The Dumb Ox & the Good Samaritan: A Double Review

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James Joyce and Samaritan Hospitality: Postcritical and Postsecular Reading in Dubliners and Ulysses
by Richard Rankin Russell.
Edinburgh University Press, 2023 (paperback August 2024), 248 pp., $24.95


Joyce, Aristotle, and Aquinas
by Fran O’Rourke
University Press of Florida, 2022, 334 pp., $35

Trekking the curated Dublin streets of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Denis Donoghue, dizzied, speaks for not a few readers of good will when he finds that, “the chapters are replete, but indiscriminate, as if Joyce saw no good reason for preferring one motif to another, one style to another. Whatever comes into Bloom’s mind has as much right to be there as anything else: no consideration of relevance is allowed to assert itself.” D.H. Lawrence, in his 1928 letter to Aldous Huxley, found in Ulysses a mere pastiche of other books, sacred and profane: “Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and all the rest . . . .” In James Joyce and Samaritan Hospitality, Richard Rankin Russell demonstrates tremendous generosity toward a host of interpretations that grate against his own, but he’ll have none of Donoghue’s “downbeat, relativistic, even banal and trivial conclusion”—with good reason. Sed contra, says Stanislaus Joyce, who related of his brother that, “The asserted relativity of truth . . . ran counter not only to his Aristotelian principles of logic, but still more to his character.” I answer that, Russell says to Donoghue and Lawrence: biblical narratives are not chopped up cabbage-stumps scattered like detritus throughout a disordered novel; rather, in Dubliners stories such as “Grace” and “The Dead,” but especially in Ulysses, scriptural stories “enable Joyce to achieve his moral vision.” In Joyce, Aristotle, and Aquinas, Fran O’Rourke makes the parallel case that St. Thomas enables Joyce to achieve his aesthetic vision. To borrow from T.S. Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” Joyce uses the Bible (the Gospel of Luke’s Good Samaritan Parable in particular) and Aquinas (Joyce kept a copy of Summa Contra Gentiles in his Trieste library), as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”

Traipsing on the shore of Sandymount Strand, not a few readers share, with stupefaction more than sympathy, Stephen Dedalus’ query: “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?” The purportedly impossible “Proteus” episode, which begins with the intimidating phrase “Ineluctable modality of the visible,” has left many to share Declan Kiberd’s judgment, in Ulysses and Us, that “the remorseless and obscure pedantry” of the novel’s co-protagonist proves daunting enough to make the reader drop the book entirely well before page one hundred.

O’Rourke grants that the wizened Joyce may be, in Kiberd’s words, “laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was” by undertaking “a mocking study of the lethal after-effects of a recent university degree . . . a schooling ill-suited to real human needs.” But, without disregarding the episode’s narrative purpose, he suggests that “the portrayal of Stephen in ‘Proteus’ is credible for the philosophically minded, attentive reader.” Or rather, O’Rourke does much more than suggest: he provides a scintillating reading of Stephen’s musings, proving that, “although the presentation may seem chaotic, the passage is a careful and exciting dramatization of elements drawn from conflicting theories of sensation,” wherein “Aristotle is center stage, but Berkeley summoned critically from the wings, challenging Stephen with radical doubts regarding the reliability of human cognition.” If Weldon Thornton has drawn out the Antimodernism of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, showing the perils that come from Stephen’s Cartesian “division between mind and matter that have penetrated deep into the modernist perception of reality,” fostering a solipsistic, “subjectivist withdrawal into the psyche,” O’Rourke makes the case that Joyce, more than an anti-modernist artist, is richly and consistently committed to an understanding of reality that is indebted first and foremost to Aristotle and Aquinas. Although often expressed in playful and comic modes (“Saint Thomas, Stephen smiling said, whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original”), philosophical inquiry comprises a serious component of Ulysses. “You have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way,” the mocking Buck Mulligan says to Stephen toward the book’s beginning, condemning the melancholic Dedalus’ refusal to pray at his dying mother’s bedside. In Harry Levin’s succinct diagnosis of Joyce, “He lost his faith, but he kept his categories.” Stephen, who in the drafts of Portrait pronounced “a genuine predisposition in favor of all but the ‘premises’ of scholasticism,” disputes Buck’s buffoonish declaration that, “I can’t remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations,” replacing this “Lockean theory of ideas” with, O’Rourke explains, “one of robust realism: we know things themselves directly and immediately.”

