Temporality & Ulysses: Diachronic Narration in Postcolonial Ireland

By: Zachary Muhlbauer

Ubiquitous to bourgeois realism and traditional accounts of history, the structure of diachronic narration predicates how conventional storytelling transmits knowledge to its listeners. A foundational Western narrative such as The Odyssey, for instance, operates in this manner by constructing a chronological progression of causally dependent events, centralized around Odysseus, its hero, who begins in one location and ends in another. Not without its problems, though, this mode of narration has inhibited the maturation of cultural autonomy in subjugated states such as Ireland, where the temporal logic of postcolonial narratives has manipulated and constricted Irish thought. In an ironic correspondence to the chronological procedures of The Odyssey, furthermore, James Joyce’s Ulysses subverts the historical conventions of diachronic narration in an attempt to isolate Irish consciousness from its historical baggage as a nation. Together with auxiliary material from further episodes, the structural and thematic implications of Stephen’s interior monologue in “Proteus” and Molly’s soliloquy in “Penelope” expressly animate criticism of this narrative practice. Before explicating such textual dynamics, however, it is important that the paralytic influences of Irish postcolonial narratives first be recognized, so that is where we will begin.

At the time in which Joyce wrote Ulysses, national and religious narratives riddled Ireland in a systematic attempt to delineate an apt criterion for Irish identity (Dingley). This is demonstrated by the two mythic beliefs that, one, “the true Irishman was both Gaelic and Catholic,” and that, two, Ireland was marked by “a kind of Irish predestiny that linked past with present, and…saw the only valid theme in Irish history as the struggle…between Ireland and England” (Boyce 219-20). The second principle, in particular, takes an imperial-colonial narrative and appropriates it into a nationalist counterpart at the postcolonial stage in Irish history. The institutional narrativity of nationalism and Catholicism, along with historical encumbrances of the like, ultimately supervened upon the epistemic composition of Irish consciousness at the time. As a result, the temporal boundaries of these narratives, largely constituted by teleological reasoning, entailed a perpetual before that, in truth, can never reach the idyllic state of domestic and spiritual fulfillment promised by colonizers, which, in this case, entails Great Britain. The hope of these fantasies, of finding a lost national history in the future, motivated the Irish people, but never delivered, nor could it considering its abstracted nature (Pease 3-4). Ireland thus grew trapped by the diachronic conduit between narrative constructions of history and the present moment, sinking into the ill-fated state of cultural purgatory on which Ulysses engenders this criticism and its exigency.

Respectively, “Proteus” and “Penelope” handle Stephen’s and Molly’s stream of consciousness in drastically disparate manners when considering structure: that is, the former illustrates the cerebral captivity of time and history, while the latter illustrates the cerebral freedom of timelessness and individual presence. As Stephen saunters down Sandymount Strand, syntactical and grammatical boundaries organize his philosophical, religious, and historical ruminations. The prose composing his consciousness includes commas, colons, capitalization, periods, italics, slashes, exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, apostrophes, paragraph breaks, brackets, intersecting song lyrics, and em dashes to indicate dialogue. In his discussion of the topic, Declan Kiberd postulates that Stephen’s monologue subscribes to “a staccato telegraphic language of logic” in direct opposition to Molly’s “refusal to employ the usual niceties of grammar” (262). These linguistic distinctions indicate in Stephen’s mind decided boundaries that, in turn, index the dichotomy between a similar before and after inherent to teleological reasoning, traditional constructions of time, and diachronic narration. Fractured and limited, moreover, Stephen’s interior monologue often moves according to the sounds of the sea—which, considering his thoughts on “the nacheinander,” or how sound depends on temporal sequences, again implicates diachronic progression—as well as, without fail, an inherited history of grammatical distinction (Joyce 37). It is in form as well as content, then, that he responds to the waters of Sandymount, his mind steeped in a fragmented rhythm of commas much like the ebb and flow of the sea, “curling, unfurling, many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves” (Joyce 46). Each comma engenders a pause, so that when the sounds of language resume, they reawaken in Stephen an awareness of boundaries and, furthermore, the diachronic movement of time.

