The main character, Leopold Bloom, sits on Sandymound Strand, observing three young girls and fantasizing about one in particular, Gerty MacDowell, thinking about her life and her consciousness. As Gerty arouses Leopold, who subtly pleasures himself, a Benediction service takes place at a nearby church, reaching its climax (everyone cried O! O! in raptures – pg. 350) along with Bloom as a Roman candle firework explodes overhead. Realizing Gerty has a lame foot, Bloom spends the rest of the chapter pondering sexual attraction and thinking primarily about his wife. The book as a whole is about dualities, and this chapter in particular focuses on them, yet Joyce is careful to collapse and merge the parallel ideas in “Nausicaa” and show that in fact, the twofold depictions in Ulysses are truthfully one and the same.

This chapter is the first in the book to focus on a woman. It is unclear if the female thoughts in the chapter belong to Gerty herself (which is what we are led to believe until the final lines of the chapter) or if they are a product of Bloom’s fantasies. Gerty is depicted as a feminine duality. She is a seductress and an innocent child in one. She is a girl “loveable in the extreme” (pg. 332), with a face “almost spiritual in its ivorylike purity”. She has clear blue eyes, pretty dress and dreams of a strong husband. She thinks in advertising clichés, fairytales, and the sentimental talk of women’s magazines. Yet Gerty, for all her virgin naivety, plays the part of the siren as well as the maiden. She spends her time prettying herself, hunting for the right colors (pg, 335) and smiling at her reflection in the mirror (pg. 335). She wears charming underwear (pg. 335-336) and she shows her ankles flirtatiously to Bloom, knowing well that her purity arouses him, and taking delight in the results of her tease.

This imagined duality is likely a result of Bloom’s own preconceptions. As an advertising agent, Bloom is likely to be well versed in the clichés of advertisement, as well as their audience (young women, largely). The thoughts in Gerty’s head reflect what he imagines a young woman’s thoughts to be consumed by, and are strikingly different to the interior monologue we get later from his wife in chapter eighteen, a genuine female consciousness. Gerty’s language takes directly from women’s magazines of the day and only alludes to unpleasant ideas such as her foot or masturbation rather than directly addressing them as Molly does in chapter 18, actually thinking for herself. The final lines suggest that Gerty sees Bloom sitting on the rocks and thinks he’s “cuckoo”. Bloom throughout the novel is always many things at once. He is a born Jew who converted in marriage and is not circumcised (the foreskin is not back. Better detach.- pg. 356), and here his fantasies take the form of a feminine consciousness along with the masculine. It could be that the recurring theme of metempsychosis has reappeared, and Gerty’s femininity has settled into Bloom for a few pages, supported perhaps by the repetition of sight, eyes, and painting as motifs while Gerty thinks, shifting towards scent when she leaves, a sense that has previously been associated with Bloom’s consciousness. It could be as well that Bloom is simply aroused by such elaborate fantasies, as he spends a great deal of time thinking on sexual attraction and its nature.

Another duality presents itself in the form of desire. The desire for a connection, both spiritual and physical, runs throughout the book, but in particular throughout this chapter. The coinciding mass and masturbation are two parallel ways of alleviating the parallel desires in both the mind and the body. While Bloom is a man rooted in the physical, who spends his time bathing, defecating, masturbating, and eating, his search for intimacy manifests itself in the spiritual as well, as he meditates on his relationship with his wife, his son’s death, and his book-long search for a son figure, culminating in his meeting with Stephen.

The religious desire and devotion, however, is rarely seen as equal to the physical desire, but is rather thought to be of a higher morality than the more depraved bodily urges, and Bloom is not oblivious to this, thinking himself a “brute”, and then letting his mind turn towards, interestingly, religion (pg. 361). Bloom is not a Christian. He doesn’t go to church and holds atheistic views. Why, then, do his thoughts turn towards Judaism? He is bombarded with anti-Semitism, and certainly is a Jew in the ethnic sense of the word, but as a converted atheist, the religious aspect of Judaism is fairly far removed. After an act seen as depraved or shameful, however, it is no accident that his mind returns to the purity of devotion and desire rather than the ‘lesser’ or more base manifestations that desire and devotion can take. Although he is not well versed in Jewish practices and customs, confusing tephilim, prayer wraps worn by Jewish men, and mezzuzahs, small prayers hung on the dorrframe (p. 361), Bloom still thinks of religious worship after his sexual worship of Gerty.

