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  • Livid Time:Time, Tenses, and Temporal Deixis in Ulysses
  • Teresa Prudente

I begin this essay with the Joycean portrayal of time as a "livid final flame" (Ulysses 2.7–10, 15.4238–44) in order to explore how Ulysses enacts the dialectics between time and tenses. I relate the implications arising from the above metaphor to Gerald Prince's notion of the disnarrated, "all the events that do not happen but, nonetheless, are referred to (in a negative or hypothetical mode) by the narrative text" (2). The connection between the disnarrated and the novel's deployment of tenses makes Ulysses a revealing case study for the relation between narrated and experienced time. As I shall show, instances of the disnarrated in Joyce disclose the mechanisms essential to the "world-making" function of narrative, "its ability to transport interpreters from the here and now of face-to-face interaction … to the here and now that constitute the deictic centre of the world being told about" (Herman 14). More specifically, Ulysses deploys the idea that narrative proceeds, as the "Nestor" chapter affirms, with the constant ousting of "infinite possibilities" (Ulysses 2.50–51). In the Joycean text these possibilities are not erased from narration, but feature in the form of a constant background of potential alternatives "not to be thought away" (2.49). The disnarrated is not only present as a thematic concern, but operates, more pervasively and subtlely, to structure the syntax and the tense system of key passages. My analysis of the novel's deployment of tenses, and its relationship to Finnegans Wake, shows how Joyce's temporal reconfigurations reinvent the main notions on which the [End Page 1] fictive experience of time is founded: history versus discourse, re-counting as implying sequentiality, and the relationship between linguistic categories and the human perception of time.

"Time's livid final flame": the Milton-Blake-Stephen connection

In "Nestor," the image of time as a "livid final flame" is famously incorporated into Stephen's reference to William Blake:

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?


Joyce reuses Blakean material from different sources (Gifford 30) to evoke an apocalyptic vision conveying and questioning the way in which, in the Blakean prophecy, "the ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity" (Letters 43). Remarkably, the very distinct "livid final flame" is nowhere to be found in Blake, who, in accordance with his vision of hell as the place of release for the true human energies and potentialities, depicts fire and flames as "crimson" and "flaming" (Marriage of Heaven and Hell 34, 10). Beside pointing to a set of antinomian reverberations, such as the pair vivid/livid, Joyce's choice of qualifier also signifies deprivation of light, a so far undetected allusion to Milton's vision of Hell as "the seat of desolation, voyd of light, / save the glimmering of these livid flames / casts pale and dreadful" (Paradise Lost I, 181–83, emphasis added).1 By conflating, in "Nestor," both authors' opposite conceptions of hell and sin from a theological (and anti-theological) point of view, Joyce permits the two extremes of mortal time to converge. Milton's and Blake's portrayals of hell capture two symmetrically opposed temporal loci which emerge from the background of eternal time to represent, respectively, the beginning and the end of mortal time. In Paradise Lost, livid flames characterize the place where Satan is thrown in eternal damnation when "mortal taste / Brought Death into the World" (I, 2–3), while The Marriage of Heaven and Hell envisions the end of mortal time, when "the world will be consumed in fire" and "the whole creation will … appear infinite and holy [End Page 2] whereas it now appears finite & corrupt" (25). Such opposite perspectives on eternity and damnation combine with a third, implied in the intertextual reference contained in "livid." As John Rickard notes, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young...


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