ULYSSES pp. 37-40, “Proteus”

By JERRY GRIT

I only managed 4 pages tonight. I forgot how, although short, “Proteus” was one of the more difficult episodes in Ulysses and how it’s usually at this point most Ulysses readers become Ulysses readers no more. 

If you take anything from this post, let it be simply this: don’t give up.

Here’s the twreading I managed for these pages, and it’s hopelessly incomplete:

  • P37. SD walking on strand, attempts 2 reach essence of reality beyond protean sight&sound. A lonely egghead. Sees nurse who delivered him.
  • P38. SD thinks: umbilical as phone line 2 Eve; the inconsequence of his parents. Remembers: Deasy’s letter; 12:30 meet @bar; visit w/aunt.
  • P39: SD imagines dad mocking aunt’s family. Recalls past visit. Uncle Rich a bedridden opera-loving drunk, son Walt studders. SD’s ashamed.
  • P40. SD still lost in thought, mocks own rebelliousness, earnestness & ambition. Recalls own perverted prayers 2 see naked ladies.

We are at the last chapter in Ulysses’ Telemachiad, the 3 chapters focused on Stephen Dedalus. And in this culminating chapter of the first part, we get a very up-close experience of Stephen and his machinations of his mind. 

Instead explaining the protean hodgepodge of esoterica that constitutes Stephen’s thoughts (everything from Aristotle, heretics in the early Catholic Church, Italian mystical views of history)–which I don’t think I could do competently, anyways–I find it far more worthwhile to think about this chapter more in terms of  how it develops Stephen’s character. 

His thoughts on Aristotle, Church history, all his studies in Paris, all add up to convey his sense of disconnectedness and isolation. He can’t get past sight and sound to penetrate the eternal essence, to connect. 

He can’t even find connection to his own family. He thinks of his father as  (in Blamires’ words) “a meaningless physical coincidence.” And he’s ashamed of his mother’s sister (Aunt Sara) and her sad family. 

He realizes he can find no inspiration or beauty in what’s he’s studied or his own family, and devolves into a torrent of self-mockery. 

And because he’s an egghead, his thoughts, his mockery are all constituted by arcane references. He’s trying really hard to be clever, and we shouldn’t be intimidated or turned off by this cleverness. We should instead understand how he makes it difficult for anyone to like him.

The takeaway for us should be: he’s a lonely, smart, sensitive dude who is unfulfilled by his studies, alienated and ashamed of his family.

You can try to throw your life away and try to figure out all the references, but it may drive you nuts. I would advise to give it a good effort and turn the page. There is so much more ahead which won’t require you caring about a heretic who died of bowel trouble in 336 AD.

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4 Responses

  1. This is nowhere in the annotations or commentaries, but I’d venture a guess that Stephen’s favorite musical artist is Morrissey.

  2. I’m not going to lie, I haven’t read these pages yet. But I was thinking of something as I was reading JG’s post – the disappointed bridge.

    Forgive me if we’ve already touched on this aspect of it or if it’s too obvious. I know that Ben mentioned that the pier or disappointed bridge was a metaphor for Stephen’s failed attempt to escape from Ireland. Perhaps in addition to that, it is also a metaphor for Stephen himself.

    As JG put it:

    He can’t get past sight and sound to penetrate the eternal essence, to connect.

    That sounds pretty pier-ish to me, at least from JG’s post. He is out in the middle of the abyss, unable to connect.

  3. This is where the Homeric parallels kick in, and a handy crib sheet on this episode is at
    http://home.wlv.ac.uk/~fa1871/joynote.html#prot.
    Does anyone know – is this the first example in English literature of stream of consciousness writing? Crazy it is, and hard to understand, but I think it’s brilliant the way that Joyce has captured the way minds wander incoherently from one idea to another at random…

  4. There was a lot of experimenting with the form, probably more properly called internal monologue. You see it in Dostoyevsky, Hamsum, Proust… and Joyce read them (though I think he got to Proust after Ulysses). But Joyce definitely takes it to a whole new level.

    Thanks for the link to the Notes. I added it to our resources.

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