Stephen wrestles with a range of problems. To pick just a few: Aristotle’s investigation of “whether or not time would exist if there were no consciousness”; the question of “prime matter,” through which O’Rourke elucidates some of Stephen’s obscurities, for Aristotle concluded that, “matter is not directly known as such, but only and always insofar as it is determined by some particular substantial form. Matter, considered in itself as a radical principle of being, is sheer potency, and thus imperceptible . . . ”; the relationship between substance and change, body and soul, for we can see in Stephen’s contemplation of a bloated body, Aristotle’s contention that “A corpse has the same shape and fashion as a living body; and yet it is not a man”:

Bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine. A quiver of minnows, fat of a spongy titbit, flash through the slits of his buttoned trouserfly. God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. Dead breaths I living breathe, tread dead dust, devour a urinous offal from all dead. Hauled stark over the gunwale he breathes upward the stench of his green grave, his leprous nosehole snoring to the sun.

A seachange this, brown eyes saltblue. Seadeath, mildest of all deaths known to man. Old Father Ocean.

Wading through the riddles of Old Father Ocean, Russell, too, offers us the rewards of difficult goods, giving a remarkable, original reading of “Proteus” that is attentive to its Scriptural allusions. For instance, Stephen “acknowledges his fallen state by referencing both Luke 10:18: ‘Allbright he falls, proud lightning of the intellect . . . ’ and Isaiah 14:12: ‘How art though fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning?’” invoking Lucifer only to repudiate him by vowing to become a pilgrim: “No. My cockle hat and staff and hismy sandal shoon. Where? To evening lands. Evening will find itself.” Here and in the lines that follow Stephen reverses the Satanic “non serviam” he so snobbishly asserted when we last found him in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Attentive to these shifts in character, O’Rourke tracks, with Leopold Bloom and the paralyzed Dedalus, the problem of permanence and identity, countenancing Molly Bloom’s troublesome observation about her husband’s “core personality: ‘hes always imitating everybody.’” If true, the multifariousness of this “man of many wiles” (to cite Mandelbaum’s translation of The Odyssey) dissipates any peace that might be preserved by a stable and simple being. Without pedantry, with lively personality, O’Rourke explicates: when Stephen attempts to explain to Bloom that the soul, being nonmaterial and therefore immortal, “is not composed of parts but is simple in nature,” Bloom trips on the word “Simple? I shouldn’t think that’s the proper word,” for he assumes, “‘simple’ means weak-minded, innocent, or naïve,” whereas the scholastic “Stephen intends it in its original sense of undivided,” a simplicity at odds with Bloom’s purported chameleonic imitations.

O’Rourke proceeds to probe Joyce’s shifting dramatizations of Aristotelian and Thomistic categories and concepts, differently rendered in Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Along the way, he gives a helpful crash course in Descartes and Hume. In this otherwise scholastic book, he gives us these side-lessons free of charge, bucking the “cash system” the Wake satirizes as having an “origen on spurious” usurious logic that bids us all buy cheap and “selldear.” (Granted, the hardcover version of O’Rourke’s study is selling for $81.35 on Amazon, and Russell’s goes for a blasphemous $100.75, not exactly adhering to Joyce’s market strategy of Pomes Penyeach. If you forgo a few weeks’ worth of Guinness so as to penysave, penyearn, the paperbacks, sed contra, are priced at a manageable $29.80 and $24.95, respectively).

Speaking of Modern Humean beings, what hath the Dumb Ox to do with Modernity? When Joyce was discussing Aquinas, someone disputed the Dominican friar’s relevance: “That has nothing to do with us,” he claimed. “It has everything to do with us,” shot back Joyce, who was delighted with another interlocutor’s observation that, “The difficulty about Aquinas is that what he says is so much like what the man in the street says.” When one of the pupils Joyce tutored on the continent confessed fascination with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Joyce did his best to disabuse him: Thomas Aquinas, he declared, was by far the superior philosopher because his reasoning, compared to theirs, was “like a sharp sword.” Joyce applied that Latinate sharp point to the whetstone of his mind, one page per day. In 1903, he shared with his mother news most of us have not written home about: “I am at present up to my neck in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

