(Cross-posted from Infinite Zombies.)
All right, so I know that in 1922 the stream of consciousness was the very Rubicon that marked the border with the future of literature; but lo these 88 years later, we’re reasonably familiar with the trick. I have a well-loved Mrs Dalloway in one of my boxes of books, and we most of us had to read The Sound and the Fury in high school, or repeatedly for pleasure, right? (And let’s not forget Ken Erdedy and Clenette Henderson.) It’s not a new game. But I’m surprised at how disorienting it is in Ulysses. I may just be rusty, but Joyce’s use of the technique—especially in “Proteus,” although of course that’s no accident—is more thorough and defamiliarizing than I expected.
I caught the switch between third person and first person that Judd notes, so it’s mostly clear when we’re dealing with “the narrator” and when we’re reading a character’s mind. What trips me up sometimes is the comprehensiveness of the stream-of-consciousness bits: In the same way that your thoughts to yourself generally don’t actually narrate your situation and actions, but only your impressions of them, conscious reactions to them, and mental processes that merely happen to take place among them, Stephen doesn’t tell us what he’s doing, only what he’s thinking about as he does it. This makes it difficult sometimes to keep up with the stage business of the story. Among other things, I think this is what makes “Proteus” such a challenge on the first try. Stephen is so wrapped up in his own head that he only notices some of what occurs around him, and what “the narrator” doesn’t explain for us, we often have to riddle out. For instance (to backtrack to “Telemachus”), that seal’s head is Malachi Mulligan, plump double dactyl, ’s, right? Instead of an actual seal’s, I mean.
Then again, it’s Stephen’s imagination and rambling associativeness that drives the most beautiful passages in the first three episodes. His memories that never happened of the milkwoman (1.397ff.) and of Mrs. Sargent’s mother-love (2.139ff.) are magical bits of imaginative creation, and the water-songs (1.242ff., 3.55ff., and 3.456ff.) are gorgeous poetry. I think the most impressive stretch of these first 40-ish pages is Stephen’s remembered dream of his mother at 1.102ff. For sheer psychological condensation, it rivals “My mother is a fish.”
The Ulysses “Seen” page for this passage does a fine job of showing the horror that Stephen attaches to the details of his dream’s dead mother—the smells, the physical wasting, the breath coming out of her mouth. The text then begins a remarkable layering process that demonstrates how overdetermined Stephen’s thoughts are, how everything reminds him of other things. He’s looking at his cuff, and remembers (among other things) his mother’s graveclothes; then, as he thinks of the “wetted ashes” smell of his mother’s breath, he sees beyond his cuff the sea, which Buck, quoting Swinburne, has called a mother. (Wetted ashes and the water and horrid breath congeal again at 3.150: “Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath, a pocket of seaweed smouldered in seafire under a midden of man’s ashes.”) “Clothes” and “wet” and “mother” lead from his own mother to the sea, where the bay is the edge of a bowl holding a “dull green mass of liquid” just like the white china bowl his mother hacked her bile into on her deathbed, and then “Buck Mulligan wiped again his razorblade,” which reactivates the bowl association to include the first sentence of the book, in which Buck’s shaving bowl parodies a solemn religious accoutrement (I don’t know Catholicism well enough to say which one) so that we remember again what we learned 15 lines ago, that Stephen refused to pray for his own dying mother.
As densely associative as this passage is—and I’m sure I’ve missed some of the connections; at the very least, I suspect there’s something in it of Stephen’s penury (the edge of his cuff is both “fraying” and “threadbare”) and of the contrast between Buck’s “wellfed” voice and the mother’s “loud groaning vomiting”—that’s how Stephen’s mind works. It’s a foretaste of the “Proteus” to come, in miniature and with context, to demonstrate how far we’re going to roam in this book from what we’re accustomed to. Yet it will seem familiar all the same, once we can learn the motions of it, because its abandonment of traditional technique is in the service of a psychological realism in which we can recognize some of the ways our minds work.