Religion and Transcendence in James Joyce's "Ulysses"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1.1 Defining the concept of transcendence
1.2 Methodological problem and “challenge” of analysing patterns of transcendence
1.3 Immanence and transcendence as complementary antonyms
1.4. The equivalent of the notions of immanence and transcendence in “Ulysses”
1.5 Diaphany – bridging the “yawning gap” between immanence and transcendence
1.6 Reincarnation or Metempsychosis? – Mixing up concepts of transcendence

2.1 Approaching the function of religion in Ulysses – Preliminaries
2.2. Negative theology as a means to tie concepts of religion to a new literary function
2.3 Buck Mulligan: a “pagan” naturalist initiating Stephen’s Christian path
2.4 Symbolism: the counterpart of naturalism
2.5 Bloom: elevated to the status of God’s son

3. Conclusion

List of Works Cited:

1.1 Defining the concept of transcendence

The concept of transcendence is generally defined as the antonym of the notion of immanence. The material entities that are tangible and perceivable by the human senses are considered to form part of immanence, whereas transcendence is attributed to the divine and celestial spheres that elude the possibility to be grasped and handled in a way material objects can be dealt with. Owing to the fact that the two concepts of immanence and transcendence are considered to be poles apart, it is uncertain whether they are compatible with each other despite their antonymity. If the yawing gap between them should be reconcilable, this act of linking can only take place by means of a bridging relation of the complementary. An analogy to this would be the complementary relationship between allopathic and homeopathic remedies: allopathic pills are composed of chemical substances whose existence can easily be verified in a laboratory, whereas homeopathic tablets do not contain the physical substance of the respective herbs, metals or even venoms, but on the contrary the respective energetic correlate of them that eludes scientific methods of verification. Accepting the possibility of being cured by homeopathy is tantamount to embracing the existence of transcendence. By means of this comparison I seek to highlight that there must be mutual intermingling between the seemingly disparate antonyms of immanence and transcendence, owing to the fact that transcendence needs a material vehicle as a solid fundament in order to function and in order to be perceived by human beings.

1.2 Methodological problem and “challenge” of analysing patterns of transcendence

It is due to this observation that I contend that transcendence, whose repercussions I shall analyse in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, can never be analysed as an isolated phenomenon, since it would fade into nothing and cease to exist without the material fundament of immanence. The sphere of immanence is made up by all the elements whose existence can be proven by means of empiric methods: the characters, the setting which takes place in the city of Dublin, the relationships between the characters and the plot. However, despite the fact that literary critics as a partly empiric science is easily capable of discerning the constellation of characters and the existence of a linear plot, it is more of a challenge to integrate the concept of religion and, even more, the concept of transcendence into it. This is due to the fact that literary criticism is supposed to be an empiric science whose observations should be comphensible to anyone having read the primary source. But the empiric nature of literary studies is in sheer contrast to the nature of transcendence. Since its existence cannot be proven by means of scientific investigations and owing to the fact that the results of analysis of structures of transcendence are not reproducable nor verifiable since the signifiés of transcendent phenomenons can be understood in multifarious ways, it eludes the methods of empiric investigations. I shall prove this by using an example for the sake of illustration: the human cellula is the smallest entity of material organic life and thus the prototype of life in immanence. Its single components can be proven by means of scientific methods. The single entities of the human cellula (I shall refer to them as microentities) – such as the ribosoma, the mitochondria and the dictyosoma form part of a larger entity, namely the human cellula. It is by means of their being arranged in a fixed network-like constellation that metabolistic processes such as fermentation and oxidation are possible. This schematic and systematic outline corresponds to the core feature of immanence: namely its possessing and containing structures that erudite scientifics are able to describe. The world of immanence is a gigantic macrocosmic network of constellation. In the semantics chapter of his textbook of Middle English German linguist Florian Schleburg establishes a comparison between the discernable structures of material objects on the one hand, and the corresponding structure of textual documents on the other by equating the world to a textual document[1].

The challenge of analysis of transcendence resides in the fact that transcendence is devoid of regular structure. In my view, its fuzziness and the absence of perceivable boundaries even falsify notions like “structures of transcendence” or “patterns of transcendence”, for it is, on the contrary, the non-existence of such boundaries that enables us to differentiate between immanence and transcendence. Since theologians and philosophers consider transcendence to be concomitant with immaterial concepts such as God, a higher supme force, destiny or even ‘the unexplicable’, I shall contend that the blurring of structural boundaries and systematic network-like constellations, as they can be found in any system in the immanent material world, is the core feature of transcendence. Even if there should be an intricate system or regularity by means of which transcendent forces or energies (whose existence can neither be proven nor refuted by means of scientific experiments as they are conducted by empiricists) operate, they cannot be outlined nor described.

1.3 Immanence and transcendence as complementary antonyms

Since introspection is an unadmissable way of analysis in the context of an academic term paper, a far more adequate way of coming to terms with the apparently fuzzy notion of transcendence is describing the mutual relationship between immanence and transcendence. At the beginning I argued that transcendence is dependent upon a material vehicle: without a material substance bearing the healing energy substances of homeopathy (which are demateralized and “transcentalized”, a neologism I used for the sake of highlighting the striking difference between the structured material world and the non-material category of transcendence) in the way that they have been separated from their material correlate when they were used for the pparation of the homeopathic remedy) could not come to fruition. Hence, the levels of immanence and transcendence must necessarily intermingle and are thus mutually dependent on each other. But for a tablet on which the healing energy of the substance is stored, there would not be a material remedy at the disposal of the convalescent.

