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

“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 [End Page 207] 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. [End Page 208]

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 the human organism than even Proust offers. This essay offers a beginning discussion of Joyce and his connection to neurology through the central human achievement of reading.

Some Aspects of the Neurology of Reading

In his Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, Stanislaus Dehaene offers a broad yet detailed discussion of the neurological antecedents to and the emergence of written language.4 As a historical reminder, it is worth considering that writing and reading are only about 5,500 years old, but the emergence of written language was critical and remains central to the possibilities of contemporary humanity. Dehaene’s primary focus concerns how reading is possible. He considers what observable activities and connections can be and have been discovered in the brain to account for written language, the ability to decode written language, and the connection between written and spoken language. While Reading in the Brain has been prepared for the layperson, Dehaene is himself a research neurologist who is deeply versed in the scientific debates over neurological activity and language, particularly with respect to the nature of reading. He provides extensive discussion of the experimental bases for his positions and explanations.

As with so much neurological activity, the processes that we have learned to take for granted turn out to be far more complex and multilayered than we normally assume. This is particularly true of the act of reading. As Dehaene comments:

First, reading is a sophisticated construction game—a complex cortical assembly line is needed to progressively put together a unique neural code for each written word. Second, conscious reflection is blind to the true complexity of word recognition. Reading is not a direct and effortless process. Rather, it relies on an entire series of unconscious operations.

(Dehaene 92)

In our early memories and in our observations of children, we can glimpse some of the necessary elements of the activation of language and reading. [End Page 209] Joyce seems to have been alerted to the phenomenological detail of reading from early in his career. The openings of both Dubliners and Portrait focus on the challenge and play of language in a child’s mind.

Eric R. Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present is an important recent attempt by a major neurologist to establish connections between science and art.5 While Kandel focuses almost exclusively on the visual arts, his expertise in neurology (he is a Nobel Prize winner for his work on neuronal memory) and his ability to communicate to the general reader make his work a particularly influential attempt to bridge art and science and a suggestive model for new directions in the study of literature and language. In discussing some of the aspects of the neurology of reading I must inevitably simplify and offer a generalized background to a complex but essential topic. As Dehaene has shown, there are some very specific areas of neurological structures connected to the recognition of written graphemes involved in the processing of language.

Dehaene’s work alerts us to many of the neurological patterns and learned behavior that we carry in our brains. The visual apprehension of a written word activates many different neurological circuits that have been intensively trained and reinforced in our learning and reading behavior. When we see a group of graphic forms that we recognize as possible graphemes, we begin quickly but not immediately to decode small groupings of letterforms into possible words, as well as seeking out lexical and auditory memories to align with the graphemes that we see. This means that the reading of a word needs visual input, pattern recognition, decoding of possible lexical connections, and the location of parallel auditory patterns to go with the graphic representation. Because the brain does not work instantaneously or transparently, it needs to sequence recognition patterns to seek out dictionaries of possible meanings and sounds. The most likely ones connect the graphic representation to a range of possible lexical meanings and perhaps to pictures in the brain, while at the same time the brain is generating and pursuing auditory parallels to the graphic representation that we see.

Even the simplest act of reading draws on a long process of neurological training in which we become familiar with and internalize graphic representations of spoken language. This complex process of registering a possible written word takes place over a period of a tenth to a half a second, and we carry within short-term memory both the graphic expanse of what we see and its connection to the preceding and following graphic sign. [End Page 210] The resolution of these stimuli into a linguistic unit might take a third to a half a second.

The physiological movement of the eye controlled by the brain is an incessant shifting back and forth, though pausing at moments, to record and respond to light patterns from outside the body. These rapid eye movements are called sacades. The eyes move from point to point, registering the visual field particularly with a very small area of the retina called the fovea, which can record fine detail and is necessary to register the graphemes of written language. In addition, because the fovea can only register six or seven letters simultaneously, short-term memory is needed to piece together the various data registered by the fovea as it is fed into the central visual centers at the back of the occipital lobe.

There appears to be an area in the brain slightly behind the left ear, which is an ancient pattern recognition area in primates and in humans. According to Dehaene, this area seems to have been involved in the development of written language with graphic forms that could be recognized and learned in groupings and filtered through this particular area of the brain, the ventral occipito-temporal sulcus. Dehaene calls this the “letter-box.” In written language processing, the retina registers visual stimuli, which are sent to major visual processing areas in the occipital or rear part of the brain. As they are recognized as possible written symbols, the stimuli are directed through the letterbox area, decoded apparently as potentially meaningful lettered signs, and sent as signals both to lexical and auditory memory dictionaries.

In less than a quarter of a second, the visual stimulus received by the occipital visual processing centers is sent to sorting areas within the brain connected to letter and word recognition areas and then to lexical decoding areas. Many areas of the brain are involved in the process of word recognition. Consequently, the apparently simple act of reading a written passage either silently or aloud involves an enormous range of neurological activity. The energy consumed by overall neurological activity in the brain is quite significant, because the brain, while occupying only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, uses up 20 to 25 percent of the body’s energy. Such a burst of activity in relation to every linguistic operation suggests the centrality and the overarching importance of language activity in human existence.

Dehaene theorizes that written language emerged through an evolution of graphemes in relation to the “hardwired” pattern recognition capabilities of the brain. He offers arguments for a process of “neuronal recycling,” which allows the brain to remember written patterns and to sensitize [End Page 211] the neurons in the letterbox to those patterns. This neuronal recycling is one expression of the observed flexibility of the brain, usually termed “brain plasticity.” Writing systems, whether the Western alphabetic mode or the Chinese ideograph mode, seem to depend on clearly recognizable geometric forms that become gradually attached to lexical possibilities and to auditory parallels in written speech. A chart of evolving graphic forms that developed into the Roman alphabet suggests the visually identifiable nature of letters used to depict Western writing.

Joyce specifically asked Sylvia Beach to order him a copy of Edward Clodd’s The Story of the Alphabet in 1925, during the early phase of generating Finnegans Wake.6 And Joyce made notations from this volume in his notebooks at the time. Clodd’s discussion is remarkably anthropological, with a strong emphasis on writing systems of aborigines, American Indians, and African cultures. And while Joyce’s writing remains largely in the sphere of the Roman alphabet, the narrator of the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses describes Bloom and Stephen writing and demonstrating the rudiments of Hebrew and Irish language script (U 17.724 ff ). The sigla and Doodles in Finnegans Wake (FW 299) also show Joyce’s awareness and extensive use of non-standard graphemes in his writing and thinking. Joyce’s interest in letterforms and different writing systems forms an important part of his investigation of the fine detail and operations of language processing. Further, his intense personal experience with interrupted vision must have contributed to his deepening understanding of neurological detail.