As Richard Ellmann understood, “Ulysses may be seen to conduct its affirmation by discovery of kinship among disparate things.” This epiphany finds its apophatic counterpart in a passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics which Joyce, library-bound in Paris, copied out by hand: “Nature, it seems, is not a collection of unconnected episodes, like a bad tragedy.” In “Totality, Diversity, and Order: the Unity of Analogy,” O’Rourke demonstrates that Joyce’s foremost “skill was his ability to order the great diversity of human detail into an orderly scheme”; his great novel is rooted in the principle of “analogy,” which St. Thomas, from Aristotle, would understand as, “the similarity of relations within and among a diversity of beings.” A single sentence in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode epitomizes the analogical approach: “Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.” Outside the novel, Joyce put his point in a more prosaic key: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.”

At times, as when parsing “Beauty: Joyce’s Thomist Aesthetics,” O’Rourke calls out the ways in which the artist and the Dumb Ox Aquinas part ways: “Joyce distinguishes between the intellectual appetite, which has truth as its object, and the aesthetic appetite, which has beauty as its object. From the Thomist point of view this is a false contrast,” for the phrase in Summa Theologiae I 5 to which Joyce refers reads, “Pulchrum autem respicit vim cognoscitivam. Beauty relates to the knowing power: it thus must have some relationship with truth.” In Joyce and Aquinas, William T. Noon, S.J. teases out the same tension evinced in Joyce’s Zurich notebooks: “Good diction: tria—metaphor, antithesis, energy,” reads the entry, followed by: “Metaphor prefer to comparison. Comparison makes folks wait and tells you only what something is like.” Drawing on Aristotle’s remark, in the Poetics, that “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor,” Noon makes sense of the somewhat cryptic notes: “Is not the implication clear, that good diction should tell you not what a thing is like but what it is?” Mere beauty is not enough: “Good diction is not obsessed with beauty but with being,” and “unless a poet takes this means of good diction, he cannot present epiphanies.” Joyce, Aristotle, and Aquinas is simultaneously an education into Aristotle and Aquinas and a winsome, exhaustive enrichment of Joyce’s fiction. Once we recognize and reckon with the sundry, sometimes-submerged analytical epiphanies, the philosophical bent becomes both clarifying and fun.

Please do not misunderstand my portrait. O’Rourke makes it plain that “Joyce was by no means a doctrinaire or submissive Thomist.” Russell gives us the Scriptural parallel: “Joyce reappropriates and reconfigures a central New Testament tenet—the Good Samaritan parable,” and goes on to reveal “how he redolently conveys a secularized message of loving others, even those who abuse us, through a revivified concept of the neighbor.” The story of the despised, kenotic Samaritan, “embodies the major message of the novel—to love others, even those who persecute us, or those whom we do not know, or those who reject our ministrations.”

The tenders of the Joycean canon treat his debts to Athens and Jerusalem very differently. They are inclined to grant that St. Thomas and Aristotle exercised significant influence on the man and his work, but serious considerations of the extent and implications of such an influence have usually been sidelined—the one exception being Noon’s aforementioned Joyce and Aquinas, a gem of a book published some sixty years past. O’Rourke’s, a welcome bookend to Noon’s now woefully out-of-print study; whereas O’Rourke’s reading is emphatically philosophical, Noon’s, though rooted in St. Thomas’ philosophical categories, is like Rankin’s memorably focused on Joyce’s moral imagination. As Noon expounds (did I mention Ezra Pound, who wrote to Joyce an obscure query, “assuming the latter was an authority on Aquinas”), through a necessary qualification: “the comic artist, interested though he may be in our moral education, for all of his ethical severity cannot on principle stand before us in the role of professional moralist. His strategy is as objectively as possible to represent the human situation, as it exists, with all its own absurdities, contradictions, abnormalities, and imperfections.” (Did I mention Joyce’s reply to Pound: “The scholastic machinery of the process of thought is very intricate, verbum mentale and all the rest of it . . . These philosophical terms are such tricky bombs that I am shy of handling them, being afraid they may go off in my hand.”) Readers who miss the “ironic incognito” will “almost totally miss the meaning of the book,” for, far from being “a metaphysical nihilist,” Joyce obliquely asks fundamental moral questions all along the way, as Stephen and Bloom make their conjoined odysseys over the course of the long day. More, says Father Noon: “Joyce is about as far from nihilism as you can get and still write novels and not ‘tracts for the times,’ nor is he personally committed to the secularist position which claims you can have mores without spiritual roots. Ulysses as a symbolic construct of the spirit is at pains to show what happens to mores when these roots in the spirit have withered away.”

