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Was James Joyce the Greatest Mind-Scientist Ever?

Was James Joyce the Greatest Mind-Scientist Ever?

I bought a Kindle recently, and excitedly downloaded free stuff: Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (not as good as I remembered), stories of H.P. Lovecraft (like a parody of Poe, but good for bedtime) and, finally, James Joyce’s Ulysses, released in full (a journal published chunks beginning in 1918) in 1922. I trekked through Ulysses in college 30 years ago under professorial guidance and wanted to revisit it to see how it holds up.

 It holds up just fine. In fact, I’m digging Ulysses so much that I must foist an appreciation of it on you. Joyce did something that still feels fresh and revolutionary, although it has inspired countless imitations. He put us inside the head of another human, in a way no one had done before. We eavesdrop on someone’s thoughts as though they are being telepathically transmitted into our brain. Joyce was not a theorist of mind but he was an exceptional observer of it, far more so than any scientist. He helped us become more aware of our awareness.

I’ve written about the problem of solipsism, how each of us is trapped in a hermetically sealed chamber of his or her own subjective awareness. Joyce knocks a hole in the prison of our selves so that we can peer into the mind of another person. We can never really know what it is like to be a bat or cat, but thanks to Joyce we have a better idea what it is like to be a human being.

Joyce had scientific precursors. William James, in the late 19th century, drew attention to the weird nature of consciousness. It is not a train—a collection of objects moving through space—but a stream, James said. And thoughts are not like atoms or protons, uniform and durable; they are evanescent, ever-changing, slip-sliding into each other. Another precursor of Joyce was Freud, who held that deep down we are nasty, horny creatures, much more so we realize or care to admit.

James and Freud merely told us these things about ourselves. Joyce showed us, dramatizing the scientists’ hypotheses about the nature of mind. Joyce’s novel has the vivid immediacy of a first-person video game, with extra screens for memory and fantasy. Joyce immerses us in the streaming thoughts of his characters, thoughts that swirl, cascade, eddy, ebb, rush onward, colliding with and swerving around the hard facts—the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, people and places—of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

Joyce’s characters—Stephen Dedalus, a young, intellectually pretentious teacher and would-be writer (modeled after Joyce himself); Leopold Bloom, a Jewish ad salesman, father and husband; Molly Bloom, his cheating, songstress spouse—are in many respects exotic, idiosyncratic, especially to an American reading in the 21st century. And yet these fictional humans feel real and universal.

Joyce reveals—revels in—the animality of his characters. Bloom pisses, poops, gobbles, swills, haggles, preens, cringes, lusts, jerks off. Joyce was a taboo-buster not for its own sake but in the service of truth, of reportorial accuracy. Unlike gloomy, judgmental Freud, however, Joyce was fond of his fellow humans, in spite of all our flaws. Bloom, my favorite character, is timid, scheming, lecherous, gluttonous, but also noble, brave, generous, loving, dignified. He’s tragic and comic, brooding one moment about the suicide of his father and the death of his baby son and the next hungering for a piece of cheese or ogling a babe on the street.

Joyce reminds me of comedian Louie C.K., whose jokes about masturbation and farts segue into riffs on death, heartbreak and loneliness, and whose overall philosophy seems to be: Life sucks sometimes, but it can be pretty great, too, and so funny! Real wisdom should put a smile on your face.

Joyce achieved a kind of hyper-realism, rendering the experience of ordinary awareness so faithfully that other depictions seem quaintly artificial, like medieval paintings before artists mastered perspective. Ulysses accomplishes this feat while constantly reminding you of—even rubbing your face in—its artificiality, its existence as an elaborate literary composition, like Hamlet or the Odyssey (which provided Joyce with a template for his work).

As Joyce would be the first to admit, the mirror that he holds up to nature is distorted, blurred, cracked, as all representations—whether scientific or literary, fictional or factual—must be. Joyce’s mirror is made of words, and some intuitions, intentions, desires, anxieties flit through the gaps between words. They are inexpressible, or ineffable, to use James’s term.

Also, Ulysses ain’t everyone’s cup o’ tea. Virginia Woolf, another modernist master, was unimpressed, once complaining, “I don’t know that [Joyce has] got anything very interesting to say, and after all the pissing of a dog isn’t very different from the pissing of a man.” Some feminists view Molly’s sexy soliloquy, which concludes Ulysses—and which I consider to be a masterpiece within a masterpiece–as an all-too-male fantasy of a female mind.

But to my mind, Joyce exemplifies Noam Chomsky’s dictum that we will always learn more about ourselves from literature than from science. In the 90 years since Ulysses was published, scientists have not progressed much toward a theory of consciousness. Hence the persistence of creaky old paradigms like psychoanalysis and even behaviorism, which assumes, absurdly, that mind doesn’t matter. Although Joyce didn’t offer a theory of consciousness, he gave us a better sense of what consciousness is, and for that we should be grateful.

Postscript: Joyce has been in the news lately. Louis Menand just wrote a fine piece on Joyce in The New Yorker, as did Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books. And mega-bestselling author Paul Coelho recently suggested that he is a better writer than Joyce, provoking a British blogger to call Coelho’s work “a nauseous broth of egomania and snake-oil mysticism with slightly less intellect, empathy and verbal dexterity than the week-old camembert I threw out yesterday.”