As has often been noted, the supposedly automatic operation of the nervous system is seldom questioned until it becomes impaired. The writings of the British neurologist Oliver Sacks have done much to inform the larger public of the oddities and necessities of the neurological system. In an essay published in 2010 called “A Man of Letters,” Sacks brought to public attention the centrality and vulnerability of the “letterbox” area of the brain.7 Sacks tells the story of the Canadian detective novelist Howard Engel, who woke up one morning in the summer of 2001 and found that he was unable to read. The daily newspaper, which appeared as a normal object with pictures and letters, had become undecipherable overnight. This man, whose life was founded in the ability to read and write, was left instantly helpless in the face of written language. Apparently Engel had suffered a stroke that disrupted the letterbox area of his brain and thus disconnected the neurological paths necessary for the act of reading. As Sacks explains and as Engel later reported, with the help of intensive therapy and assistance he was able to create a new neurological [End Page 212] pathway to recognize written language after years of laborious and extensive work. Engel developed an innovative technique for tracing letterforms on the roof of his mouth with his tongue and was able to establish a new neurological connection for letter and word recognition. Engel’s experience is an astonishing example of both the centrality of the letterbox for virtually every literate reader and the possibility for neurological plasticity. Engel’s story is both a cautionary tale and an instance of great hope for the capabilities of the human brain.

While the neurology of reading has many more areas of detailed interconnection and possibility, these observations may well alert us to the unconscious complexity of the central act of reading in personal experience and communal human history. In turning now to some of the linguistic particulars in the world of Ulysses, we can see how Joyce has observed, in imaginative and specific ways, the operations of language in acts of reading, thinking, and remembering. While much more remains to be explored in this area, the discussion will suggest how Joyce’s sense of language and its connections with neurological activity offers a provocative demonstration of some fundamental components of human neurological activity.

The Promise and Current Limits of Neurology

The scientific study of neurology has been particularly critical in the last thirty years. Considering that the first clear identification and description of neurons did not take place until 1896 with the findings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, recent advances in neuroscience have been immense. Even those that have followed John Searle’s lectures on mind in 1984 are quite stunning.8 One very accessible history of such advances can be found in Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2007).9 Kandel tells the story of his own emigration from Austria as a Jewish boy in 1938 and his education in medicine and science in the United States. His story includes tracing the development of neuroscience up to the early twenty-first century and his own landmark discoveries of the biochemical processes of memory formation at the cellular level in the neuron.

In the major medical school and science text book Principles of Neural Science, Kandel and his colleagues at Columbia University state their goals for neural science quite simply and boldly: [End Page 213]

Perhaps the last frontier of science—its ultimate challenge—is to understand the biological basis of consciousness and the mental processes by which we perceive, act, learn, and remember.10

The intensity and interest in neuroscience can be seen in the impressive range of books and articles on neurology for the general reader that have appeared in the last ten years. While I will draw heavily on Stanislaus Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention for my reading of Ulysses in this essay, many voices contribute to the study and public awareness of the prospects and operations of neurology. Oliver Sacks, the British neurologist and essayist, has offered the most popular and accessible narrations of neurological complexity and its mysteries in human experience, but others have addressed central human issues through research and experiment. However, alongside these advances, serious doubts exist about claims that relate neuroscience to consciousness, language, personality, and self. The complexity of brain processes and the variety of conscious possibilities in any human being pose great challenges to any claim of full or even adequate understanding. Skepticism about the achievements of neuroscience in relation to consciousness and art are widespread, based on an awareness of the gap between scientific studies and the richness of human mental activity. One recent public discussion of the problems of art and neuroscience is Alva Noë’s essay “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience” for “The Stone” column in the New York Times.11

Far from its being the case that we can apply neuroscience as an intellectual ready-made to understand art, it may be that art, by disclosing the ways in which human experience in general is something we enact together, in exchange, may provide new resources for shaping a more plausible, more empirically rigorous, account of our human nature.

Professor Noë quite rightly resists the idea that neuroscience can be a template applied to and explaining art. However, if we consider neurological activity as a necessary component of human nature, why should neurological insight and subject matter not be a potential or actual concern of art?

A major aspect of Joyce’s artistic achievement is his detailed observation of human linguistic activity, and his work abounds in examples of linguistic discovery and experimentation. Perhaps his status as an artist is closely [End Page 214] related his neurological acuity. V. S. Ramchandran cites an example of synesthesia in a patient as a clue to creativity:

Whenever Susan looks at numbers, she sees each digit tinged with its own inherent hue. For example, 5 is red, 3 is blue. This condition, called synesthesia, is eight times more common in artists, poets, and novelists than in the general population, suggesting that it may be linked to creativity in some mysterious way. Could synesthesia be a neuropsychological fossil of sorts—a clue to understanding the evolutionary origins and nature of human creativity in general?12

Joyce is a most remarkable example of the neuropsychological depths, and his work reveals the range of synesthetic experience that Ramchandran cites.

By exploring the interrelationship of Joyce to current findings of the neurology of language, I hope to show that the novelist’s experience and representation of linguistic activity delves deeply into human nature, which in his view sustains both body and mind. Among writers, Joyce is uniquely perceptive about the range of language activation in his works, himself, and his readers.

Ulysses and the Neurology of Reading

When we begin to reread Ulysses in the context of primary observations about written language acquisition and neurological processing by Dehaene and others, we can start to appreciate Joyce’s analysis, illustration, and intuition about the mystery of language, conceptually and even physiologically. Ulysses is filled with experiments in language that break traditional assumptions about the reliable and credible actions of narrative and the supposedly denotative clarity of words. Part of Joyce’s originality is his sense of the play of language, his view of linguistic activity as more layered and mysterious than is assumed by the traditional model of adult linguistic competency. At least some of Joyce’s linguistic adventures may provide insight into a broader understanding of how all humans engage with the complexity of physiology and culture through language.

As we make the crucial shift in Ulysses from section “I,” which deals with Stephen Dedalus’s intense inner world, to section “II” and the “Calypso” chapter that introduces Leopold Bloom, Joyce presents us [End Page 215] almost immediately with an intriguing scene between Bloom and the cat, “pussens”:

The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.


—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

—Milk for the pussens, he said.

—Mrkgnao! The cat cried.

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to.

. . .

—Mrkrgnao! The cat said loudly.

(U 4.15–27, 33)

Joyce places the episode of Bloom and the cat at the very beginning of our encounter with his central character. The scene demonstrates humor, Bloom’s openness to the cognitive awareness of the cat, and the pungent conundrum of written language and auditory experience. Joyce suggests some intentionality on the part of the cat, and he offers a puzzle of graphemes to suggest the cat’s individuality, the sounds the cat makes, and the problematic nature of lettered language. The cat does not say “meow” as in conventional reportage, but rather something that we hear but for which we do not yet have an accurate memory. The cat enunciates something with meaning that is outside our linguistic normalcy. The cat is reported here as making a sound through an unusual lettered expression: “Mkgnao!” Joyce calls our attention to the approximation of our auditory experience to linguistic phonological memory and our traditional expectation of grapheme groupings through the cat’s sounds. And he has the cat express itself in slightly differing grapheme arrangements as represented by the different “spellings” of its communications. Startlingly, the text has the cat speak: “Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.” This episode is a gentle but enduring alert to Joyce’s radical openness to the components [End Page 216] of language, communication experience, and the gap between lexical, grapheme, and auditory components in language, writing, and reading.

