Joyce and the Internet: What Leopold Bloom Didn't Know

James Joyce's narration leads us through the difficulty of finding knowledge in a pre-Internet era, reminding us how lucky we are to have this technology, despite all its flaws.

An undated photo of Irishman James Joyce, author of one of Dublin's most famous literary masterpieces 'Ulysses.' (Fran Caffrey / Getty)

There's a touching passage in James Joyce's Ulysses -- let me pay homage to the inventor of the weblog and link to Jorn Barger's Joyce pages -- when Leopold Bloom is walking through Dublin on 16 June 1904, thinking in quick alternation, as he is prone to do, about his own miseries and about the immediate impressions on his sensorium:

Mr Bloom moved forward raising his troubled eyes. Think no more about that. After one. Timeball on the ballast office is down. Dunsink time. Fascinating little book that is of Sir Robert Ball's. Parallax. I never exactly understood. There's a priest. Could ask him. Par it's Greek: parallel, parallax.

"Dunsink" is the Dunsink Observatory, in what was then the outskirts of Dublin. The Ballast Office "timeball," atop the clock proper, would drop on the hour, enabling Dubliners and visitors to set their watches. Bloom notes it as he passes, but then his mind, prompted by other stimuli, moves on to other things. A few minutes later, though, he circles back:

Now that I come to think of it, that ball falls at Greenwich time. It's the clock is worked by an electric wire from Dunsink. Must go out there some first Saturday of the month. If I could get an introduction to professor Joly or learn up something about his family. That would do to: man always feels complimented. Flattery where least expected. Nobleman proud to be descended from some king's mistress. His foremother. Lay it on with a trowel. Cap in hand goes through the land. Not go in and blurt out what you know you're not to: what's parallax? Show this gentleman the door.


His hand fell to his side again.

Never know anything about it. Waste of time. Gasballs spinning about, crossing each other, passing. Same old dingdong always.

An irony: Bloom thinks he doesn't know what parallax is, but in a way he does: he's aware that Dunsink time is 25 minutes different from Greenwich time, and that's parallax. The angle of the sun in relation to one object (London) is slightly different than its angle in relation to another object (Dublin). The Ballast Office clock is on Dunsink time, but the timeball atop it was synchronized to Greenwich time because Dublin is a port city, and in 1904 sailors -- whose lives were governed by Greenwich time -- were in and out of the city all the time. Two times indicated on one object: parallax.

But the fancy Greek term throws Bloom. He is a very intelligent and deeply curious but poorly educated man, and doesn't even know whom he should seek out to help him, or how he might solicit help. ("If I could get an introduction to professor Joly or learn up something about his family.") It's all too discouraging. His hand drops to his side and he gives up: "Never know anything about it. Waste of time."

And this, friends, is exactly why the Internet -- for all its deficiencies and pathologies -- is one of the most wonderful of inventions. Of course, this has all been said a million times before: A world of knowledge at your fingertips! and all that. But I don't know whether we can think often enough about how few of our intellectually hungry ancestors had the resources they needed to satisfy their hunger -- and how many people today in the dis-connected or digitally-censored parts of the world remain as hungry (and often as discouraged) as Leopold Bloom.

Now Bloom actually has more resources than he realizes: we learn much later in Ulysses that that "fascinating little book ... of Sir Robert Ball's" is called The Story of the Heavens and is sitting on Bloom's shelf at home, though he has either forgotten about it or thinks he can't understand it. If you're interested, you can read the whole book here -- or maybe just search in it for "parallax" and find this:

We must first explain clearly the conception which is known to astronomers by the name of parallax; for it is by parallax that the distance of the sun, or, indeed, the distance of any other celestial body, must be determined. Let us take a simple illustration. Stand near a window whence you can look at buildings, or the trees, the clouds, or any distant objects. Place on the glass a thin strip of paper vertically in the middle of one of the panes. Close the right eye, and note with the left eye the position of the strip of paper relatively to the objects in the background. Then, while still remaining in the same position, close the left eye and again observe the position of the strip of paper with the right eye. You will find that the position of the paper on the background has changed. As I sit in my study and look out of the window I see a strip of paper, with my right eye, in front of a certain bough on a tree a couple of hundred yards away; with my left eye the paper is no longer in front of that bough, it has moved to a position near the outline of the tree. This apparent displacement of the strip of paper, relatively to the distant background, is what is called parallax.

"It is this principle," Ball points out, "applied on a gigantic scale, which enables us to measure the distances of the heavenly bodies" -- or, for that matter, the distance between Greenwich and Dublin.

Some people have said that with the ability to search a resource as vast as the internet we lose the pleasures of serendipity; or that it's too easy to find information and we lose the sense of reward that comes at the end of a long and difficult search. I used to worry about stuff like that myself, but I don't any more. You can hold those views when you live in a world where access to information is absolutely secure and you know you can find what you need when you need it. (Look at how easy -- and fun, I should add -- it was to find the stuff I needed for this post.) But for the vast majority of human beings throughout history, reliable knowledge has been scarce, elusive, and well beyond arm's reach. Access to it has often been a matter of knowing the right people and convincing them to share with you.

This relational element of knowledge acquisition has a certain romance to it. In his wonderful book Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, Anthony Grafton describes how one might gain a place in the Republic of Letters:

Any young man, and more than a few young women, could pay the price of admission. If they mastered Latin and, ideally, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic; became proficient at what now seem the unconnected skills of mathematics and astronomy, history and geography, and physics and music; visited any recognized scholar . . . bearing a letter from a senior scholar, and greeted their host in acceptable Latin or French, they were assured of everything a learned man or woman would want: a warm and civilized welcome, a cup of chocolate (or, later, coffee), and an hour or two of ceremonious conversation on the latest editions of the classics and the most recent sightings of the rings of Saturn.

Lovely. But what about people like Leopold Bloom for whom those first steps of knowledge are difficult at best, and who try desperately to think of ways to get a local "recognized scholar" to let fall a few crumbs of knowledge from his bountiful table? When you think about how common that situation has been in human history -- and in many parts of the world still is -- it's hard not to see the availability of massive knowledge online as a cause for pure rejoicing -- and to think that "everyone should be able to access the internet".

If I'm ever tempted to wish that the task of searching for information were more of a challenge, I just remember Leopold Bloom, with his hands dropping to his side, and his sad surrender to the inevitability of ignorance: "Never know anything about it."