Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Turning a Corner with James Joyce

James Joyce; "Signatures of all things I am here to read"

I have at last come to Ulysses by James Joyce(1922) in my course reading.
This seems to me to be the step into hypertext in the modern literary sense. Of course there has always been hypertext in the sense of an ongoing narrative which can appear as randomly appropriated within the contexts of space and time (beginning with the I Ching and even the ancient performative stories undertaken within the narrative space of pilgrimage). But Joyce was consciously attempting to break through the barrier created during the 19th century in regard to the moral values of the text. In Ulysses the body becomes a "social hieroglyph", the street a psychological condition:

"Such texts, whether they be Michael Joyce's Afternoon, or James Joyce's Ulysses, actively foreground disjunctive structure, thematic multi-layering and a machinic tendency to generate prodigious systems of meaning that are in excess of the sum of its parts. Reading such texts is an indeterminate and highly differential process that frustrates any sense of an ending or closure. It is rather an intransitive sense of unending, the building up of a rich mosaic of understanding that develops over time through many re-readings." (Tofts, "A RETROSPECTIVE SORT OF ARRANGEMENT": ULYSSES AND THE POETICS OF HYPERTEXTUALITY")

Take for example the enormous psychic distance covered in the following quote. Having put down the famous white "bowl of lather" Buck Mulligan stands beside Stephen Dedalus as they survey the view from the tower:

"Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the well-fed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting." (Chapter 1)

Rest(death)-granite(tomb stone)-palm-pain(Christ crucified)-dream-death-grave-odour-odour-sea-mother-bay-green liquid-bowl-green-groan-death (rest).

The passage splits on "odour" (olfactory), upon one side is the memory of his mother's corpse as it visits him in vision (visual), and on the other the great bile filled bowl of Dublin Harbour. Death permeates all things, holding it all together at the same time as tearing it all apart. This applies as well to the movement across from the interior monologue to the narrators description of the visual scene at hand. The balance between the two pulls it all into a single psychological landscape of immense visual import.

This are only my early impressions of Ulysses, but I can already read the omniscient magic of the text. Perhaps this feeling of new dawn or beginning is only part of the opening chapter. In a sense it doesn't matter as the story is not just in the plot, but in the sounds of the words, the tropes repeated strategically in an almost meme like fashion, the thread of awareness that runs through each poetic episode.

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