On the contrary, when countenancing the moral and religious implications of Ulysses, the scribes of the Joycean scripture tend to sustain a shared consensus founded upon the judgment rendered by the Irish apostate’s first major biographer, Richard Ellmann: Joyce was a thoroughgoing freethinker whose dramatic departure from the Roman Catholic Church commenced a complete unconcern toward religion. But while Geert Lernout believes his Help My Unbelief, a development of Ellmann’s take, is the last word on Joyce and religion, Russell rightly scrutinizes these presumptions with all the acumen of an analytic Thomist: just because Joyce left Irish Catholicism, this does not therefore mean that he left all religion. Stuart Gilbert was right: the Irish apostate “had none of the glib assurance of the late-nineteenth century rationalist.” John Gordon condenses the conundrum: “Joyce was a realist, but his reality was different from ours. He believed in things, or in the possibility of things, that most of us consider beyond the pale, and the evidence is that one of them was ghosts.” Cóilín Owens grants Joyce’s “growing agnosticism” around the time that his mother May died: “he accompanied his sister Margaret on the midnight after her death to await the appearance of their mother’s ghost.” Indeed, “some of the more affecting moments in his fiction are those in which the living are accosted by those deaths they mourn (the burning of his apparently lifelong correspondence with Sister Mary Gertrude is a sad loss in what it could have yielded on this and other spiritual aspects of Joyce’s personality.”

Not only did Joyce, who typically woke late, rise early, at “about five in all weathers” to attend Mass each Holy Thursday and Good Friday, because (by his own account) they represent the “oldest mysteries of humanity,” but also, as he confessed to his Italian tutor Franco-Bruini: “I love Dante almost as much as the Bible.” And he loved Dante almost as much as Dante loved the “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” Books such as Roy Gottfried’s Joyce’s Misbelief subjugate Joyce’s reliance on the Bible to his position as a schismatic, thereby failing, says Russell, to notice duly Joyce’s, “parabolic turn of mind and how he employs parables, especially the parables of Christ, to bring people together, not separate them, as would be typical of a schismatic.”

The parable that carries the clearest resonance, both for Joyce’s biography and for his literary legacy, is one of the Bible’s most radical: the Good Samaritan, told in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 10, verses 25-37. Early in Ulysses Bloom muses, aloud, “Who is my neighbor?”, asking the very question the lawyer puts to Jesus, who in turn told the well-known tale. Beaten and left half-dead by robbers, the victim remains unspeakably untouched by the priest and the Levite, who not only do nothing but also do so in style, crossing to the other side of the road. At last the nameless man is rescued by the despised, scandalous Samaritan, purported outsider and even enemy, who not only comes near and binds his wounds but carries the victim to a nearby inn, leaving monies to care for him and promising more should the expense surpass the two denarii already given.

In June of 1904, Joyce suffered an assault that left the young artist with a “black eye, sprained wrist, sprained ankle, cut chin, cut hand.” Meanwhile, his supposed friend, Vincent Cosgrave, “stood by hands in pockets,” reports Richard Ellmann. Although the exact facts of the evening remain a matter of mystery, and Russell judiciously interrogates the veracity of the story, “sometime in the succeeding two years, Joyce seems to have told his brother Stanislaus that a Jewish gentleman named Alfred Henry Hunter had rescued him that evening, possibly saving him from further assault” (italics mine). Russell sustains that seems, points to the more firmly factual assault Joyce experienced, in Rome, in 1907, when, after putting in notice at the Nast Kolb Schumacher Bank where he worked, the artist was robbed of his “considerable severance pay.” Russell reveals that regardless of whether (as Peter Costello claims), Hunter “picked Joyce up and took him home . . . reportedly to a flat in Eccles street where he had lived with his separated wife Margaret,” Joyce learned through further inquiry that Hunter was a Jew, and reportedly a cuckold whose wife “had a stage persona”: these are indisputably the ingredients of Ulysses, whose comic hero Leopold Bloom shares a birth year (1866) with the storied Samaritan. Speaking of which, while critics have long alighted on the Hunter legend, Russell is the first to show that “for someone who had often seen himself as a victim of sorts . . . Joyce found in the Good Samaritan parable a story that resonated with his own difficulties, but which also had more far-ranging applications and implications than mere autobiography.”

