Joyce, Suspension of Time, and the Inner Voice

June 19, 2008

James Joyce’s mixture of narrative forms in Ulysses is daunting, at least at first read. He presents his characters’ speech without quotations; the text fluctuates between real time and “thought” time; there’s a chapter given in screenplay format; the pacing alters from segment to segment; the story adopts multiple perspectives, from different characters; and the seeming fluidity of some of the text, when juxtaposed with experiments in form, can be jarring.

Eventually, though, all of this seems to become irrelevant. Over time, the format in which the symbols are suspended becomes less distracting, and we begin to take in the overall image. The list above is merely a way of describing the way the content is fixed on the page. Joyce as a writer and communicator of ideas has to effectively impress the meaning upon the reader. Does it matter how he does it?

I contend that, while I’m glad he does it effectively, I’d sure like to know how and why; we are benefited by exploring this. One aspect of Joyce’s style that really catches my curiosity is his presentation of plot and theme information through “internalized speech” or “suspended thought”, as I’ll refer to it. The characters’ private soliloquies, interspersed among references to other works, significantly contribute to the unique pace and texture of Ulysses.

One result of these moments is that there is less emphasis on plot or movement. (When this is the case, I am allowed to better appreciate the language).

An example of “internal speech” occurs at the beginning of the second episode (Nestor, if your comparing Ulysses to Homer’s The Odyssey). Here, Stephen Dedalus, whom we remember from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is now the mentor expounding wisdom to a group of young students. During the morning lesson, somehow Stephen Dedalus arrives at John Milton’s Lycidas, a section of which one of his students begins to recite:

—Tell us a story, sir.
—Oh, do, sir, a ghoststory.
—Where do you begin in this? Stephen asked, opening another book.
—Weep no more, Comyn said.
—Go on then, Talbot.
—And the history, sir?
—After, Stephen said. Go on, Talbot.
A swarthy boy opened a book and propped it nimbly under the breastwork of his satchel. He recited jerks of verse with odd glances at the text:

—Weep no more, woful shepherd, weep no more
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…

At this point in the text, a literal and meta-structural ellipsis seems to imply that the boy continues reciting from Lycidas (1638), Milton’s pastoral elegy to his friend Edward King, who died by shipwreck in the “Irish Seas”. Joyce’s text, however, enters into an unspoken speech by Stephen Dedalus:

It must be a movement, then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquillity sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms.

And then Talbot seems to interrupt, continuing his recitation: “Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves.”

I intend to examine what is literally happening here. (1) The student begins reciting the poem at the request of the principal character and voice of this chapter: “Weep no more”; (2) The principal character is thinking/contemplating, and the image of the scene is now focused on this internal soliloquy; (3) The internal speech ‘comes out of the other side’ at the instant of “Through the dear might…”; So, the entirety of Stephen Dedalus’s thoughts occur here (staging wise) between “Weep no more/ … / Through the dear might…”.

It takes me approximately 25 seconds to read aloud this section of the poem. For the record, here is the Lycidas text in question (lines 165-173):

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, / For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, / Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor; / So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, / And yet anon repairs his drooping head, / And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore / Flames in the forehead of the morning sky: / So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high, / Through the dear might of him that walked the waves…

But, the internal speech occurs after “watery (wat’ry) floor” (putting it between lines 168-173), which for me takes 16 seconds to read aloud. You can see where this is going. The Stephen Dedalus internal soliloquy takes me 50 seconds to read aloud, and 40 seconds to read silently (apparently I’m not a fluid speaker, but it’s the thought that counts, right?). Juxtaposing these two supposedly concurrent events, the internal speech is a tight squeeze if we are to take this scene literally.

Granted, these are thoughts that are going through Stephen Dedalus’s mind, not direct speech, but it still seems like quite a dense selection for a mere daydream.

Ultimately, it’s all intangible (and thus immeasurable). The reader gets whatever the writer wants to give. But the implication is too much for me to ignore. It’s as if time is suspended, at least from the perspective of Stephen Dedalus (and the author who pens the text) to create an impressionable moment. As spectators, we see the action and the accompanying commentary. Through the separation of the mind from the standard meter of the text, the author seems to have an advantage in conveying ideas.

Does this stretching of time really exist? I mean, on a personal level? I’d like to think that the mind is capable of stretching any moment to its limit, but every time I look at a clock, it seems to be moving at an uncompromising pace. In texts such as Ulysses (which purports to cover the timeframe of one day, yet is 780 pages long!), much of the achievement is done through the manifestation of the “inner voice” on the page.

1. Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961.
2. Milton, John. “Lycidas.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2000. 1790-6.