The Frontal Cortex


Yesterday was Bloomsday – the day Leopold Bloom wandered around Dublin – and so I drank a pint of Guiness and read some Joyce. Now that Ulysses is part of the modernist canon it’s easy to forget what a radical shift in form and content the novel represented. (Even Virginia Woolf thought Joyce went too far: “I don’t believe that his method, which is highly developed, means much more than cutting out the explanations and putting in the thoughts between dashes,” she wrote.) Once upon a time, the mind was seen as a fundamentally coherent machine – our thoughts unfolded in logical chains, like a well constructed paragraph. Joyce realized this model of consciousness (and its representation in Victorian literature) was nonsense. Like the city itself, the brains his writing describes are “full of pebbles and rubbish and broken matches and bits of glass picked up ‘most everywhere.” He wanted his words to trace the barely coherent loom of Bloom, Stephen and Molly’s thoughts on Dublin and beauty and death and eggs in bed and the number eight. I picked up the book last night and was struck by this passage, which neatly summarizes the psychological cacophony that Joyce attempted to capture:

Memories beset her brooding brain. Her glass of water from the kitchen tap when he had approached the sacrament. A cored apple, filled with brown sugar, roasting for her at the hob on a dark autumn evening. Her shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children’s shirts.

This, Joyce says, is the broth of thought, the mind before punctuation, the Jamesian stream of consciousness rendered on the page. We now take the messiness of the mind for granted – at any given moment, you are a bundle of stray associations and fleeting sensations, bound together by the glue of attention – but it took an artist to reveal just how disordered and confused our inner thoughts actually are.

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  1. #1 Roland Branconnier
    June 18, 2009

    The human brain is a kluge. Is human thought and its stream of consciousness also a kluge? Ask Joyce.

  2. #2 Tim Hardy
    June 19, 2009

    Hi Jonah

    I’m rather taken by your description of this as “the mind before punctuation” – it reminds me of the following lines from one of the poems in Duemer’s collection “Magical Thinking”

    It amazes me to think that this is how we live.
    It amazes me to think
    at all for my sentences consist of junctures
    & pauses—the stutter

    of punctuation & the fussy politics of grammar.

    Not Knowing (after Rumi), Joseph Duemer< .b>

    For every dozen Blooms, perhaps, there is an over-educated intellectual struggling to free their thoughts from a self-imposed grammatical censor.

    Glad to have discovered your blog. I’ve recently finished Stuart Sutherland’s “Rationality” and will definitely take a look at both of your books.

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