Stabat Mater and James Joyce’s Chapter 18

Apparitions (2013) Installation view, Alcultura, Algeciras (2017)








The sweep of a circle is drawn at the beginning as the image of the sweeping gesture which Mulligan’s arm traces in the morning air with his reflecting mirror ‘He swept the mirror a half circle in the air to flash out the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea’ .  With his arm, Stephen traces this shape which encircles Chapter 1 and which may be a concavity which could begin to trace out one of filmic spaces in Stabat Mater – a semi-circular camera pan along a horizontal axis of viewing in a garden a palm tree encircled.    Here, within the semi-circle of this hand gesture and rotational eye-scan, is the rotunda of the Martello tower which is the phallic enclosure within which, the early morning rituals of shaving are enacted.  Within this enclosure, the razor and mirror lay crossed and are conflated in the symbology with the event of the Mass and with the fetish objects of a holy event about to be performed.  The crossings, the objects of purification.  The turning or facing about, first blessing the tower, are a movement which, from his place of perspective, we take in the generous circumference – the tower, the surrounding countryside or the bay and Straits –  and ‘awakening mountains’, a blessing which places at its centre the priest-like figure in a ritual which, at its highest point can only be intoned by the figure and voice of the male priest ‘He holds the (shaving) bowl aloft and intones “ Intriobo ad altare Dei”’. This is both the beginning to Chapter 1 and the central moment of the ritual of the Mass – the transubstantiation – collapsed into one.  We have been placed simultaneously at the beginning and at the centre, the circle is the inner male sacred sanctum.  ‘To ourselves…new paganism…omphalos’.


Omphalos, Greek for navel  – a central point or concavity in the cartography of a journey of both the mythical Ulysses and Joyce’s Ulysses to Calypso’s isle at Gibraltar.This place which is at the gateposts to a dark beyond is as Michael Sediel says ‘the borders of death’s region in a Mediterranean world’. This place both marks the threshold and is the receptacle for the figure of Chapter 18 who Seidal says ‘born in Gibraltar builds up her narration on the rotating rock of her own body’, an anatomical threshold to a feminine geography at Chapter 18 at the end of the linear journey of the book.  Here we have two different movements, the build up of circular horizontal pan movements within the space which culminate in the so-called earthball of Molly’s body, the cyclical shape of a journey which could start at the sunrise of Chapter 1 to the sunset of Chapter 18 and movement walking, skipping towards a centre but also a movement to a border or threshold a point of jumping off into the blue space – the sea- infinity.  Perhaps these different conceptualisations of the mapping of Ulysses can be co-joined in the possibility which Siedel suggests ‘For Joyce the body’s navel is the point of origin and the point of sundering, a centre that encourages disconnections’

This notion of the place of the feminine as a speaking point of localisation, as a centre which is de-centred – a  threshold which encourages disconnections and is the point of sundering is one gatepost or threshold of the entry to the film Stabat Mater.  


Stabat Mater is also an alternative voice to Chapter 18.  So showing it in GIbraltar at the cul-de-sac/threshold/endplace/ mythical geographic centre and to  to the delegates of the Joycian scholars from the conference at Seville, as voice of response to the (cannonic) text is apposite and a series of co-incidences which seem to echo the coindient constructions of the feminine of Chapter 18 and possibly Joyce’s own pleasure in seeking and making connections.  The film subverts or reworks or retreads the space, which in all the massive writing predominantly by male critics and scholars had not been addressed at all. (cite Feminist scholars).  The film is a language which is in excess of the text of Ulysses although pre-texted on it, it is contra-punctual to it and transgressive in its repossession of it. Working against its grain as it were.  Denying the closure of certain rhetoric of the feminine or the feminine as a ‘principle’ – its representation struggles to be an open text. 


The structure of the film is organised on the symmetry of a triptych – iconographic space for the religious representation of the maternal in Western art. A main central panel with two support panels either side –  containing the blue spacing of the Madonna opened and closed by a shot of the top of palm trees which both mark an ‘other’ exotic and far away imaginary and is the historic representational symbol in painting. – The palm trees remind me of the painting the Ghent Triptych and is also a topic of geography having been filmed in Gibraltar and as ‘quotation marks’. I filmed in various places in Gibraltar which correspond to places that Molly remembers which also correspond to my own memory. The reading of the text triggers personal associations.   I visit the metaphor of the garden of the Madonna but is also that specific one which is in mine and in her memory in Chapter 18 which is the Alameda Gardens.   This is a Garden or threshold which doubles as a place of death and loss.   


