05 February 2011

Rereading Ulysses

Rereading Joyce’s Ulysses I am struck (perhaps again) by how well he knows Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom. I am, of course, only finished with Chapter Five, Lotus-Eaters, and so there is I know a great deal to be learned about these two characters. But Joyce’s ability to create their thoughts—and not just their thoughts but the very rhythm and logic of their thought processes—speaks to an intimacy between author and character that exceeds any such relationship (in books or elsewhere, even in life) than I know or have known. Unlike James, in say Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl, who writes the consciousness of Isabel Archer or Maggie Verver, Joyce, in Ulysses, creates the character out of the writing of their consciousness. James’ Isabel Archer and Maggie Verver are complex and consistent; that is, their consciousness like a river runs deep and through and steady—but it runs unbroken. In Ulysses consciousness runs steadily but not steady, deep but also shallow, connected to the world but at times capable of rising above it. Consciousness in Ulysses cannot (and does not) block out awareness of the world, is not unconscious of the body’s situation in the world and the incessant flow of sensory experience for which consciousness accounts. Consciousness in Ulysses accounts for the body and bodies: in the thoughts of Stephen and Leopold there need be no sublimation. A cigar may be a phallic symbol, but the characters are fully aware—even give voice to—the association. I love when Bloom attempts to walk unself-consciously as he imagines the girl from the butcher shop might have walked had he been fortunate enough to follow her as she sauntered down the street with her sausages in hand. As difficult as Stephen’s thoughts are, it is fun to follow them. I love following the thoughts of Isabel Archer and Maggie Verver, as I am in love with the experience of following that of Nathan Zuckerman, but their thoughts, complex and winding as they are, still move steadily and uninterruptedly forward. I do not know that this is the way consciousness goes: for example, right now, even as I write, there is a package of Paul Newman Cream Filled Cookies laying just to my right and into my thoughts repeatedly comes the directive/question, “Have one!” I aspire to thought like Nathan Zuckerman and Isabel Archer and Maggie Verver, but I live with the patterns of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. 
Joyce knew that the course of true thought does not run steady. And that he could characterize Stephen and Leopold by writing exactly how they think as well as what they think seems to me a remarkable achievement. “Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’” 
In art, perhaps, it is possible to mirror this process, but how to live with the awareness of this process. How much gets lost, sublimated, ignored? How much energy does it take to keep the trains on the track? When Stephen or Leopold talk to others, even then there consciousness stays not at all straight-on. 
What might I learn about myself if I were to attempt to make sense of the pattern of my thoughts—of my associations—if I were to try to follow the stream of conscioiusness that is not at all a stream.


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