Tuesday, March 13, 2007
The Sea, The Sea: “Ulysses” vs. “To the Lighthouse”
Recently, in my Modernism class, I gave students two brief passages relating to the sea to discuss, one from Joyce’s Ulysses, and the other from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The similarities in the theme of the two passages helps provide an anchor for comparison; I’m curious to know what readers of The Valve think.
Here’s a passage from the end of Section I of Joyce’s Ulysses ("Telemachus"):
Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.
A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay beneath him, a bowl of bitter waters. Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. Silent with awe and pity I went to her bedside. She was crying in her wretched bed. For those words, Stephen: love’s bitter mystery.
And here’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:
So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that. And as happens sometimes when the weather is very fine, the cliffs looked as if they were conscious of the cliffs, as if they signaled to each other some message of their own. For sometimes quite close to the shore, the Lighthouse looked this morning in the haze an enormous distance away.
‘Where are they now?’ Lily thought, looking out to sea. Where was he, that very old man who had gone past her silently, holding a brown paper parcel under his arm? The boat was in the middle of the bay.
This comes from near the end of To the Lighthouse, after Mrs. Ramsay’s death. Lily has been working on her painting near the Ramsay’s summer house, while Mr. Ramsay, Cam, and James have gone on a day-trip to a lighthouse that is distant, but visible from where Lily sits. Augustus Carmichael has remained on shore with her, and figures here as the “very old man who had gone past her silently.”
Both Woolf and Joyce aim to find meanings and moods in the landscape that are psychic rather than objectively descriptive. Both short passages also contain some kind of emotional or subjective turn, leading to a question ("Where now?"/"Where are they now?"). But the two passages also show important differences in Woolf’s and Joyce’s respective styles, along the lines of sentence structure, associational logic (i.e., how the mind goes from point to point), as well as the sound of the prose.
Both Woolf and Joyce trade in moods, animating nature with reflections of human emotion. But Woolf’s aim is to create a singular image (a “fabric") of sea and sky, while Joyce seems more interested in doublings, pairings, and rhythm. Woolf meditates on the disappearance of the other through distance, while Joyce weaves the music of spoken language with the sound of water: “wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.”
Other interpretations? Are there parallels (or telling dissimilarities) I’ve missed? Also, are there other examples (as in, published scholarship) where people have compared Woolf and Joyce?
[Incidentally, both books are available online as etexts.]
Two great passages, Amardeep. I think it’s worth noting that the Joyce passage represents Stephen Dedalus’s sensibility (it occurs in his “voice-zone,” as Bakhtin would say), and Stephen is hyper-verbal and hyper-intellectual: in the schema Joyce produced to tag the various episodes, there’s (uniquely) no organ of the body associated with the first three Stephen-based scenes. So the mental ordering and associating of this scene is, I think, characteristic of Stephen rather than of a more general Joycean narrativity. Conversely, the scene from To the Lighthouse gives us Lily’s very different sensibility, which yields a more sensuous imagistic account: this is how a painter sees the landscape (rather than a philosophically and theologically trained mind like that of Charles Tansley or Mr. Ramsay in this book, or like that of Stephen in Ulysses). So I don’t think this is Joycean narration versus Woolfian narration so much as two very different characters whose sensoria interact differently with the natural environment.
First, hope you had a good Auden centennial? Out of curiosity, did you write/publish anything connected with it? (A radio producer emailed me a couple of weeks ago, and I gave them your name as someone who might be a good guest, but I think they canned the “Auden at 100” show idea)
On to Woolf/Joyce. I think it might be more precise of me to say that these are characteristic of these writers at this particular point in their respective careers. “Woolf” is my metonym for “To the Lighthouse” and “Joyce” for “Ulysses.”
I do, however, think these passages are pretty representative of the general stylistic differences of these texts. While the theme of the Woolf passage (the painterly response to the sea and sky that you allude to) is uniquely Lily’s, I think the blurring of voices and thought-processes in Woolf’s novel can be widespread. Especially between Mrs. R. ("before") and Lily B. ("after"). At some points in the passages around this one, it sometimes seems as if Lily is talking to Mrs. R. (i.e., she is the Lighthouse; she is the being at a distance), while at other moments it seems as if she is Mrs. R.