The bulk of James Joyce and Samaritan Hospitality is devoted to just this thesis. If the claim seems narrow, Russell takes pains to grant the limits of his approach, which in the beginning seems like a typical academic act of over-specialization, but yields a reading that is surprisingly satisfying.

Late in the “Circe” episode (a theatrical ordeal of some hundred fifty pages), the belligerent Private Carr “rushes towards Stephen, fist outstretched, and strikes him in the face. Stephen totters, collapses, falls, stunned. He lies prone, his face to the sky, his hat rolling to the wall. Bloom follows and picks it up.” But Bloom does far more than pick up a bloke’s hat. He comes to the defense and physical aid of repellant Stephen (who has not showered for an unspeakable run of months): “Lean on me,” he says to Dedalus, who responds, “uncertainly . . . Yes, because he thought he felt a strange kind of flesh of a different man approach him, sinewless and wobbly and all that.” As Russell draws out, “Joyce so focuses on the body of Bloom here because he believed”—like a good Thomist, or a devotee of De Anima—“‘a man is not only flesh and blood but a living soul . . . whose habitation is that solid body.’” More: he brings the lost young man to a cabman’s shelter, hoping to sober up the poor sot. Still more: he invites the (relative) stranger (Bloom is an acquaintance of Stephen’s father) into his own home. There Bloom foregoes his own favorite cup and fills Stephen’s with a rich cream we know is precious in this household, and should be reserved for his wife Molly. The mundane meal is—within the spiritual and moral trajectories of the characters—markedly and memorably Eucharistic: “His attention was directed to them by his host jocosely, and he accepted them seriously as they drank in jocoserious silence Epps’s massproduct, the creature cocoa.” The Eucharistic resonances are at least partially jocose in that, as Russell rightly notes, Bloom—a supposed Jew (or so the Dubliners dub him) who does not seem to practice his faith—is “the least religious person in the novel in many ways.” But this only reinforces his identity as the outsider Samaritan: the one whom the insider Dubliners would write off “ironically most exemplifies the Christian notion of agape, the highest form of love because of its sacrificial care for others.”

Russell does not remake Joyce into a Christian. He does not read Bloom as easily characterized as a “Christ figure”; he enunciates the hero’s humanistic leanings and links this secularization of Jesus with Joyce’s reading of Ernest Renan’s wildly popular The Life of Jesus, contending that “Renan’s humanizing of Jesus . . . was likely enormously appealing to Joyce.” This claim is corrected by Cóilín Owens, who in James Joyce’s Painful Case shows that Joyce found Renan’s work “a sentimental projection.” But Russell is typically very careful to consider Stephen’s rumination—“Christus or Bloom his name is or after all any other, secundum carnem”—as both comic and serious, secularizing and yet scintillating with an unmistakable spiritual significance, for, as Joyce confessed in his 1909 Trieste notebook under the heading “Jesus”: “His shadow is everywhere.”