1.4. The equivalent of the notions of immanence and transcendence in “Ulysses”

As I stated, transcendence is inextricably tied to the material context of immanence. Evidence to this lies in the fact that religious people who claim to have been subjected to a supernatural experience can only categorize and psychologically integrate their experience within the boundaries of immanence: whether it be a clairvoyant piece of information or a pcognitive dream (which are likely to be among the most prominent variants of transcentental experiences), they share the fact that the information obtained still refers to the realm of the material world, only that the boundaries, the lines of confinement have been exceeded and transgressed. Those who obtain supernatural pieces of information do not leave the down-to-earth context of immanence, they only go beyond it, owing to the fact that man is incapable of abandoning life on earth, and thus immanence, even in case he dedicates his life to being a hermit, meditating in an abandoned cave – one also depends on the material context to sustain one’s life.

Therefore, it is vital to define the material fundament upon which the transcendental allusions in “Ulysses” are grounded. My thesis is that traditional institutionalized religion, which is dealt with in multifarious contexts and variations in the novel, serves as the material fundament of immanence upon whose pillars Joyce builds the transcendental components. Resuming the analogy of homeopathic remedies, one can say that the repsentants of the traditional religions of Christianity and Judalism (Jesus Christ, Moses, Eliah) correlate with the material substance of the pill, whereas the transcendent component is equivalent to the energetic value of the homeopathic medicine. Since Wolfgang Wicht points out that “Joyce dotted the text with allusions and intertextual references to the Judeo-Christian heritage of messianic prophets”[2], it is of vital importance to analyse the function of the copious references to the Old Testament prophets as well as to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in “Ulysses”.

1.5 Diaphany – bridging the “yawning gap” between immanence and transcendence

At the very beginning of the Proteus chapter, Stephen is at the peak of a contemplation. The spiritual quality of his meditation manifests itself in a dense isotopic network of lexemes that can be considered prototypes of transcendence: These attributes are syntagmatically accumulated by means of short paratactic sentences which are partly elliptic: “ineluctable modality of the visible”, “limits of the diaphane[3] ”. While being in this trance-lake state, the boundaries between the concrete material realm of immanence and those of transcendence suddenly blur: hence, Stephen considers the “seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide [and] that rusty boat of “signatures of all things I am here to read”[4]. On the one hand, he is tempted to consider these entities as divine signs that contain a spiritual gist he would like to decrypt. But the antithesis “diaphane, adiaphane”[5] shows that his euphoria due to his instantaneous pseudo-illumination is by no means serious, but on the contrary not only evanescent, but also accompanied by a subtle layer of irony. It is striking that two antonyms, namely “diaphane” and “adiaphane” are directly linked to each other on the syntagmatic level. This being the case, it appears as though they were interwoven even though they exclude each other. But the concatenation of these two antonyms mirrors the oscillation between Stephen’s transcendental epiphany and his coming down to earth shortly afterwards. He describes the features of the object he perceives by enumerating their colours – “snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs”[6]. It is true that in this context the notion of the “sign” might allow for a transcendent sign that he is eager to decrypt. But it is in the very next sentence that the quality of the colours is denigrated to being “limits of the diaphane”[7]. That is to say that the boundaries between immanence and transcendence that apparently seem to have blurred and faded into insignificance seem to have re-emerged. Since the description of the mere outward appearance of objects is the way a semanticist would describe their core nature, it appears as though Stephen does not have access to the meditative and comforting realm of transcendence. The first sentence of the chapter, namely “ineluctable modality of the visible”[8], hinting at the fact that the boundaries of immanence – and the five senses, among which also figures eyesight, a feature that is in sheer contrast to the invisible spheres of transcendence - cannot easily be transgressed. So, as far as the nature of the sign Stephen seeks to decrypt is concerned, he discards its spiritual gist and reduces the objects around him to mere linguistic signs whenever his epiphanies are interrupted.


[1] When naming the semantics chapter “The world as a text”, Schleburg might allude at the microcosmic reflection of world knowledge in textual documents; at any rate, the macrocosmic world (immanence) shares with textual documents the core features of structure, order, systemacity and linearity. Cf. Schleburg, Florian, Lehrbuch des Mittelenglischen. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 1999.

[2] Wicht, Wolfgang, Utopianism in James Joyce’s Ulysses (p. 167). Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2000.

[3] Joyce, James. U lysses. The 1922 text (p. 37). Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

[4] ibid, p. 37.

[5] ibid, p. 37.

[6] ibid, p. 37.

[7] ibid. p. 37.

[8] ibid, p. 37.

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Religion and Transcendence in James Joyce's "Ulysses"
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik )
Hauptseminar: James Joyce
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ISBN (Book)
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Religion, Transcendence, James, Joyce, Ulysses, Hauptseminar, James, Joyce
Quote paper
Kai Hühne (Author), 2008, Religion and Transcendence in James Joyce's "Ulysses", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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