On Getting Inside James Joyce’s Head.
James Joyce is a maddening writer to read. If you were to ask me why I love reading him though, part of that love is in the aggravation he causes with his writing.
Typing A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man was one thing, writing Ulysses by hand is quite the other. In A Portrait, I had the pleasure of not having read it, thus being exposed to the work was like being presented with an interesting set of data. The experiment was what that set of data, how it was arranged and collated, would affect me. The early chapters made my creative work suffer. The infantilism and repetitive structure of it at the beginning, handicapped my writing. I couldn’t come up with proper sentences for a while. After young Stephen Dedalus finds the poetic language within himself, I found my own writing took off as well.
When copying from a book to a page (whether that be on a computer or on a piece of paper), I digest the work in a sort of peripheral type of reading. I’m reading the words as visual objects while transferring them over to a new environment. I know the controls: pen, paper, and a somewhat quiet environment. While writing/typing it, I notice little ticks or weird punctuations in the work because I’m focusing on transcribing what’s right before me. Half of my brain is on that, while the other is reading the words and doing what our brains have been trained to do while reading: visualizing the scenes. A Portrait was interesting because in its newness to me, I was absorbed into the pages.
I’ve re-read Ulysses several times because there are always new things I’ve found upon the re-read. And I’m known to get a little obsessive with my interests. Ulysses happens to feed something in my head. The first time I read it was back in a third year course on modernism. I was in the middle of mid-term exams and suffering a long bout of insomnia. I had just finished a long exam on Nietszche and Hegel for a philosophy course and headed home on the eastbound train from Islington station. My commute from UofT Erindale College was about two hours (bus and subway to Jane station, then up to Weston Rd. and Eglinton. Torontonians will know this intersection as the giant Monster Donuts stop). I spent that commute reading my course work and I was at Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis in Ulysses when I fell asleep. I dreamed. In the dream, Stephen Dedalus was watching the sea from a hill with books from the library tucked under his arm. His head was full of every single insight he had gathered in his conversations of the day and the sun shone blindingly in his face. It was still image, but what I remember most was the churn of the water and the tumultuous thoughts coming in and out of Stephen’s head.
When I woke up I was at Christie station, many stops away from where I supposed to get off, but I didn’t get up in a fright. I kind of floated in a euphoric state, on the cusp of an eventual epiphany. And it happened when I hit my head on the window sill of the train. It was like a rush of everything I’d read my whole life was in that book in my lap. The best I can come up with to describe that event would be as if you could smell a rainstorm approaching, hear the thunder and see the lighting for years and then suddenly the sky opens up and it’s raining every truth all around you. I felt truth all around me in that subway car for only a few seconds before it left me as quick as it came. Ever since then, Ulysses has had a special place in my heart and mind. I don’t know whether it’s because I want to relive the epiphany or if its a weird addictive curse born out of a compulsion for a spiritual high again, but either way, Ulysses upon the re-read has never failed to deliver to me many insights on writing, reading, and some pretty wacky perspectives of life. And hell, is Joyce ever wacky. Horny for spirituality and physicality, Joyce masturbates and orgasms his way through an ordinary day in an ordinary life.
I started handwriting Ulysses on December 9, 2013. Today I’m in the first half of Episode 9 and on the second green moleskine journal. The journals I’ve used have taken a beating because I’m a heavy handed writer. When I flip a page, I can feel my pen marks as if I had dug them into the page instead of just writing them. I’ve exhausted four pens in the process, and that’s not counting the ones I’ve lost as well. I began with a few constraints (writing down where I was writing it, or indenting the cited poems/songs), but I’ve decided to just stick with a random flow on each writing session.
