2.05.2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proteus Chapter of Ulysses

Before I get into this post, oh my friends, I must apologize ahead of time. I'm currently reading three different books: Ulysses, Ulysses Annotated (a book of annotations on the text of Ulysses), and Ulysses and Us (a book discussing why and how Ulysses is intended for the common man, instead of intellectual highbrows) I blame this on my friends who have organized Jousting With Joyce this month. But I'm having a LOT of fun. I read the book a few years ago, and I will not link to the review - it was so awful that it's the only review I've ever actually gone back and deleted content from. But I'm understanding it much better the second time. So, the short of it is: for the next month and a half, much of this channel will be devoted to Ulysses. Which I know makes some of us cringe in terror or hatred. So, I'm sorry.
But that's just the way it is.

So, before we began the book, Jill over at Fizzy Thoughts mentioned something interesting about chapter 3 of Ulysses, a chapter which Joyce titled, after the fact, Proteus - namely that this is the chapter that most people turn away at and never finish the book. And I will confess now, the first time I read Ulysses, this chapter took me, I kid you not, a month and a half. For fifteen pages. And I didn't understand a thing in it.

Well, that's not really true. I did understand something: I understood that the chapter was in stream of consciousness, and that the consciousness being streamed was confusing and... eh... just a little obnoxious. Pretentious, snotty, and a little full of itself.  Declan Kiberd in Ulysses and Us admits this up front:
Many readers drop Ulysses at this point, finding themselves unable to keep up with Stephen's remorseless and obscure pedantry...
Yeah, that pretty much gives my initial feeling of the chapter. It's what he says afterwards that really captures how I felt reading it the second time:
...but the truth is that Joyce is laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was. Nobody could understand all that Stephen says or thinks. Nobody could take all of his ideas with utter seriousness. 
No, seriously. The closing words of the chapter, dramatic and stirring:
Behind. Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.
The 'behind, perhaps there is someone'? It's because Stephen just picked his nose and wiped it on a rock because he doesn't have a handkerchief, and he's afraid someone may have caught him at it.  So, he looks over his shoulder, to see the great silent ship, deep and powerful symbol of the child Telemachus waiting for a father to come home who he has never met, silent and forboding, is all because he didn't want someone to catch him picking his nose.

This may seem facetious, or pretentious in and of itself, to write some grand sweeping complex chapter that is essentially about a stupid college kid wandering along the beach and killing time for an hour. Maybe it is, but I don't think so. It would have been much easier to just write a snarky satire of a chapter, talking about how stupid college kids are. The power of James Joyce is that he doesn't do this - instead he simply records what it feels like to be that person. There are parts of the mind that just find this bewildering, or course, let me address that first. In some sense, like Kiberd said, it is meant to be confusing. Part of Stephen's problem is his education. If you took this chapter apart, probably half of it would be a quote, an allusion, a lampoon, or a paraphrase of the words of someone else, and Joyce argues (in a different way in the previous chapter) that education, sometimes, aims for htis goal: to make people who are good at spouting at the correct bit of information at the correct time. It's a problem that is different now from Joyce's time, where rote learning was a huge measure of academic prowess, but it is a bigger problem now, perhaps, in our time when education's purpose has been narrowed to the point where it's largely presented as nothing more than a way to ensure you get a good job someday. Even so, though, part of the problem is, I would argue, intrinsic to this sort of free association thought. Some of the things in Stephen's mind are not academic esoterica: there's lyrics to pub ditties and popular songs, there's references to Hamlet in plenty, which isn't exactly obscure, there's references to the CAtholic Mass, which most of the people around Stephen would have been intimately familiar with. The problem is, anytime you enter someone else's mind, you will find that there are places foreign to you. This is perhaps amplified by the difference in time and space between Stephen and us, and by the differences in our respective educations. But at the same time I think it's partly simply the uncrossable chasm between two souls, the fact that we can peek inside someone else's head, but never truly climb in.

Apart from the bewildering nature of Stephen's head, though, there is the pretentiousness of it. And make no mistake, it is a chapter, stuffed to the gills, with pretentious. It is very easy to dislike Stephen, here. But at the same time, I don't think that is Joyce's point - in fact, I think it says a lot about us as readers, willing to seek out clues about whether to like or dislike a person so easily. Every person is a person at some level. Stephen is  young, he makes mistakes, he can be annoying, but he's a person, and in the midst of all his wandering, there are some real, powerful, and beautiful emotions. The problem is that he does not how to pick them out of the mire. He doesn't realize that as much of the beauty comes in the 'low' as the 'high' parts of his thought, that his work scribbling a poem is far less powerful and human than his yearning for someone to love him as he thinks about the shopgirl he saw the day before, or the brooding loneliness he feels as he watches the dog running along the beach. Stephen is, simply, who he is. One may dislike him, but to hate him, that takes a special force. It is easy for me to hate some characters, because there are characters. I would present that authors construct them so that they can be hated or loved, as often as not. But Stephen is not a character in the same sense - to hate him is to hate a human - a ficitonal one, yes, but we do not have the luxury in Ulysses of having simlpy a hateable side of a person before us. If we are to love or hate anyone in Ulysses, we must hate them the way we would hate another person - which reflects and teaches the reader something about how it is that they really DO love and hate, teaches them where the line lies for them.

7 comments:

Trisha said...

I think I got through this chapter in part because I wasn't trying to understand everything. Once I realized that the chapter was a stream of consciousness, I sort of rolled with it, enjoying the rhythm rather than trying to decode the text. After all, people would be wildly confused if they entered my mind (albeit it's not as vocabularific as Stephen's).

I'm really interested in this book of annotations you have, but I'm thinking for my first time through I'm going to stick to the story and Frank Delaney's podcasts (which are fun if you haven't heard them yet).

Emily said...

Stephen is young, he makes mistakes, he can be annoying, but he's a person, and in the midst of all his wandering, there are some real, powerful, and beautiful emotions.

Yes, I agree. And although I certainly find Stephen annoying at times, he also reminds me of myself to a really uncomfortable extent. In his pretentiousness. The way he broods on things and can't let them go. The way he's trapped in his own head & has trouble being at peace with the less analytical, more bodily realm exemplified by Bloom. So I definitely don't end up hating him.

And I think it's interesting that pretentiousness should be such a big sin in the eyes of some readers, either on the part of Stephen or Joyce himself. Really, "pretentious" means you think you know better than other people, which I admit is not great. But phrased another way, it means you have confidence in your own vision of the world, in your own path, even if other people disagree with you. Stephen cogitates on the Roman Catholicism he was brought up with and has the backbone to reject it publicly when he realizes he no longer believes. And maybe it's a mistake that he won't pretend differently for his dying mother, and maybe it's pretentious that he summons classical philosophers to his aid when he's trying to justify himself...but I still think his questioning and religious doubt make him a more interesting person. Similarly, considering how revolutionary Joyce's project was, and how crazy people thought him, I doubt he ever would have persevered through writing and publication if he hadn't been pretentious. You know? There's something to be said for pretentious.

softdrink said...

I love the synopsis of Chapter 3 being the ramblings of a college kid picking his nose. That's way more my speed than any deeper meaning!

And I'm giving up on Gilbert Stuart's analysis, because he sounds even more pretentious than Stephen. I've ordered my own book of annotations.

Shelley said...

I completely believe the month and a half thing. I think I spent a half an hour on page one alone. I'm both scared and excited to get to the Proteus bit. It may take me a while to get there, though.

Trish said...

I hope you don't mind me linking to this post in my own write-up, Jason, but I think you hit on some really great points! You know, I've never really given much thought to why stream of consciousness is so difficult, but you're right that it's near impossible to fully know another person's mind and inner workings.

Not sure entirely what you're getting at in your last paragraph with hating Stephen Dedalus--but I can't help but think about all those times I've mentioned my disdain for the guy. Ha! Oops...

Is your anotated book by Stuart? I've thought about ordering a copy since my library doesn't have a version but I fear it would get here too late. Maybe next time.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trisha (and others who asked) - the book I have been reading is called Ulysses Annotated, By Don Gifford with Robert J Seidman.It was just republished in 2008 with some new annotations, and I HIGHLY recommend it, it's AWESOME.I've enjoyed it a great deal, because Gifford tries to (and usually succeeds at) just tell the facts of the references, rather than giving opinions and interpretations, which allows you to form your own ideas, still, but with a little Encyclopedia of Joyce to help you know the salient facts.

Ms Emily - Your points about being pretentious are very interesting, I had not previously thought of the word pretentious this way, but have had similar thoughts, for instance, about arrogance, which is similarly something necessary in some pursuits, it seems. Pretentious, I generally think of as being somewhat intellectually dishonest (though I suppose arrogance is true that way too) - as in, instead of acting only in ways that reflect their beliefs and feelings, they act upon a pretense to do what they feel will give the effect they desire. Pretentiousness feels very outward instead of inward facing?

Ms Softdrink - I think, rather, that Joyce is saying that the quotidian every day life aspects of being a college kid are more important and 'deep' and beautiful than we normally admit? :)

Ms Shelley - *laughs* You can do it! Just keep going, don't sweat the parts that make your head swim ;D

Ms Trish - no, I more mean that if you DO dislike Stephen, then it gives you the oportunity to really KNOW the kind of person you lke. I think that's wonderful in it's way? Normally people we dislike are kind of foreign to us.

Quentin said...

Fantastic!