Proteus, the god of "elusive sea change"
Here we are again, climbing Mt. Ulysses. The end of the three episodes of Part One, the "Telemechiad", is a good place to catch our breath.
We have discussed "Telemachus" and "Nestor", episodes one and two, here. They describe the early and mid-morning of the young intellectual, Stephen Dedalus. Joyce has cast Stephen in the role of Homer's Telemachus, son of Ulysses, who goes on a journey to find his missing father. Stephen wakes up after spending the night in a Martello Tower rented by his ersatz friend Buck Mulligan. Buck's bullying and cajoling gets on Stephen's nerves and he vows to sleep elsewhere in future. Stephen goes on to teach a history class to a group of upper class boys in the school run by Mr. Deasey. Joyce has cast Mr. Deasey as a father-figure and mentor to Stephen. In Homer's Odyssey, Telemachus seeks out Nestor, a wise old man and friend of his father for advice on how to find the missing Ulysses. In Stephen's mind, his "Nestor" is a fool and a cranky old man. Mr. Deasey gives Stephen a letter he wants published in the prominent Dublin newspapers and he hopes Stephen will pass it along to some of his journalist friends.
Episode three, "Proteus", finds Stephen walking along the beach at Sandymount Strand. He is killing time between his teaching gig and an appointment at The Ship pub where he is meeting Buck Mulligan for lunch and a drink.
"Proteus" is the chapter that usually turns off new readers to Joyce and is where I have given up more than once. It is so multi-layered it took Frank Delaney 67 episodes to cover it. Mind you, these are weekly episodes, so more than one year! Delaney says that Joyce once told a friend he wanted "the professors to spend three hundred years figuring out Ulysses". I have twice read through "Proteus" and have listened to all of the podcasts and will now do my best to give you a summary. This is based on Delaney's episode 157 where he outlines the major themes of the story so far and how they relate to Stephen's actions on the beach in "Proteus".
We already know about Joyce using Homer's Odyssey as a loose framework for the plot of Ulysses. Whereas Telemachus was looking for his actual father, Stephen is looking for a father-figure. His own father is alive and well but Stephen has rejected him as a basically worthless human being. The father-son relationship is a major theme in Ulysses. Joyce touches on Hamlet's quest to avenge the death of his own father, Christianity's trinity -- Father, Son, Holy Ghost -- and on Stephen's grief upon the recent death of his mother.
Joyce referred to this episode as "Proteus" because it is about the sea and about change, which creates uncertainty. While walking on the beach, Stephen is doing some major navel gazing. His inner thoughts, in a stream of consciousness form, are interspersed with Joyce's narrative and it is sometimes very confusing which is which. Here he sees a dog trotting along the shore:
"Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull...He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. On a field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired. At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from father out, waves and waves."
The first, fourth, and maybe the last sentence are Stephen's thoughts, the rest are Joyce's narrative. See what I mean?
Like Joyce, Stephen has very poor eyesight. He has lost his spectacles, so everything appears as if in a mist. It is mid-day, when sunlight creates a sort of "miasma" along the shore, so Stephen finds everything sort of undefined. His mind goes off to Aristotle and his writing about how we perceive the physical world through our senses. The idea of "if you can't see something, does it exist?". Like the "if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound?". Stephen closes his eyes and thinks about what he smells and hears. This leads to hazy snatches of memory about the time he spent in Paris where he met a friend of his fathers, an old Irish bomb thrower, Kevin Egan. He imagines a visit to his Uncle who lives nearby on Sandymount Strand. He thinks he sees two midwives and wonders if they are burying a dead fetus on the beach. He imagines Eve who had no navel. Then he thinks of the umbilical cord as a telephone line to "Edenville".
Delaney points out that Joyce is a master of "show don't tell" writing. Here is his description of a gypsy couple Stephen sees scavenging shellfish on the beach:
"Shouldering their bags they trudged, the red Egyptians. His blued feet out of turnedup trousers slapped the clammy sand, a dull brick muffler strangling his unshaven neck. With woman steps she followed: the ruffian and his strolling mort. Spoils slung at her back. Loose sand and shellgrit crusted her bare feet. About her windraw face her hair trailed."
Word combinations, like "turnedup" written as one word convey a visual image of the man, as does "windraw" used to describe the woman's face. OMG Joyce. And, I just realized, OMG Dylan Thomas ("a springful of larks in a rolling cloud..." and "the heron priested shore"). I think I am beginning to understand "show don't tell".
Since I do not want to spend three hundred years writing this post, and you, dear reader, do not want to spend three hundred years reading it, I will not recount the hundreds of other thoughts in Stephen's mind as he ambles along the beach, takes a break, sits on a rock, ruminates, masturbates, urinates, and picks his nose. Yes, really. I admit that I did not recognize the bodily functions as such on my first read through. Suffice to say, there is no doubt this is definitely Mt. Ulysses at its most steep.
Delaney concludes his summary by saying that at the end of this chapter, we "know who we are dealing with". From now on, when Stephen appears in the story, we will recognized who he is because we know him, we know what to expect. Joyce has given us a complete characterization.
And, finally, we are free to meet the next and even more major character. Coming up -- our introduction to Leopold Bloom.