Thursday, February 25, 2016

Joyce’s Celtic Knot

Sometime in the last year I read – I think it was in Lewis, but it may have been William James – that stream-of-consciousness writing isn’t realistic. Once I’m aware of my stream of consciousness, that awareness itself becomes the stream of consciousness; the regular stream dries up and is replaced by the deliberate thought of myself trying to think outside myself thinking. I get glimpses of my own thought stream, but only about as long as the glimpses I might get of the refrigerator light being off.

I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness (although I actually like it better – or dislike it less – than the interior monologues that have become a staple in popular-fiction narrative). But here I am in the middle of the Mississippi of streams of consciousness: Joyce’s Ulysses. (If I understand correctly, and I certainly may not, I have to reserve the name “Amazon of streams of consciousness” for Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.) It’s amazing to watch the steam roll by and run to the Irish Sea. Connections get fragmented and reconnected. Sentences get fragmented, sometimes ending with “the.” Then words get fragmented and recombined, then parts of words. Bits of Homer, body-part themes, characters going about their business in the streets of Dublin, songs, opera lyrics, rhymes, homonyms, and nonsense syllables all whirl and meet and fly apart again in a giddy Celtic knot of twisted prose. I’ve read three sources that try to sort out all the references, and they certainly help. But I haven’t come across anyone yet who wants to say what they get out of the novel other than this mesmerizing web. Is any reader inspired by it to live a better life? Does anyone admire the book as an honest presentation of human truth executed with expertise? Is anyone entertained? Do they laugh, or cry? I’m about 40% of the way through, and so far, I’d have to say it has struck me like an large, elaborate word-search puzzle with a clever network of themes, but as nothing more.

Oh, sure, there are the two main characters: Stephen Dedalus with a mind that wanders though puns in different languages and theories of Shakespeare, and Leopold Bloom, whose errant thoughts stumble through poorly understood science but mostly gravitate toward sex. Stephen is too esoteric to be inspiring. Since all his heady thoughts keep breaking up over the rocks without ever reaching a stable conclusion, I’m sure he isn’t meant to be a model, anyway; he appears to me more as a portrayal of the futility of intellectualism. Joyce’s mode of presentation of that idea is new, but it’s said done before and – in my lonely view – better by Solomon, Erasmus, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and others. Leopold, on the other hand, only shows me that people are animals. So, no, so far I’m not getting anything more than a puzzle.

I thought Ulysses would be terribly difficult to read because of all the references. But I found quickly that knowing the references only makes the work – again again, this is only the point of view of one man, a man who teaches young people how to spell chords for a living – more complex, not deeper. At one point Bloom thinks about a man having a “base barreltone” voice. OK, I’m a musician, so I got that one myself: he misspelled “bass” and morphed “baritone.” So is Joyce telling us that the human voice, far from being an echo of the music of angels, is just a base croak? A noise as lifeless as the wooden slats and iron hoops in a barrel? Or is he just showing us that Bloom doesn’t know what he’s talking about . . . er, thinking about. I could probably read more in all those secondary sources and trace twenty other hidden references on that page only to find that I now know twenty things better than Leopold Bloom does, which would tell me that after all my hard work, I don’t actually know any more about Bloom himself. Or I could find that Joyce has simply found twenty other ways of telling me that man is an object and life meaningless. I’m trying to think of a way to express that summary more eloquently. Let’s see. Oh! How about this? Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Does that express it clearly?


  1. Works like *Ulysses* very much beg the question of why we write anything. Does something have to have a point or a purpose outside of itself to be good literature? I'm not sure that it does. *Ulysses* is a deeply experimental work, and I think that Joyce's experiments with language and expression (what can or can't be expressed? how does our absorbed cultural background effect our thoughts? can thought be expressed?) are in and of themselves worthy and worthwhile. I don't personally find Bloom or Stephen nice or likable or even particularly interesting characters, nor to I find Joyce's point of view particularly edifying, but the knots are REALLY COOL, and what he accomplished with language is innovative and important. I'm also fascinated with the ending which leaves open either the possibility of eternal stasis or forward motion for Bloom, and (I suspect) for Ireland. I wouldn't go so far as to call it hopeful, but it does express a sense of possibility; possibility that Bloom can begin to move forward if he chooses to do so. Part of the potential tragedy is that Bloom may very well not, and that is a part of the modernist position that can come across as almost nihlistic. The world could be better, but it probably won't be because people won't choose to make it better. But they could if they wanted to badly enough. That's enough rambling for now.

    1. Sarah, you're right, of course. I thought I should be candid about my frustration, even though I usually think I have a duty to promote all this great, neglected literature. But I have to say that the book got way better for me the day after I wrote that post. I hope to post about it soon!

    2. Oh, and your quick characterization of modernist literature -- expressing a standard that won't be reached -- is brilliant and helpful. You and I should talk about what that makes me think about Schoenberg and dissonance!