Kate Topper's "Ineluctable modality of the visible"

"Ineluctable modality of the visible . . . No, agallop: deline the mare" (Ulysses 3.1-24).

    Throughout "Proteus," the third chapter of Ulysses, Joyce focuses on the problem of how we may know about the world outside of us through the experiences of our senses. In the first paragraph of this chapter, he invokes Aristotle as "the Master of those who know" ("maestro di color che sanno"), using Aristotle's ideas about sensory perception in order to discuss problem of the changing nature of what we know and of our ability to "know" anything except through signs.

    In the opening sentences of "Proteus," Joyce begins the process of constant transformation that characterizes the chapter by translating all of Stephen's sensory experiences into text. In many respects, this chapter is about the process of reading; about the ways in which we might understand the outside world through the experience of text; and Joyce emphasizes his reader's dependence on language from the very beginning by establishing Stephen as both barrier and necessary intermediary between our understanding of Stephen's sensory experience and the experience itself.

    The first paragraph is largely concerned with limits and liminality, with the way in which information about the outside world enters Stephen's mind through his body: "Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door" (Ulysses 3.7-9). Just as Stephen's body is the barrier between his mind and the outside world, Stephen's text is the barrier between his experiences and our understanding of them, and the question is one of how permeable this barrier is, how trustworthy our intermediary is; in other words, can our five fingers reach through the gate, or is it a solid door?

    The first three sentences describe our experience of reading this chapter as much as they describe Stephen's own experience of the events in the chapter: "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs" (Ulysses 3.1-4). Here Stephen begins to break down the act of observing the world by translating everything around him into "signatures" through which he must read the world.

    This process of translation is necessarily reductive, for Stephen at least initially reduces the full experience of walking along the strand to its visual aspect alone; however, the process is even more reductive for his readers, for Joyce highlights here the extent to which we are removed from Stephen's experience and are absolutely dependent on his text to experience it even at all. While Stephen receives his impression of the strand through certain signs and signals; seaspawn, seawrack, the tide, a boot; our experience of Stephen's experience is reduced to the words "seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot" (Ulysses 3.2-3).

    We our reminded of our dependence on Stephen by his words in the first sentence: "thought through my eyes" (Ulysses, 3.1). Stephen, in other words, must mediate our experience of the strand (just as his body mediates the experience for him), and we are very much dependent upon his description of it. By refusing to describe his images of the strand with any more than very few words, Joyce strips the images bare, thus highlighting the fact that all we may truly see as we read about Stephen's experiences are words on a page.

    By the second paragraph Stephen has pulled himself somewhat closer to the experience of his reader. He commands himself at the end of the first paragraph to "Shut your eyes and see," so that whatever he may "see" now in his mind must be reconstructed from the information that his other senses provide. He describes himself to himself in order to achieve a mental image of himself: "You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. . . . My ash sword hangs at my side. . . . My two feet in his boots are at the ends of his legs, nebeneinander" (Ulysses 3.11-17). However, even with his eyes shut, Stephen makes it clear that his experience is more full than ours. A rhythm that he hears must become visual for us: "Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. Acatalectic tetrameter of iambs marching" (Ulysses 3.23-24). What we experience is ultimately text;as Stephen says later in the chapter, "[s]igns on a white field" (Ulysses 3.415); and this text, it seems, is an imperfect intermediary although a necessary one.


Blamires, Harry, The New Bloomsday Book, 3d ed. (London and New York, 1996)

Joyce, James, ed. Hans WalterGabler, Ulysses (New York, 1986)