This is the first of (at least) two posts on Joyce, Ulysses, and simultaneity.

Throughout Ulysses, moments of synchronization occur which allow the reader to align the narrated events within the sequence of narrative time. Perhaps the first of these is the cloud which passes over Stephen Dedalus in the first episode, which reappears in fourth episode, allowing us to synchronize the events in the Stephen narrative with those in the Bloom narrative (references are to the Gabler edition, episode & line numbers):

  • A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. (1.248 - 49)
  • A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, wholly. Grey. Far. (4.218)

The "Wandering Rocks" episode, however, is surely the most extreme of such instance. Its nineteen sections follow different characters around Dublin during a single period of time. (The time covered in each of the sections, however, is surely not equal or isomorphic.) Certain figures move through the episode allowing one to place the events in one section in relation to other sections: the wanderings of the "mad" (quick, someone, grab Madness and Civilization) Cashel Boyle O'Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell, or the progress of the crumpled piece of paper stating "Elijah is coming" wending its way down the Liffey, or the blind stripling (who will continue to play this synchronizing role in the next episode as well). These characters movements provide some anchors. Places also help the reader begin to make sense of moving set of characters. Both Bloom and Stephen, for instance, end up at the same book stall (Stephen arriving after Bloom has departed). And if you knew the geography of Dublin's streets, one imagines, one could locate the characters in relation to one another even more precisely (about which more in my next post). The most radical and disorienting technique of synchronization, however, are the small pieces of one section which intrude into another, allowing the reader a sort of anchor or bookmark (or even link) which indicates that these two events are occurring simultaneously.

While device of these fragments from one section appearing in another, divorced from their proper context, may be a bit disorienting, effect itself feels quite familiar. Though unusual in prose narrative, this sort of thing is quite familiar in film and television. What better way to wrap up a one hour crime drama than to cut in sequence from the criminal doing his perp-walk, the detective crossing his/her arms over his/her chest in satisfaction, and the victim doing some everyday activity which suggests the closure they now feel. (I am thinking here, primarily, of shows like The Mentalist or Cold Case, rather than, for instance, the Law and Order franchise.) A related example too complicated to really fold into this discussion is the infamous scene in Magnolia which plays with these conventions by offering a comparable survey of characters in a moment of time, complicated by the fact that the characters break the film's diegesis in order sing along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up.

In film & television we understand intuitively the meaning and purpose of this device. "Ah, we're seeing all these characters while they play this pop song so that I know the episode is ending, and all is right with the world again." But what is its function in Ulysses and in "Wandering Rocks"? Nabokov, in passing, compares "Wandering Rocks" to the famous "agricultural fair" scene in Madame Bovary where Flaubert juxtaposes the fair with Rodolphe's wooing of Emma. That sort of juxtaposition, however, feels (to continue my tenuous film analogies) seems more like the crosscuts between the baptism and the murders in The Godfather (the link is to the Spike TV page—the only place I could find this scene online).

Temporal simultaneity is not really the object of these contrasts though; instead they contrast the content of what is juxtaposed: Rodolphe's lofty Romantic rhetoric and the crude materiality of the fair; the high ceremony of the baptism with the violence of Michael Corleone's power grab. The 19 mini-narratives of "Wandering Rocks" do not serve to highlight some relationship between what happens in each of them.

Nor are these "Nineteen Ways of Looking at a City," but one attempt to bring a single massive object with reach of apprehension. In some novels (an epistolary novel like The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker or in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or even The Sound and the Fury), one sees the same event from different perspectives; the effect can be comic or tragic. But the focus is ultimately on character and interpretation. This is not the case, however, in "Wandering Rocks."

Instead, there is a sort of brute empiricism to the audacity of "Wandering Rocks." It tries to occupy a sort of God's eye view and simply report everything that is happening. In my reading, trying to keep track of where each character is located and what they are doing (and when) is like trying to troubleshoot a complex mechanism. You try to hold within your understanding the many different states of the mechanism, in order to follow its logic and diagnose some problem.

And maybe this "mechanical" feeling isn't totally ungrounded or irrelevant. One source for Joyce's interest in trying to capture simultaneous actions (perhaps) lies in technological developments. Consider a far less radical instance of Joyce's interest in simultaneity: the close of "The Dead." As Gabriel Conroy looks out the window after hearing his wife's recollection of Michael Furey, Joyce writes in the story's concluding paragraph (quoted in part):

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark . . . Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.

Here too what Joyce is interested in simultanaeity—in using a single moment to bring together different locations. Here, of course, the snow which falls alike on the "living and the dead," brings together Gabriel Conroy with the memory of Michael Furey, upsetting Gabriel's sense of himself and his marriage in the process. But Gabriel's ability to experience this connection to Michael Furey's grave is mediated by the newspapers which forecast "snow... general all over Ireland." Weather forecasts were themselves a product of the use telegraph communications to pass observations about weather conditions elsewhere. It has been suggested (I think; no reference ready to hand) that the telegram offers one source for the modernist fragment. Equally important, however, is the recognition of the changed spatio-temporal awareness introduced by telegraph—a phenomenon the manifestations of which may not always be obvious. (Are such concerns, we might ask, registered in "Proteus" where Stephen wonders about "space[s] of time" and "times of space," trying to reconcile Kant's two forms of pure intuition). In "Wandering Rocks" the effects of spatio-temporal collapse effected by the telegraph become the object of the prose itself, which in its dislocated fragments telegraphs points of synchronization between the nineteen sections.

(So, yeah; that last paragraph was some pretty reductive, technological determinism. You can figure our your own caveats, right?)

Outside prose, of course, the representation of simultaneous relationships that Joyce attempts in "Wandering Rocks" is much easier. In the next post (promised, dear reader, before week's end) I'll share my bumbling attempt to do precisely that in processing. Until then, two screenshots of my still-in-progress attempt.

[caption id="attachment_375" align="aligncenter" width="172" caption="A first visualization."]Visualization 1 of "Wandering Rocks"[/caption] [caption id="attachment_374" align="aligncenter" width="248" caption="A second visualization; this one interactive!"]Visualization 2 of "Wandering Rocks"[/caption]