Ulysses II – The Stream of Consciousness

On the face of it, Ulysses shouldn’t appeal to me at all. It’s based on two concepts which really tend to rile me in novels: obscurantism and realism. Thankfully these are also concepts which, despite his poor strategic choices, a good novelist can always manage to mitigate: the former, by being interesting; and the latter too, by exactly the same method.

By stream of consciousness, I intend to understand in this post: the writing down only of the thoughts which pass through the mind of the character. In this respect, Joyce’s stream of consciousness is of a fairly pure type, but not entirely so. This is a blessing, because, of course, to write down only the thoughts which pass through the mind of a character, without the slightest context, would be baffling to the reader in the extreme. At times, with Joyce, this is indeed the case; but more often he supplies a certain amount of context. He slips between the character’s thoughts and an as it were third-person description of the world the character observes around him (by which I mean it is in the third person – it is descriptive – but probably not intended as objective: – it is what the character himself is looking at, which might occasion his thoughts). The reader (Obooki) feels very grateful for these passages; he tends to sigh with relief each time a paragraph looks like merely being a description rather than a collection of tangential notions and elusive references.

This all seems fair enough too. The human mind does collect and process images of the world around it, which it then reflects on; so purely to have a stream of consciousness in a novel, as above defined, would not really be a justifiable representation of how we think and interact with the world. Joyce is perhaps quite careful to give just enough context, at least in the Bloom passages, to keep us from frustration.

But then we come to Obook’s favourite stream of consciousness topic, reference failure (I thought I’d written a nice long post about this, but this one was all I could find in my archive). Ulysses is replete with unmitigated reference failure, and this it seems to me is where our reading of Ulysses diverges from our common experience of the world – or indeed from Stephen Dedalus’ experience of the world. (To give a little context of my own, for those at least who know the reference [grins], I’ve just finished the bit in the library, where SD, along with others, pontificates on the author Shakespeare as derived from his works). Simply stated, the thoughts that pass through my mind, I understand, because I always understand what I’m referring to by them. That is to say, I don’t have to explain my thoughts in any way to myself, as I would if I were trying to convey them to another person. The same is the case with Stephen Dedalus: he understands what he means by his thoughts, he knows what he’s referring to; it’s just that, quite often, I don’t. This too, of course, one feels, could be supplied by the author: but in the case of Joyce, he opts for obscurantism – for a rendering of a person’s mind which is utterly alien to our experience of our own mind: we are not experiencing what it is like to be Stephen Dedalus, or anything that approximates it in written form; we are instead experiencing what it is like to observe a transcript of another person’s thoughts, as if it were in a balloon appearing above their head – which, as it turns out, is often fairly bewildering.

Right that’s all for now; I’m sure there was something else I had to say, but I can’t remember it.


2 thoughts on “Ulysses II – The Stream of Consciousness

  1. This is good stuff. The Library scene is fairly tough going, isn’t it? Even when you’ve got a grip on what’s going on, being said etc I find it remains one of the least enjoyable of the episodes, and what is reading for if not enjoyment? In the scheme of the book it is a fairly central piece I suppose, as Joyce maps out a shadow-play of all the father-son real-and-displaced relationships. Poor little Rudy *sob*

    Yes, stream of consciousness. I wonder do we still get too worked up about the whole thing – is it successful, does the writer cheat, who invented it etc. I wonder if reference failure is in itself a “failure” by the writer? Don’t we often wonder (or guess) what people mean by their words and interactions with us? This (book) is just another version of that (wondering), albeit presented in an unusual (and naturally, limited) way which priviliges a view of people (ie their thoughts) we normally don’t have direct access to. I suppose the failure is if, as you suggest, Joyce has set out to allow us “experience what it is like to be SD”…not sure I agree that is his aim.

  2. Father-son relationship symbolism: – you know, if I wasn’t sure Joyce had never read it, I’d say Joyce derived everything in Ulysses from Bely’s Petersburg.

    If you are a clever novelist (or at least have no will to obscurantism), you can of course easily get around the idea of reference failure. (I think Woolf is probably a better example of this). – Yes, perhaps you’re right: Joyce’s stream of consciousness is perhaps characterisation by other means. We are shown that Dedalus is a superficial unsufferable bore, and find ourselves rooting for Bloom (his bar of soap and his kidneys).

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