Shem, Japheth, and Stoom: On James Joyce’s Reading of Japheth

The Midrash tells us that the relationship between Shem and Japheth – two sons of Noah whose birth is recounted in Genesis 6:32 -is symbolic. In that verse, we learn that although Japheth is first born, it is Shem who is born circumcised (Genesis Rabba 26:3). In Genesis 9:27, Noah awakes from his sleep, ashamed that his “nakedness” is exposed to his children, curses Ham and blesses Shem and Japheth. The blessing is that God “enlarge Japheth” and that he shall dwell in “the tents of Shem.” The Midrash sees the two in terms of Jews and the Greeks. That would mean that although Japheth is “enlarged” he shall dwell in the small “tents of Shem.” This is a paradox of sorts and it even has a messianic ring to it. Rashi – the medieval commentator – notes that the second temple was built by “Cyrus,” a descendent of Japheth. But the “shechina” (God’s holy presence) didn’t dwell in it. The presence only dwelt in the temple built by Solomon (a descendent of Shem). The difference between them, in other words, is not merely architectural. What is odd about Rashi’s explanation is that he only takes note of the difference between them. He doesn’t explain the meaning of Shem dwelling in the tents of Japheth.

Rashi notes, however, on Genesis 25:23, in relation to a verse about how Esau and Jacob are battling in Rebecca’s womb – “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body: One people shall be mightier than the other; and the older shall serve the younger” – that Shem (“a messenger” of God) told her this. When they are born, Jacob is described as a “simple man” who is a “man of the tents.” And as Rashi notes, these tents are a reference to Shem. Where does Japheth dwell? Does he, like Esau, dwell in the field? The Talmud (Megilla 1:7) suggests that Japheth dwells in beauty. And the most beautiful thing he possesses is the Greek language. Josephus explains that Japheth is blessed with and dwells is a “land of beauty.” Yehuda HaLevi, in contrast, argues, in the Kuzari, that the beauty of Japheth is Greek philosophy. In the Kuzari, the two – Judaism and Greek philosophy – are categorically different. How, given all of these readings, will Japheth – Greek philosophy, beauty, the “land of beauty,” etc – dwell in the tents of Shem? How can one fit inside the other? How can a Greek philosopher, for instance, learn in a Yeshiva? And this prompts the bigger question: How can a non-Jew dwell in the tent of a Jew?

Clive Hart, in his critical essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses, suggests that James Joyce’s mention of Japheth in the masterpiece of modernism is worthy of deep reflection. In the scene, which is at the beginning of the novel, Stephen Daedelus – who Joyce associates with Telemachus, the son of Odysseus – is not simply made to feel impotent by virtue of his “futile impotence” to find his father (12). His impotence is self-inflected. He is a self-deprecating character. The dialogue between Daedelus and Mulligan, that mentions Japheth, brings this out. Stephen’s theory of Hamlet, “proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his father.” Mulligan laughs, and adds the diagnosis: “O, shade of Kinch the elder! Japheth in search of a father!”

But, adds Hart, Daedalus is not, like Japheth, in search of his father, Noah. He has “willingly and even contemptuously chosen exile for himself” (12). As we see in the novel, he is a different kind of Japheth. It has been argued that the difference between Bloom (the Jewish character, who is associated with Shem) and Daedalus (who is associated with Japheth) is a difference not simply between two religions but also between two different kinds of aesthetics. I would suggest that this aesthetics – between Shem and Japheth – be understood in terms of the schlemiel. For, as Sanford Pinsker has pointed out, Bloom is Joyce’s attempt at a schlemiel character. The difference between them is between a Greek kind of tragic seriousness and a Jewish kind of comedy. Both are grounded on two different kinds of exile: one tragic the other comic; one self-imposed, the other not.

Even though Daedelus, through his self-imposed exile, is looking to dwell in the tents of his brother, Shem, it is Bloom – who doesn’t chose his exile, because he is a Jew – that often follows Daedelus around and bears witness to his changes. Bloom, in many scenes, helps Deadelus up when he falls down. Even though he wanders like a schlemiel through the streets of Dublin and from thing to thing that pass through his consciousness, he puts all on hold to help his brother who seems to be – at one turn after another – breaking down.

Joyce’s narrator asks the reader to think about the narration of Stephen Daedalus. His narration is “salient” while Bloom’s “seems” to be less so (only because the standards of beauty are the domain of Japheth and the Greeks, not the Jews and Shem). Joyce offers us a key to understanding the relationship of Shem (the schlemiel, Bloom) to Japheth along these lines:

Which event or person emerged as the salient point of his narration?

Stephen Daedelus, professor and author.

What limitations of activity and inhibitions of conjugal rights were perceived by listener and narrator concerning themselves during the course of this intermittent and increasingly more laconic narrative.

How, asks the narrator, did he become the “salient point of his own narrative”?

By various reiterated feminine interrogation concerning the masculine destination whither, the place where, the time at which, the duration for which, the object with which in the case of temporary absences, projected, or effected. (871, Ulysses)

The “feminine interrogation” about where the “masculine destination” is going and how long he, Daedalus, goes away seems to have an effect on the body not only of Daedalus but, more importantly, the reader and the narrator. To the question, “In what posture?” we see that the narrator, in telling the story, has become a “manchild of the womb”:

Narrator: reclined laterally, left, with right and left legs flexed, the index finger and thumb on the right hand resting on the bridge of the nose, in the attitude depicted on a snapshot photograph made by Percy Upjohn, the childhood weary, the manchild in the womb. (870)

This narrator, in telling the story, is both Bloom and Deadalus. The name “manchild,”as one commentator notes, is synonymous with the word “Stoom” (Stephen and Bloom) . He has become like the schlemiel. He travels with “Sinbad the sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Winbad the Whaler and Nimbad the Nailer….”(871).

And through this journey, he becomes “Stoom.”

Substituting Stephen for Bloom, Stoom would have passed successfully through the preparatory, junior, middle, and senior grades of the intermediate and through the matriculation, first arts, second arts, and arts degree course of the royal university.

And for this moment, before he sinks into the dark, Japheth can dwell in the tent of Shem:

“Jewgreek is Jewgreek. Extremes meet.”

By circling around Bloom, as if Bloom were the sun and not the moon (which reflects light and doesn’t shine a light of its own; a powerful symbol of the feminine and Malchut – “kingdom” – in Kabbalah), Daedalus learns what it’s like to be the everyman. He comes down from his heights and becomes a new person, Stoom, a “manchild of the womb.” He isn’t in search of Noah – as was Japheth – he is in search of his brother and in coming close to him, by dwelling with him, he momentarily becomes the schlemiel. And then he, like Gimpel, who wanders away at the end of his story, departs.

Unlike Judah HaLevi who keeps them apart, Joyce suggests that Japheth can become Shem.  He can become “Stoom.” But this can only happen if Japheth, the philosopher, exiles himself and asks Shem to bear witness. And for that to happen, Japheth must become small; otherwise, Japheth cannot dwell in the tents of Shem. His expansion – the expansion of modern aesthetics, perhaps, as Joyce suggests – is based on contraction.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

Submit a comment