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.