Joyce’s voices are admittedly much more distinct from one another. However, the paratactical flow of the sentences here seems to be present in both the Telemachiad and the first six or so Bloom episodes. Though the “organs” are different (and Bloom is much less verbal/textual and much more material), I also think Stephen’s quick associational shifts and general receptiveness to a thousand little shifts here (i.e., his “lack of focus") resembles Bloom’s at certain points.
In short, I think this passage is pretty representative of the first half of “Ulysses” as well.
The last chapter of Michael Levenson’s Character and the Fate of Individuality does a comparative reading of Woolf and Joyce and is well worth checking out, though it’s less the close reading of passages you’re doing here and more a comparison of overall projects. I think these are pretty representative passages from the two authors, and it’s right to note the more self-consciously literary (or “written") aspect of the Joyce passage; not only does the alliteration and syntax call much more attention to itself, but the Fergus song gives an early flash of intertextuality.
Dim, cover, shadowing—Stephen’s gaze doesn’t get far, does it? By contrast #2 seems like a standard Woolfian device: a large unbearably sunlit tableau, seen clearly by someone who does her best to read it.
#2 is almost too reminiscent of the opening of Dalloway—the smoke in the sky and signs being sent back and forth that one can’t quite read. Another obvious comparison would be that dinner in Lighthouse, with Lily and Mrs. Ramsay as skilled social observers or what’s going on around them.
"Dim, cover, shadowing—Stephen’s gaze doesn’t get far, does it?”
IIRC, Stephen has broken his glasses.
“Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him…
Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen’s peering eyes.
-- The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror[Mulligan]” ...Telemachus
Several things in Proteus;maybe the scene with the sister at the bookcart
Amardeep, there’s definitely something to the general traits you assign these authors, but I guess I’d still want to press for certain distinctions. You’re certainly right that Stephen and Joyce share “quick associational shifts and general receptiveness to a thousand little shifts,” but I think Joyce would want to say that we all do, that that’s how verbal consciousness works: paratactically. But the counters are different: the ideas and images that Stephen’s consciousness flits among are very different from Bloom’s. Stephen would never wonder how he looks to a cat, or whether statues have anal orifices; Bloom wouldn’t associate the sea with highly literary poems, or describe it in kenning-compounds that echo Anglo-Saxon and (especially) Greek poetry. So I tend to think of those differences in consciousness-content as more important than the universal associative functioning of the mind. But of course “importance” varies according to context and purpose. And the differences aren’t absolute: as I’m sure you know, “A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly” is repeated verbatim when Bloom sees the same phenomenon a few episodes later, and the clouding causes both men to think of death.
I’m still trying to work out the relationship between Woolf as a verbal artist and Lily as a visual one—that’s a complex matter.
(Oh, and the centenary of Uncle Wystan was celebrated with great festivity in my house. I haven’t written about it yet, but I am going to write something about the various centenary essays I’ve read. Very meta of me, I know.)
“A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly” is repeated verbatim when Bloom sees the same phenomenon a few episodes later, and the clouding causes both men to think of death.
FWIW, which isn’t much, since I have to look up paratactical, I consider the quote above to be a complete authorial intrusion, and intended to be noticed as such. Bloom does not “think” that way. Joyce put a lot of these discontinuities into the text, along with the schema, in order to help the reader understand Ulysses is not a naturalist or realist novel, and that what you are reading are not actually a fictional character’s thoughts, and that Joyce does not think people “think this way.” It is art, not science.
Joyce is closer to Mann than Wolff, and we do not think of Zauberberg or Faustus as realist novels. Mann’s characters are placeholders, not attempts at the creation of persons. Joyce simply uses more apparently concrete words and materials for his ultimately abstract purposes. Joyce’s materiality of language is intended not to map ideas onto an actual (or represented) Dublin and inhabitants, but to demonstrate that Dublin is merely another idea.
Bloom is no more “real” than Anna Livia Plurabelle.