Feature,  Philosophy & Science of Learning

Learning about Thinking from James Joyce

In my view one of the best ways to study learning and thinking is to look to literature and in this arena one figure stands out for the manner in which he conveys the human thought process in print. I am of course referring to James Joyce.

In this short review I present some aspects of Joyce’s work from the perspective of insights on how we think and learn.

My argument is that great literature resonates with our thought processes. In reading Joyce we are provided with a working model of the inner structures and mechanisms through which we experience the world.

I approach this analysis from the perspective of the average reader rather than the rich practice of Joycean scholarship. As such, my remarks are confined to my own, somewhat surface, impressions and interpretations of the literature. Almost at every point in Joyce’s work there are many layers of meaning and great pleasure can be derived from reading and rereading the passages.

My analysis is based around five short lessons:

Lesson One The Inner Narrator

Consider the opening lines from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming
down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road
met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a
glass: he had a hairy face.

In this passage we are introduced to Stephen Dedalus as a child. The language is obviously childlike and there is a wonderful lyrical-jaunty quality about it. But who is the narrator? Is it Stephen or someone else? If it is someone else what age is the narrator?

The use of subjective narration and narrative ambiguity is to be found throughout Joyce’s work. Joyce’s storytellers are never neutral they add to the meaning and the memory.

The short story ‘A Painful Case’ from the Dubliners collection provides an apparently more straightforward example of self-narration in a description of the lonely main character of Mr Duffy:

He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars, and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.

What’s interesting here is that this ‘odd autobiographical habit’ seems also to be in evidence in the first quotation above. I suggest that when the narrator says ‘his father told him that story’ it is actually Stephan recalling his childhood. The text reproduces these are memories infused as they are with the sensual realism of childhood experience together with evidence of more complex structures over-layered through adult recall and retelling.

The take-away from this lesson is that ‘we are the stories we tell’ and we construct these stories through our own inner narrative.

Lesson Two Structure and Meaning

There is a wonderful Irish tune called the Mason’s Apron that has about six parts and when its played well it provides a great platform for musicians to show off their skills by varying the style and tempo whilst still finding a way pack to the central theme.

In the same way Joyce’s Ulysses is a structural masterpiece not because it displays one great structural device but because it has so many. One way of appreciating this entire work is to see it as an exhibition of structural virtuosity.

In addition to varieties of inner and outer narration, there is an episode written as a play complete with stage directions, there is also a section using newspaper narrative with headlines and a section (scholars call it the Ithaca episode) written as if it was meant to be learned by rote in the form of question and response. This hilarious situation involves the two characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus who are both quite drunk as they arrive at Bloom’s home in Eccles Street:

What action did Bloom make on their arrival at their destination?
At the housesteps of the 4th of the equidifferent uneven numbers, number 7 Eccles street, he inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his trousers to obtain his latchkey.

Was it there?
It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on the day but one preceding.

Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.

What were then the alternatives before the, premeditatedly (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple?
To enter or not to enter. To knock or not to knock.

Bloom’s decision?
A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement, and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.

This is great fun to read and the structure is often referred to as the catechism approach. Joyce was perhaps poking fun at the teaching methods he encountered for religion and theology.

The take-away from this lesson is to recognise how we embed meaning in the structures and manner in which we communicate.

Lesson Three Hypertext 

Most people involved in computer science will recognise the term ‘hypertext’ (it is in fact the ‘h’ in the familiar http string that we find in Internet addresses). However, the origins of the term predate the Net. In the 1960’s Theodore H Nelson described the term as electronic text that was characterised as non sequential. By this he was referring to the reader’s ability to trace a series of different paths through the same piece of text. If you want a good example of this then look up ‘hypertext’ on wikipedia and see where your reading takes you.

Reading hypertext is an active process as it involves choice and exploration of layers of meaning. This characteristic is also true of great works of literature (I am not the first to posit this idea and should you so wish you can hypertext off to study Derrida, Foucault and Landow).

Long before the Internet Joyce understood the power of interconnection, inference, hints and echoes in literature. Throughout Ulysses there is an obvious underlying intertextual resonance with Homer’s Odyssey.  However, the hyper-textual framework extends throughout the novel and it conveys a much deeper, broader and inter-connected network of meaning. For example, one of the characters Stephen Dedalus was first encountered in an earlier novel by Joyce, while the timeframe as one day (16th of June 1904) starts twice: once with Stephen and once with Leopold.

Each episode has an underlying theme and it’s almost impossible to read the main text without your thoughts spinning off in many different directions. In the extract below from Sirens we encounter a form of musical overture to Bloom’s later erotic observations of waitresses in the Ormond Hotel:

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.
Trilling, trilling: I dolores.
Peep! Who’s in the… peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. O rose! Notes chirruping answer. Castille. The morn is breaking.
Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

The take-away from this lesson is that much of our thinking is characterised as more like a hyper-textual network of associations rather than any logical, hierarchical or similarly organised system.
Lesson Four A Theory of Aesthetics 
In the Portrait there are a series of episodes involving Stephen working through some theological and philosophical arguments. The following extracts are spoken by Stephen as a college student to a fellow student called Lynch and concern the essence of beauty – I suggest that Joyce’s own views that are in evidence here:

… Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth. I don’t think that it has a meaning, but the true and the beautiful are akin. Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible; beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible. The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection.

and later when they argue on the subjectivity of beauty

This hypothesis, Stephen repeated, is the other way out: that, though the same object may not seem beautiful to all people, all people who admire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension. These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty. Now, we can return to our old friend saint Thomas for another pennyworth of wisdom.

Even though these arguments are provided as the student Stephen working through his own approach to philosophy (and there is much evidence in the text of a kind of an innocent, tentative naivety in this) we are presented, as in the case of the examples above, with some very useful insights.

The take-away from this lesson is Joyce’s affirmation of what Jurgan Habermas later refers to as communicative rationality – process by which societal constructs such as beauty, truth and justice are formed.

Lesson Five Stream of Consciousness
Finally, Joyce is well known for his use of a stream-of-consciousness technique to convey an impression of how people think.

The frequently cited example is perhaps the Molly Bloom soliloquy which comes at the end of Ulysses. The extract I present here is from an earlier part of the book where Stephen is walking on the beach. I have inserted a dash / to indicate the transition from narrator to stream-of-consciousness and back.

His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs, /nebeneinander/. He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. /The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul:
Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly’s arm. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.
nebeneinander. He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly’s arm. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.

The take-away from this lesson is in the form of ‘exhibit a’ – this is what we are taking about when we think of ‘thinking’. Surprisingly, we don’t get grammar as we know it, there seems to be little by way of logical progression or obvious structure and yet we have to agree (I certainly do) that this exhibit rings very true. I have often argued that writing is a form of thinking and that a consequence of the writing process is the manner in which it forces us to impose progressive arguments and logical structure on our thoughts. Thankfully, stream-of-consciousness as above would seem to be the norm though.

In the preceding discussion I have presented, what I choose to call, five lessons from Joyce that provide insights on how we think and how we experience the world. These are just the tip of the iceberg and further reading of Joyce will continue to provide a powerful lens through which we can view our own minds and those of others.

Leave a Reply