Sunday, 17 February 2013

Shut your eyes and see


"He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth's kiss.  Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets. Mouth to her kiss.  No. Must be two of em. Glue em well. Mouth to her mouth's kiss."

-- Stephen Dedalus writing a poem in James Joyce's Ulysses
Episode 3: Proteus

Pablo Picasso's "Figures at the Seaside"

Since many of the readers of this blog are art lovers, I thought I'd once again feature works of art as visual aids to demonstrate the various writing styles and narrative approaches used by James Joyce in Ulysses. 

Let's start with episode 3: Proteus -- one of the most challenging and dense chapters in Ulysses. 

In Proteus, the brilliant aspiring poet, Stephen Dedalus, walks on the beach at Sandymount strand in southeast Dublin and every thought that flickers through his over-educated brain makes it into this chapter.

Some refer to the technique used in the episode as "stream-of-conciousness," yet Joyce derided the term, saying whenever he heard the phrase he thought of a stream of urine.  A good way to explain this episode's technique is to imagine that someone has invented a machine that could read a person's thoughts and automatically translate them into words on a page (let's call this machine a "Joyce-o-scope").   In Proteus, the Joyce-o-scope is turned on full-force and gives us a remarkable window into the inner workings of Stephen's complex, yet troubled, brain. 

Stephen's mind is packed full of philosophy, languages, paternity, family, relationships, remorse, todo lists, and on and on.  He has flashbacks, picks his nose, gets frightened by a dog, and begins writing a poem (which I've included as the quote at the outset of this blog).  In short, his brain is an intellectual and emotional three-ring-circus; and we have a ring-side seat. 

Don't expect too much in the way of context to frame Stephen's interior monologue.  It is what it is.

Joyce shows exactly how Stephen thinks, and he purposely doesn't make it easy going.  When you begin reading this chapter, don't even try to understand everything Stephen is thinking; just fasten your seatbelt, hold on tight, and enjoy the opportunity to view the unfiltered thoughts of a talented, creative, yet somewhat tormented, artist.

The episode begins with the words:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read..."

This refers to the Aristotelean idea that when we look at something -- say, a horse -- we don't actually see the object in front of us; rather, our minds perceive an image of a horse that we've each built up over the years.  Stephen recognizes that we use mental shortcuts to immediately recognize and categorize forms; we perceive the concept of an object, rather than seeing what actually lies before us.

We learn much later in Ulysses that Stephen had broken his eyeglasses the previous day, so his vision is blurred and he must rely more upon his other senses, particularly sound, to perceive the world around him.  As such, in this episode, Stephen becomes obsessed with the changing face of reality, and struggles to understand how humans conceptualize the world around them using visual and audible clues.

To me, the work of art that best encapsulates Joyce's writing style in this episode is Picasso's "Bathers on the Beach."  
Picasso's "Bathers on the Beach"
As in Joyce's Proteus episode, the scene in Picasso's painting takes place at the seaside and reality is morphed and transformed. Things aren't as they appear -- yet our minds still draw conclusions based on scanty evidence.  The forms in Picasso's paintings have grotesque and misshapen heads, their bodies are mostly absent, yet we somehow see them as humans, expressing emotions and relating to each other. In Proteus, Stephen uses a cane to navigate the seaside, and tries to unlock a series of metaphysical and philosophical problems; and in the painting, one of Picasso's characters wields a key and a cane.  Like the characters in Ulysses and Picasso's painting, we try to unlock and read signatures around us, and discover that reality and our concept of reality are not always the same.  


  1. I wasn't really aware that in this seaside scene Stephen's actual vision was hampered by his broken eyeglasses. Thanks for pointing that out. So in a sense he's forced to contemplate (or play with) his newly abberated vision. That helps understand the scene better.

    1. Thanks for the comment, LU. Yes, you have to go to Circe to see what happened to Stephen's glasses. In the quote below Stephen makes reference to Proteus and the paddling he got in Portrait. Naturally, Joyce doesn't make it easy to figure it out...but it all makes sense when you link it together.

      "STEPHEN: (Brings the match near his eye) Lynx eye. Must get glasses. Broke them yesterday. Sixteen years ago. Distance. The eye sees all flat. (He draws the match away. It goes out.) Brain thinks. Near: far. Ineluctable modality of the visible. (He frowns mysteriously) Hm. Sphinx. The beast that has twobacks at midnight. Married."

      -- Stephen Dedalus in Circe

  2. I want you to continue. Hence the comment!


    My little contribution.

  4. And here's number three.

  5. I am studying Ulysses for my Masters in English all the way over in Singapore,which is a country located in the South East Asian part of the globe. I read your blog posts with much interest and hope that you will continue to blog and write about Ulysses. The perspectives you provide are succinct and clear, and your writing style helps in the way of understanding the point as I begin reading. Please give more detailed descriptions of the paintings, as you have done so diligently for most actually!, and how the context of the painters might also relate to Ulysses in some way that is universal. For example, would Van Gogh be considered a Modernist? I read somewhere recently that Ireland and Irish Literature was moving too fast to stay in the period of Modernism for too long. Therefore by the time we get to Postmodernism, we have already seen most of it in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I value your insights and hope you can continue sharing! I would like to share with you what I have learnt in my own little (but definitely less significant than yours) journey.
    Have a great week!
    Best Regards,