January 4, 2016
What Would Leopold Bloom Do? Volume 4
by Josh Cook
Complex and confusing, filled with words you don’t know and people you don’t understand, life is even more difficult to navigate than Ulysses. But luckily, we have Ulysses to help us!
Why shouldn’t we be able to apply our reading efforts to our living efforts? Expansive, generous, humanist, funny, and, of course, difficult, Ulysses can provide answers to the questions kicked up like so much dust as we traverse our day.
Ask your questions, pose your problems, present your challenges, and Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder and resident Joyce expert, will dispense advice drawn from Joyce’s masterpiece. Just like Ulysses the advice will be serious, silly, and, of course, dirty as required, but always thoughtful and honest. You can send your inquiries to Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Here’s our next question.
What do I do if my girlfriend is cheating on me? —Cuckolded in Kansas City
Does Molly cheat on Leopold? On the one hand, Leopold knows Molly is going to have sex with Blazes Boylan and plans his day, in part, to stay away from his house and let the assignation occur. With the exception of Paddy Dignam’s funeral and some preparations for that, nothing kept him away. None of the working or socializing he does is on a strict schedule. At least once he thinks to himself that he has time to run home and prevent the rendezvous, but he actively chooses not to.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time Leopold has discussed the stars and constellations while someone made time with his wife. During dances and carriage rides Leopold has actively looked away while someone fondled Molly. It’s hard to know exactly how aware he was of every potential transgression of social decorum, but he is far too observant, and, more importantly, far too sensitive for all of them to have escaped his notice.
He averts his gaze, at least in part, because he respects his wife’s sex drive (he buys her erotic books). He understands she has desires and he does not begrudge her those desires. Furthermore, he also knows Boylan is basically just an ambulatory penis whom Molly could never actually love. Molly may not be the most sophisticated, knowledgeable or refined character in the book, but she is savvy enough to know which men are for flings and which are worthy of relationships. Bloom knows his marriage is safe, even if his marriage bed isn’t.
Also, Bloom does engage in something of an adultery exchange. Though he doesn’t touch anybody else, given how important the world of his mind is to his life, his shared fantasy with Gerty, might as well have been actual affair. (You guys got that he was whackin’ it, right?) Relationships are, in many ways, a series of overt and assumed exchanges, and Bloom makes one here. Given all of that, it’s hard to argue that Bloom did anything other than give vigorous tacit approval to Molly’s sexual relations with Boylan.
But it’s not like he’s fucking pysched about it. He can’t quite keep his mind off it. At one point he has to stop himself from imagining Boylan giving Molly an STD. And it’s not like Molly and Leopold had an open marriage established through an honest conversation. Sure, Leopold Bloom is a proto-feminist, but the “proto” is a pretty significant qualifier. Marriage was a strict convention at the time. Her trysts jeopardized her singing career, his canvasing career, and their standing in the community, and thus, their daughter’s potential standing in the community. Molly’s amorous proclivities certainly contributed to the lack of respect Leopold often faced. It could be argued that Leopold’s actions in relation to Molly’s sexuality are driven by resigned acceptance rather than progressive humanism.
And this is just when we consider the issue primarily from Leopold’s point of few. Though we do see Molly’s point of view at the end of the book, there is very little, if any, of her own ethical calculus involved in her decision to have sex with Boylan.
So, given all of that, does Molly cheat on Leopold? If anything, Molly and Leopold’s relationship shows how inadequate the metaphor of “cheating” can be when trying to relate it to a human relationship. Cheating is something you do with cards. Cheating is taking steroids to hit more homeruns. Is that really the best term to use when someone in a partnership has some kind of relationship with another person outside that partnership? Even if it’s not (as I think Molly and Leopold show), it’s the metaphor we use most frequently. Furthermore, I think how you answer this question says a lot about what you want to believe, both about Molly and Leopold and about what it means to be “in a relationship.”
But relationships are a kind of contract. The problem is that, because relationships are bound up in so many other social conventions, we almost never overtly establish what we are actually agreeing to when we agree to be in a relationship. Unless, something active and explicit is done, a whole range of controls and agreements are automatically enacted.
So what do you do if the person you’re with has broken the contract? First, you need to ask yourself a question: which is more important to you; the value this particular person brings to your life or the value in being able to trust the assumed terms of a relationship contract? (Bloom’s choice, whether made as a proto-feminist or as a man trying to hang on to his hot wife, is clear.) From there the choices flow easily. If that assumed contract is important to you, then you should probably break up with your girlfriend. If you value her in your life more than her abiding an unspoken contract, then you need to make the contract spoken and go from there.
Often the great books are great not because of the answers they provide but because of the answers they induce. The process of deciding whether Molly cheats on Leopold reveals your own values and assumptions. It tells you what you think about unspoken social contracts, about the nature of communication in a relationship, about misogyny and double standards, and, of course, the varieties of love. It makes overt was is often covert, and, even if you don’t feel as though you know any more about Leopold and Molly at the end of the process, you know more about you.
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.