Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Culture and Consciousness in Joyce's "Ulysses"

In Episode 9 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, a brief discussion takes place about Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The work is introduced by the librarian, who describes the novel’s protagonist as ‘A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts, as one sees in real life… The beautiful ineffectual dreamer who comes to grief against hard facts.’ As Cheryl Herr points out, the librarian’s comments are full of allusion, blending phrases from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, and Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism. This rich allusiveness, argues Herr, demonstrates Joyce’s suggestion that ‘texts make our reality’ and that literature and culture comprise a significant part of our consciousness. Through his constant references to the great works of the past and the famous thinkers of antiquity, Joyce not only pays homage to (and on occasion mocks) the figures of literary tradition, he also includes in his novel ‘all of the life that the tradition of Western fiction has created.’ What Herr is suggesting here is that many of the characters in Ulysses are influenced or perhaps even determined by their surroundings and by what they have read. The novel, then, is in dialogue with Francis Galton’s discussion of nature versus nurture, and Joyce seems to be suggesting that ‘thinking, the streaming of consciousness, the content of interior monologue, the very shape of the self are woven from the materials of one’s culture.’

A good starting point for this theory is Episode 13 of the novel, ‘Nausicaa’. The episode depicts Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boardman, and Gerty MacDowell on Sandymount Strand and is narrated first from Gerty’s perspective and later from Bloom’s. Through free indirect discourse, Joyce illustrates how Gerty’s thoughts are driven by her reading of kitsch sentimental fiction and by the stereotypical conventions of romantic love. As Hugh Kenner points out, the episode is dominated by the style of ‘that book The Lamplighter by Miss Cummins’ and other similar works. Hence, Gerty is said to feel an ‘aching void in her heart’ because her ‘daydream of a marriage’ has been unfulfilled. With the description of Bloom, the use of romantic clichés becomes proliferous. When Tommy kicks the ball too close to the water, it is Bloom who runs ‘gallantly’ to save it – this, Gerty thinks, is ‘that of which she had so often dreamed’, her ‘manly man… tall with broad shoulders’. She even thinks that Bloom might be her ‘dreamhusband’, and here the romantic illusion becomes most obvious. The reader cannot help thinking that Gerty is simply deceiving herself into believing that this cuckolded man, who she has never met before, would be her ideal partner. The novelistic influence is clear, not least in the fact that all indelicacies are removed from the narrative – there are no explicit references to either Bloom’s masturbation or Gerty’s lame foot. Gerty even wonders whether Bloom lives with a madwoman or in ‘some tragedy like the nobleman with the foreign name from the land of song…’ It is true that he is a foreign man, and it is likewise true that he is aggrieved, not only because of Paddy Dignam’s death but also because of Molly’s adultery. But Gerty is forcing these romantic tropes onto her ignorance of Bloom: she knows nothing about him, and yet imagines that he might be the hero of her own romantic tale. Kenner is right when he says that Gerty’s literature-influenced consciousness ‘creates a new Bloom’, if only for a brief moment.

Gerty, then, is a clear and direct example of how culture influences our thinking and our perspective on the world. A more complex and nuanced example is that of Stephen Dedalus, whose thoughts are certainly influenced by his reading, though these influences flux and change as he matures. When Stephen leaves Dublin at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he is determined to escape the fetters and restrictions of life in Dublin, dominated as it was by family difficulties, religion and politics. But though Stephen leaves Ireland for Paris, he never really escapes the cultural influences of his upbringing. He is right when he tells Davin that ‘This race and this country and this life produced me’. This idea of nurture is clearly something that Joyce believes strongly: in his essay on Oscar Wilde, he argued that the playwright was not a ‘monster of perversion’ but a product of the cultural institutions surrounding him. And this is clear in Stephen too. In his essay “Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: transforming the nightmare of history”, John Paul Riquelme argues that Stephen’s prose style in A Portrait draws strongly on the contemplative aestheticism of Walter Pater. He points to the scene in Chapter IV of the novel when Stephen sits with the dean as he tries to light a fire, a process he compares to art, the creation of beauty. This recalls the ‘Conclusion’ of Pater’s The Renaissance, when Pater discusses art’s capacity to create impression with an intensity like fire: ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’ Riquelme argues that Stephen’s rhetoric of beauty and his description of the dean (‘a levite of the Lord… tending the fire upon the altar… bearing tidings secretly… waiting upon worldlings… striking swiftly when bidden…’) evoke Pater’s meditative rhythms and stylistic use of frequent present participles. As Riquelme says, ‘The Irish student has internalized the techniques of an English writer.’

