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Was James Joyce the Greatest Mind-Scientist Ever?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I bought a Kindle recently, and excitedly downloaded free stuff: Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (not as good as I remembered), stories of H.P. Lovecraft (like a parody of Poe, but good for bedtime) and, finally, James Joyce’s Ulysses, released in full (a journal published chunks beginning in 1918) in 1922. I trekked through Ulysses in college 30 years ago under professorial guidance and wanted to revisit it to see how it holds up.

It holds up just fine. In fact, I’m digging Ulysses so much that I must foist an appreciation of it on you. Joyce did something that still feels fresh and revolutionary, although it has inspired countless imitations. He put us inside the head of another human, in a way no one had done before. We eavesdrop on someone’s thoughts as though they are being telepathically transmitted into our brain. Joyce was not a theorist of mind but he was an exceptional observer of it, far more so than any scientist. He helped us become more aware of our awareness.

I’ve written about the problem of solipsism, how each of us is trapped in a hermetically sealed chamber of his or her own subjective awareness. Joyce knocks a hole in the prison of our selves so that we can peer into the mind of another person. We can never really know what it is like to be a bat or cat, but thanks to Joyce we have a better idea what it is like to be a human being.

Joyce had scientific precursors. William James, in the late 19th century, drew attention to the weird nature of consciousness. It is not a train—a collection of objects moving through space—but a stream, James said. And thoughts are not like atoms or protons, uniform and durable; they are evanescent, ever-changing, slip-sliding into each other. Another precursor of Joyce was Freud, who held that deep down we are nasty, horny creatures, much more so we realize or care to admit.

James and Freud merely told us these things about ourselves. Joyce showed us, dramatizing the scientists’ hypotheses about the nature of mind. Joyce’s novel has the vivid immediacy of a first-person video game, with extra screens for memory and fantasy. Joyce immerses us in the streaming thoughts of his characters, thoughts that swirl, cascade, eddy, ebb, rush onward, colliding with and swerving around the hard facts—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people and places—of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Joyce’s characters—Stephen Dedalus, a young, intellectually pretentious teacher and would-be writer (modeled after Joyce himself); Leopold Bloom, a Jewish ad salesman, father and husband; Molly Bloom, his cheating, songstress spouse—are in many respects exotic, idiosyncratic, especially to an American reading in the 21st century. And yet these fictional humans feel real and universal.

Joyce reveals—revels in—the animality of his characters. Bloom pisses, poops, gobbles, swills, haggles, preens, cringes, lusts, jerks off. Joyce was a taboo-buster not for its own sake but in the service of truth, of reportorial accuracy. Unlike gloomy, judgmental Freud, however, Joyce was fond of his fellow humans, in spite of all our flaws. Bloom, my favorite character, is timid, scheming, lecherous, gluttonous, but also noble, brave, generous, loving, dignified. He’s tragic and comic, brooding one moment about the suicide of his father and the death of his baby son and the next hungering for a piece of cheese or ogling a babe on the street.

Joyce reminds me of comedian Louis C.K., whose jokes about masturbation and farts segue into riffs on death, heartbreak and loneliness, and whose overall philosophy seems to be: Life sucks sometimes, but it can be pretty great, too, and so funny! Real wisdom should put a smile on your face.

Joyce achieved a kind of hyper-realism, rendering the experience of ordinary awareness so faithfully that other depictions seem quaintly artificial, like medieval paintings before artists mastered perspective. Ulysses accomplishes this feat while constantly reminding you of—even rubbing your face in—its artificiality, its existence as an elaborate literary composition, like Hamlet or the Odyssey (which provided Joyce with a template for his work).

As Joyce would be the first to admit, the mirror that he holds up to nature is distorted, blurred, cracked, as all representations—whether scientific or literary, fictional or factual—must be. Joyce’s mirror is made of words, and some intuitions, intentions, desires, anxieties flit through the gaps between words. They are inexpressible, or ineffable, to use James’s term.

Also, Ulysses ain’t everyone’s cup o’ tea. Virginia Woolf, another modernist master, was unimpressed, once complaining, “I don’t know that [Joyce has] got anything very interesting to say, and after all the pissing of a dog isn’t very different from the pissing of a man.” Some feminists view Molly’s sexy soliloquy, which concludes Ulysses—and which I consider to be a masterpiece within a masterpiece–as an all-too-male fantasy of a female mind.