Induced by these temporal hiccups, linguistic boundaries function as microcosms for the larger distinctions at work in the nationalist and Catholic narratives of postcolonial Ireland. That is, both propagate the causal boundaries of diachronic narration to constitute framed events that herald moral statements for Irish men and women to follow in the idealized pursuit of some mythic future. Stephen exemplifies an ethos established by both narratives when he internally regards the gypsy as such: “She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load” (Joyce 47). With the redundant use of multilingual verbs all “appropriated into English via Anglicized conjugation,” Stephen illustrates the invulnerable and imposing composition of English when acquainted with foreign languages, “which themselves have been made to mutate” as a result of the meeting (Batty 24). This connotes in Stephen the obsolescence of Gaelic as the national language of Ireland in wake of British rule. When he conjugates these foreign verbs into Anglicized alternatives, he metaphorically illustrates his own nationalist stigmas toward the English language, as well as Great Britain, as manipulative, coercive imperial forces. In its causal sequence, this implies that something essential to Ireland has been lost at the hands of British rule and must be regained for true autonomy, operating as a diachronic development in the larger Irish nationalist narrative of the time.

Indeed, the ethos of the Catholic narrative implied here works similarly: the “greatly multiplied” load Eve carried on her conscience following original sin parallels the causal relationship between sin and remorse that Stephen experiences when he fails to pray with his mother at her deathbed, enduring an “agenbite of inwit” as a consequence (Genesis 3:16; Joyce 16, 17, 243) Like nationalism, the narrativity of Catholicism constructs a diachronic relationship between causative events—Eve commits original sin in Eden, so God casts her to Earth and enhances her sorrow—from which Stephen draws notes of narrative logic regarding his own life. This mode of reasoning allows Catholicism to organize his moral principles, which then forces Stephen to police his own thoughts when he considers violating those values. This is evident, for instance, in when he recalls a conversation in French with Patrice Egan about the inexistence of God and abruptly dissolves the memory by saying, “Schluss,” which in German means “Enough!” and a mere line later states, “God, we simply must dress the character (Joyce 41; Gifford 53). Aware of his own pretense here, Stephen does perhaps see the demarcated boundaries of his manipulated cerebral existence, but rarely ever seems able to step outside them.

In “Penelope,” contrary to Stephen, Molly devolves the structures of grammatical distinction to nothing more than italics, slashes, capitalization, and a mere eight periods. The lattermost two, of course, respectively mark the beginning and end to the eight expansive sentences produced by her consciousness, which, in itself, signals a negligible adherence to temporal progression when compared to Stephen. Yet, even this is undercut by the notion that eight turned on its side, not unlike Molly in her bed, signifies infinity, which stands incommensurable with the spatiotemporal constructs of time and causality. Further supported by the fact that Joyce’s Linati symbol for Time in “Penelope” is an infinity symbol, this implies that Molly functions outside temporality, in free-floating timelessness, as though the contents of her mind are boundless (Gifford 610). Indeed, considering the enormous length of each paragraph, one even ranging almost 6,000 words, the relationship of the reader to Molly surely mimics the metaphorical experience of infinity (Joyce 759-770). Moreover, segmented paragraphs, similar to forms of sentence-level punctuation, indicate textual progress. So, as in the case of Molly, a lack thereof indicates an atemporal approach to the readership.

However, as each paragraph ends, audible disturbances interrupt Molly’s thoughts, consisting in, for instance, the train, “frseeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeefronnnng,” and her own farts, “eeeeeeeee” (Joyce 762-63). The mere textual space employed by Molly’s fluid thoughts marginalize the alternative textual space occupied by audible matter redolent of diachrony, like those above; but the mere presence of the latter does, however, recall Stephen’s musings on the relationship between perception, sound, and time. Specifically, this again regards “the nacheinander” as well as “the ineluctable modality of the audible,” which together testify to the proportional relationship of sound to temporal sequences, conducted by the audible component of human perception (Joyce 37). Molly, therefore, cannot escape diachrony in total, because her consciousness is necessarily subject to her perceptual faculties and the surrounding environment, but that does not change the fact that at night her mind can, as it were, transcend the immediate limits of time and flirt with infinity.

