Streaming Joyce

I often find myself wondering, as someone’s talking to me, what the inside of their head would look like if it was a room in a house. Some people have minds that are so light-filled and clean and orderly that I wish I could take up residence there. And yes, I’ll admit that other times, I wish I could get in there with a feather duster, a garbage can, and a nice set of file folders.

Which brings me to Joyce, who must have spent a lot of time wondering what was inside people’s heads too, because he spends a lot of time showing you what he’s discovered in there. My guess is that he wasn’t drawn to the room in a house thing.

I’m only at about page 100, but even this early on, it’s pretty clear that Joyce thought of the brain’s activity as a sort of streaming audio, one that doesn’t always come in clearly or in your own language, an audio that’s been transcribed by somebody who really, really hates punctuation.

Still, despite the weird transcript of the inside of the heads of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, Ulysses has a coherent (in fact beautiful) narrative voice, one that’s not so different from the voice of the narrator of the The Dead. And so the beginning of this book is quite engaging.  And when you emerge from the free fall you go into every time the narrative voice falls silent for a minute and you find yourself disconcertingly, maddeningly and often confusingly inside somebody’s head, you find the narrator is still there, and still sane.

If you allow yourself to relax, and decide that it’s not necessary to understand everything you’re getting from the insides of these heads, you see that Stephen Dadelus’s head is quite interesting.  For one thing, it’s crammed full of languages. One minute it’s Latin, another it’s French. There are lots of allusions to things you think you might have read sometime, but you have no idea when or what. And sex, sex is never far away, which is fine, because at least you know a little bit about that topic, though you have no idea where the hell the bit of poetry Dadelus is ruminating over comes from.  Still, if you’ve relaxed, it doesn’t matter.  The worst thing you can do, I think, is read a book like this with a concordance.  I don’t like my literature to resemble a quiz.  If a book is going to work for me, it pretty much has to work from within its own pages.

As for Bloom’s head — well it’s quite different from Stephen Dadelus’s.  For one thing, it’s easier to follow, and a lot more fun, because he tends to be interested in sex and food, two subjects I do think about myself.  He’s an interesting, arresting fellow, and I’m not unhappy to be in his head.

And there are indeed plenty of ill-bred moments, involving the sorts of material (snot, flautulence, to name two) that form the basis of many jokes in our house. It seems that inside the heads of grown men, the seven year old self is strong. I know there’s more to Joyce than what I’ve just said, something more grand and summing up, but I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can do that.  I’ll be posting on some other subject next (maybe sex or food, come to think of it), and then when I get to the end of Ulysses, I’ll let you know what else that might be.  It might be April when I do that, but I’m guessing every single one of you can probably wait.


20 thoughts on “Streaming Joyce

  1. About a year ago we were on a trip and went into the most intriguing little shop I have ever seen. I still can’t even say what kind of shop it was as its merchandise was so eclectic. And stuff was all over, on the walls, the ceilings. There were various “rooms,” each with some sort of theme. There were even funny signs on the stair steps. It was weird and fun.

    I told my daughter, “Katie, this store is how I’ve always pictured the inside of your head…”

  2. Whew, I was getting worried about the stream of conciousness inside this 62yo head. It hasn’t changed much from when I was around 15.
    NB: see Illustrated Limericks for proof 🙂

    I must get a copy of Ulysses when I return to civilisation. My kitchen table has a shortened leg. [ducking and running for cover]

  3. Like Nils, I’ve dismissed Ulysses a few times too. And it has seemed too daunting to tackle for the last several years. I’m not sure exactly why:
    Because it’s long? I read other long works, even though they take me forever to finish. Because it’s difficult? Physics is difficult, not literature. And yet, “Araby” and “The Dead” are among my favorite short stories. Maybe I’m afraid I would just go crazy being stuck in all of the rooms in the characters’ heads for so long. It seems to me that while I’ve heard many proclaim that Ulysses is great, I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a satisfactory explanation of it. Maybe that’s because it is so full of overstuffed mental rooms. I look forward to reading what you think about it as you progress through the book.

  4. I’ve been led to believe that reaching page 100 of Ulysses is a major accomplishment! I’ve never attempted it and, honestly, despite my fondness for Joyce’s short stories, I’ve never much wanted to. Your post is making me reconsider. I look forward to more bulletins along the way!

  5. Hello Diana, Kate sounds like one of the most interesting teenagers around! What a great inside-the-head she’s got.

    My dear Archie — That we have illustrated limericks running around in our heads, along with bits and pieces of great poetry, and random thoughts about the origin of the universe, and that our fifteen year old selves are still in there is somehow enormously comforting to me. It’s interesting to think how that might be shaped into a narrative — and it just occurred to me that maybe blogging is a form that Joyce would have gotten and liked. (As for your table leg, didn’t somebody say something once about books being furniture?)

    Hello Nils — That’s a really helpful list, which forms a very helpful reading question: what’s here beyond religious gloom, sexual frustration and social inadequacy. And i’ll be back with an answer. Maybe not till the spring, but I will find something to say about that, which strikes me as just a terrific thing to have in the back of your mind as you read something about which there’s been a big to-do.

    Dear Cam, Another very helpful thing to think about it. Is there pleasure here? How do you get to it? Or is it just scary rooms full of junk?

    Kate, I’m guessing the first 100 page might be the easiest bits! More bulletins to come.

    And a note: I wrote this last night in one of those over-tired states where you think to yourself, goodness I’ve got to say something about the book or I’ll NEVER get around to it. In the morning light, I realized I hadn’t said exactly what I wanted, so I poked around in there a bit and added some things and took a few things out. I hope no one minds that!

    xo, BL

  6. Such respect – I always feel my life perceptibly shorten when I look at Ulysses. I like it a lot better hearing it sieved through your light, airy, wondrously tidy and light-filled reading room in your mind… I’m with the others in looking forward to more punctuation-friendly posts on the topic!