So when Stephen talks in Chapter IV about ‘a lucid supple periodic prose’ and a diction of ‘ecstasy’ and ‘trembling’, he is surely recalling the elegance of Pater’s work which dominated prose style in the late nineteenth century. But it’s not just Pater that influences him. He is also perpetually alluding to the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, most obvious when he describes his aesthetic theory to Lynch, during which he quotes Aristotle, Aquinas, Shelley, and others. But this is arguably inevitable in an intellectual student of literature: of course he should refer to the great thinkers of the past in the development of his own theories. It is in the third episode of Ulysses, though, that this issue of independent thought comes to a head. Almost every one of his thoughts contains some sort of allusion or reference to other thinkers, demonstrating that it is not just speech that is influenced by culture, but the very intricacies of the mind, the conscious self. This makes his suggestion to the dean that there is ‘no such thing as free thinking’ all the more poignant. In this proto stream of consciousness, Joyce weaves into Stephen’s thoughts various quotations from other texts. For example, Stephen would like to read the ‘signatures of all things’, a phrase that recalls Dun Scotus’ theory of ‘haeccitas’, the idea that every entity has a ‘thisness’ to it. The phrase also recalls Plato’s theory of forms, particularly since Stephen later refers to his soul as the ‘form of forms’ that walks alongside him. Even Stephen’s evocation of the sea’s sounds recalls the philosophy of the ancients – as Kenner argues, Stephen’s onomatopoeia ‘carries to the limit the ancient fantasy of the direct impress of the real on the psyche’. By mimicking the sounds of the waves, Kenner argues, Stephen is attempting to express the Platonic ‘principle of vitality that must infuse itself into the mere materiality of the sense impression…’ Again, we can see how his thought has been influenced by great thinkers of the past.

Aristotle’s sway on Stephen’s consciousness is likewise clear. In both ‘Nestor’ and ‘Proteus’, Stephen is concerned with the idea that he could have been ‘impossibilised’, echoing Aristotle’s doctrine of possibility. In ‘Nestor’, he questions whether unactualized possibilities were ever really possible, ‘seeing that they never were’, or whether that was ‘only possible which came to pass’. Luckily for him, he concludes, his mother ‘saved him from being trampled underfoot’ by giving birth to him – the possibility of Stephen was actualized in his birth. But this fact does not reduce his anxiety that he might never have been born, and this anxiety manifests itself in the opening of ‘Proteus’. He questions whether he is what Aristotle called a contingent being or a necessary being – closing his eyes in an attempt to eradicate himself from the earth, he realises that the world around him is ‘There all the time without you: and ever shall be…’ This realisation of his own contingency coincides with his sighting of a midwife in whose bag he concludes there must be a ‘misbirth’. This demonstrates not only Stephen’s anxiety at the apparent insignificance of his own life, but also shows how the contemplations of Aristotle have infiltrated his own thoughts – whether Stephen is aware of this we shall never know. Likewise, Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical idealism is clear in Stephen’s suggestion that the darkness of his words may be in truth a darkness in the souls of his readers, a central tenet of Berkeley’s theories, which locates the sense-qualities of things in the human mind. References to Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’), Yeats (‘And no more turn aside and brood’), and Milton (‘Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor’) are also rife. This shows how Stephen’s stream of consciousness is, to some extent, a conglomeration of all he has read and come across in his cultural and literary education. And this influence really is ‘ineluctable’, hence the quatrain he writes on the back of Deasy’s letter explicitly reproduces lines from Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs in Connacht with a few words changed. As Hugh Kenner points out, ‘Whatever he can say seems derived from what someone has said before’, one reason why the first word of the episode is ‘ineluctable’.


So it’s clear that, to some extent, Joyce’s Ulysses validates Marx’s claim that ‘The tradition of all great generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ Joyce himself plainly feels what Eliot calls the presence of the past so that ‘Oxen of the Sun’ is almost like an encyclopaedic timeline of literary styles. And though there are characters who are more affected than others by this cultural and environmental influence on consciousness, all are implicated to some extent. Even Molly Bloom, whose thought processes are often seen as the most natural, personal and authentic, seems to have been influenced to some extent by her surroundings. Elaine Unkeless in her essay ‘The Conventional Molly Bloom’ argues that Joyce’s portrait mostly restricts Molly to ‘preconceived ideas of the way a woman thinks and behaves’ and thus Herr proposes that ‘Molly’s interior monologue is not unshaped thought but idea and self-image structured by society.’ She is, perhaps, the product of Bloom’s misogynistic stereotyping of all women as sluttish and wanting to steal ‘a man from another woman’. The thought processes of Molly’s monologue, particularly the raunchier parts, might also have been influenced by what she reads: The Sweets of Sin plot directly reflects Molly’s cuckolding of her husband. We might then ask what exactly Joyce was attempting to suggest. Was he implying that there is no real ‘self’, that we are simply the product of our environments, a hodgepodge accumulation of the words of others? To some extent, yes, but not entirely. Though consciousness is influenced by culture in the novel, that does not rule out completely the idea of selfhood. Indeed, there are moments of individuality in the thoughts of every character, particularly in those moments of intense emotional and sexual feeling. So, although our minds are influenced by our surroundings and by ‘nurture’, the novel still hints at what Herr calls the ‘culturally unconscious’, those lucid moments of individualism throughout Ulysses. This is a sort of ‘soft determinism’ of thought, reconciling cultural influence with the idea of individual personality and quasi-independent consciousness. Though texts of the past may make up some of our conscious reality, they are not the be all and end all of our so-called ‘selves’.

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