Joyce’s interest in children and their language, both his own children and grandson and other children, is one clue to his broad observation of and invocation of the functioning of language and its development in the individual. In the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses, Joyce presents a small group of young women on Sandymount Strand tending five-year-old twins and an eleven-month-old baby. While the episode centers on Gerty McDowell and Bloom’s response to her, the presence of the children presents an equally intriguing linguistic encounter.13 On the very first page of this chapter, Cissy Caffrey, tries to elicit a linguistic response from the baby:

—Now baby, Cissy Caffrey said. Say out big, big. I want a drink of water.

And baby prattled after her

—A jink a jink a jink a jabo.

(U 13.26–28)

This is one of a startling spectrum of evolving linguistic observations that Joyce includes in his text. Here, Cissy Caffrey tries to coach the baby to speak a simple sentence. The baby responds with his own approximation of those words. From a developmental point of view, the baby mimics in his own way the rhythm and phonetic approximation of the supposedly clear simple sentence spoken by the young woman. What can be deduced from this small but striking linguistic exchange? Recent studies have reinforced our awareness of the eagerness of infants to engage with the world and to pursue their own curiosity. Dehaene alerts us to the central energies of language in the infant and to the paralleling of child development and human history in relation to language:

[T]he brains of infants are already powerfully and asymmetrically activated when they listen to speech in the first few months of life.

. . .

A cerebral process involving trial and error, similar to the cultural experimentation that occurred during the evolution of writing, must take place within the visual and linguistic circuits of the child’s brain.

(Dehaene 170, 196)

From the supposedly secure linguistic position of a young woman, Cissy observes the baby’s frequent desire to drink, understands that he pays [End Page 217] some attention to her, and enunciates a simple and relevant sentence: She asks the baby to say “I want a drink of water.” But Cissy’s assumptions or desires, like those of the standard adult reader, reveal a kind of amnesia about language acquisition. This scene enacts one scenario of the plurality of language and language acquisition. As Dehaene explains, and many experiments attest, we have neurological, auditory, and visual pathways in the brain that, while receptive, seem to respond to and internalize specific linguistic meanings and patterns over the period of personal development. From the baby’s point of view, in this vignette, he can hear the patterns, enjoy the rhythms, respond to certain spoken elements (phonemes), but he has not yet acquired either the physiological control or the neurological experience to repeat the sentence at the level of early adult linguistic competency. Joyce, in his uniquely egalitarian way, does not prejudice or devalue the child’s response. On the contrary, the child’s babble has an energy and a memorability that are pleasing and meaningful in that they reveal and testify to levels of evolving linguistic activity that are usually ignored.

The example of the baby’s personal articulation of a proto-sentence may well apply to a great range of linguistic experimentation and play in the overall spectrum of Joyce’s Ulysses and human experience. Think of how many grammatically incomplete or approximate sentences make up much of daily conversation. The reader encounters a stunning range of linguistic energy and variety in Ulysses. This variety includes auditory and spoken stumbling over unusual words, misspeaking (perhaps as what are called “Freudian slips”), typographical errors, misunderstanding of words written and spoken, and fanciful elaborations of words into sound and sound into unexpected verbal expression. Joyce promotes a multi-layered awareness in the reader of various stages and arenas of language that are usually excluded from the literary enterprise.

Early in “Calypso,” the reader encounters Bloom, the modern Odysseus, and his wife, Molly, who functions both as the enthralling nymph, Calypso, and the enigmatic Penelope. If one major conception of Ulysses is that the mythic world of Homer’s epic are relived and refocused in the modern world of Dublin on a single day in 1904, Joyce is also engaged in the process of excavating language. We might remember that the Greek meaning of the word “mythos” is “utterance” or “word.” When we consider mythology in Joyce, not only are the patterns of ancient stories relived in Ulysses, but the very groundwork, history, and exploration of [End Page 218] words and language. While Joyce may not use Cèzanne’s specific formulation, his intent seems quite close the painter’s quest: “What I am trying to translate is something more mysterious; it is entwined with the very roots of being.”14

The connection between the Homeric parallels and the detailed contemporary world evolves in the reader’s mind as the book unfolds, but Molly introduces a central linguistic concept that is a part of Joyce’s underlying mythic structure and concern. In her reading of a racy novel, Ruby Pride of the Ring, she has come across the unusual word “metempsychosis.” Molly is unfamiliar with the word and does not know how to pronounce it or what it means. Her reading and her attempt to understand an unusual word illustrates both the neurological and linguistic processes of all readers when they encounter a complex unknown word, and at the same time her struggle with the word enunciates a significant theme of the book at large. And one might say that this prepares us for the reader’s complex engagement with Ulysses itself.

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.

She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.

—Met him what? he asked.

—Here, she said. What does that mean?

He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.


—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?

—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

(U 4.331–43)

Molly’s interest in this unusual word stirs her curiosity, as well as that of the reader, and demonstrates a process of the promise and difficulties of reading itself. Tracing the text with her hairpin “til she reached the word” (4.335), she attempts to pronounce it, but Bloom only recognizes the beginning of her phonetic sounding of what she is trying to read. We hear, as if with Bloom, only the beginning of her vocalization: “Met him what?” Then she points out the word with her hairpin, and he “read near her polished thumbnail”: [End Page 219]


—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?

(U 4.340–41)

Bloom is unable at first to connect Molly’s phonetic vocalization with the Greek word “metempsychosis,” and only when he reads the lettered word is he able to link up Molly’s pronunciation with the more complete concept of the word. He then goes on to make an approximate definition of metempsychosis as the “transmigration of souls.”

In this scene Molly, like any reader encountering a completely unknown word, attempts to recognize it through phonetic pronunciation. As Dehaene explains:

Mental conversion into sound plays an essential role when we read a word for the first time . . . Initially we cannot possibly access its meaning directly, since we have never seen the word spelled out. All we can do is to convert it into sound, find that the sound pattern is intelligible, and through this indirect route, come to understanding the word. Thus sounding is often the only solution when we encounter a new word.

(Dehaene 27)

Molly attempts to activate the auditory circuits of her brain and through them to link up with some sense of what the lexical meaning of the word might be. Bloom, not recognizing the word yet, is unable to decode her phonetic version of it, but when he sees the letters of it written out, he connects her phonetic pronunciation to the alphabetic printing of the word. Thus, he is able to associate her pronunciation with the lexical meaning as he understands it, as well as to the standard phonetic version of the word. Beyond the process of linking contemporary Dublin to the Homeric world, this passage records several levels of activity in the act of reading, as well as the connection between an auditory dictionary and a lettered dictionary of words in the brain of the experienced reader. The etymological link, “It’s Greek, from the Greek,” also summons up the history of words and the cultural, as well as neurological and mythic, resonances of the passage.