But to my mind, Joyce exemplifies Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science. In the 90 years since Ulysses was published, scientists have not progressed much toward a theory of consciousness. Hence the persistence of creaky old paradigms like psychoanalysis and even behaviorism, which assumes, absurdly, that mind doesn’t matter. Although Joyce didn’t offer a theory of consciousness, he gave us a better sense of what consciousness is, and for that we should be grateful.

Postscript: Joyce has been in the news lately. Louis Menand just wrote a fine piece on Joyce in The New Yorker, as did Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books. And mega-bestselling author Paul Coelho recently suggested that he is a better writer than Joyce, provoking a British blogger to call Coelho’s work “a nauseous broth of egomania and snake-oil mysticism with slightly less intellect, empathy and verbal dexterity than the week-old camembert I threw out yesterday.”

Post Postscript: So I’m plowing through Part II, Episode 10 of Ulysses now, a section called “Wandering Rocks.” This and other similar sections of Part II defeat lots of readers, because they are so fragmentary, chaotic, scattered, jumbled. Joyce flits about Dublin, landing briefly in the mind of this or that denizen before darting away. He seems to be thwarting, deliberately, perversely, our desire for order, for a linear story line. His technique reminds me of a film in which the camera soars over a cityscape before swooping down to zoom in on an individual, the film’s hero, striding down a street or drinking in a bar. Except in the case of Ulysses, the camera never stays put. After alighting on one person, just as you’re getting comfortable with his perspective, the camera swoops away again in search of someone else. It’s fair to think, What’s the point? Here’s my theory. With this method, Joyce gives us a view of macrocosmic reality as composed of innumerable microcosms, individual minds. This pointillist approach, Joyce is implying, represents shared, social reality more faithfully than the phony-baloney, pseudo-objective, omniscient-narrator method of traditional novelists like Dickens, Balzac, Austen. Not that there isn’t a real world out there, with stuff that all sentient creatures bump into, hear, see, smell. The multitudinous minds in Ulysses keep offering us different subjective views of the same objective things, places, events, people, notably Leopold Bloom, who is seen, pitied, disdained, admired, talked and listened to by other Dubliners, even as we get his view of them. Joyce, in other words, is a philosopher, offering a theory of reality in all its subjective-objective complexity. But he doesn’t spell out his theory in dull, prosaic, Kantian or Cartesian fashion. He dramatizes it, makes us feel it. So that’s my theory of “Wandering Rocks.” But to be honest, I prefer the sections of Ulysses where Joyce give us one sustained point of view, especially that of Bloom.

Post Post Postscript: One reason I like Leopold Bloom so much may be that, like me, he’s a nerd, a science enthusiast, without actually being a scientist. He may be even nerdier than I am, more interested in how things work, in a nuts and bolts, engineering sense. (My scientific tastes lean toward the philosophical, that is, impractical.) Consider the following passage, which takes place in a bar. Bloom and a couple of other guys are yakking about capital punishment, more specifically hangings. Bloom, an anti-execution liberal (also like me!), expresses doubt about the deterrent effect of hangings, provoking a response from his bar mates:

–There’s one thing it hasn’t a deterrent effect on, says Alf.

–What’s that? says Joe.

–The poor bugger’s tool that’s being hanged, says Alf.

–That so? says Joe.

–God’s truth, says Alf. I heard that from the head warder that was in Kilmainham when they hanged Joe Brady, the invincible. He told me when they cut him down after the drop it was standing up in their faces like a poker.

–Ruling passion strong in death, says Joe, as someone said.

–That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It’s only a natural phenomenon, don’t you see, because on account of the …

And then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.

The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would, according to the best approved tradition of medical science, be calculated to inevitably produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centres of the genital apparatus, thereby causing the elastic pores of the CORPORA CAVERNOSA to rapidly dilate in such a way as to instantaneously facilitate the flow of blood to that part of the human anatomy known as the penis or male organ resulting in the phenomenon which has been denominated by the faculty a morbid upwards and outwards philoprogenitive erection IN ARTICULO MORTIS PER DIMINUTIONEM CAPITIS.