Furthermore, by using a closed system of circular reference, “Penelope” reestablishes Molly’s disregard for diachronic progression. This forges in her textual consciousness an infinite loop where her final uppercase ‘Yes’ in “yes I said yes I will Yes” references her beginning uppercase ‘Yes’ in “Yes because he never did a thing like that before” (Joyce 783, 738). The indexical circularity, as a result, deconstructs the boundaries of linear movement. In so many words, the beginning becomes the end and the end becomes the beginning—and so, for Molly, by that standard, time has no true referent, because the chapter breaks down the dichotomous borders that constitute diachronic progression in the first place. Not coincidentally supported by the circular shape of the recurrent uppercase ‘O,’ this further connotes a boundless circle through which her thoughts move in their atemporal state. As an internalized, self-enclosed mind, she experiences freedom unbeknownst to Stephen, who more often thinks according to logocentric convention and postcolonial narratives, both of which depend on temporal constructs for boundary distinctions in linear causation.

A circle, moreover, converted to its numeric equivalent operates as an irrational number, distinctly opposed to Stephen’s faith in the rational structure of Western metaphysical thought, evident in his predilection for Aristotelian philosophy: “the infinite possibilities they have ousted” alludes to Aristotle’s Metaphysics; “the soul is the form of forms” alludes to Aristotle’s On the Soul; and “Limits of the diaphane” alludes to Aristotle’s Of Sense and the Sensible (Joyce 25, 26, 37; Gifford 31, 32, 45). Specifically, Aristotle is often noted for his law of noncontradiction and teleological account of humanity, serving as two conceptual models which Molly disregards and even subverts. This is demonstrated in her masturbatory contradictions—“since I cant do it myself” in opposition with “finish it off myself anyway” on the same page—as well as her unremorseful resistance to the teleological basis for naturalized gender norms, illustrated throughout “Penelope” but perhaps most expressly in the line, “God I wouldnt mind being a man and get up on a lovely woman” (Joyce 740, 770; Boone 164-65). At odds with Aristotle and, furthermore, the wider framework of Western metaphysics, Molly distances herself from the stringently analytical mode of thought which prides itself on distinction, because, as illustrated by her textual consciousness, it is not in her fluid nature to draw boundaries.

Perhaps that is why, to the contrary, Buck Mulligan says to Stephen, “O my name for you is the best: Kinch, the knife-blade,” because he uses metaphysical thought to cut open concepts and discriminate difference part by part (Joyce 4). This backfires for him, though, as nationalist narratives are known to appropriate the binary logic inherent to the law of noncontradiction—surely a knife-blade of sorts—into practical contexts such as the false choice between the national and cosmopolitan, exhibited by Stephen’s shuttling between English and French:

About us gobblers fork spiced beans down their gullets. Un demi setier! A jet of coffee steam from the burnished caldron. She serves me at his beck. Il est irlandais. Hollandais? Non fromage. Deux irlandais, nous, Irlande, vous savez? Ah oui! She thought you wanted a cheese hollandais (Joyce 41-42).

Likewise, the italics here reestablish the binary distinction between both languages and their empty referents: Ireland as nation and Other as cosmopolitan. In general, “Proteus” creates an implicit bias for nationalism according to linguistic alienation. In other words, the various foreign languages that reemerge—Italian, French, Spanish, and Greek among others—estrange readers from the cosmopolitan and force them to think of it as incomprehensible when juxtaposed against English, the national language of Ireland. The implication, then, is that the two are irreconcilable: that English is reasonable and intelligible while the foreign Other is anything but—and so the binary is established. However, the contradiction at work in this nationalist narrative is that English is actually imperial residue of the British Empire. By condemning the cosmopolitan and supporting only the English language, nationalist discourse ironically perpetuates its own postcolonial woes. Stephen is a part of this camp, but he also sees its contradictions, which is why he shuttles to and fro, falling into linguistic paralysis while searching for an ideal nation in a grab bag of languages that refuse his quest for home.