Molly’s pronunciation is made of short single-syllable words that each have a lexical and phonetic meaning to her, and thus she approximates the pronunciation of “metempsychosis,” but Bloom, reading the letters, recognizes some version of the lexical meaning and the more formal pronunciation of the word. Only later in “Lestrygonians” does Bloom [End Page 220] remember Molly’s apparent phoneticizing clearly. He links his musing on “parallax” with its Greek origin and his memory of Molly’s frustration over “metempsychosis”: “Par it’s Greek: parallel, parallax. Met him pike hoses she called it till I told her about the transmigration. O rocks!” (U 8.111–13). The theme of Molly’s difficulty in reading “metempsychosis” continues throughout the book, as nine later passages recall and extend the neurological experience of the encounter with this strange word.

Joyce began his formal entry into fiction with a boy’s puzzling over strange words in the opening paragraph of “The Sisters” in Dubliners:

Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.

(D 3)

Another anticipation of the awareness of a mysterious word and the complexity of recognition is in the “tundish” discussion Stephen Dedalus has with the Director of Studies in the last chapter of Portrait. Joyce’s extends these early inquiries into the comprehension of words throughout his writing, and we can see in the intense revision of Ulysses in the period 1919–22 how his conceptual as well as compositional modes expanded to ever more provocative levels.

Most of the references to Molly’s decoding of metempsychosis come directly through Bloom’s recollections, but the answering narrator of “Ithaca,” who may be a version of his internal voice, formulates Bloom’s wish for Molly’s increased education:

Unusual polsyllables of foreign origin she interpreted phonetically or by false analogy or by both: metempsychosis (met him pike hoses), alias (a mendacious person mentioned in sacred scripture).

(U 17.685–87)

And as Molly reviews her day in “Penelope,” she too remembers this challenging word: “and that word met something with hoses in it and he came out with some jawbreaker about incarnation” (U 18.565–66). Molly translates Bloom’s rather ethereal explanation of metempsychosis (“the transmigration of souls”) into another, more immediate sense: “some jaw-breaker about incarnation.” We may see Molly’s embodied wisdom in her transformation of meaning if we consider Joyce’s explanation to Frank Budgen of the intermingling of body and thought: “If they had no body, [End Page 221] they would have no mind,” Joyce said. “It’s all one” (Budgen 21). Molly presents metempsychosis as “incarnation,” the investment of the body with spirit, awareness, meaning, and language, and by extension with neurology. Using his leitmotif method, Joyce has established a complex event around the neurological activity of word recognition, weaving it memorably throughout the book as part an investigation of the variability and openness of linguistic adventure.

Part of the interest of the metempsychosis passage is that both Molly and Bloom are approximating the pronunciation and meaning of a word that is itself about unstable forms and shifting representations. This thematically important passage is intimately connected with processes of word recognition, approximation, and connection between phonetic and lexical word components used in an attempt to generate a satisfactory and rounded understanding. But as the episode shows, the world of language is multifarious, an arena of approximation rather than of definite and immutable meaning. In its detailed observation of linguistic activity and its evocation of expanding thematic connections, the breakfast scene in “Calypso” is a revealing example of Joyce’s exploration of the variety and mystery of language.

Joyce’s presentation of the evolution of language and its neurological underpinnings, as we have seen, emerges in passages featuring particularly detailed slippages of official speech. The cat’s speech, the baby’s babbling, and Molly’s phonetic approximation of a complex word reflect with remarkable accuracy the processes of aligning auditory and lettered language. In this sense, Joyce applies his literary microscope to individual acts of linguistic adventure, but the auditory approximation of the abstract idea of words is paralleled by a variety of other graphic and lettered instances in the book. One significant example of Joyce’s playing with the visual component of language appears throughout “Aeolus,” which takes place in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper offices. As even the most inexperienced reader of Ulysses will note, the narrative flow of the chapter is interrupted over and over again by the intrusion of newspaper-style headlines that characterize the passages that follow. Joyce famously manipulates typographical conventions to challenge the reader with the eruption of headlines, a common experience for any person who has read a newspaper or surfed the web but a violation of novelistic conventions. Joyce is no less probing in his observation of a reader’s adaptation to printed forms of letters and letter arrangement than he is in his presentation of the auditory varieties of language. Just as Joyce disorients the [End Page 222] reader by making auditory approximation part of our awareness, so he also reorients the reader’s attention to the typographic arrangement of texts. Thus, in “Aeolus,” in a simple but suggestive move, Joyce juxtaposes the standard narrative style of the earlier parts of Ulysses with the intrusion of an unnamed narrator’s headlines. It is intriguing that Joyce inserted the headlines into the revision of the 1919 Little Review version of the chapter, suggesting that his discovery of the greater complexity of linguistic activity emerged in the genesis of the book. This growing awareness was interwoven back through the whole texture of Ulysses in the great work of revision from 1919 to early 1922.

In “Lestrygonians,” Joyce follows the headlined “Aeolus” chapter with narrative events that are themselves typographical and lettered challenges. One particularly revealing example of the unstable lettered text formed by the procession of the five sandwich board men carrying the letters of the stationer, Hely’s, one letter on the hat of each of the five men:

He read the scarlet letters of their five tall white hats: H. E. L. Y. S. Wisdom Hely’s. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked.

(U 8.125–28)

As Bloom, the solicitor for advertisements, observes, Mr. Hely is attempting to call attention to his name and his stationer’s establishment through the five white-clad and letter-hatted men. The advertising stunt is notable for its relative effectiveness in promoting the shop; the five men also unknowingly dramatize the mutability and the instability of alphabetically lettered signs. They wander through the streets of Dublin forming a message, and yet from time to time, one of them steps aside and becomes a separate lettered unit apart from the other four. Bloom “crossed Westmoreland Street when apostrophe S had plodded by” (U 8.155). In a witty and diverting way, Joyce sees the five men as embodiments of the separate visual, defining characteristics of independent letters of the alphabet, and through them he explores the deeply trained reader’s response to unstable lettered events. The advertising men thus become primal lettered elements to be decoded and read, but also a primitive memory of the challenge of recognizing and responding to meaningful lettered shapes.

A parallel example is of the partial deterioration of lettered forms, which then metamorphose into other lexical signs. Bloom observes the [End Page 223] very common posting of a notice not to post advertisements and he reads: “POST NO BILLS. POST I IO PILLS.” (U 8.101).