Russell’s concentrated focus on the last three episodes of Ulysses is justified, both by the fact that Joyce drafted them first and by the fact that they are clearly the culminating heart of the plot: at last, after a day of divergent peregrinations, Bloom and Stephen cross paths. But Russell’s efforts to draw out Bloom’s habitual virtues sometimes grate against the novel’s fullness: why is there no mention of Nausicaa, where Bloom, smitten with Gerty McDowell on the beach, gives into voyeuristic masturbation? This is not to say that such a sordid act entirely undermines his pronounced good deeds. Earlier in the novel, he helps, with extraordinary imaginative empathy, the blind stripling cross Dawson Street, and takes pains to give monies to the orphaned children of Paddy Dignam, whose funeral he attends earlier in the day in spite of his superficial irreligiousness. His ministrations to Stephen surpass the famed norms of Irish hospitality. But in a book wherein the emphasis on Bloom’s bodily charity draws parallels across discrete incarnate acts, the counterpoint of Bloom’s disembodied masturbation demands consideration. As Declan Kiberd notes in Ulysses and Us, “Joyce told Frank Budgen that the crime against the ancient gods was the sterilization of the act of coition. One form of this sin, as Stephen freely admits, is the nightly act of masturbation,” those “Godpossibled souls that we nightly impossibilise, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost, Very God, Lord and Giver of Life? For, sirs, he said, our lust is brief. We are means to those small creatures within us and nature has other ends than we.” The total effect of the Nausicaa scene leaves us with a Bloom deflated, not elated by his voyeurism. First Leopold condemns his own pathetic failure: “What a brute he had been! At it again? A fair unsullied soul had called to him and, wretch that he was, how had he answered? An utter cad he had been.” Not only this, the last word (or should I say clock-chime?) of the episode leaves us with an ironic condemnation:

Gerty MacDowell . . . noticed at once that that foreign gentleman that was sitting on the rocks looking was


Surely we must remember, as we read Bloom’s sick deed, that this comic Odyssean “man of sorrows” is suffering mightily. As James Heffernan reminds us, “Nothing Bloom does all day can hide or heal the wound of knowing that his house has been violated, his wife usurped”—that his spouse has that very day slept with her boss Blazes Boylan in the Blooms’ very marriage bed. As Russell argues, “Bloom recognizes Stephen as wasting his own opportunity to have children by visiting prostitutes.” He helps us see the way Bloom, “laments what he sees as his filial infertility,” first mourning his own dead son Rudy but then drifting, in mind, to Dedalus whom he starts to see “as a potential heir.” But especially given that “so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores,” any interpretation that does not connect these corrections with Bloom’s earlier brute voyeurism, and his other marked weaknesses, remains notably—even naggingly—partial.

Maybe the most moving part of Russell’s rich reading comes when we arrive at the sequential “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca” episodes, the former of which is especially salient given the book’s focus on the Lukan parable: “Preparatory to anything else, Mr Bloom brushed off the greater bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion which he very badly needed.” So starts a section of the novel that is famously unfeeling. Joyce, typically a pacifist, waged a lifelong war against sentimentality, for, he said, to be sentimental “was to deny the body, an offense just as serious as to deny the soul.” Ellmann captures well the “remarkably muffled” communion of lost son and spiritual father when he calls it “one of those resonant unfulfillments, like Wordsworth’s discovery that he had crossed the Alps without knowing it. Joyce had here an unusual precedent for the equally resonant and yet extremely muted ingatherings of Bloom and Stephen.” The style and tone of “Eumaeus” is, it seems, unable rightly to reckon with or to render the pathos proper to such a long-awaited meeting, one that extends from the cabman’s shelter to the Bloom’s house on Eccles Street before Stephen’s anti-climactic departure. But this is where Russell’s demonstration of the Good Samaritan’s significance is revelatory:

If we follow [Paul] Ricoeur’s explanation of the eschatological nature of the Good Samaritan parable, neither Bloom nor Stephen nor the reader can fully apprehend the significance of the sense of Bloom and Stephen’s encounter here . . . ‘The significance of this encounter does not depend on any criterion immanent to history and cannot be definitely recognized by the actors themselves but will be discovered on the last day, like the manner in which I shall have encountered Christ without knowing it.’

Jesus’ parable keeps the robbery victim remarkably silent: there is no indication that he either expressed gratitude or ever met the Samaritan again. Thus it is fitting that Stephen remains mainly obtuse to Bloom, even though his host “goes beyond” the hospitality of the Samaritan by (rather than dropping him off at an inn) bringing him into his own home and envisioning rude Stephen as his son. This is no small thing for a young man whose own father, Simon, is a superb singer but a deadbeat dad.

Stephen can be so crass and irritating that it is easy to miss the effect Bloom has on him. As Russell made manifest the turnings of Stephen’s mind I scrawled question marks in the margins, unsure, unconvinced, at first, only to find a persuasive account of the ways selfish Stephen does awaken to charity in the wake of the Samaritan stranger’s assistance. To name just one noteworthy change: though Stephen earlier denied his sister Dilly money in spite of her desperate straits, helped by Bloom, he helps—scrounging from his woefully empty pockets—the hard case Corley, who has been bumming coins from folks since he first appeared way back in Dubliners.

