Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ulysses, Episodes 2 (Nestor) and 3 (Proteus)

James Joyce
There are some books that require a study guide if you're going to truly get anything out of them. Ulysses is definitely one of those books. I've been reading it along with the Sparknotes, and I stumbled upon this really great free podcast from Frank Delaney that I've also been using as a supplementary guide. I read the first episode as an online PDF, but then decided I prefer to have a paperback in hand that I can make notes in, and besides, it's just nice to read an actual book with pages you can touch and turn. 

This week the group met to discuss episodes 2 ("Nestor") and 3 ("Proteus"), which continue the storyline of Stephen Dedalus and his very ordinary day, June 16, 1904. Except it's a Joyce novel, so it's anything but ordinary when you get past the plot and consider the intricacies of the language. 

But let's consider plot first. Here's my quick and dirty summary of Episode 2: Stephen's teaching a group of boys at a school and tells them a riddle just before they leave the classroom, the answer to which is that the fox buried his grandmother. (Neither the boys nor I have any clue about this one.) It's a half day at the school, so the boys go off to play hockey (field hockey, as we'd call it in Canada) and Stephen sits down with one student to help him with math, and then goes to the headmaster's (Deasy's) office to chat with him and the headmaster types up a letter to the editor about cattle, which the headmaster asks Stephen to take to a couple of newspapers for him. Episode 3 is even simpler: Stephen hangs out on the beach, watching a couple of women he recognizes as midwives, then a couple collecting shells with their dog in tow, then he writes a short poem on a scrap of paper he tears off the letter from the headmaster, and then he urinates, and then picks his nose and looks around to see if anyone saw. 

Episode two is shorter than three, which is odd, considering how little action takes place in the third episode. In episode two, the reader is immediately and without the aid of descriptors for setting, thrust blindly into a scene in which it is slowly and vaguely revealed that Stephen is teaching in a classroom of boys. The reader is always, it seems with Joyce, left to sink or swim: figure out right quick where you are and who's thoughts you're following or you're sunk and you might as well just get out and stop swimming altogether (I mean, reading). See, reading Ulysses really is like being immersed in a deep ocean!

Anyway, episode two seems to deal a lot with learning and teaching, oceanic imagery, history, and the interesting contrast between lofty thoughts and base bodily functions. And I have a theory about a possible connection that Joyce was making between Deasy's writing on foot and mouth disease and his own inappropriate (sexist and racist) rantings about women and jews... is the implication perhaps that Deasy puts his own foot in his mouth, as the saying goes? I guess there's no way to know if that was a subtlety intended in the text or not, but I think Joyce wouldn't be against the idea of making these kind of conjectures about his book, which itself is nothing if not complex and multi-layered in meaning and symbolism. 

Episode three is really all about Stephen's internal thoughts. Not really stream-of-consciousness, but a blurring of the lines between the identity of the narrator and Stephen himself. The paragraph in which Stephen writes his poem is interesting because he (or the narrator? or Joyce? Or all three?) questions, "Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?" More than telling a story, as a novel is usually thought to do, this novel, or perhaps more aptly, this text, is a meta-analysis of "the novel," of language, of consciousness, identity, and art. I also think it's interesting, and undoubtedly meaningful, that Stephen writes his text on the page of another text, borrowing part of the page, as Joyce writes his own text (the book) alluding to, borrowing from, and hinting at Shakespeare's Hamlet, Homer's Odyssey, and the Bible, to name just three of the major works he blends with and uses to create his own in this grand meta-text. 

Joyce also plays beautifully with language, in the third episode especially. Of the dog he observes running around on the beach, he says/thinks/writes, "Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf's tongue redpanting from his jaws." What a gorgeous line. There is a lot of onomatopoeia and alliteration and poetic prose (or is it prosy poetry?) throughout this chapter, through which the reader is privy to the inner workings of Stephen's mind; the mundane and the profound all mixed up together. The depth of layers, or dimensions, is incredible in Ulysses. This book is kind of like the Magic Eye of literature. 

And with that ends the first of the three sections of the text. Next week we will get on to section two, which begins with episode 4 (aka "Calypso").

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