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“Met him pike hoses”: Ulysses and the Neurology of Reading

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2013
pp. 207-237

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“In my book the body lives in and moves through space and is the home of a full human personality. The words I write are adapted to express first one of its functions then another . . .”

“But the minds, the thoughts of the characters,” I began.

“If they had no body they would have no mind,” said Joyce. “It’s all one.”

—Conversation with James Joyce from Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”1

Early twenty-first century intellectual yearning has led to recent discoveries about observable phenomena of human neurological operations. The development of ever finer instruments of medical imaging, including positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have opened up promising revelations concerning the internal operations of the vast neurological system, particularly in the light of evolution and genetics. While imaging cannot yet reveal with sufficient precision or consistency the individual neuron operations of the brain, experiments and surgical operations have allowed a broader observation of fine neurological activity. Clearly, these advances in science and medicine have profound ramifications for the study of the essential yet mysterious activity of the human subject in whom physiology and mind originate. As neurological knowledge grows, questions arise about the relationship between neurology and art, giving rise to a new and open field, usually called “neuroesthetics.”

One of the most astute and talented of all human observers of linguistic activity, Joyce focuses, particularly in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, on exploring the apparently quirky, often confusing operations of human language. The premise of this essay is that Joyce, in his detailed and original observations, was pursuing the mystery of language and its manifestations in both individuals and societies, and that the use of basic concepts of neurology related to language and reading can extend the importance of his pioneering work. Although Joyce was obviously not a neuroscientist, he was a most remarkable reporter on human neurological activity and its connection to the immense world of language, as well as the physiological foundations that seem to allow language to exist.

Proust’s exploration of involuntary memory in his epic À la récherche du temps perdu has often been cited as an important literary recognition of neurological aspects of the human mind. Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist devotes one chapter to Proust’s neurological insight while drawing broader connections between art and thought of earlier times and recent neurological discoveries.2 Indeed, Proust is a major source of reflection on neurological possibilities in thought, sensation, and memory as noted by Gordon M. Shepherd in his Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters.3 The famous “madeleine” episode from Du côté du chez Swann is the locus classicus for Proust’s discoveries. But Proust is primarily a philosopher of the mind, while Joyce is a phenomenologist of linguistic and neurological activity in the human being.

Joyce’s linguistic complexity in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is legendary, but the relation of his complexity to the operations of innate language activation continues to reveal new dimensions of the essential capacities of human beings. In his major works, Joyce includes a vast canvas of linguistic acts that can be traced to minute human behavior and neurological operations. His detailing of fine language activity is evident, for instance, in his attention to typographical error and slippage, his sudden shifts in the mental recording of thought and feeling in internal monologue, and his awareness of the divergence between official culture and immediate linguistic expression. In the interwoven nature of his major texts, as well as in his own methods of writing and the genesis of those texts, Joyce pursues in exquisite detail the underlying, physiological operations of linguistic activity. In Ulysses Joyce describes and enacts in the text the multilayered nature of language through the particular acts of reading. Joyce’s exploration of the multivalent groundwork of language inhabits his work and ultimately reflects and illuminates the operations of language in the reader.

As I hope to show, Joyce builds his world of language and culture from an astonishing range of detailed mental activities and neurological operations that come far closer to our current understanding of the working of...



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