Stabat Mater means ‘There stood the Mother’, who is the mother at the foot of the cross – the Mater Dolorosa – It is the title of the Latin hymn set to the sacred music by many famous composers including Pergolesi and others.  It is also the title of Julia Kristeva’s seminal essay on the cult of the Virgin Mary and the representation of the mother in Western culture. It is an essay around an empty space or what to put in the place of this representation at a time when the demise of religion and absence of a discourse of motherhood has  made redundant these representations.  ‘In the realm of representation in Christianity we have the most refined symbolic construct in which femininity is focused on maternality…If however one looks more closely, this motherhood is the fantasy, that is nurtured by the adult, man or woman for a lost territory, what  is more,it involves less an idealised archaic mother than the idealisation the relationship that binds us to her, one that cannot be localised’.  The witing of Kristeva’s essay maps a territory of the feminine as unrepresentable M/other.


Stabat Mater is the aria or the song that the voice stretches to or is a register that cannot reach.  Like the Omphalos, the hollow of the echo of that song in the film is a lament and a receptacle.  The concavity of the omphalos is exchanged for another conceptualisation of a holding space.   This could be the chora another Greek word which Kristeva conceptualises as a receptacle which resounds with pre-verbal semiotic communications. She aligns this space to the aural and a place before language or what is in excess of language, which here could be the grain of the voice reacing upwards in song or the straining pitch of the crescendo of the lament.  The choric space is a register of pre-verbal pulsions, mobile articulation, provisional, partiality, meaninglessness, disruption, pressures on language, silences, absences, analogous with vocal or kinetic rhythm.  A receptacle which is drawn from the subject as the centre of which we turn about, an 180 degree pan in the enclosure of the Garden at the end of the journey of the film.  Does the Molly text ‘speak fluid?” as  Suzette Henke asks, does her speaking as she says seek to heal the trauma of maternal abjection by recreating the polyhonous rhythms and lyrical echolalias of semiotic communication?   


Stabat Mater is also the choral music of the canon replaced by a form from low culture, the voice of the lament which is the saeta, a popular but highly virtuoso vocal form sung to the Mater Dolorosa during Holy Week from street level. Here it is my mother singing, to the Mother in a hierarchy of sublimation but which is both idealisation and subverts idealisation.  Stabat Mater turns on the replacement of the Father/Son Dyad which reaches its highest consecration and meeting point under Molly’s bedroom in Chapter 18 when in the narrative the two men return home.  Tied up with this circulation is language itself,  the shifting/exchange of the ennunciating pronoun of desire from he to she – a return to a polymourphous subversion of the dialogic as affirmation of primeval loss and as subversion of the supposed desire of Molly’s text.   Not the male lover on Howeth Hill but I would say that the searing omission is the lost mother who is overlooked and has (with the exception of Suzette Henke’s account) been erased – the lost Jewess Lunita Laredo who wandered off but who is a burning absence – the hole the gap in the speech of the text.  But we are not talking about a biographical or historical Molly but about filmic language and a vocal visual rhetoric of representation of this absence.     “My mother whoever she was the fun we had skipping along Willis’ road to Europa Point twisting in and out all round the other side”.   A fluid light camera skipping, which bursts out of the frame of the camera, shattering the composure of vision and the control of the eye and aligning itself to the rhythm of an invisible body  ‘the voluptuous signifier/grain of the voice which swaying the text towards an excess that breaks phallic closure’. as Jean Matthee describes.   “A shifting contra punctual, rhythmic, syntactical relationship of sound/image.  It works with the image, matching, locating, dislocating each from the other in a shifting relationship, closing and opening the gap between the two as the interstice in which the textual feminine is attempted as filmic language and out of which it is produced – a bodying forth to the formal tensions within the material of the film as the juxtapositional relationship of its parts, sound, image, duration, pace, rhythm, – a shifting location at the cutting of speaking, metaphor, metonymy, reading, writing, vocality, framing, and in t-r-a-n-s , a ‘wound that always lies open between’. The crossing or cutting at the point of stitching the images and the sound, the shots and the words. “ A disruptive journey to the end to Europa Point which is the gatepost to a beyond, Cixous’ blue spacing – a threshold where pronouns are exchanged. 


