Friday, October 03, 2008

Lewis and Ulysses

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins without an introduction.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Wyndham Lewis’ critique of Joyce’s Ulysses sits in the midst of a larger cultural critique, which he obfuscates as philosophical discourse. To miss this context for Lewis’ comments is to miss the boat entirely, for otherwise Lewis’ criticisms barely pass for cogent literary criticism (at least something where the notion of “intention” is involved), and hardly at all for philosophy (a contemporary like Bertrand Russell might have been charmed by Lewis’ wit and heart, but would’ve been horrified to learn that it was to pass for using a “method” with “logical integrity” (Lewis, 109)).

The rough form of Lewis’ cultural critique is that our culture has been captured by “romance,” by which he means something that may have family resemblances with Morte d’Arthur or falling in love, but is more specifically “the apotheosis of the marvelous and the unusual.” (ibid., 11) This is technically his definition of advertisement, but the latter is simply romance in cultural action. Lewis condemns romance for a time-obsession, stemming from a Bergsonian philosophy of time, which focuses exclusively on the here and now, which paradoxically causes one to deny time because if one always focuses on the time of right now, then one will never break from their own perspective, “a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (ibid., 8)—like a fish, seeing the world anew, every time it blinks.

Lewis brings this ironic reversal of Bergsonian durée, where the fluid, organic life of immediate experience becomes “a series of one-day lives” (ibid., 12), to the heart of his reading of Joyce. The mechanical life of one-day lives becomes an inundation of “stuff—unorganized brute material” (ibid., 89) that takes on monumental importance with the elimination of any notion of “in the long run,” like packrats refusing to let go of anything. The self-obsession of one’s own sensations becomes Joyce’s “telling from the inside,” what James and later literary critics call “stream of consciousness” narration, but Lewis a “river of what now is rubbish.” (ibid.) And advertisement, the stamp of the fashionable, becomes Joyce’s “irishness,” the local, time-space stamp with which he marks all of his self-important refuse, a thin coating of the concrete to hide the fact that none of the stuff actually matters to Joyce.

I believe that Lewis’ argument hinges on the notion that Ulysses is the aesthetic expression of what Bergson’s philosophy looks like practically.[fn.1] He believes, in sum, that Ulysses embodies in literary expression the Bergsonian obsession with “true duration,” and so is focused on psychological trivia for the sake of trivia because there is nothing else to be for the sake of. If we begin the other way around on the notion of literary expression, however, we might ask, “If Bergsonian true duration is ineffable, how might we eff it?” As a writer, whose tool has to be linguistic, how does one write the ineffable? There have been many different answers to this fundamental question of the written word, but I would suggest that, at the least, Joyce’s “Molly soliloquy” is another type of answer, and that it is a literary representation of Bergsonian duration.

“Molly’s soliloquy” is a completely linguistic representation of consciousness and specifically the movement of time.[fn.2] Joyce was making a technical experiment and it does in a sense embody Bergson’s notion of “true duration,” and indeed Lewis can help us see it. If the main thrust of Bergson’s durée is that it is fluid and has no imposed parameters, start and stop points like the tick-tock of time, then “Molly’s soliloquy” achieves this effect by eliminating punctuation. For Bergson, the “present moment” is specifically not best conceptualized like the edge of a knife cutting through water, but is rather a little bit in the future and a little bit in the past.

The first thing to see is the truth of Lewis’ statement that “the amount of stuff … that the more active principle of drama has to wade through … slows it down to the pace at which, inevitably, the sluggish tide of the author’s bric-a-brac passes the observer….” (Lewis, 89). Time in Ulysses only moves when the reader reads the next word. Not as in “a day passed,” a phrase which stands in for a day, but rather that Molly and us are moving at roughly the same pace through time: we read it, she takes a step forward.

Further, the removal of punctuation plunges the reader into the midst of a seemingly undifferentiated sea, but on reflection, that sea carries with it implicit, felt distinctions, that of syntax. We feel the nebulous shifts in thought in “… and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all ….” (Joyce, 738) These shifts appear to us for the same reason that we know implicitly that time is moving forward, and not a static, eternally recurring fish-blink now-day: our (always fading) memory of what just happened (was just read) combined with our implicit prediction of what is about to come. Joyce upsets these grammar-produced predictions in our reading, which keeps us in closely-though-nebulously circumscribed now-situations, all based on how we feel the interconnections of the words in the act of reading them straight through. Classical thought might organize everything into a universal endgame (where knowledge of the trajectories of all the atoms would allow us to predict everything), but Bergson and Joyce want to remind us that real life will always keep us on our toes.


Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990, 1961, 1934.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.


[1] This is something that Lewis does not meditate on explicitly enough, but without it, he has no connection to Bergson’s philosophy at all. His most important remarks are off-hand, and they include his parenthetical about sensations on p. 8, “which we all experience impartially, whatever our philosophy,” which is a direct slap against the whole impetus behind Bergson’s philosophy, that without his reorientation we’ll miss out on the sensation of life, the here and now, and also his remark on Joyce that having a time-god will “practically” “impose on you the same psychology.” (109, italics his even)

[2] I should like to make a distinction between “reference” and “representation,” and Joyce’s answer it is not a referential answer, but a representational one, a symbol. The difference is between “rock” and a rock (the word “rock” refers to a rock) and the Protestant reversal of transubstantiation (the bread is a symbol for Christ), between literal meanings and allegorical meanings, between pointing at the moon and fashioning something to function in place of the moon. The fundamental difference for us is that a referential answer will always break to some extent the ineffable stricture—it is always an effing encroachment. A representational answer, however, stipulates that it will replace non-words with words, rather than have words refer to non-words.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: