Do you like Mel Brooks? We like Mel Brooks. And we think that "Circe" shows just what an enormous debt Mel Brooks owes to James Joyce. We've read a lot of overviews of the episode, but very few of them mention how incredibly funny and absurd it is. Read in a certain light, the episode can appear like an enormous comic opera. Even the lamest of critics need to take a break from pondering the significance of the episode to laugh when Bloom is announced pregnant in court and croons, "O, I so want to be a mother" (15.374). Ditto for the moment when Paddy Leonard asks Bloom, in all seriousness, what he should do with his rates and taxes. Bloom tells him to pay them, and Leonard acts as if Bloom has just bestowed upon him some otherworldly wisdom. So as you read "Circe," lighten up and laugh a little. It is, hands down, the funniest episode in the book.
That said, there are a couple of things that can make "Circe" rough reading (yes, there's always a catch in Ulysses). For one, the entire episode takes place in the span of an hour, but reading it you'd think it goes on for hours and hours. The reason is because the play dialogue makes no explicit distinction between what's just going on in the mind of Bloom and Stephen and what is actually taking place in real life. As Bloom wanders down Mabbot Street looking for Stephen, he enters into a long elaborate fantasy in which he is formally tried in court for being a lewd man. All of Bloom's sexual anxieties reveal themselves as a number of women about town appear to testify against Bloom, and Mulligan and other "medical professionals" come to testify on his sanity and sexual state. Funny as it is, there is an element of the nightmare to it. Imagine if everyone in your hometown knew every little secret you have and then held a trial to try and decide whether or not you were a respectable person.
Bloom's next extended fantasy is set off when he scolds the prostitute Zoe for smoking, and she tells him to go ahead and make a stump speech out of it. In his mind, he does, and suddenly Bloom is named mayor of Dublin, and then lord of "the new Bloomusalem" (15.315). The people from town call out to him adoringly and come to him for advice. John Howard Parnell tells him he is the greatest Irishman since Charles Stewart. In contrast to the more menacing trial in the first vision, Bloom's vanities are all given expression. Throughout the day we have heard other men gossip about and disparage Bloom, but in this fantasy, he is a powerful political figure, an author, and a ladies man. With time, however, Bloom's gloominess again takes over and even this fantasy turns against him. In his mind, he is denounced and burned in a public square.
Bloom's last major dream sequence is set off when he meets the mannish Madame, Bella Cohen. Looking at her, Bloom imagines her as Mr. Bello, an evil man-tamer. The two of them change sexes, and Mr. Bello kicks Bloom down on all fours and rides him like a horse. He threatens to make Bloom drink his urine, and then holds an auction where Bloom is sold off as a prostitute. Mr. Bello also mocks Bloom with images of Boylan and Molly in bed together, and later Bloom imagines looking on and masturbating while Boylan has sex with his wife. The common thread in these sequences seems to be masochism: Bloom is imagining just how cruel he can be to himself. Here it's not just insecurities that are being given vent; there is also an element of self-loathing.
Now, this is a big oversimplification, but at first, as you work through these dream sequences, you can think of them as: first, Bloom's sexual neuroses (or Bloom's underwear drawer turned inside out, metaphorically speaking); second, Bloom's unbridled vanity (where Bloom, like a child, imagines that the entire world revolves around him); third, Bloom's relentless masochism (where Bloom blames himself for everything that is wrong in his life and longs to be punished [and yes, there is an element of the kinky here]).
So, how are we to read these fantasies? Well, one problem is that they don't behave like regular fantasies are supposed to behave. At times it is easy to distinguish which imaginary characters are coming from Bloom's mind and from Stephen's, but eventually the dreams begin to cross and intermingle. It is as if the narrator is just admitting that he has full access to both Stephen's thoughts and Bloom's, and he then lets the book take on a mind of its own. The book seems to have its own subconscious (its own anxieties, vanities, and masochistic tendencies) that bubbles up to the surface of the text.
The climactic moment of the novel comes when Stephen is dancing with the prostitute Kitty. In his absinthe-induced (hard liquor) state, he sees an image of his mother rising from the grave. As his mother urges him to repent, Stephen is horrified and turns pale. He cries "Non serviam," (I will not serve!) waves his ashplant in the air, breaking the chandelier, and rushes out of the brothel (15.915). In Joyce's words, "Time's livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry" (15.920).
So, back to the question of how to regard the fantasies. Think of Bloom's fantasies as thoughts that are going on at low burn in the back of his mind, something that the author seizes on and brings to the surface (hence, Bloom wouldn't actually imagine every elaborate detail of the court sequence). In Stephen's case, this apparition is real (high burn). Drunk as he is on absinthe, his guilt over his mother gets ahold of his mind and puts the vision before him. Stephen is defiant, as always, but is also terrified and rushes out into the street alone.
Bloom and Stephen have been, so to speak, dancing around one another up until this episode. Bloom comes to Nighttown for the express purpose of looking after Stephen. He guards his money for him, haggles down Bella Cohen after Stephen breaks her chandelier, and then tries to talk down Private Carr, who Stephen has infuriated with his oblique digs at England. Question: Without Bloom, where is Stephen at the end of this episode? Answer: Flat on his back (having just been socked in the face), with no money, no friends, not even his cane or his hat. Without Bloom, he might very well have woken up in prison. It is Bloom's act of kindness that saves Stephen from his own self-destructiveness, and puts Bloom in a temporary role as a sort of surrogate father for Stephen. We also get a glimpse of why Bloom himself might be so concerned with Stephen when he has a final vision of his son Rudy as he is helping Stephen up from the sidewalk.
It's interesting to note that Joyce himself once had a drunken encounter with two English constables, names of… You guessed it: Carr and Compton. It was a middle-aged Jewish man that came and helped him out of the situation, and the event inspired Joyce to write a story for Dubliners. The story was never completed, but the idea simmered in Joyce's mind for years, and gradually grew into the present novel that we're struggling through together. It was the real life fight with the constable that provided one of the initial points of inspiration for Ulysses.
Our last point: it wouldn't be Ulysses without a host of correlations to the Odyssey, now would it? In Book 10 of the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men land on Circe 's island in profound depression. Odysseus kills a stag with noble antlers (like the antlers hanging inside the brothel), and then they divide into crews and search the island. Odysseus' men wander into the witch Circe's hall, where she transforms them all into hogs. Odysseus runs into Hermes (the correspondence here is to Rudy, just trust us), who gives him a magic herb to protect him from Circe's magic (Bloom's potato). Odysseus demands that his men be released, and worries that he too will be unmanned by Circe. Circe promises him, but he still wastes a year there with her before he shakes the spell off. As in the Odyssey, the passage of time becomes quite surreal in "Circe," and as for our distinguished witch, we have the manly prostitute mistress Ms. Bella Cohen. Make of these what you will. The further you chase them down, you'll realize that the correspondences are endless.