Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.
So begins the fourth chapter of Ulysses. “Calypso” is one of the more straightforward episodes of the novel, but here we’ll look at the way the opening line maintains its own ambiguity throughout the chapter’s opening pages. The suspended ambiguity is initiated in the grammatical indeterminacy of “ate,” which functions either as preterit (simple past) or as unmarked imperfect, suggesting, respectively, either that Bloom has just eaten a meal consisting of animal organs, or that Bloom regularly eats animal organs (completed action vs. general habit or practice). Exactly how Bloom eats these organs isn’t immediately clear either—does he just enjoy eating them, or does he frequently pair them with a flavorful condiment (with relish)?
Beyond causing general confusion, it’s hard to say what effect this doubleness has, or is intended to have, on the reader. It doesn’t appear to be an ethical ambiguity, nor do the different possibilities alter Bloom’s characterization in a meaningful way: a man who loves to eat kidneys is not far removed from a man who eats kidneys for breakfast and enjoys it. And yet note here how much clearer meaning is when the past-tense verb implies continuous, rather than completed, action: “loved to eat” versus “ate with relish”; “enjoyed eating” or the thoroughly explicitly “regularly ate.” The ambiguity in English of conjugating simple past and unmarked imperfect identically is inherent in the language, but fluent speakers typically adapt accordingly: any of the aforementioned clarifying rewrites are instinctual native usage, and their avoidance by a skilled wielder of the English language implies intentionality. Perhaps the grammatical conflation of habit and event, of the continuous and the terminal, set a tone for the novel’s depiction of a twenty-four hour period: that the day’s completed, one-time occurrences is a paradigm for the larger, continuous modern urban existence. Yet while this explanation plays off analyses’ fetish for clever metaphor and twist, one wonders whether the rest of the text supports this reading; Wolfgang Iser, in “Ulysses and the Reader” argues persuasively that to see Joyce’s magnum opus as representing and capturing reality is to fundamentally misunderstand the project.
The typical reader of “Calypso” consciously or subconsciously decides which version of the sentence ze believes in. The succeeding line states that Bloom “likes” the organs, rather than just eating them, and lists such a variety of dishes that it is hard to imagine he includes relish with each one (relish in a thick giblet soup?). We understand, if we did not initially, that “relish” is meant in the sense of enjoyment instead of condiment. We might also hazard that the reader’s working hypothesis (again, conscious or not) leans, for reasons of probability, towards the preterite: using a past-tense, unmarked imperfect form for a verb like “eat,” without noting why the behavior has stopped (e.g., “He ate meat until he became a vegetarian”), is rare — used, as far as I know, only when the reason for ceasing the behavior is self-evident (such as death) or when the past-tense is used in literature, where the characters’ lives are entirely located in past-tense. “Ate” as an unexplained imperfect is effective erasure: the eater no longer exists (the analytical instinct towards cleverness kicks in again: is Joyce, one wonders, using this erasure to draw attention to the inherent artificiality/nonexistence of the fictional character?).
Following the grammatical breadcrumbs we are led into the kitchen, within which Bloom (we are told) is currently moving about. It is, at least by modern standards, a rather normal place to eat meal, and this reaffirms our faith in the preterit hypothesis — though his movement around the room is somewhat incongruous with normal eating habits. Perhaps his meal has just concluded, and he is taking his plates to the kitchen — except now the text mentions that kidneys are “in [Bloom’s] mind.” The past preterite interpretation is still a coherent reading here — it is entirely plausible, for example, that Bloom has finished eating his meal, is currently cleaning up or doing other work in the kitchen (preparing a breakfast tray, we soon learn), and is merely reflecting back on his meal. But evidence is tipping into another hypothesis: that Bloom is a regular consumer of kidneys and is looking forward to indulging again on this morning.