What I love about this passage is that Bloom is trying to educate, enlighten, inform his ignorant bar mates, but they just roll their eyes and yawn. Even Joyce gently mocks Bloom, depicting him as a pompous German professor pontificating on the physiology of hanging-induced erections. (Joyce does this a lot, offering different linguistic representations of the same thing to comic effect.) Although he clearly identifies with Bloom the Jewish outsider, Joyce must also acknowledge that Bloom is a bit of a bore, a blowhard know-it-all. And that is, let’s face it, how many people view science writers, with all our bloviating “about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.”

Postscript 4: Phew! Just survived the whorehouse scene of Ulysses. The section is called “Circe,” after the Greek sorceress who, in Homer’s Odyssey, turned the hero’s shipmates into pigs after they pissed her off. (Is the sorceress Bella Cohen, the scary she-male madam of the whorehouse, or Joyce himself?) “Circe,” which takes the form of a play, reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some other gender- and even species-bending Shakespearean comedy, except much edgier and weirder. It’s a funhouse ride conceived by a brilliant, demented Jungian, trying to dramatize his wacky theory of humanity’s collective id. The characters are all caricatures, parodies of themselves, wearing grotesque masks, spouting all sorts of nonsense, constantly shape-shifting. Bloom morphs into a masterful lawyer, an adored ruler, a craven peeping Tom gratifying himself as he watches his rival bonk his wife Molly. The rhetoric keeps morphing too from grandiloquent/hifalutin to coarse/smutty and everything in between. Each of us, Joyce seems to be saying, swarms with multitudes of personas, from the angelic to the beastly. And each of our personas speaks with–can only be understood in terms of–its own unique language. (It’s kind of a Kuhnian take on the human psyche, if we all suffered from multiple-personality disorder.) But somehow, in spite of all this dreamy, fantastic, hallucinatory craziness, Joyce never lets us forget that something real is happening. Real, flesh-and-blood characters in a real place at a real time are uttering real words and doing real things, all of which someone in Bella’s whorehouse could have recorded with a video camera. As I said above, Ulysses, for all its extraordinary inventiveness, is ultimately a work of realism. The hard, factual foundation—the ground of being–that underpins Ulysses distinguishes it from Joyce’s next novel, Finnegans Wake, which I “read” in a summer seminar 30 years ago. (My professor was a white-haired, red-faced, hard-drinking Irishman. Perfect.) In Finnegans Wake, there is no ground of being. It’s dreams all the way down, and you can never wake up.

Postscript 5: Approaching the end, can’t stop, feel like I’m riding a cataract of words toward the sea. Late last night finished “Ithaca,” the homecoming, in which Bloom, having already saved drunken Stephen Dedalus from an enraged whorehouse madam and belligerent British soldier, brings the young man, who reminds Bloom of his dead son Rudy, into his house and makes him a cup of hot cocoa. This section, the most science-y part of Ulysses, takes the form of a Q&A. Although the Q’s and A’s are not actually voiced or thought by Bloom, they are Bloom-esque, that is, practical, factual, empirical, scientific, technological. The language is for the most part dry and straight-forward, as much as any part of Ulysses–but it occasionally blossoms—blooms!—into poetry. As Bloom fills a kettle with water, a Q about the water prompts an elaborate A about Dublin’s water supply, which is traced back to “Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage” and so on. The next Q, which asks what Bloom admires about water, uncorks a marvelous riff on water in all its polymorphous glory. Google the passage, read it, see for yourself what I mean. Joyce demonstrates that science–or, more generally, a materialistic, practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to life—can also be poetic, aesthetic, acutely sensitive to the beauties of the natural and unnatural worlds. Richard Dawkins couldn’t have said it better. Joyce implies, perhaps, that as a young writer he was too self-consciously literary and metaphysical, too much like young Dedalus, but as he matured he became more like Bloom, that is, attentive to reality in all its nitty-gritty wondrousness. So Bloom is a kind of father to young Dedalus after all!