The teleological reasoning engendered by Aristotelian thought also reemerges malformed in Irish postcolonial narratives, perhaps most notably in that of Catholicism, where, as Mr. Deasy points out, “history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” (Joyce 34). Furthermore, in providing “a variant of the kabalistic axiom of metempsychosis,” which entails that, “a stone becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a man, a man a spirit, and a spirit a god,” Stephen displays vulnerability for the Catholic teleology surrounding God and Jesus in thinking, “God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain” (Joyce 50; Gilbert 128). In the kabalistic axiom, a clear telos is expressed, diachronically leading from unfulfilled potential (“a stone… a plant… an animal… a man… a spirit”) to actualization (“a god”). Accordingly, Stephen reorganizes this to fit a Catholic narrative leading to his own backyard, Dublin’s featherbed mountain: first God becomes Jesus (His corporeal equivalent in man), then the fish (“an iconographic symbol for Christ in the early Christian church”), then the barnacle goose (“after the medieval belief that barnacle geese were not born from eggs but from barnacles”), and finally the featherbed mountain (Gifford 65). Outlined here is a diachronic sequence through Catholic history beginning where it always begins: with God, then moving to Jesus and from Jesus to the early Christian church, the medieval ages, ending in contemporary Dublin. What is important here is that often “history and story, the past and its survival as text, gradually become indistinguishable in Ulysses,” especially in “Proteus,” so the temporal sequence of authentic Catholic history should not be confused with the temporal progress of Catholic narrativity masquerading around as a teleology of reality (Spoo 71).

The difference between the events of history and the narrative recapitulating those events is monumental, and at the end of “Proteus” Stephen cannot help but think according to the latter as he, feeling watched—“Behind. Perhaps there is someone”—turns “over a shoulder” to see “high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees” (Joyce 51). The ship represents the Holy Trinity and Jesus’s crucifixion, which, considering Stephen’s “agenbite of inwit,” also indexes the purported actualization of Catholic telos in the Second Coming. The diachronic narrative at work here transfixes his conscience from behind, carefully watching his every move and policing his every thought. Stephen “looks back not merely into space but into time,” and this temporal fixation on history and its conflation with narrative is precisely the “nightmare from which [he] is trying to awake” (Joyce 34; Kettle). This, moreover, is at the center of why Stephen’s diachronic thought process is problematic, especially in the context of Ireland, considering the indeterminacy of its colonial past. Internalized diachronic narratives, like those expressed by Catholicism and nationalism, deceptively bridge the temporal space between history and the present moment, telling meaningful stories about how the world ought to be and disallowing someone like Stephen—a mere boy wandering the beach, his father absent, his mother departed, his home usurped—the freedom of his own consciousness.

In considering Molly and her state of cognitive liberation, Declan Kiberd writes, “No other editorial vice intrudes on her thoughts…[which]…are fully connected – if you traced them on a graph, they would follow straight, clear, connected courses” (265). As a result, she does not serve two masters like Stephen. Instead, she serves herself. Much of this has to do with her disavowal of time and its essential role in the infrastructure of diachronic narration. In other words, by operating apart from temporal constructions of history, she gains intimate cerebral momentum in a manner Stephen cannot in his fractured state of existence. It is no accident, then, that in recalling the featherbed mountains Molly does so in a personal capacity while Stephen does so in a Catholic capacity (Joyce 750, 50). Ultimately, too, the difference between these thoughts, small as it is, invokes the larger epistemic limitations of postcolonial Ireland at the time, where encroaching shadows of a narrated past disarrayed the intimate complexity of Irish men and women as individuals: a complexity exemplified in Molly and inhibited in Stephen, brought out in full by a willingness to forget the diachronic logic of history and remember the delicate personal life buried deep in the boroughs of mind and self.

Works Cited

Batty, Juliette. Multilingualism in Modernist Fiction. 24. Print.

Boone, Joseph Allen. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. Chicago: U     of Chicago, 1998. 164-65. Print.

Boyce, David George. The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the   Revisionist       Controversy. London: Routledge, 1996. 219-20. Print.

Donald, Pease. National Narratives, Postnational Narration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. 4. Print.

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. Print.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses; a Study. 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1952. 128. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel – Volume Two: Henry James to the    Present. New York: Harper, 1960. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece. New York,       NY: W.W. Norton, 2009. Print.

Spoo, Robert E. James Joyce and the Language of History Dedalus’s Nightmare. New York:        Oxford UP, 1994. Print.

“Genesis 3:16.” The Holy Bible: New International Version, Containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible, 1978. Print.

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