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Joyce's Noises

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 2, April 2009
pp. 383-390 | 10.1353/mod.0.0077

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In the this issue of *Modernism/Modernity* (16.2, April 2009) the titles of the essays by Margot Norris (pp. 377–382) and Maud Ellmann (pp. 383–390) were inadvertently switched—in the table of contents as well as in the essays themselves. The correct title for Margot Norris’s essay is “The Music of Joyce’s Vernacular Voices”; and the correct title for Maud Ellmann’s essay is “Joyce’s Noises.” We regret this error.

This error has been fixed on the Project MUSE HTML version of the article.

"Ineluctable modality of the visible": when Margaret Anderson first read these opening words in Joyce's manuscript of "Proteus," she cried, "This is the most beautiful thing we'll ever have."1 Even newcomers to Ulysses, fearful of those big words that make us so unhappy, find the music of these fourteen syllables entrancing. The opening paragraphs of "Proteus" encompass Stephen's famous philosophical experiment, in which he closes his eyelids to test whether the world continues to exist when he cannot see it. "Shut your eyes and see," he tells himself, perhaps in reminiscence of Tiresias, the prophet who could see more clearly for being blind.2 Stephen's feet provide the answer to his metaphysical doubts: "Stephen closed his eyes to hear his feet crush crackling wrack and shells" (U 3:10–11). Although Stephen's eyelids possess the power to blink the visible away, he has no earlids to resist the "crackling" of the audible. Is sound therefore more ineluctable than sight?

Many critics argue that the ear predominates over the eye in Joyce's work, although Sara Danius has recently contended that sight prevails over the other senses in Ulysses.3 This critical debate re-enacts a struggle waged in Joyce's works themselves, in which the rival modalities of ear and eye are constantly competing for supremacy. In Ulysses this struggle is played out by Stephen and Bloom, who tend to be aligned with sound and sight respectively. Stephen's ears are sharper than his eyes, whereas Bloom takes refuge in the realm of sight in order to escape the din of Irish masculinity. My contribution to "The Sounds of Joyce" examines how Joyce, in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, plays with the opposition between voice and writing, sight and sound. In particular, Joyce draws our attention to the noises of language, the acoustic detritus that cannot be assimilated into meaning or intention.

Returning to the opening words of "Proteus," note that it is not the visible as such, but its modality, its form or structure, which Stephen describes as "ineluctable." The visible, he muses, is "thought through my eyes" (U 3:1–2). In this context "thought" could be understood as either a noun or a past participle, which opens up a range of possible interpretations: I think with my eyes; my eyes think; or thought enters through my eyes. In any case Stephen endorses the Kantian premise that seeing is predicated on thinking, specifically on the mental forms of time and space. "My eyes do not see it: they think it rather than see," Joyce wrote in the earliest extant version of the passage.4 Yet Stephen must also be aware that Aristotle attributes the capacity for thought to the ear rather than the eye. Vision is the superior sense for "the primary wants of life," Aristotle affirms, but hearing "contributes most to the growth of intelligence."

For rational discourse is a cause of instruction in virtue of its being audible . . . since it is composed of words, and each word is a thought-symbol. Accordingly, of persons destitute from birth of either sense, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and dumb.5

Putting this premise to the test, Stephen shuts his eyes to find out if he is smarter in the dark.

Nonetheless, it is un-Aristotelian of Stephen to salute the visible before he even begins to contemplate the audible. In the sequence of his reverie, seeing precedes hearing as lightning precedes thunder, and it is only when his eyes are shut that the ear begins to reassert its claims. This sequence associates the audible with the wake, the afterwards...



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