Study Guide

Ulysses Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By James Joyce

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Thought is the thought of thought. (2.35)

This is a thought of Stephen's as he speculates on Aristotle and remembers his time in Paris in the episode "Nestor." Does this mean that thought can only lead to other thoughts and thus never actually sets a foot in the world? For example, when I think about a bicycle am I only thinking about a thought-bicycle (distinct from bicycles in the real world) or am I actually thinking about that thing in the world that we call a bicycle? If you have some time to kill, mull through the Gifford annotations around this passage and see what you can work out. Maybe it's more moderate. Thought is always different than things in the world, but is still somehow connected with them. How can you describe the relationship between thought and the world? Language and the world?

His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur's rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice. The good bishop of Cloyne took the veil of the temple out of his shovel hat: veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field. Hold hard. Coloured on a flat: yes, that's right. Flat I see, then think distance, near, far, flat I see, east, back. Ah, see now. Falls back suddenly, frozen in stereoscope. Click does the trick. You find my words dark. Darkness is in our souls, do you not think? Flutier. Our souls, shame-wounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more. (3.78)

This quote gives a good sense of the stream-of-consciousness style in "Proteus." When we first read this, we thought this sounded like the thoughts of a man who had devoured encyclopedias and now had his mind on at full blast, as if he were hyped up on amphetamines or something. Do you find this an accurate portrayal of thought? If not accurate, what advantages does it have over the more traditional monologue form where the author is obligated to write in complete sentences? In what ways does Stephen associate goodness with being dark instead of bright?

"- Bosh!" Stephen said rudely. "A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." (9.90)

In "Scylla and Charybdis," this is Stephen's response to John Eglinton's contention that Shakespeare made a mistake by marrying Ann Hathaway. There are two real statements here. First, a man of genius makes his errors by choice. Second, a man of genius can turn his errors into portals of discovery. Which of these do you agree with, if any? To what extent might Stephen's view of the artist be motivated by his own experience? What particular mistake of Stephen's might he have in mind? How is the fact that Stephen's life informs his theory actually a support of his theory that the artist and his work are inseparable?

"Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and micro-cosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?" (9.301)

Here, Stephen takes a typical church debate about whether or not Jesus was immaculately conceived and shifts it into another realm. No, Stephen says, that is not the main question. The main question is what it means to be a father versus a mother, especially because the father is so far removed from the birthing process (after donating his sperm). Stephen thinks that it takes a great deal of imagination to be a father, to imagine what it means and feels like to conceive a son. In what ways might Stephen's relationship with his own father shape his argument in this episode?

Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves. (9.373)

Stephen is here talking about the role of the artist, how all of his characters can be found in his own mind. To what extent can Stephen's comments be applied to real life? When we imagine the other people around us are we only projecting our beliefs and desires onto them, making them up out of the stuff of our own minds? Is Stephen arguing for solipsism (that nothing exists except one's own mind)? If not (hint: he's not), then how not?

Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship. (14.7)

These lines come from near the start of "Oxen of the Sun." In literature and philosophy, there has been a long tradition of romanticizing life for birth. According to the philosopher Nietzsche, for example, the first great tragedy of life is being born. What does it mean to cultivate nostalgia for life in the womb, that moment when one is having all of one's needs filled without making the slightest effort, when life is in perfect balance? What view of life does that suggest? (Hint: it's not a happy one.)

"Pornosophical philotheology. Metaphysics in Mecklenburg street!" (15.21)

Lynch here derides Stephen's philosophizing as they approach Bella Cohen's brothel in "Circe." He combines four terms: pornography, philosophy, philology (the study of languages), and theology. How is this actually a good catch phrase for the view of life promoted in the book? Where are some instances of two seemingly disparate things being brought together, e.g. the sexual and the religious? Is there any philosophy in the book that is not woven tightly into the details of daily life?

"How? Very unpleasant. Noble art of self-pretence. Personally, I detect action. (He waves his hand.) Hand hurt me slightly. Enfin, ce sont vos oignons. (To Cissy Caffrey.) Some trouble is on here. What is it precisely?" (15.962)

These lines come from the end of "Circe" immediately after Private Carr asks Stephen how he would like to be hit in the jaw. Drunk as he is, Stephen is still speaking some truth. In particular, he does detest action and maintain a theory of passivity. For Stephen, what matters is intensity of thought and firmness of conviction. How can passivity be a theory of life? What external circumstances of Stephen's (his life in Ireland, the influence of England the Church, his own guilt) might shape his particular theory of life?

Did Stephen participate in his dejection?

He affirmed his significance as a conscious rational animal proceeding syllogistically from the known to the unknown and a conscious rational reagent between a micro- and a macrocosm ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void. (17.149)

Alright, let's parse this. First, Stephen is a rational person who knows some things and doesn't know others. He can use logic ("proceed syllogistically") from the things he knows to other things he doesn't know. As a "reagent," one who acts in the world, Stephen lives between his own world of Dublin and teaching ("micro-") and the great big universe that he doesn't understand ("macrocosm"). According to the skeptical position, nothing can ever be known for certain because your mind could be deceiving you in some way or another. Thus, Stephen's life is "constructed upon the incertitude of the void." How might this complex philosophical thought be comforting for Stephen?

Both then were silent? Silent, each contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces. (17.168)

Here, Bloom is showing Stephen out his back door in the middle of the night. They pause for a moment before Stephen departs. How does Joyce's wordplay here reflect his understanding of how the two men are relating to one another? Why would one man's flesh be a reflection of the other? What does it say about empathy, about how two people struggle to understand one another?

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