Bloom subliminally records the original lexical message, “Don’t put any lettered posters on this wall,” but he also sees that erosion has deleted the linking line in the middle of the letter N and that the lower loop of the letter B has been erased or faded. Thus, he sees that as read literally, the sign reads as having a completely different meaning lexically, stating that 110 pills be put up. Dehaene notes that:

Even when we focus our attention on a single letter, we automatically benefit from the context in which it is placed. When this context is a word or a word fragment, it gives us access to more levels of coding (graphemes, syllables, and morphemes) whose “votes” add to those of letter units and facilitate their perception.

(Dehaene 47)

This small observation shows the complex dictionary of visual signs and arrangements that the reader must carry within. In this example, Bloom understands the original lexical intent of the sign drawn from his visual memory and, at the same time, he sees that it is a joke in its deformed present state. That awareness of contextual meaning and literal reformation establishes a conflict or at least confusion in the operation of alphabetical signs. This double take over graphic anomalies is common to all readers of printed texts who encounter errors or unexpected spellings. In this respect, Bloom’s brief act of double reading foreshadows much of the linguistic play of Finnegans Wake.

In discussing neurological patterns, Kandel describes the tendency of the brain to fill in incomplete forms and images based on experience. This happens when, for instance, we see a familiar form, whose image is interrupted by an object in front of it. Think of a child hiding behind a branch, peeking out at us, and how we fill in parts of the child’s body in our mental space that are not being registered by the retinas of our eyes.15

Joyce famously exploits the inescapable reality of typographical errors and the deformation of lettered linguistic signs. This complex process of learning the forms of letters and their incorporation into linguistic lexical signs is one of the most important and yet complicated of all human activities. The linguistically encouraged child at the age of five is said to have encountered over 40 million word events The response to auditory linguistic signs and alphabetic or written linguistic signs emerges through [End Page 224] an almost unimaginably complex process of exposure, repetition, acculturation, and embedding of linguistically meaningful events in the neurological patterns of the brain. Joyce, in his detailed, playful, and often frustrating representation of language, alerts his readers to something of the vast individual and cultural activity that must take place in order for linguistic communication, both spoken and written, to emerge.

Clearly, Joyce presents microscopic linguistic events, both auditory and written, as a continuing and central topic of Ulysses. However, he also offers a range of historical, cultural, and conceptual frameworks as part of his meditation on the richness and the achievement of language. Perhaps the most extreme example in Ulysses of Joyce’s systematic exploration of the origin of language is in “Oxen of the Sun,” where he parallels the macroscopic and the microscopic development of language. The external form of the chapter is a depiction of the evolution of the English language from prehistoric chaos through more than twenty stylistic phases arranged chronologically and ending in a chaos of slang in the drink-induced fog of the pub. Parallel to his superstructure of the development of the English language is the continuing allusion to embryonic development and the birth of a child, which takes place when Mrs. Purefoy’s three days of labor concludes with the birth of her son.

In writing Ulysses, Joyce alerts the reader to his or her own experience of reading. While discussions about reading usually turn on the interpretation of content, Joyce also seems to be exploring the deeply rooted patterns of language recognition, letter decoding, and retrieving of auditory pathways. An acute observer of human social and mental patterns, Joyce is a phenomenologist of language as it is rooted in “the mystery of being.” Many experienced readers of Joyce, such as Finn Fordham, advocate reading Joyce aloud, and vocalization is certainly one important path that enriches our sense of the enjoyment and range of Joyce’s work.16 But if we consider this in relation to the reader’s processing of written language and Joyce’s sharp but mobile depiction of language activity, we may find that reading and speaking are entwined in his exploration of the moving stream of human experience.

An Initial Spectrum of Joyce’s Neurological Awareness of Reading

The range of neurologically exploratory reading events in Ulysses seems to have no limits. While these events are implicit in Joyce’s writing from the [End Page 225] first paragraph of “The Sisters,” his heightened attention to this concern increases exponentially throughout Ulysses and vaults into the stratosphere in Finnegans Wake. Therefore, a catalog of such reading events would include examples from nearly every page of Joyce’s mature writing.

Even a moderate reflection on Ulysses brings to mind many intriguing and relevant micro-events of language as well as linguistic macro-patterns. A resonant micro-event would be the telegram that Stephen remembers in “Proteus” announcing the final illness of May Dedalus: “Nother dying come home father” (U 3.199). Gabler’s emendation of the misspelling of “Nother” for “Mother” combines the central neurological process of supplying context to uncertain lettered forms, with the simultaneous realization of an absurd mistake and the emotionally wrenching event of the mortality of Stephen’s mother. “Nother” indicates the main intended word “Mother,” but it also suggests the possibility of “Another,” quietly announcing the otherness and the anonymity of death that are woven throughout the entire book.

Stephen’s blue French telegram is only one of a myriad of graphemic meditations that proliferate in Ulysses. One set of examples suggests Joyce’s inclusion of the nature and layering of grapheme elements as essential and continuous components of neurological activity in linguistic engagement. The “Nestor” episode, in which Stephen coaches the uncertain student Sargent, poses the enigma of graphic representations within mental activity in a poignant and memorable way. Stephen sees the mathematical symbols as an animated dance inherited from the Moors:

Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors.

(U 2.155–57)

But for Sargent the mathematical challenge and the attempt to write out the problem take place in an area of conceptual and neurological uncertainty:

In long shaky strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of shame flickering behind his dull skin.

(U 2.163–65)

Despite his intellectual pride, Stephen sees Sargent as an image of his younger self: [End Page 226]

Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.

(U 2.168–72)

Stephen sees in Sargent his own psychological and social separateness during his first days at Clongowes Wood, but from the perspective of the apprehension of graphemes and mental development, the complex physical and neurological habits of this younger self that still nestle within him. While psychological and social vulnerability are hauntingly present here for Stephen, Sargent, and the reader, Joyce intertwines the external world with the internal process of a thwarted apprehension of signs and meaning.

Bloom is even more involved than Stephen in the many-layered encounters and slippages in linguistic acts, his identity is interwoven, through his name, with linguistic and existential levels that are fluid and at times unresolved. Even the memory of the change in his family name from Virag to Bloom makes his linguistic identity variable. One small event in “Lestrygonians” not only brings his identity into question but unleashes a river of associations that flows through the rest of the book. Bloom almost unconsciously takes a flier (“throwaway” U 8.7) and briefly mistakes its typographical hints for a version of his name:

Bloo . . . Me? No.

Blood of the Lamb.

His slow feet walked him riverward, reading. Are you saved? All are washed in the blood of the lamb. God wants blood victim. Birth, hymen, martyr, war, foundation of a building, sacrifice, kidney burnt-offering, druids’ altars. Elijah is coming. Dr John Alexander Dowie, restorer of the church in Zion, is coming.

Is coming! Is coming!! Is coming!!!

All heartily welcome.

