The Stream of Consciousness in “Ulysses” and Elsewhere

I’m making another attempt to read James Joyce’s much admired novel Ulysses. So far it’s working. Since the meat of the book is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, I skipped the first three chapters or episodes. They’re about Stephen Dedalus. I’m also reading Wikipedia’s brief summary of each episode before I begin the next one, on the assumption that brief previews will make the story easier to follow. Never having finished more than a few pages before, I’m now on episode 6, Hades, in which Bloom attends a funeral.

So far, I’m having trouble with Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique. It’s hard to take seriously. Here’s an example. Bloom is standing next to Molly, who is still in bed, and she asks him about a word in a book she’s been reading:  

—-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—-O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: The Pride of the Ring. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metempsychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That’s a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul . . .

—-Did you finish it? he asked.

Either Bloom’s mind moves more quickly than light or Bloom and Molly are having a very leisurely conversation. Reading Ulysses, it feels like Joyce’s description of Bloom’s stream of consciousness involves cataloging every thought Bloom might conceivably have at any given moment. Reading such passages leaves the impression that his conscious mind is a torrent of thoughts, memories and literary references. He seems to suffer from a terrible sort of attention deficit disorder. He can’t focus.

Another literary character who can’t focus is Tristram Shandy, the subject of Laurence Sterne’s wonderful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One hundred sixty years before Ulysses, Sterne wrote a novel in which the principal character begins by describing how his parents conceived him and then takes 300 pages to get to his birth. I had no trouble accepting the stream of consciousness in Tristram Shandy, because it’s not to be taken seriously. My sense is that we’re supposed to take the stream of consciousness in Ulysses seriously, but that’s hard to do.

I bring up Tristram Shandy because I came across a brief article this week: “From Stem to Sterne: How a Yorkshire Parson Reinvented the Novel”. The author doesn’t mention Joyce or Ulysses, but she does reflect on what it means to depict a person’s stream of consciousness:

One of the most notable aspects of Tristram Shandy is its fixation with the book as a physical object. Where words fail—and often they do—the gap is filled with a diagram, symbol or a bibliographic joke. The black page is one such trick; a missing chapter is another (asterisks mark the “fragment”); so too is the use of blackprint font. Marbled pages are inserted in the middle of the novel where they would usually appear at the end….

[As one critic] points out, “you can’t say a footnote.” You can’t say a scribble either, nor a straight line, nor a font change. By breaking free from the restrictive confines of language, Sterne illustrates how Tristram’s mind works: what he really sees. A consciousness does not function merely as an internal monologue but also involves blank spots: blots and symbols where thoughts are unclear or imprecise, where language won’t do. There is a directness in the way the book attempts to communicate these symbols. The mad sound of Tristram’s brain echoes inside ours via the eccentricities of the printed page.

The big problem with capturing a character’s stream of consciousness in words is that it can’t be done. Sterne used his book’s format to help out, but getting it right would require an author to present all the elements of consciousness, the sights, sounds, tastes, etc., plus the conscious thoughts, in a realistic way. A virtual reality contraption might do it. Language isn’t up to the task, even the language of great writers like Joyce and Sterne.