Dave Russell on

James Joyce


The workings of literature are comparable to those of the human digestive system. The latter must take in a lot of roughage and dispose of a surplus, in order that its overall capacity may be maintained. Until the final stages of digestion are completed, there can be no separation of roughage and nutriment. Just as it is impossible to truncate the digestive cycle, so is it impossible to determine a single stage, or point of focus, for any aspect of a writer's activity. On the one hand, he may lack objective knowledge; on the other, he may be in several places at once. Add to these problems that of the impossibility of an objective moral stance vis-a-vis gluttony, and the variability of appetite from individual to individual, and some intimation may be derived of the nature of Joyce's kinesis.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gives many signposts into the territory of Ulysses, and could perhaps be classed as a supreme guide to the latter. He depicts first of all the idea of the supreme moment of creative intensity. This comes in a description of play-acting: -

It surprised him to see that the play which he had known at rehearsals for a disjointed and lifeless thing had suddenly assumed a life of its own. It seemed now to play itself - he and his fellow-actors aiding it with their parts.

He later spoke of 'pride, hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart . . . sent up like vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind.' This proclaims the inseparability of spirit and matter, consistent with the viewpoint of Swift in his Digression Concerning Madness. The intense significance of the word 'foetus, is inseparable from the mundance quality of the wood from which it was carved, and the boredom of the uncomprhending schoolboy who wrote it.

Attempts to impose patterns and regularity are compared to telegraph poles as seen from a moving train. A kindred concept may be essential to define these poles properly, because their purpose is to carry a moving thing, the current of a message - comprehensible when translated at its destination, but giving fatal shocks to anyone attempting importunate contact without rubber gloves. 'The telegraph poles held the galloping notes of the music between punctual bars.' The notes may be tethered and kept from their true purpose.


The main features of Joyce's Hell are the spiritual pain of extension and the abolition of contraries:-

In hell, the torments cannot be overcome by habit, for while they are of terrible intensity, they are at the same time of considerable variety.

He questions the survival chances of a homogenous aestheticism:

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Was it their colours? No: it was not their colours; it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid, supple periodic prose.

The relationship of the word-rhythm to external rhythms might break down. Like Sterne in Tristram Shandy, he discusses the problem of a baptism ceremony in this fashion.

If a layman in giving baptism pours the water before saying the words, is the child baptised?

If one accepts the premise of the weakness and unreliability of the senses, then it is also possible that some mirrors will be obstructively opaque:-

The inspirations seemed now to be reflected from all sides at once from a multitude of cloudy circumstances of what might have happened.

Through his acceptance of the mirror theory, Joyce accentuated his feeling of distance between himself, and God and the Virgin Mary. He diagnoses his limitations:-

He had to build up a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid type of life iwthout him, and to dam up, by rules of conduct, active interests, and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him.

He suggests that the internal and external tides are of the same element and have the same motivator. If that which was used for the breakwater were redirected, it could engender an overall feeling of peace and unity.

The problem inadequately presented here is an enlargement of the classic fable of the reeds and the oak. I feel that Joyce's description here falls short because he deals with the idea of coalescence on one plane only. The interaction of tide and anti-tide could be depicted in a contrary and complimentary fashion. This is an extension of hell - seen in the limited terms of earthly exclusions.

Elsewhere he describes the role of the individual soul:-

Going forth to experience - unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the bale fire ofits burning stars, and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched, and the cold darkness filled chaos. Chaos, in which his ardour extinguished himself, was a cold, indifferent knowledge of himself.

The attitude expressed by the term 'sin by sin' dampens ardour in the very process of defining it. The idea of defining the process in terms of waves incorporates into it the inextricable process of the tide's recession; therefore the process of definition may limit the progress of the soul.

In Portrait of the Artist, Joyce expresses his fears, but as yet fights shy of going to the words themselves. He takes this next step in Ulysses. In the 'Proteus' section, we find the sensations of word, thing, body and soul lyrically synthesised in a description of a sea-shore:-

These heavy sands are language; tide and wind have silted them here. And there are the stoneheaps of dead children, a warren of wheel-rats, sands and stones.

Words are nebulous when dynamic and static when perceptible. Throughout Ulysses, this interplay is manifest. Water, the supreme life-giver, is also 'a sore decayer of your dead bodies'.

Mrs Bloom tell us that "drowning, they say, is the pleasantest death; you see all your life in a flash." Joyce makes the fullest possible use of this projected synthesis - between total loss and disappearance, and supreme enlightenment. In his role as observer in the Proteus episode, the author combines the roles of beachcomber, lifeguard, and drowning man: 'A point, live dog, grew into night running across the sweep of sand.' The dog depends for its perceptibility on a contrast with the sand, and a consequent possible similarity with the waves:-

Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on all sides - looking for something lost in a past life.