I’ve found Joyce to be a difficult writer to transcribe. Ulysses is basically pulled together by the inner thoughts of people, some of them very random. Joyce tries to capture a reality that storytellers fail so often at capturing: the humdrum. If Leopold Bloom is thinking about the skirts of his mistress, he will go into detail about the smell and feel of the skirts, the colour of her hair against the light, the scent of her sex, while still making a point to list the errands he has to get to during the day. If it occurs to Mr. Bloom it will get recorded and archived. Beyond the incredibly entertaining conflicts that happen to Leopold or to Stephen, beyond the philosophical psychedelia that is the meat of the book, what glues it all together is this frustratingly mundane minutiae. It’s boring to read and frustrating to write, especially if you have a short attention span like me. Yet life in general is made up of mostly frustrating and mundane stuff. Life can be distracting in its grandness, it can be in the focus of its banality, and vice a versa.
I was recently discussing this with Tony Burgess at a poetry night we did. He asked about Ulysses and I had had particularly trying session with the page I was writing that day. I said, “I yell at the book sometimes. Fuck off, James! Again with the murmuring and the sighing! Today I wanted to throw you across the room.” That day Mr. Bloom was observing the people around him eating and he was thinking of eating and what others thought of him eating. It was such insular blabber, but it’s what we do every day in our heads. This is the brilliance of what Joyce set out to do. The day in the life of Leopold Bloom is the day in the life of you and me, or rather what he perceived to be the every day person. Upon the reading his approach read with an eerie accuracy.
Many scholars have picked Ulysses apart and will probably continue to for hundreds of years to come. I’m not bringing anything new to the table, I think, but it is in my reading and in my transcribing that I’m finding myself attuned to the unique perspective in the minuscule parts of my day. I know now that I handwrite my “f” in two different ways. My handwriting is also a mixture of cursive and printing. I write sloppier towards the end of the page and neater when it’s in the middle.
This “uncreative writing” project has made me a transcribing machine. I am but a means for those words to end up on a different format. Are they read? That’s not the point. Neither is it the point for me to know more about Joyce through handwriting his work. No. Getting Inside James Joyce’s Head is just a title. For me, this endeavour has me learning that writing is copying what is in your head to make it material in the real world.
Manifesting the prosaic, (whether it be lists, errands, important dates on a calendar, etc.), by common means is an extraordinary endeavour. It is just one of many ways one can be intimate with a novel or a piece of art. People copy paintings and trace drawings to learn how to draw and paint. Writers sometimes retype work (the quotations in an essay are integral part to that essay’s defense). Hunter S Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of typing a great novel. Replication of thought and ideas is what Joyce did and it’s what many authors already do. My work with James Joyce’s work is mundane, ordinary, and perplexing to me, but it’s my work. I have infused Ulysses with my own thoughts in the margins and have been physical with its words through a pen that I hold and maneuver. I often think about monks transcribing important literature before the printing press. I am a printing press.
The concept of person as machine is an important one to note today. The objects we utilize (computers, televisions, phones, lights, dishwashers, trains, buses, etc.), were once dreams in somebody’s head and those dreams now conveniently help move the world. If we didn’t have the machines, we’d be spending most of our days in desperate pursuit of the next meal and busy transporting ourselves with our own two feet. Now with all this convenience, the machines have made it possible for us to explore. The machines themselves, ones we built with our brains and hands, are exploring too.
It’s time to explore past the line of traditional and try new things and new methods of doing those things. I’m constantly reading books (not just Joyce), and usually have two or three on the go. I also find that the best books, inspire new ways of reading (having read a book backward online and remixed another).
Handwriting Ulysses may be the dumbest thing I’ve done, but Joyce was an idiot to write all the thoughts of Leopold Bloom and call it a novel. I really don’t know what I’m doing and I’m not keen on labelling it anything more than uncreative writing at the moment. It’s art in its performance. It’s a concept in my explanation of it. It’s writing in my execution of it. It will be a feat in its completion. It will most likely take me two years to finish.
I am very excited and happy to announce that Derek Beaulieu’s no press has published four pages of my work. ULYSSES by Jacqueline Valencia is now available for purchase. Details at the link: