Ulysses I – Characterisation

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

It’s difficult for us now to comprehend how strange these words must have sounded to a pre-modernist ear. Even today we still struggle with Joyce’s revelatory concept of “characterisation” – the idea that individuals can easily be delineated for one another, and these individuals then be given characteristics. But for people at the beginning of c20th, such notions were revolutionary.

Inured in its delusion of an objective scientific understanding of the world and caught within a society which was rigidly stratified and in which people were at most comprehended and delineated – if they were comprehended and delineated at all – by their role in that society, the c19th was incapable of formulating any notion of man’s personality or his inter-relations. With the novel by its very nature bounded by whatever esoteric philosophy prevails among a small group of illuminati at any given time, it would have been as impossible for a c19th man to have written anything possessing a fine array of characters as it would for him to recognise that people of others races were equal. This is the reason why c19th novels are all of one type: humanity is shown as an amorphous mass; events happen, but they don’t happen to anybody; people are present, but they aren’t in any way specific people, merely instantiations of the popular idea.

But to start a novel with an adjective – and then another adjective! How daring! – For the adjective (an invention of Joyce’s) by its nature must be describing something; and by describing, of course, it is delineating. So immediately we are thrown in medias res into Joyce’s project. – Will we sink or swim? Or, more to the point, will Joyce’s “character” sink or swim? (As it happens, we find out at the exciting climax of chapter 1). – But then, what’s this? Another adjective! – There’s no compromise here with Joyce: it’s as if he’s challenging the whole c19th. Even we, at the start of c21st, might well be lost by this point. Not merely is something be shown as “stately”, in contrast to all that is comfortably “not stately”, but whatever it is, it is also “plump”. And then, not merely is this thing both both “stately” and “plump”, but it is also “Buck Mulligan”.

Readers who haven’t already given up will be spared having to struggle with one of Joyce’s cleverest innovations: the naming of his characters. The idea of using “proper nouns”, which had never occurred to anyone before, must be one of the most profound contributions of anyone to human understanding. By this one simple method, Joyce is able not merely to delineate object from object, or type of object from type of object, but he can specify and, as we shall see, re-specify, individual objects, to which he can then attribute adjectives and all kinds of other things which, through a highly complex process we shall come on to in further essays, will eventually lead these “characters” to having what Joyce termed “personalities”.

Next week: we discuss the next four word in Ulysses, “came from the stairhead”, and explore Joyce’s remarkable genius in applying “actions” to his newly invented “characters”.

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8 thoughts on “Ulysses I – Characterisation

  1. Is Tom McCarthy back in the news? Can’t imagine what else could have prompted you to take up the cudgels against Ireland’s premier Literary Lambkin, Jimmy Joyce.

    I have enjoyed some of your other “war on originality” pieces more I must admit.

  2. I was a bit bored I guess, that’s what prompted this. – I am actually reading Ulysses at the moment, but the trouble is there’s just so little to write about it.

    I was thinking of Tom McCarthy actually, as part of a piece I wanted to write about symbolism – which I’ll probably never get around to writing because it’s a) interesting, and contains a few worthwhile thoughts (which excludes it from being part of this blog), and b) not quite formulated clearly (which obviously doesn’t exclude it from this blog at all). McCarthy’s use of symbolism seems very close to medieval symbolism (part of what, in the medieval world was called “realism” – though this “realism” appears to be what we call “idealism” (a sort of neo-Platonism), in which every aspect of the world is seen as a symbol of the divine). Novels as texts for your pseudo-religious philosophical outlook, to be pored over for years by your disciples.

  3. Poor old Joyce. Still, he brought most of it on himself. “So little?” Really? Not even anything about how revolting all the food mentioned in it is?

    I’m sure McCarthy would relish the notion of “disciples”, and yes his pronouncements suggest he views his output as consisting primarily of sacred texts. Your equation of his symbolism with idealism also puts him in the same camp as the Romantics, surely? He’d love that.

  4. I really think it must be a problem for scholars, coming up with ideas about things to write about Ulysses. – Maybe I could say something about how things we think of as modern really aren’t. For instance, vegetarian restaurants, and vegetarian food made to look like meat. I wouldn’t have thought they’d have it in 1904, but there’s AE walking out of a vegetarian restaurant after a nutsteak, talking to some young woman.

  5. Lee Rourke’s assertion that Joyce was the first person to write a short story worthy of the name might be a useful reference for your next article.

    Bloom’s urine-scented kidneys have a Proustian touch for me. Those offal-based breakfasts of my childhood… Tesco kidneys don’t smell of anything, not even kidney.

  6. I was going to write about the kidneys, but in the context of Joyce’s use of suspence. I can’t say I’ve had kidneys since my childhood – liver, yes.

    I seem to remember Joyce was the final straw in the uneasy alliance between the Rourke-style “avant-gardists” and the “Brutalists”, after Rourke asserted Joyce was a genius, and a Brutalist suggested that he was “shite”, or some such epithet.

  7. I’d just like to say that after the first couple of double takes, I found myself laughing quite immoderately. I was a bit disappointed, though, by the lack of consideration of the influence of quantum theory on Joyce’s narrative style.

  8. Yes, I hadn’t been thinking about quantum theory, but it’s obvious now you mention it: this concentration on the very small minutiae – in contrast to previous narrative methodologies – on a level on which things operate very differently (the stream of consciousness) and often make no sense to a rational observer not travelling at the speed of light (the reader).

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