Final Postscript: Yeah just finished Ulysses sad happy relieved glad to be back in real world my own thought stream but thoughts feel different Joycean yeah words seep into you osmosis self porous not waterproof looking for summation wrap up epiphany “What Ulysses Means” impossible Ulysses like legendary Borges map big as territory it maps as intricate complicated confusing lovely ugly absurd sublime sad funny yeah how can you map a map like that reduce irreducible thin description of thick description impossible gotta try yeah maybe take on claim Joyce too cold all technique wordplay brain no heart like what hack Coelho said all style no substance bullshit Joyce almost mushy at end Bloom wounded still by death of Rudy so kind caring toward Dedalus when young man leaves Bloom forlorn slips into bed beside Molly he knows Blazes was in his bed can’t hate her hurt her he forgives her lover not hater kisses “plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump” Joyce gives Bloom his fetish Joyce liked butts like Updike liked feet lots of Joyce in Bloom wife Nora Barnacle in Molly Nora never read her husband’s books Joyce hurt still loved her she him Bloom’s butt-kiss wakes Molly she’s annoyed but asks about his day he tells her leaves out masturbation and whorehouse parts she’s no fool we know when Joyce plops us into her thought stream she suspects he’s screwed someone else he’s cheated before she’s mad at Bloom scorns him Molly’s so vain competitive with other women into clothes proud of her body breasts men’s desire for her Boylan’s desire they did it four five times that afternoon she sees frailty of men pathetic little egos if we men could read thoughts of wives girlfriends we’d shrivel up and die dig the passage where she disses pompous God-denying atheists take that Dawkins and when she says men messing up world women should be in charge would do a better job yeah but Molly loves men too wants to feel their eyes on her stroke them screw them do other things even fantasizes about young Dedalus can see why Molly makes feminists squirm sexy material girl like Helen Gurley Brown Cosmo girl but Joyce just doing for women what he did for men Molly wounded human a lover like her husband even farts like him yeah and she loves him after all book ends with memory of him proposing making love and Joyce wrote this Great Book during Great War horrible war to end all wars war Joyce left all that insanity and horror out saying that’s not life this is life cheating flawed husband crawling back to bed of cheating flawed wife and they love each other in spite of everything and they love their daughter and dead son love redeems us our best hope only hope that’s enough yeah

Photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses by Eve Arnold.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Polednice 9:38 am 08/10/2012

    I personally don’t find Ulysses satisfying to read, and as interesting as I find psychological literature, there are few literary techniques I despise more than ‘stream of consciousness’.

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  2. 2. dbredenberg 10:41 am 08/10/2012

    I tried to read Ulysses about thirty years ago, and perhaps because I didn’t have professorial guidance I didn’t make it past the first chapter. My reaction was essentially “what the hell is this?” But recently I picked it up in a used book store, read the first chapter and found it intriguing. Thank you for the wonderful article. Of course I knew Ulysses is considered a classic, but am glad to have someone explain to me why it is still relevant. I registered with SciAm just so I could give you the feedback that you encouraged at least one person to finally read it.

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  3. 3. brynnscott 6:19 pm 08/10/2012

    Interesting that you mentioned Woolf, but not her own highly experimental novel, The Waves, which examines the consciousness of a group of friends from childhood to adulthood. Excellent read.

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  4. 4. paigekbrown 7:20 pm 08/10/2012

    Awesome post… Although I haven’t yet made it through Ulysses, I find it beautiful and mind-boggling!

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  5. 5. voyager 12:54 am 08/11/2012

    Note that Marilyn is turned to the end of the book: the end of Molly’s soliloquy.

    Think of Marilyn under you on a slope of Gibraltar, breathing, “Yes, I told him, yes, yes,” in your ear, and the Mediterranean roaring in the other.

    Zowee, all you Sci-guy turkeys.

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  6. 6. feralBoy 9:36 am 08/11/2012

    Great commentary on Ulysses. Makes me want to re-read it. Part of its brilliance is that you’ve explored (very well, though) only one of the many possible avenues. Don’t even get started on language, on Dublin, and on history (unless you plan on writing a few books on the subject).

    I’d tend to disagree with yr dismissal of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though. In a very different way/style than Ulysses, it also gets very deep into the human mind. The use of narrative voices (for the Jekyll/Hyde character) shows a personality in crisis/decay, where it slowly becomes unclear which “voice” is whose, and where Hyde’s voice begins to appear more and more frequently and insistently even without Jekyll having drunk the potion.

