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Innermost flame

October 17, 2008

I’ve never finished Ulysses.  In fact, I think that I’ve only reached about fifty some odd pages into it—and the last attempt, I think, was twenty-six years ago.  In my very nice hardcover Random House edition, a reprint of the 1961 edition, I find one of my business cards from a job I left in 1982.  The card is wedged pathetically on page 39—but it was just one of my failed attempts.  Past assaults reached the rather low elevation of Bloom’s relished meal of the inner organs of beasts and fowls, not much further, turned back by the thinning of narrative oxygen.  I think I’d do much better now.  And perhaps I will prepare a renewed assault on the mountain sometime soon. 

But the point is that David Lodge’s valuable Consciousness and the Novel speaks to my own challenges now—like how to better depict characters outside of Pepper’s first-person consciousness—Dave, Marilyn, Uncle Charlie and Creach.  Lodge writes:

“Joyce’s representation of consciousness was a quite new combination of third-person and first-person discourse.  The third-person narrative is impersonal and objective—there is no trace of an authorial persona, a confiding, commenting, ruminating authorial “I” such as Fielding’s or Dickens’s or George Elliot’s.  Its function is to establish the spatio-temporal frame in which it is operating.  The first-person narrative is vividly expressive personality; and it is important to note the Joyce represents the consciousness of his three main characters, Bloom, Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, in three quite distinctive styles- as regards vocabulary, syntax, and the type of association, whether metaphoric or metonymic, that makes one thought beget another.  He came as close to representing the phenomenon of consciousness as perhaps any writer has ever done in the history of literature.”

Virginia Woolf wrote that Joyce was concerned, above all, with revealing the “flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain.”  Helluva task—representing the human soul.  And how do you do that if your medium is text, verbal language, strings of words, one after another—rather than in a non-linear human brain version of parallel processing?  Woolf continued:

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the patter, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”  She also said that she was trying to get away from the “formal railway line of the sentence.”  But Lodge asserts that she “could never entirely escape the sequential linearity of her medium.”  Joyce with his “surreal substitutions, juxtapositions and displacements of dreams” came closer than anybody to representing consciousness on the printed page but in the process he sacrificed narrative cohesion.  And readers like me drop like flies.

But it makes me want to have another go and knock the bastard off.

Oh, Lodge’s essays on Kingsley and Martin Amis and Evelyn Waugh’s “comic wasteland”—great stuff.  Right up my alley.

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