Gerty herself is paralleled with the Virgin Mary who is being supplicated in the nearby church. Indeed, the symbol associated with this chapter is that of the virgin. Although the aforementioned duality certainly does exist, and Gerty assumes a seductive role as well as an innocent one, Bloom’s infatuation with Gerty’s youth and chastity is mirrored in the prayers to the young and chaste Mary. Gerty MacDowell is described as having a “waxen pallor of her face” that is “almost spiritual” (pg. 333), and the Virgin Mary’s banners are described on page 332 as being blue, a color associated repeatedly with Gerty. We can look again towards metempsychosis and wonder if Gerty contains some part of Mary’s soul, or we could look to the equally recurring question of consubstantiality and wonder if Gerty and the Virgin Mary are somehow two parts of a greater whole- a chaste product of a culture that values and even fetishizes youth and innocence.

Bloom’s presence at Sandymound Strands, and his day long stroll through Dublin have left his wife Molly at home all afternoon, where Leopold is certain she is having an inevitable affair with a man named ‘Blazes’ Boylan. Following his masturbatory episode, upon realizing that Gerty has a lame foot, Bloom ruminates on previous sexual encounters, prostitutes and what arouses them, and the various men who have been attracted to Molly, realizing that his watch, which has stopped at half past four, has probably stopped at the time that Molly and Boylan slept together. thinks on his wife and his daughter, who cannot be much younger than Gerty is. His thoughts, which are consumed by sex and magnetism, keep tracing back to Molly, maybe through guilt or maybe through genuine desire and love. June 16, 1904, the date that Ulysses is set, is (according to the Wikipedia article for Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife), the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife. It is clear from the date and from the final chapter of Ulysses, which envisions a sample of Molly Bloom’s consciousness, that Joyce is thinking (at least on some level) about Nora while he writes, literally putting himself in a woman’s mind for large sections of the book and  relatively candidly addressing female sexuality and consciousness.

The associated organ, color, and art (eye, blue, painting) all coincide in Gerty’s consciousness. Her clear blue eyes are emphasized. Bloom can feel them watching him (“Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes”) and Gerty likes to wear blue for luck and to flatter her eyes, putting emphasis on the straw hat with an eggblue chenille underbrim (pg. 335) and the blue underwear she wears. Gerty’s blue is for luck, and it is fitting that her eyes match. As luck would have it, Gerty is present on the beach just after eight o’clock on June 16, just as Nausicaa, by some divine involvement or simply by luck, appears to Odysseus as he needs her, and despite his frightening appearance and nakedness, helps him. The other associated color, grey, is the color most commonly associated with Athena, who protected Odysseus throughout his journey.

The visual nature of the associated art, painting, keeps with the emphasis on Gerty’s eyes. Bloom thinks “the very soul is in her eyes” (pg. 336) and when Gerty looks at the sea (blue like her eyes, or maybe grey like Athena’s), she thinks of the “paintings that man used to do on the pavement” (pg. 341). Bloom as well thinks of painters in Lombard street later, on page 357, although this time he is reminded of the turpentine smell coming from the paint rather than the visual aspect of the painting. To Gerty, the art of painting is visual, as is everything else. She uses her eyes as her main tool, fabricating her life around her image, using the art of painting even on her own face, painting (as Hamlet would say) herself another. To Bloom however, the art is olfactory, as is most of his sense perception. When Bloom thinks of painting, his mind returns to the scent of turpentine, before drifting to thoughts of Molly’s scents and the lemon soap in his coat. The associated art of painting also manifests in the phrase that is repeated, “Tableau”, a game where players pose in frozen images when the phrase “Tableau!” is shouted, making a scene. This frozen scene is reminiscent of a painting, where the figures or images are frozen in time.