    Beyond that, the other narrators/characters also reveal (always unconsciously) their own inner “Hydes”, in a variety of ways showing their tendencies towards violence, lust, sexual depravity, gluttony, and other forms of destructive self-indulgence, even as they all seek to destroy the visible symbol of evil Hyde represents (Freud’s idea of “projection” 25 years before he conceived of it– no one can acknowledge their own evil, and so they hate Hyde all the more).

    When you consider all this within its Victorian context, where outward shows of sensuality where censured/repressed, Jekyll and Hyde actually becomes a deeply insightful look at some of the basic questions of culture and human psychology.

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  7. 7. irving2000 7:32 pm 08/11/2012

    Joyce’s Ulysses, alongside Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, inspired this recent ethnographic research that may be of interest in terms of using modernist literature as inspiration for questions of mind.

    http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/new-york-stories-the-lives-of-other-citizens/

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  8. 8. Avic1984 1:33 pm 08/12/2012

    I’d already read the other Joyce related links (except the response to Coelho. I enjoyed your article best by far (although I also really liked Menand’s piece, it’s not something I’d share with people who aren’t already into Joyce). I feel like yours on the other hand is more focused on his art and its value. It’s a great and accessible piece of appreciation that I’ll share with people for years to come.

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  9. 9. Avic1984 1:34 pm 08/12/2012

    My life for an edit button…

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  10. 10. John Wervenbos 10:19 am 08/13/2012

    Interesting blog again. As a young student mister Horgan had difficulties with reading James Joye’s Ulysses also. You can read that in his book The end of science. I quoted that in my blog Moderne literatuurkritiek – Waar gaat het over? (Cahier, 12-3-2011; Dutch language); in English translation: Modern Literary criticism – What’s up?

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  11. 11. dubina 5:37 pm 08/13/2012

    William York Tindall (A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, 1959): Symbolists find encouragement in the famous theory of “epiphany”. Like the “objective correlative” or “inscape” or “the destructive element”, the term epiphany is useful, centering our sensibilities while displaying them. Not only a respectable word, however, epiphany fits Dubliners, and , as many have pointed out, offers another hypothesis, this time about method. Most of us owe the word less to the Church, of course, than to Dedalus himself, who employs it in Ulysses and expounds it in Stephen Hero.

    While walking down the street one day, Stephen Dedalus, discouraged by those brown houses that “seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis,” hears an inane and fragmentary conversation of boy and girl on stoop. This “triviality”, a detail on Dublin”s streets without obvious value, makes him think of putting many such moments together in a book of “epiphanies”. By this word, he means “a sudden spiritual manifestation,” something that random vulgarities, rising above themselves and transfigured, can yield. In such externals of the street he sees, exceeding naturalistic capacity, “the most delicate and evanescent possibilities”.for the writer who must fix them “with extreme care”. The most tiresome items of Dublin”s “street furniture”, he says, expounding his insight to Cranly and pointing to the clock of the Ballast Office, are capable of epiphany. For Stephen, common things – to use Baudelaire’s phrase – have “the expansion of infinite things” and all their radiance. Like Baudelaire, then, he thinks this world a storehouse of things as other things, seeing this or that as revelation. Involving the potency of a neutral object and the sensibility of a subject, epiphany is no less a transaction between object and subject that owes no less to the former than the latter. Epiphany, he concludes, is identical with the “radiance” of the aesthetic theory he is expounding to Cranly and is to expound to Lynch in A Portrait of the Artist. Plainly Stephen’s epiphany or radiance, a shining out or showing forth, is what we call symbolism and his radiant object, a symbol.

    Fussy about terms, Stephen prefers “epiphany” to “symbol” because the radiance of epiphany is ecclesiastical, that of symbol more secular nowadays, and Stephen, though far from innocent of literary tradition, is centered in the church and country he rejected. The feast of the Epiphany, which occurs on January 6, celebrates the arrival of three kings at a manger, where, though they saw nothing more than baby, saw something more. This Baby, now apprehended and showing forth, is the radiant body. It is from this that Stephen gets his way of looking at the considerable, but relevatory objects of Dublin. Of the thing, made potent by insight, by wholeness, and by harmonious relation of parts, he continues:

    “We recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany” (Stephen Hero, 210-11, 213)

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