These physical processes may conceal all, in quasi-geological strata, or may help to reveal it through the processes of erosion. On the other hand, by the processes of mutation, the thing sought for may become united with the sand by dissolution, or it may be the sand itself, never to be recognised because of the vast multiplicity of its integral grains.

As a background to Ulysses, as to the Iliad and the Odyssey, lies the symbol of a decayed and finally destroyed city. The symbolism of keys was derived from the legends of St Peter, concerning the state of man as an island. The latter makes a frightening comparison with the former. The rearing up above sea-level, and the exhibitionistic erection of barriers may be futile; the delusion of performance could be built up by the fact that the idiot water, going about its routine business, had not yet taken the step of overflowing it.

With our current ecological awareness, we realise that all intact cities may be undergoing a 'death in life', that they create the means of their own decay. In itself, a death-stroke has little violence; it takes effect by striking lightly on something vulnerable. Man's island state may result from a mere delay in the coming of this light touch.

Joyce intermingles the individual and the corporate by reference to Hamlet and Lycidas. In the former we are told of a reminiscence of Elsinore 'that beetles o'er his base into the sea'. The base could be the noun (foundation), or an adjective, in the sense of corrupt and despicable; the toppling down of a castle of decadence and false values could be an action of supreme cleansing, on a par with the assassination of Claudius. In the latter, we find that "your sorrow is not dead, sunk though he be beneath the watery floor." Here is a hint at the true nature of our relationships with other people, as a means to facilitate our self-assessment. It seems that Milton used Lycidas to exteriorise, and regulate, his own self-pity. The action of the water has, as it were, peeled off the wallpaper, showing the brickwork underneath: it is the great clarifier of relationships.

However, alienation from this agent can result in a truncated Narcissism. Joyce emphasises the Aquacity of thought. Bloom stresses water's solidity, docility and ubiquity, pointing out that it forms 90% of the human boidy (p783). He seems to suggest that the spirit of this 90% should find itself in the human mind. When confronted with this problem, Stephen immediately betrays himself as a hydrophobe; he dislikes baths, glass and crystal (distrusting Aquacities of thought and language. He remains convinced of 'the incompatibility of aquacity with the erratic originality of genius'. He ignores the self-evident truth that water contains regularity in its erraticness, and vice-versa.

Aristotle's phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library, where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night.
The phrases and the gabbling, the thought and the silence, are sea and land, but perfectly interchangeable.

The word 'flooded' could be substituted for 'floated' with no radical change of sense. Any true artist recognises this interhcnageability.

As we or mother, Dana, weave or unweave our bodies, their natural molecules, shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image. As the mole in my right breast is where it was when I was born, though all my body has been woven of new sfuff after time, so through the ghost of the unquiet father the image of the unliving comes forth.

Words are woven and unwoven. Banal associations are welded into the sublime to give them perspective: "'Come forth Lazarus' they said - he came fifth and lost the job. The inclusion of banality juxtaposes disparate elements, and makes true intensity easier to achieve, and more accessible to the reader. Joyce uses this procedure to undercut the trite aesthetics of pedantry: 'Plato's world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys. The schoolmen were schoolboys first.'

The ironic juxtapositions cut both ways, depriving our perspectives of their customary protections: 'The tip of his little finger blotted out the sun's disk - must be the focus where the rays cross.'

The statement that 'Pyramids on sand are built on bread and onions' at once makes us mock at the fruits of monumental architectural labours, and heightens our sense of awe at the true nature of our dependance on those monuments. Perception is distorted, symbols are soiled by greed and misery: most people, Joyce maintains, are guilty of misappropriating sense-data. Although this misappropriation is wrong, it is inevitable, because of the present weakness of the senses, that they should be rationed.

Dark men in mien and movement flashing in the mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

The positive and negative (active and passive) components in the final totality of light are relative and, furthermore, interchangeable. For ultimate freedom, it seems that immediate restrictions must be imposed - this relates once more to the water imagery: "How can you own water, really? It's always flowing in a stream." (191) . . . "Can't bring back time - like holding water in your hand." (213)

Joyce indeed touches on the maintenance of water works. The physical needs of human beings are inseparable from the formal network of pipes, cisterns etc. Inherent in our safe, detached contemplations is a danger: we may lose much by always observing our elements within the easy terms of restricted codes of observation. Aware of this danger, Joyce does not flee to the safe refuge of delusions, to the exclusion of disturbing modes of connection; rather does he explore them, finding, in the process, both complementary and contradictory modes of association.