  7. Hmm. I may have to try Ulysses again. I begun and discarded it several times, and I like your advice. Perhaps I shall just try the relaxed reading thing. I have this penchant for wanting to Understand Everything and needing to Get All the References. Perhaps I can give up those desires long enough to experience the total picture.

  8. Great post! Like healingmagichands, I like your advice about relaxed reading — it seems like a very good approach to keep from taking the book too seriously. And I suspect Joyce would agree with that approach.

  9. Well, this is the most compelling thing I’ve ever read when it comes to convincing me to read Ulysses. Meanwhile, I’m like you: I hate concordances. I’ve been reading some of Milton’s early poetry lately, and I just really, really wish it didn’t have all those notes and explanations, which my compulsive nature won’t allow me to skip over, but which certainly take away from the beauty (who cares if I don’t know exactly who each and every ancient god to whom he refers is? It doesn’t keep me from understanding his main point and the beauty of the way he expresses it). And sometimes, don’t you read a note, and think, “Huh? Why did they feel a need to explain that?” while other lines for which you eagerly await an explanation, now that you’ve come to expect them, give you absolutely nothing. Either explain everything, or don’t explain anything at all, please.

  10. I think I am reading this one vicariously through you. You make it sound so easy, which I think if I attempted it, wouldn’t be (so easy that is). And now I wonder what’s inside my head….big windows with the sun streaming in, or dusty dark corners. Hmm.

  11. You do make it sound enticing…but I think it’ll have to wait until 2008. 🙂 Can a person fit Don Quixote and the entire Old Testament into the same year as Ulysses? Probably not.

    I do love the way you let it flow through you though and, you’re right, a concordance would ruin that. If you were constantly looking up references and such. Still, and for example, although I love ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem and purely for itself, I love it even more for its intricacy and its meanings…and I would never have realised the extent of those if I hadn’t studied it intently with a concordance… Perhaps Ulysses is a book to read twice – once for the pleasure of paddling in the consciousness stream, and again with a pencil and a commentary?

  12. I’m looking forward to April–to hear what you think after. I really love Ulysses–I’ve read it twice, and I think I love it because of the language, and also because of the spinning force of the narrative that pulls all these people up like a whirlwind, kind of impersonally–they whirl around each other, touching and unable to help.
    It was probably helpful that I read it when I was pretty young, and so I didn’t have the sense of it being insurmountable, and so it wasn’t. There are quite a lot of small funny things in it, too.

  13. Lucette, That’s a really wonderful description of the book!

    Dani, Big windows. Sun streaming in. We all have our closets where it’s best to shut the door, though. (I do anyway. Both in real life and mentally.)

    Hello Emily — With the notes and explanations you get something that’s not really a poem, it’s more an essay on a poem, which is just fine, I think. I remember that learning to read Shakespeare was all about having those little notes. And then, after a while, you don’t really need them anymore.

    Dorothy, yes, relaxed reading seems to be working just fine. I wonder if that’ll do for Proust too?

    HMH, It’s natural to want to get all the references, don’t you think? Otherwise, I worry I might be missing something important. Actually, to tell you the truth, it’s not that at all, for me, the anxiety of allusion has to do with feeling like I want to get the answers on a test right. I don’t think that’s what Joyce intended, but it’s probably a pretty common reaction.

    Litlove, that’s very funny. Great books and good reading experiences are supposed to have the opposite effect — they make you feel like the hours available to you are endless.

    Victoria — Now there’s a year of reading! I’m loving Ulysses currently (I’m at the bit where they’re going to a funeral and the whole thing is so interesting) without concordance. But yes you’re quite right — it makes perfect sense to read the novel all the way through once with or without notes and then again with or without notes. And you’d do that if you fall in love with the world he’s giving you, because the reading with help would give you more of that world.

    Hi LK — Thanks. One more post, I think!

    And what great dreams you have W!

  14. I like having a text with footnotes, etc, when I am reading something that challenges me. Lolita comes to mind. And if/when I read Ulysses, I’ll want a foot noted version, I’m sure.

    What I find for myself is that I get the best read out of such books when I read them two or three times – once, or perhaps twice with the footnotes, and once without. Once my nervous student mind is sated by the footnoted read, it is much easier to relax with the writing and just read and experience it for what it is.

  15. I love the language of these last couple of posts!

    I suspect that the grand summing-up of Ulysses may be less in the later chapters and more in the hands of litcritics and litbloggers like yourself–I have not yet met a “great book” that announced its great meaning tidily. Particularly with books as intentionally layered and complex as this, I think the reader is responsible for divining what meaning they may and deciding whether the book is actually great (popular opinion notwithstanding).

    I love footnotes, although I like to see them used judiciously. For example, I’d love to know the origins of all those bits and pieces in Stephen’s brain, and it’d be far more disruptive to stop and google them… on the other hand, the recent retranslation of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is frequently interrupted by the translator’s whim to point out the psychoanalytic resonance of this dialogue or the Verne’s brilliant prophecy in that description. Frequently with exclamation points. I chose to be charmed rather than annoyed, but I’d rather have the liberty to make my own connections.

  16. I too am impressed with your success so far with Ulysses. I have had 2 unsuccessful attempts. I enjoyed Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and have just started Dubliners. Ulysses just feels like so much work. I have to agree with Anna and will likely try the annotated version the next time to see if it helps. Meanwhile, I look forward to your posts.

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