(U 8.8–16)

Here the apocalyptic revivalist Dr. John Alexander Dowie is advertising a meeting for new converts. Bloom’s interpolation of his name into the headline “Blood of the Lamb” sparks his own distaste for religious extremism and the centrality of blood to rites and commemorations. But, [End Page 227] paradoxically, Bloom also associates himself with Elijah and Zion, subconsciously taking on a messianic potential. Bloom, blood, life cycle, Biblical icons, and an act of reading mingle as one living cell of the life of Ulysses.

The importance of grappling imperfectly with graphemes and their bridge to linguistic understanding takes on an almost global importance in “Ithaca” when, late in Ulysses, Bloom and Stephen attempt to resurrect the signs of their ancestral languages:

What fragments of verse from the ancient Hebrew and ancient Irish languages were cited with modulations of voice and translation of texts by guest to host and by host to guest?

By Stephen: suil, suil, suil arun, suil go siocair agus suil go cuin (walk, walk, walk your way, walk in safety, walk with care).

By Bloom: kifeloch, harimon rakatejch m’baad l’zamatejch (thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate).

How was a glyphic comparison of the phonic symbols of both languages made in substantiation of the oral comparison?

By juxtaposition. On the penultimate blank page of a book of inferior literary style, entituled Sweets of Sin (produced by Bloom and so manipulated that its front cover came in contact with the surface of the table) with a pencil (supplied by Stephen) Stephen wrote the Irish characters for gee, eh, dee, em, simple and modified, and Bloom in turn wrote the Hebrew characters ghimel, aleph, daleth and (in the absence of mem) a substituted qoph, explaining their arithmetical values as ordinal and cardinal numbers, videlicet 3, 1, 4, and 100.

Was the knowledge possessed by both of each of these languages, the extinct and the revived, theoretical or practical?

Theoretical, being confined to certain grammatical rules of accidence and syntax and practically excluding vocabulary.

(U 17.724–44)

This entire passage presents an overview of the nature of language and its neurological underpinnings. Auditory memory of fragments of Irish and Hebrew are recalled by Stephen and Bloom, but the auditory is both incomplete and insufficient, so that both characters struggle to remember and produce some graphic elements of the written languages. The use of a back page of Sweets of Sin for recording their imperfect alphabetic memory only helps to interlace the essential components of spoken and written [End Page 228] language with the book in hand. And, for the reader, the book in hand is, by easy extension, the copy of Ulysses he or she happens to be using.

Bloom and Stephen are stirred to resurrect signs of their ancestral origins in broken and hesitant memories of phrases and graphemes of Irish and Hebrew. Joyce used the available Roman type font in Darantière’s printing establishment, but he signals through Romanization the letters of Irish and Hebrew script. In a significant way, both Bloom and Stephen now appear as companions of their fellow student Sargent. The Moorish mathematical symbols here are replaced by Irish and Hebrew graphemes. Like Sargent’s hands, both Bloom’s and Stephen ‘s “moved faithfully the unsteady symbols” (U 2.163). As the nature of language and its activation are retraced and re-experienced by Bloom and Stephen, Joyce shows the reader in this meditation on primal languages how we, too, might haltingly learn to apprehend them.

The large patterns of Joyce’s phenomenological archeology of language can be seen across the entire span of Ulysses. The “Aeolus” headlines that were generated in revision, the overture to “Sirens,” and the entire play-film script format of “Circe” are only a few of the large patterns of visual exploration of reading and its arrangement that animate Ulysses. One particularly fertile stream of Joyce’s illumination of reading and its origins is the sequence of linguistic events connected to Joe Hynes’s article on Paddy Dignam’s funeral. The “narrative” of the Hynes article on Dignam’s funeral can be seen as Joyce’s representation of what is needed for reading and the inevitable layering and approximations innate in language itself.

Dignam’s funeral spans most of Ulysses from Molly’s first mention of it (U 3.319) through the service at Glasnevin Cemetery, its memory for Bloom, and the history of Hynes’s newspaper notice. The funeral notice is grounded in linguistic approximation from beginning to end. In “Hades,” Hynes asks after Bloom’s first name, and Bloom responds and mentions the absent M‘Coy, who wanted to be included in the notice (U 5.172–76):

—I am just taking the names, Hynes said below his breath. What is your christian name? I’m not sure.

—L, Mr Bloom said. Leopold. And you might put down M‘Coy’s name too. He asked me to.

—Charley, Hynes said writing. I know. He was on the Freeman once.

(U 6.880–84) [End Page 229]

Oral history and reportage begin immediately in dialogue and misunderstanding. Bloom’s attempt to provide his own first name results in Hynes’s error in writing down the names of attendees at the funeral. The blurring of auditory sensation and written representation continues in the attempt to record the nameless man in attendance:

—And tell us, Hynes said, do you know that fellow in the, fellow was over there in the . . .

He looked around.

—Macintosh. Yes, I saw him, Mr Bloom said. Where is he now?

—M‘Intosh, Hynes said scribbling. I don’t know who he is. Is that his name?

He moved away, looking about him.

—No, Mr Bloom began, turning and stopping. I say, Hynes! Didn’t hear.

(U 6.891–98)

The well-known mystery of the man in the Macintosh is memorialized as Bloom tries to complete Hynes’s sentence with the naming of the anonymous man’s coat style, but Hynes hears the word as a proper name, which is a homonym with a different spelling. Joyce clearly marks the different understandings of Bloom’s spoken phonemes through the different spellings as registered in the minds of Bloom and Hynes: Macintosh, M‘Intosh.

Joyce pursues the story of Dignam’s funeral notice, apparently as a dynamic experience of the mutability of language and the necessity of careful reading. While a media process is involved here, the impulse to record is something like the contemporary insistence on confirming an event only when it has been photographed with a smartphone and shown to someone else. The “Aeolus” chapter, immediately following “Hades,” includes among many motifs, the physical and perceptual process of reproducing Hynes’s notice for publication in the late pink edition of The Telegraph.

After Bloom consults with councilor Nannetti about placing the Keyes advertisement, he looks into the print shop room to observe the activity of typesetting:

And It Was the Feast of the Passover

He stayed in his walk to watch a typesetter neatly distributing type. Reads it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require some [End Page 230] practice that. mangiD kcirtaP. Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pessach. Next year in Jerusalem. (U 7.203–7)

Bloom observes the physical activity of the typesetting, letter by letter of the newspaper. While linotype was used for the body of print by the Freeman’s Journal since 1898, here the traditional setting of the newspaper headline text apparently takes place with type cases, individual pieces of type, and composition sticks. Bloom notes the reverse image of lettering needed in type, where the printed sheet reverses the orientation of the assembled pieces of type. The typesetter has, of course, learned the counter-intuitive skill of transposing written text into the reverse order of pieces of type and their mirror images of letters. Bloom, being aware of the sequence needed for the printing of Hynes’s notice, either sees or imagines Dignam’s name as the typesetter produces it: “mangiD kcirtaP” (U 7.206).

Darantière, Sylvia Beach’s printer in Lyon, did not have photographic means to print the Dignam name sequence in mirror form, but Joyce has the letters reversed in order as the typesetter would almost automatically compose that section of type.17 Seeing the arrangement of letters from right to left, Bloom remembers his father’s “hagadah book” and fragments of Hebrew with the story of Passover printed from right to left. One anecdotal point about the printing of the first edition of Ulysses is that this protean work was handset in individual pieces of type in a process quite similar to what Bloom is observing in the print shop of The Freeman’s Journal.18

As with all linguistic activity, the newspaper notice of Dignam’s funeral has more than an external physical manifestation. While Hynes’s writing of the notice and Old Monks’s overseeing of its typesetting and printing form important parts of the life story of the article, it takes on a certain psychological importance in the reflections of young Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam on the mystery of his father’s death in “Wandering Rocks.” Along with his task of buying pork steaks for the funeral meal and reading the outdated poster for the boxing match between Myler Keogh and Sergeantmajor Bennett, Master Dignam sees a group of boys coming from school:

He met schoolboys with satchels. I’m not going tomorrow either, stay away till Monday. He met other schoolboys. Do they notice I’m [End Page 231] in mourning? Uncle Barney said he’d get it into the paper tonight. Then they’ll all see it in the paper and read my name printed and pa’s name.

(U 10.1158–60)

The prospect of the funeral notice to be published in the evening paper gives young Dignam the expectation of a public recognition for his mourning and missing school. And his little recognized father will be awarded some dignity, perhaps appropriate to his name, while also taking on the abstract condition of mortality. Recalling the boy in “The Sisters,” young Dignam reads, or anticipates reading, the report of his father’s death, and with it the conviction of his father’s enduring absence.

Hynes’s article on Dignam’s funeral takes on it fullest expression in the “pink edition extra sporting of the Telegraph” (U 16.1232) that Bloom and Stephen peruse in late night fatigue in the cabman’s shelter. Here Bloom scans the headlines on the page he can see and reads:

New York disaster. Thousand lives lost. Foot and Mouth. Funeral of the late Patrick Dignam.

So to change the subject he read about Dignam R. I. P. which, he reflected, was anything but a gay sendoff. Or a change of address anyway.

This morning (Hynes put it in of course) the remains of the late Mr Patrick Dignam were removed from his residence, no 9 Newbridge Avenue, Sandymount, for interment in Glasnevin. The deceased gentleman was a most popular and genial personality in city life and his demise after a brief illness came as a great shock to citizens of all classes by whom he is deeply regretted. The obsequies, at which many friends of the deceased were present, were carried out by (certainly Hynes wrote it with a nudge from Corny) Messrs H. J. O’Neill and Son, 164 North Strand Road. The mourners included: Patk. Dignam (son), Bernard Corrigan (brother-in-law), Jno. Henry Menton, solr, Martin Cunningham, John Power, .) eatondph 1/8 ador dorador douradora (must be where he called Monks the dayfather about Keyes’s ad) Thomas Kernan, Simon Dedalus, Stephen Dedalus B.A., Edw. J. Lambert, Cornelius T. Kelleher, Joseph M‘C Hynes, L. Boom, CP M‘Coy,—M‘lntosh and several others.

Nettled not a little by L. Boom (as it incorrectly stated) and the line of bitched type but tickled to death simultaneously by C. P. M‘Coy and Stephen Dedalus B. A. who were conspicuous, needless [End Page 232] to say, by their total absence (to say nothing of M’Intosh) L. Boom pointed it out to his companion B. A. engaged in stifling another yawn, half nervousness, not forgetting the usual crop of nonsensical howlers of misprints.

(U 16.1244–61)

Joyce presents a four-dimensional experience through Bloom’s act of reading Hynes’s funeral notice, which, by extension, applies to the reader of Ulysses being caught up in the process and crosscurrents of linguistic activity. This passage, connecting to Bloom’s reading of other newspaper notices, including the report of the Gold Cup victory of Throwaway and the headline for Mr. Deasy’s letter, forms a dynamic microcosm of the levels of linguistic and neurological activity in the book at large. The passage also highlights Joyce’s awareness of how a reader encounters and processes language, whether it is Bloom or the reader of Ulysses.

Bloom’s perusal of the newspaper report is so rich in association that a few suggestions must suffice. Joyce shows him reading and reacting to his reading in numerous ways here. Bloom notes Dignam’s change of address in burial, he recognizes Hynes as the originator of the article, he understands Hynes’s promotion of the funeral establishment Kelleher works for, he surmises that his questions about the Keyes ad in “Aeolus” distracted Old Monks resulting in the garbled line of type, he registers irritation at the printed misnomer of L. Boom, and he takes amused satisfaction at the documented fiction of M‘Coy and Stephen as present at the funeral. Further, Bloom recognizes that his mentioning of the anonymous man’s “Macintosh” has been falsely transformed into a proper name. The passage is like a two-way mirror that prompts the reader of Ulysses to compare the “historical” event of Dignam’s funeral and the origin of the newspaper notice with her or his own memory of the details. We then observe both the denotative elements and how they are varied by mental activity of Bloom as reader. Joyce’s wandering narrator cheerfully enters into the fluidity of language with Bloom and the reader by recognizing the imprecision of the article and including it within the narration of “Eumaeus”:

While the other was reading it on page two Boom (to give him for the nonce his new misnomer) whiled away a few odd leisure moments in fits and starts of the account of the third event at Ascot on page three . . .

(U 16.1274–76) [End Page 233]

The neurological resonance of reading Hynes’s notice does not end with Bloom but echoes through Molly’s memory of reading the article in a paper brought by Boylan. She, of course, did not attend the funeral, but through the printed version, she incorporates it into her own associations, mental processing, and assumptions:

this is the fruits of Mr Paddy Dignam yes they were all in great style at the grand funeral in the paper Boylan brought in if they saw a real officers funeral thatd be something reversed arms muffled drums the poor horse walking behind in black L Boom and Tom Kernan that drunken little barrelly man that bit his tongue off falling down the mens W C drunk in some place or other and Martin Cunningham and the two Dedaluses and Fanny MCoys husband . . .

(U 18.1260–67)

Molly, who in many ways rewrites the entire book, remembers the funeral took place, has read Hynes’s article, thinks of the drama of a military funeral like her father’s, remembers Bloom’s misnomer of Boom, and even reminds us of Tom Kernan’s fall down the pub stairs, which we encountered in “Grace” from Dubliners. She assumes from the article that Stephen and Simon Dedalus were both there, and she jumps from the absent but reported M’Coy to his wife, who is her distant vocal rival. Reading and recall, print and thought, feeling and judgment all intermingle in Molly’s expansion of language into her existence. In this way Molly weaves her own reading into a fabric of memory and life, while suggesting that the reader of Ulysses is involved in a similar process.