As well as being aware of the gap between thought and word, he realises that there is often a gulf between cerebral, clinical vocabulary and the physicalities of reading and writing: 'Across the page, the symbols moved in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of square and cubes.' (Note that he acknowledges the mathematical factor). The gap between deed and 'most painted word' is universal and inevitable.

In Book I, Chapter X, Joyce attacks the common error of confusing spatial continuity with causality. He calls this chapter 'a pause in the action'. Though occupying the middle of the book, it bears no relation to what precedes or follows. Later, he reinforces this statement with a savage qualification: '. . . related by time and place, they lack vital relationship.' The chapter makes a parody of its own role; in so doing, it curtails the potential sterility of the truncated narrative and the mythological modes of association.

The nearest parallel section in The Odyssey concerns the legendary wandering rocks. What Homer sidstepped, Joyce thoroughly explored. Homer treated these rocks only allusively: he prudently set forth to his comrades the clear alternatives: the route through the rocks, or that of the whirlpool and the monsters. In pseudo-courage, Homer dodged one alternative. Joyce takes both alternatives. Homer psuhed the rejected altrernative into the background, into the area of hypothesis, for fear that the narrative thread might snap. Joyce's approach is elastic: he takes into account all the possibilities of something coming to the fore, initially by conventional processes, but later growing to assume the state of a rival vantage-point.

He explored the distinction between the living and the dead to the point of nearly eliminating it: 'Pray for the repose of the soul. Does anybody really plant this, and have done with him, like doen a coalshoot?'

He scorned to place the deceased at any safe remove: like T.S. Eliot's, his corpses may begin to sprout at any moment.

Joyce questions concepts of time and space, in a manner evocative of Einstein. In fact, the overall concept of Ulysses could be considered as an application of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Gary Zukav writes: 'According to Einstein's ultimate vision ... a piece of matter is a curvature of the space-time continuum! In other words, according to Einstein's ultimate vision ... there is no such thing as "gravity"' - gravity is the equivalent of acceleration, which is motion. There is no such thing as ''matter" - matter is a curvature of the space-time continuum. There is not even such a thing as "energy" - energy equals mass and mass is space-time curvature ( 199)'.

There is in Joyce's oeuvre as a whole, a movement from linear to cyclical organisation. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from its tell-tale opening phrase 'Once upon a time' to the adult Stephen's preparation to leave Dublin, exemplifies the forner; Finnegans Wake, whose end takes us back to its beginning, the latter. Ulysses is the transitional text; it gradually abandons linear narration for increasingly curved and cycIical patterns.

I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and topping masonry, time one livid final flame.

It is vain patience to heap and hoard. Time would scarcely scatter all.

As well as being the supreme scatterer, our ideas of time impose limits of regularity on the process of scattering. At the end, we might be faced either with an organic synthesis, or with no particles:-

In the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as it is here and now, but by reflection from that which I will then be.

The present is fragmented motion; our idea of it is an inadequate view of the future plunging into the past. The purported glorious past, degraded present and hypothetical future are but different metaphors for one and the same state of consciousness.

Joyce's montage-tinged spatial consciousness stems from his reluctance to register visual impressions according to an inductive appraisal of the moments in time, and duration of periods supposedly necessary for the registration of sense-data. He became aware of the delusive power of the idea of time through examining its relevance to copulation. The protracted prior contemplation of the act, the frequent brevity of the act itself, and the often protracted retrospective reflection on it, are theoretically contrary but referentially identical. If one can accept both sides of the equation, liberation of outlook is attained.

Harry Levin discusses spatial liberation: 'If you tried to look directly at the planet, it would disintegrate into tiny fragments, and nothing but consciousness would be left, a million free consciousnesses.'

And yet, if one were oneself one of those consciousnesses, one would realise, through imperceptible contacts and insensible changes, that one was a cell in an immense but invisible mortal growth. This is Joyce's aim; this is what it means for the artist 'to refine himself out of existence. Existence here signifies separateness and remoteness. He saw how this factor impinged on the Hellenic civilisation which he used as his backcloth. This civilisation was preserved through the Battle of Salamis, where a phallus-like Persian frontal attack was thwartedf by crushing Grecian thighs. The final result of this operation was the sterility of the 'cloaca makers' of the Roman Empire, which Joyce bitterly bemoans as a threat to present-day civilisation. He felt that congealment could only be avoided by interactions seizing each other at all levels. This is the significane of the splendid surrender at the conclusion of the work

In Stephen Hero, Joyce summed up his aims as follows: 'Its soul, its whatness, leaps up to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant, the object achieves its epiphany.' In Ulysses, he showed us that this process must be reciprocal: the epiphany must also achieve the object.

David Russell © 2020