Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Three: Proteus

Oh, how quickly I run into trouble with Ulysses. Already delayed an unforgivable amount of time by piled-up schoolwork, I returned to the "Proteus" episode ready and rarin' to go, only to find that the book I could slip into with surprising ease and live inside suddenly warped into a phantasmagorical mash-up of sound and image that read like the novelization of a Godard film. All I could think was "No, no, no. Not this early. Please tell me I'm not going to be confused this early. I'm not even out of the Telemachia yet!" (#whitepeopleproblems)

Even the notes included for the chapter clearly speculate where earlier they offered confident pointers for the uninitiated, helpful clues to guide us through Joyce's Dublin. But when I looked at the vague summary given for the Proteus chapter, I saw a question mark employed. Damn, even the scholars had to guess.

Then, I went and looked at the notes of the only Joyce expert I know -- though she might object to that term; and maybe there can never be an expert on such a man. Well, save perhaps Richard Ellmann (oh my God, Jake, focus) -- Sheila O'Malley. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read the book, Sheila advised me to go with its flow, something I could do with the first two chapters but failed to here, doubling back to the annotations time and time again to make heads or tails of passages. When I looked up her post on this chapter, I saw that line again, and also a helpful tip that Stephen broke his glasses (something apparently mentioned only once and at a later time). With that in mind, I went back and just read through, not even looking up the translations. To my delight, it worked much better.

After leaving the school and his miserable chat with the pompous anglophile dean, Stephen wanders along the beach, taking in the sights in blurs of color and movement. Shutting his eyes to escape, he finds he can still hear, and those blurs of snotgreen and bluesilver feel like a description of synesthesia. A dog does not run around him: the dog's bark advances and retreats, carrying with it the animal.

Hobbled, Stephen gives himself to even more reflection than usual, an amusing outgrowth of mental myopia from physically impaired vision. Stephen meditates on solipsism, on the loneliness of the intellectual. All those blurs around him, blurs he indirectly made by being near-sighted, could mean that he fabricated people and objects wholesale with his mind. Yet he closes those eyes again, and he still hears, and when he reopens them, everything around him continues to operate without noticing him. Maybe he is the shadow, the apparition, there for someone's amusement (Joyce's, or ours) but unable to interact.

Joyce's deadpan comedy bleeds through Stephen's rambling thoughts: Dedalus thinks of stopping by his maternal aunt's house, only to recall his father hating that side of the family and also his own memories of being embarrassed by them. He abruptly turns onto memory lane for a while, recalling the shame he felt among their ignorance, and by the time he snaps out of his reverie he realizes he's passed where he should have turned to go to his aunt's and decides to just keep going. Thoughts turn to his time in Paris, once again focusing on scattered imagery and noises instead of anything concrete. Paris bleeds back into Ireland by way of an acquaintance Stephen made in Paris, an exiled nationalist named Kevin Eagan.

To call this a stream of consciousness smacks of the understatement common to the British Isles: this isn't a stream, it's Lough Derg. All of these thoughts flow freely in ways that make even Faulkner easy to follow, and brief moments of clear vision interrupt Stephen's thoughts with what's happening in front of him. The dog comes nearer Stephen and pees on a rock, then another to mark its territory. "Oh, the simple pleasures of the poor," he thinks. Sometimes, he'll spot something and launch off that image back into his mind, such as seeing a midwife with a bag and imagining the bag holding a miscarried fetus with an umbilical cord hanging out that leads like a telephone wire back to the dawn of man, allowing him to make a call to "Edenville." Naturally, he'd talk to naked, navel-less Eve. Oh did I mention that Stephen's thoughts incessantly return to sex? Clearly, this is the most accurate depiction of the male thought process put to paper.

Of course, this being Joyce, literary references abound. While thinking of how much he hates his aunt and that side of the family, he thinks of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a book detailing Swift's disgust with the human race. He even imagines poor Johnny climbing a pole to escape the fetid touch of the masses' hands. After the re-read, I went and looked at some of the notes in a more casual, less-stressed way and saw all the notes explaining lines to be quotations from Blake, Aquinas, Hamlet, etc. Joyce can never give himself to thought without thinking of art, so naturally neither can his semi-autobiographical representation.

Not breaking concentration to look up things, I let myself seep into Stephen's ramblings. I could feel that crushed shell and sand smoothly yet sharply running over my toes, feel that trepidation of an unseeing man hearing a barking dog nearing. I also felt a keen sense of despair and isolation rolling off Stephen in waves. His sexual fantasies are amusing (and bold, considering the time period), yet when he writes a poem to this imagined belle and wonders whose name will eventually become the subject for his now-faulty pronoun "she," the cheeky tone turns morose and plaintive.

Returning back to Stephen's initial meditation on solipsism, by now Joyce has made clear, without saying so, that Stephen obviously cannot be in control of his own universe because surely he would have made a world more hospitable to himself. As Sheila noted, "He feels very passive here to me." A solipsist is active, constructing everything in existence. Right now, Stephen is at the mercy of the world, the mercy of the barking dog, his sexual hangups, a sense of social ranking that places little importance on his talents. He needs some kind of guide, something to break him of his infantile helplessness -- his childlike situation is underscored by him picking his nose at the end and wiping the booger on a rock. But then, lo, a silent ship appears, and who knows what it might carry, or whether than cargo can help Stephen find himself. We shall see.

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