Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Two Passages Briefly Compared: "Ulysses" and "To the Lighthouse"

This spring I'm teaching a course on Modernism, and I have many things I've been hoping to post about.

One topic we discussed might be described as "comparative stream of consciousness," though I generally don't emphasize the term "stream-of-consciousness" very much, since it is virtually impossible to define satisfactorily. In-class, I gave students two passages relating to the sea, one from Joyce's Ulysses, and the other from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

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.

Where now?

Joyce caresses the music of the "wh" sound; this is virtually poetry. (Incidentally, at the end there, Stephen is beginning to remember the death of his mother.)

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, theme, and 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 grandeur, 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?

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Falstaff said...

I think you get at some of this by highlighting the point about Woolf going after a singular image while Joyce doubles and repeats, but I think there's a sense in which the two are dealing in very different types of consciousness.

Joyce is more instinctive - in the passage you quote everything's in soft focus - things float and shimmer - mind and nature have blended into a kind of mutual sub-consciousness. The hand is plucking the harpstrings, but it's just playing chords absently, not necessarily playing a tune. It's an effect he creates with the fragmentary nature of the phrases.

In Woolf, by contrast, everything has agency. The cliffs are conscious and trying to communicate. The steamer is drawing things in the air. This is more a projection of the mind / self on the landscape than it is a blending of the two together. There's just so much more conscious thought here, and it's reflected in the writing.

Maybe I'm exaggerating. Personally, I've always experienced and reacted to Woolf and Joyce very differently. I worship her and like him in small doses without being a huge fan.

9:20 PM  
Amelie-Freak said...

The sea figures prominently in much of Woolf's prose, and To the Lighthouse is no exception. The passage you gave your students from Woolf contains softer sounds than the passage from Joyce, and in retrospect, both of those novels are meditations at differing streams of consciousness (as mentioned by Falstaff). The water of Joyce's prose swells and veers wickedly into a prose-poem, as you cite, and the fragmentary sentences mimic the lapping of constant waves. There's a crisis that isn't laid to rest, a creative maelstrom about to brew as Stephen is hurled further into the world and a storm appears to gather. Meanwhile, Lily's ruminations are soft, calm, questioning and yet, understanding: the cliffs "signal" messages. In Woolf's construction of the world, nature is a brute force that nonetheless makes complete sense, a hierarchy present in the Ramsay family.

Dilletante thoughts from a frequent reader and rare commenter.

10:41 PM  

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