This complex of events of reading and the thought processes and observations about linguistic activity here are not, of course, merely local events. They are connected to what might be called the DNA of Ulysses, Joyce’s evolving expression of the nature and neurology of language, and by extension the human activity of language and reading. Joyce’s ever-expanding dynamic of language grows throughout the world of Ulysses and then catapults into Finnegans Wake. As we read early in that universe of linguistic fluidity:

(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all.

(FW 18.17–20) [End Page 234]


This discussion is an exploratory entry into the use of neuroesthetics to develop new critical approaches to Joyce. Joyce advances such a broad exploration of human experience and the possibilities of language that an encounter with his work challenges the reader to develop new conceptual categories and even to attempt new systems of thinking. This current attempt is embryonic, but many related aspects of Joyce’s work and its place in human culture immediately present themselves. In Ulysses, the reader is confronted by almost innumerable acts of reading. A small sample from the first four chapters includes the cracked looking glass, the forty-foot hole, Sargent’s math problems, sea shells, Mr. Deasy’s letter, “signatures of all things I am here to read,” Stephen’s poem, Milly’s letter, Boyan’s letter, Agendath Netaim, Ruby Pride of the Ring, Matcham’s Masterpiece. Others acts of reading, such as Martha’s letter and the fate of “throwaway,” are particularly notable, and Bloom’s pursuit of the Keyes ad is a kind of linguistic chimera that haunts the book. Clearly, the exploration and the nature of acts of reading strike close to the heart of Ulysses, and in the process of reading and re-creating, the reader’s role becomes ever more important and central. Joyce’s vision is rooted in the smallest events of human experience, and by extension, into the neurological nuances that are seldom observed. As he told Arthur Power: “In the particular is contained the universal.”19

Many areas of Ulysses emerge as challenges to traditionally accepted conceptions of language and convention, notably in “Oxen of the Sun,” “Ithaca,” and “Penelope.” The auditory dimensions of language are most prominently presented in “Sirens” but permeate the entire book, and the relationship of literature and reader take center stage in “Scylla and Charybdis.” The documented nature of Joyce’s composition of Ulysses, the schemata, and the emergence of genetic criticism raise questions about Joyce’s own linguistic activity and its connection to his works and to language activation in the neurological patterns of humans in general.

Further questions arise about Joyce’s earlier work and how his observation of linguistic activity in Dubliners and Portrait established the ground work for Ulysses. Joyce’s own experiential complexity, especially in relation to his problems with physical sight, suggests his heightened awareness of the senses and the neurological components of language and reading. Perhaps most challenging of all is how Finnegans Wake—in concept, genesis, and its presented complete form—extends the perspectives and discoveries of neuroesthetics into their most radical expression. [End Page 235]

At the level of conceptual characterization, one overarching question emerges: What is the framework for the Joycean world and, by extension, the world of the reader and the society within and beyond the works? Derrida called Joyce a one-thousandth generation computer in his essay “Two Words for Joyce.”20 This parallel of complex technology to Joycean art is appealing, at first. However, while the computer is in some ways similar to humans, we are variable organisms, not automatic and predictable, not electrical and mechanical objects. The model of the neurological organism promises to be a more flexible and open-ended concept than the computer as we know it. Of course, neurological models will emerge as more medical and scientific research explores the labyrinth of human physiological and cultural development, but certain central effects of encountering Joyce’s world as a reflection of our own will continue to pose enigmas. Why do we laugh? Why do we cry? How does memory operate? What is ambiguity? Why can knowledge never be stable or complete? And what tells us that we are human? At least provisionally, the idea of a neurological organism may seem more flexible and adaptive, less certain but more open than the computer as a model of a human being.

My hope in this essay is to have raised questions and observations about how an awareness of aspects of neurology, and particularly the processes of reading, increases our understanding of central arenas of Joyce’s work and of our own creative involvement with them. As in Finnegans Wake, where the end circles back on the beginning, the encounter with Joyce’s work always returns us to fundamental questions.

Tom Simone

Tom Simone is Professor of English at the University of Vermont. He has published books on Shakespeare’s narrative poetry in relation to the plays and a collaborative book on the origins of the Western Tradition, as well as essays on filmed Shakespeare, Joyce, Beckett, the history of recorded classical music, and pedagogy in the humanities. He has also published translations with commentary of Dante’s Inferno (2007) and Purgatorio (2013). He is currently working on a translation of Dante’s Paradiso and a book on Joyce and the neurology of language.


1. Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses” and Other Writings (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 21.

2. Jonah Lehmann, Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2007), 75–95.

3. See Gordon M. Shepherd, “Flavor and Memory: Activating Proust’s Brain” in Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 174–83.

4. Stanislaw Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of Human Invention (New York: Viking, 2009). Subsequent references to this work are cited parenthetically in the text.

5. Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain from Vienna 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House, 2012).

6. Noted by Geert Lernout, “The Beginning” in How Joyce Wrote “Finnegans Wake,” ed. Luca Crispi and Sam Slote (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 58.

7. Oliver Sacks, “A Man of Letters,” The New Yorker (June 28, 2010): 22–30. Interestingly, Sacks himself has difficulty with face recognition, which in part led to his investigations into neurological narratives.

8. The continuing contemplation on mind and neurology can be seen in Searle’s recent review of Christof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012) in The New York Review of Books LX, no. 1 (Jan. 10, 2013): 54–60. Searle argues as a philosopher of mind for the neurological foundation of consciousness and, hence, of language.

9. Eric R. Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York: Norton, 2007).

10. Eric R. Kandel et al., Principles of Neural Science, 5th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2012), 3.

12. V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: Norton, 2012).

13. There may be hints of children’s games in elements of Finnegans Wake in this episode.

14. Quoted by Lehmann, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 97.

15. See Kandel on the Kanizsa Triangle illusion in Age of Insight, 211.

16. See Finn Fordham’s introduction to Finnegans Wake, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxxiii–xxxiv.

17. Patrick A. McCarthy discusses some of the characteristics of the nature of print in the book in “Ulysses and the Printed Page” in Joyce’s “Ulysses”: the Larger Perspective, ed. Robert D. Newman and Thornton Wilder (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 59–73. McCarthy notes the role of printed format, its centrality in Ulysses, and its ambiguous relation to spoken language and an assumed public accuracy. Among the dimensions not addressed are the situation and dynamism of linguistic activity in the mobile neurological processing of language in all of its manifestations.

18. See Jeri Johnson’s comment on the original printing of Ulysses by Darantière in the Oxford World Classics edition. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xlv.

19. Quoted in Ellmann (JJ 505). While this sentence comes in a passage related to Dublin and its nature as representative of all cities, it applies in striking ways to Joyce’s specific evocation of the smallest human mental events and the prospects of the neurology of language.

20. “Two Words for Joyce” in Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French, ed. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 147–48.

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