Stabat Mater is both the centre and threshold where identity is bursting out from the body from subject and the voice breaks out of speaking – perhaps this is what Joyce means by sundering – a fragmentation which resists and frees itself through experimenal film language from the fiction of a totalised subject and is the threshold towards aperture of the filmic text.  


The voice can be a polyphonic structure which could infer a plasticity or multiplicity.  Kaja Silverman connects the trope of the maternal voice as sonorous envelope as the original prototype for the voice in the cavernous space of cinema but she also observes that the womans’ voice in mainstream cinema is silenced and substituted by what she calls the theological status of the male voice-over. . This earlier voice could be inscribed in pulsion, beat, pace, rhythm, and in Stabat Mater it is also inscribed in the crescendo of the form of the lament as the lost Lunita, the wandering mother, a voice which is ‘erased’  or lost, outside of the symbolic language – an ‘Other voice’ .


This voice of the woman does not resonate in experimental film and in mainstream cinema Silverman says, it is always squeezed out of the narrative and present only in the scream or cry.  So, the presence of the voice in Stabat Mater responds to this exclusion, from the ‘feminine’ side as an acoustic presence within experimental film which in Stabat Mater is in relation to the image rather than on the fixed plane of the voice-over with it’s emphasis on observational status. The voice in Stabat Mater is speaking from within the film. It presents a cohering ennuciation rather than a privileged and filtering eye. This would be the rhetoric of the disembodied voice, cut off but connected to the body and to vision.


Stabat Mater is a fast shifting, contra punctual, rhythmic, syntactical relationship to the image.  A ‘reading/speaking/pronouncing’ voice coheres as a fragmented yet always potential subject which is marking out a precinct or a chora and is also trying to breaking out its own borders. Reading/speaking/writing is a kind of performance.   I  use my own voice balanced on the edge of a non-acted speech. This speaking undoes the notion of dramatisation or of characterisation and the voice is an instrument of acoustic framing or of focus on the image. This distance of delivery keeps out the body yet being the voice of the woman, the body is never far away.  Close/up and intimate the voice summons up the eroticism of the body, particularly the throat and mouth, site of pleasure yet refuses an easy and fixing identity of the subject .  This power of speaking is synonymous with a knowing in control of language and its words a subject that knows itself, this place which ambivalent,  knowing and not-knowing,  displacing  and locating itself.    The voice gives pleasure in its use of the strong pronoun ‘I’ and draws us towards it and keeps us out.  The speaking subject is not totally barred from entry into representation but it is not trapped by the image.


The meditative slow-paced speech marked by long pauses and flat close-up delivery in First Memory (1981) and Close to Home (1982-85) has in Stabat Mater (l990) become faster and faster. Holding back is taken into plenitude, excess – torrent of words, reading voice into song.  Creating an unruly, uncontainable vocality which is breaking out of its borders. Voice is also produced by the descent into the body,  the larynx and thorax in breathing, hissing,intake of air. This could be that Other voice which is in excess of the language but which is not just a composition or a form of sound expressionism or formal strategies such as syncopated cutting of words and images or musicality or metaphor which is standing in for the inability to say in words but a vocality –which is to some extent improvisational and performative.   A vocality beginning to deteriorate into the unintelligible – babble, gibberish, algarabia.   Fractured articulation is part of a new film Now I am yours which places at its centre the broken down act of speech – ‘schizophreneze’, deteriorated language, visionary ravings, loquaciousness, silence, choked-up communication, taking disruption as a precarious borderline position recentred as a form of communication.”


Conference: James Joyce International Symposium, Seville.  Talk and Screening of Stabat Mater, John Macintosh Hall, Gibraltar, 1994.  Attending Susette Henke   

©Nina Danino 1994/2019