Let us take the text, and this ambiguity, a little further in the service of understanding how the brain, essentially, “understands,” that is, fills in Iserian gappiness, resolves ambiguity, and makes inferences. Some kind of formal or informal statistical analysis is run on the information we’ve ascertained thus far through reading. We know Bloom is thinking of food, and from experience we know that when one thinks of food, he is usually hungry. This alone may not cause us to call into question our standing hypothesis (that Bloom has just finished eating a meal). It is entirely plausible that he is thinking of the kidneys for reasons other than hunger — reflecting the pleasure the meal brought him, or on whether to cook them slightly less rare the next time around. It is also entirely possible that his meal was insufficient, did not satiate him, and that he is therefore still hungry. But the imperfect, habitual alternative reading fits equally well: Bloom loves kidneys, and is craving one since he is hungry and has not yet eaten. If we as readers have a hypothesis still in shape, it is less a matter of which interpretation is plausible and more a matter of which interpretation is more plausible: as the chapter unfolds, the situation complicates rather than resolving. The second paragraph relays that the summer morning is making Bloom “feel a bit peckish” — is the summer morning the reason that Bloom might still be hungry, and therefore thinking of kidneys, after already eating a full meal? Does the “bit” in “bit peckish” imply a moderate appetite in general, versus a moderate appetite after eating, and therefore indicate that Bloom does not have the digestive incentive to eat two meals in a row? Or is the “bit peckish” ironic rather than sincere in usage, serving as an understatement which pokes fun at Bloom’s insatiable desire for so many kidneys? The reader is on shaky ground indeed.
Ultimately, it is as much a lack of confirming evidence as it is the existence of contradictory evidence which eventually unseats the preterit hypothesis. There are no mentions of Bloom “still” being hungry, no mention of his deciding to get “another” kidney at Buckley’s or Dlugacz’s, and no mentions after the first paragraph of Bloom previously eating a meal that morning. We learn that Bloom gets his kidneys from shops instead of cooking them himself, and we surmise from his interaction with his wife that he has not yet left the house that morning. The careful, English-native reader has by now likely chosen and maintained a preterit hypothesis up until the point that Bloom decides to leave home in pursuit of kidneys. Perhaps at this tipping point the reader will go back to re-read the opening paragraphs, revise his understanding of events, and cut back to where he left off in the chapter: Bloom’s consumption of animal organs, this reader might decide, is a general practice or habit rather than a closed event that occurs at the opening of the chapter.
We can observe that the rules of the real world have been imported, inevitably, into the logic of the book in our readerly attempts at achieving determinacy. What a sign points to, or the probabilities of various competing possibilities, are weighed with reference to the rules and physics of the reality outside the book, the implied ground of any novel grounded in our world being the world itself, with updates or alterations typically stated up-front or heavily implied in order to overcome this default assertion.
Putting this all into the predictive processing framework, we can understand that the brain has a hierarchical generative model (HGM) of the world. In an encounter with a literary text, certain concepts (C) in the HGM are activated which correspond to the relevant subset of real-world and artistic subjects activated through the text. This HGM is essentially probabilistic, and is making active predictions about what is the case, and what will happen next, in the informational stream that is the novel. Knowing that there is a strong correspondence between outer reality and the intended inner reality of a realist novel allows us to project probabilistic understandings from one to the other, unlocking the text.
 “Decides” or “decision” is a key word in describing the reader’s process: to say that he “discovers,” “realizes,” or “learns” the reality of events would be inaccurate. The reader has learned nothing; an external truth to fictive events is nonexistent and the reader is left choosing between patterns and possibilities to pick a preferred narrative. This is the meaning of interpretation, from linguistic/grammatical interpretation at this (seemingly pedantic) low level to larger political or thematic readings of a text. The reader chooses a preferred interpretation, consciously or subconsciously, based on probabilities: s/he has spotted more and more reliable pieces of evidence/information that support X interpretation than s/he has Y interpretation and therefore chooses X. S/he chooses because cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, and because if every ambiguity in a text was held in the mind as unresolved, any comprehension, understanding (at the level of analytic meaning), or recall of events would be entirely untenable; at best, the brain can preserve some of these ambiguities as tempdata, so that if a less-likely possibility grows in probability as a text proceeds, the reader can draw on old evidence to shift hypotheses (an example being the approximated reading process for “Calypso”’s opening, as outlined in an earlier paragraph).