The complex winding of Ulysses follows the complex winding of Odysseus himself as he travels from Troy home to Ithaca. It is not a novel that exists to be read, but one that exists to be studied, one with as many turns and whirlpools as Odysseus himself encounters on his journey home. The book exists in dualities. It traces Stephen and Leopold, their day and when it diverges and unifies. It follows the spiritual and the physical, the masculine and feminine, birth and death, father and son. This chapter in particular blends dual themes into one. Bloom is Bloom and yet he is also Gerty, Gerty is a child and yet she is a temptress, she is Gerty and yet she is the Virgin Mary, the visual nature of painting is not so far removed from the olfactory nature of it, and Molly and Gerty and Milly and even Bloom himself are not so different from each other after all. Beyond the dualities, however, it is unified. The theme of consubstantiality runs through the heart of the book, and the dualities are all part of the same whole- a mammoth mess of a book, a convergence of themes and allusions, and an essential cornerstone of Modernist literature.

New York, New York

By: Samantha Odrowaz-Sekely

Politics. It’s all around us, in the media, in literature, in language, in everything we do. In fact, with the accessibility of information and it seems impossible to escape from.

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And yet, as a child, there is little opportunity to engage in politics. You are too young to vote, study law or global relations, and working in politics seems intangible. Abelard remedies this with its Model United Nations club, providing its grade 11 and 12 students with the unique opportunity to attend the National High School Model United Nations (NHSMUN) every second March.

In Autumn, Mr. Blair, Abelard’s classics, politics, English, and philosophy teacher, and devoted organizer of the Model UN club, announced that we would be representing Liechtenstein in the National High School Model United Nations (NHSMUN) in March. After doing our studies, we learned that Liechtenstein is a small, yet extraordinarily interesting country; it is a mere 160 square kilometres, yet is ranked second in terms of GDP per capita in the world. Furthermore, despite its petiteness, it is an active member within both the UN and Europe (although ineligible to join the European Union, due to its size). We became extremely well acquainted with this European principality, and are able to display our acquired knowledge by recounting small yet riveting facts. For example, Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan are the only two doubly landlocked countries in the world.

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Mr. Blair also helped us write our position papers, comprehensive research projects that discuss Liechtenstein’s stance on our topic, the history and current status of the issue, and the initiatives Liechtenstein has taken to resolve the topic. The topics covered many types of issues–social, health, environmental, and economic. Mr. Blair especially wanted us to be well-acquainted with the proposed actions and solutions for our topics, so we could be active participants and accurately represent Liechtenstein in New York.

After half a year of our weekly club meeting, we were off to midtown Manhattan for the conference. When we arrived at the Hilton, our small group felt even smaller amongst the 3,800 students participating in the conference, the largest attendance number in all 41 years of NSHMUN.

That evening came the opening ceremony. We managed to find splendid seats in the large, crowded ballroom, and were welcomed to the 41st NHSMUN conference. A few hours later, our committee sessions commenced.

Speaking on behalf on all Abelardians who attended the conference, the sessions were a fantastic experience. Much like Liechtenstein in the real UN, Abelard was a small, but active participant in the Model UN. Many of us were sponsor of resolutions (many of which were passed!), signatories for amendments, speakers during moderated caucuses, and professional and well-behaved delegates. We even got a special mention for our efficiency as pages.

On the other hand, it was frustrating to work with certain delegations. We all found an unfortunate commonality within the conference: many delegations failed to realistically represent their countries, but rather voiced opinions of developed countries, just using the names of their delegation. It was especially disheartening to notice how inactive the Canadian delegation was throughout the conference. However, everyone shared stories of working with the most responsible and professional participants, and being active and assiduous delegates themselves.

The conference concluded in the United Nations General Assembly itself. The waiting period was brutal; the weather was brumal, the ground, sodden. However, this was rendered insignificant upon entering the UN General Assembly. We were struck with a small stroke of misfortune when the school immediately in front of us filled up the last seats on the ground floor of the General Assembly. This, however, meant we would be in the balcony seats, and we obtained an auspicious spot. The closing ceremony featured summaries of the activity in each committee, and speeches by various speakers. The one part that moved many of us was the letter Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, wrote to the participants of NHSMUN 2015. Although he undoubtably writes a nearly identical letter each year, I, and several others, were profoundly moved when he spoke that many future great world leaders were listening to his speech right now. Shortly after, the motion to close NHSMUN 2015 was passed.

Ms. Rossinsky, who accompanied us on the trip, ensured that we had a good experience in New York, both inside and outside the conference. She organized excursions to celebrated attractions in the Big Apple, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Met, and a walk all the way from our midtown hotel along Broadway to our restaurant in Greenwich Village, stopping by such distinguished chapters of New York’s attraction, including the Strand bookstore and the M&M store.

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To those of you reading this who have not participated in the Model UN club, you may be under the impression that it is a great opportunity for people aspiring careers in law, international relations, or politics. This is an absolute truth, but is, by no means, the limit. The conference is also an opportune time to exercise one’s leadership and co-operation skills, practice public speaking and negotiation, gain first-hand insight into the mechanics of one of the most important political bodies in today’s world, and meet new people. To junior or future Abelardians who are reading this, I strongly encourage you to take up this fantastic opportunity (and I wasn’t even instructed by to write that!). To all those who participated this year, you should be immensely proud of yourselves for making us such a laudable delegation. I like to think that the prince of Liechtenstein, if he had seen us represent his country, would be tremendously exultant.

Sam’s advice to new Abelardians

 The following article was published in the September edition of the Abelard student-run monthly newspaper. They kindly gave us permission to reprint it here.

 By: Samantha Odrowaz-Sekely    


 Hello fellow Abelardians!

It’s hard to believe that September has nearly ended. For some of us, this has been our first month at Abelard; for others, we are returning students ready for another great year.

For those of you who are new to Abelard, I would like to give a few pieces of advice I hope you’ll find useful. If you’re starting in grade nine or have transferred here from another high school, the new experience can be rather daunting. As someone who has been here since the ninth grade, I hope I can offer some helpful tips to aid you throughout the year.

  1. Your teachers are here to help you. At Abelard, we are so fortunate to have teachers who are extremely dedicated to teaching and bringing out the best in students. They genuinely care about how you are doing, and want to see you improve and succeed. If you have any questions about classes, assignments, or anything else, don’t be afraid to ask one of the teachers. It is their job to guide you, and they truly do care about how you are doing. So don’t hesitate to ask for something if you need it!
  2. The community is welcoming and friendly. One of the greatest advantages to being in such a small school is the community that is formed. It is very easy to make friends with people in all grades. Everyone mingles with one another, and everyone is friendly and kind. Abelardians are also extremely supportive towards one another; we have all experienced exam stress and have all encountered a difficult assignment, so we understand each other remarkably well. Abelardians are the greatest people on the planet, and our community is unique and wonderful.
  3. Staying organized makes everything easier. It is much more simple and efficient to write down your homework than to try to remember it. Maintaining an organized locker throughout the year makes things easier when you are rushing from class to class or need to find something. There will be times in the year when you will feel stressed and overwhelmed, but this stress can be softened if you are well-organized. However, everyone has a different method of organization that works best for them, so use what benefits you the most.
  4. Take advantage of the opportunities provided. One of the best things about Abelard is the vast range of interesting courses it offers. It is easy to maintain all your interests, as well as develop new ones. For example, I have wanted to be an archaeologist since I was three, but I also love math and science. I have been able to keep up my interests in both the humanities and the math/sciences, plus developing entirely new interests, such as Attic Greek. Abelard also offers unique opportunities outside of the classroom. We are informed of great places to volunteer, work, or visit. Our student council always plans interesting excursions and fun movie nights. If I can give only one piece of wisdom, it is to take advantage of the fantastic and unique opportunities that are given here. I sincerely hope that you find these pieces of advice to be helpful. Remember, Abelard is more than a school; it is an environment dedicated to helping its students grow and bringing out the best in everyone.

Eternity and Engagement: Infinity and Books in Thomas Wharton’s Salamander, by Laura Harris (grade 12)

Thomas Wharton’s Salamander is about an eighteenth century printer, Nicholas Flood, and his extraordinary quest to create the infinite book. At heart, though, Salamander is about reading and the process of creating books. Flood never does create the infinite book, but over the course of the novel, books become temporarily infinite by the process of creating them through reading, writing and printing.

Early in Salamander, Flood has a conversation with the Abbé de Saint-Foix about the Abbé’s life, relationship to books and the concept of time. Near the end of this conversation, the Abbé tells Flood of an Islamic saying that “an hour of reading is one stolen from Paradise,” and then adds that “an hour of writing gives one a foretaste of the other place” (76). Heaven and Hell are both eternal, which simply means that the time of their existence is infinite. Thus reading and writing are both able to give a taste of infinity, which may or may not be pleasant. Printing also gives a taste of eternity to Flood, who, when locked in the Count’s dungeon does not notice the passage of eleven years as he uses his imaginary press to print a book that “would climb into being on the infinite spiral of the Fibbonacci sequence” (106).

The process of creating books requires reading, writing and printing, all of which give a taste of an infinity of time. That writing and printing create books is obvious, but reading is less so. Reading creates books because every reader comes to a books with a unique combination of books previously read, life experience and culture or world view. Using this background, he or she creates a unique version of the story. For instance, when Irena reads the Libraria Technicum, she imagines London as a place where “the people of highest and lowest classes mingl[e] together in the streets, greeting one another without ceremony as fellow citizens,” while Flood sees only “the result of cramming so many people into such a small space” (85). Each reader can even approach a single book in many different ways: fairy tales are read on a simple archetypal level in childhood and on a far more complex level later on.  When the number of potential readers and all their approaches to a single book are combined, there is a nearly infinite number of ways each book can be read. Although the work of the writer and printer often influences the readers’ creations of the book, it is not necessary as the Abbé finding utter satisfaction, and even deeper meaning from the blank books shows. Thus the infinite readings for each book make every book an infinite book, but no book is or could be the infinite book.

While all books can be infinite books, they are not infinite at all times. One can never stand in front of a book and say, “here is an infinite book”. Books are made infinite by their creators, readers, writers and printers. To remain infinite, books need someone, somewhere to be engaged with, and providing new interpretations for them. Wharton informs his reader that there are thousands of books in the castle, but he or she cannot know anything about them beyond that they are bundles of paper, ink and bindings. When the characters of Salamander begin reading and describing them, they allows both themselves and the reader to imagine interpretations and make these books infinite for a moment.

In Salamander, Flood searches for a way to create the infinite book, but ironically the answer lies at the beginning of his quest, when the Abbé speaks of creating books by reading, writing and printing as granting the creator access to an infinity of time. By combining this miraculous experience with the endless ways readers can approach a book, each book becomes infinite while someone is engaged with the book. Consciously or subconsciously, this means that every time someone reads a book, they gain a glimpse into the marvel of infinity.

Eight Days in Paris

A Travel Diary by Noa M.

la Seine IIFrom the first day of grade nine, each student has heard of the Paris Trip. To them, it seems a distant and almost allegorical event. It is spoken of so often with such nostalgia and wistfulness that they consider it to be a state that they will never achieve. Indeed, as a ninth grader, I too believed that I might never experience such a trip. The classes felt too difficult, the weeks and months too long. As a ninth grader, grade eleven felt almost as far away and imaginary as the trip itself. That year was one of the years in which the grade eleven and twelve French classes travelled across the world together for a week of Parisian splendour. I remember seeing the poster for the trip for the first time and envisaging what it would be like when it was my turn. I’d hazard a guess that we all did. Continue reading

The Divine Puzzle of the Human Enigma

An essay by Malcolm Kennedy, Grade 11

The story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville is an Everyman story in its premise of divine intervention in the life of a man set in his ways, but it is more human and more untidy in its conclusion than the primarily binary outcomes of the Morality Plays. Bartleby paints a beautiful but ultimately tragic story of a man’s encounter with an impassable barrier around the character Bartleby, and of the consequences of being trapped outside of it as well as in. Continue reading