I sometimes feared that Russell’s own rendering of Bloom and Stephen’s fraught communion contained more pathos than the original—that his extraordinarily clarifying, careful reading conveys the weight of various happenings with a lucid arrangement the novel seems intentionally to obfuscate (as if Joyce, so afraid of sentimentality, stridently kept the heartfelt at bay). But who can deny that the scene when Stephen and Bloom step outside and urinate in unifying arcs as they stare, silently, up at the stars, contains one of the novel’s most beautiful lines?: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” Justifying what Russell calls the “impersonal and clinical style” of this scene, Joyce illumined his tack to Budgen: “I am writing Ithaca in the form of a mathematical catechism . . . so that not only will the reader know everything and know it in the baldest, coldest way, but Bloom and Stephen thereby become heavenly bodies, wanderers like the stars at which they gaze.” From their shared urination to their shared heavens, Russell illumines, “a manifestation of beauty that may signal a breakthrough in Stephen and Bloom’s relationship that goes beyond aesthetic appreciation into future continuity” as they stand, “silent, each contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces.”

At the end of his meticulously footnoted yet rhetorically pleasing book (refreshingly free of academese), Russell rouses us to move from fictional communions to fulfillment beyond the confines of books. “Caring about characters,” he contends, “leads us to care more about those who move and have their being in our ordinary ambit—those whose lives we narrate and imagine on a daily basis. Caring about characters thus conditions us to care about the living, breathing Other in front of us.” While reading fiction might help coax the reader toward a more empathetic existence, I am not convinced that caring about imaginary characters conditions us to act so much as that caring about imaginary characters provides us—and only sometimes—conditions for further empathy. I am also unsure whether increased empathy is always a good thing; such a feeling can be disproportionate, misplaced, and more. In his Confessions, Augustine articulates the problem hauntingly:

I was captivated by theatrical shows. They were full of representations of my own miseries and fueled my fire. Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? Nevertheless, he wants to suffer the pain given by being a spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is pleasure. What is this but amazing folly? For the more anyone is moved by these scenes, the less free he is from similar passions . . . If the human calamities, whether in ancient histories or fictitious myths, are so presented that the theatre goer is not caused pain, he walks out of the theatre disgusted and highly critical. But if he feels pain, he stays riveted in his seat enjoying himself . . . Only when he himself suffers it is called misery when he feels compassion for others it is called mercy. But what quality of mercy is it in fictitious and theatrical inventions? The audience is not excited to offer help but invited only to grieve.

Sometimes, rather than being elevated and righted, the audience’s appetites can be warped by a fiction. Further, often the audience is not excited to offer help, for the object of their attention is fictional; it is, rather, invited to grieve, and—let us not miss this—to take pleasure in grieving over characters whose existences are literally (if not metaphorically or anagogically) unreal. In her description of reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Tracy K. Smith distills the dynamic: “Listening to a protagonist is easier than listening to a person speaking in the flesh, even if the two might be saying the exact same thing.” If the protagonist invites us into intimate proximity, he asks only to have his hurts heard. But if someone made the same plea to her face, Smith says, “my esophagus would tighten, my temples would flush, and my heartbeat would thump louder in my ears. I’d retreat, too ashamed and too guilty to stand there listening . . . .” This distinction granted, because humans can muse by means of analogy—can make connections and see similarities across a range of otherwise different particulars linking fictional creations to the manifold neighbors of actuality—I have not entirely lost faith that fiction might—just might— foster that rare capacity to embody, and maybe love, one’s enemy: “Love,” proclaims Bloom, “I mean the opposite of hatred,” just as the Cyclopes is closing in on him.

If reading good books well is a condition, not a cause, of potential good acts, these volumes by O’Rourke and Russell contain so much of the embodied soulfulness that so drove Joyce that it is hard to imagine anyone exiting their pages without having experienced this double effect: through Joyce, Aristotle, and Aquinas, the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry is not just jocosely mended; through James Joyce and Samaritan Hospitality, the summons to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) demands, along with radical xenia, that we eschew and, finally, transcend one of humanity’s common enemies: sentimentality.