Semiotics and the Artist’s Perception in Joyce’s Proteus Episode

April 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

After witnessing the development of the young, unsophisticated Stephen Dedalus into the skeptical and scrupulous artist that concludes James Joyce’s antecedent novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his reappearance in Ulysses suggests that his intellectual journey is not yet over. His second to last diary entry depicts his mission statement in regards to artistry: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”(Joyce 213) The ‘smithy of Stephen’s soul’ encapsulates his realized artistic self-consciousness, a foundation for all his work; “the uncreated conscience of his race” implies that he is catering an individual voice for the community in which he was born. Essentially, through his art, Stephen will utilize his individuality to fabricate a conscience for the populace around him. The Proteus episode documents the return of Stephen to Sandymount Beach, and the acknowledgement of his poetic vocation, as is articulated in the beginning lines: “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.”(Joyce 37)Stephen’s exploration of the material world in relation to his own cognitive systems is a preliminary move into his self-awareness as an artist. Throughout Proteus, he will examine the scene at the beach as a field of signs, readily available for interpretation and association. Stephen contemplates the existence of the external world in reference to theories of such figures as Aristotle and Jakob Böhme; however, as an artist, he intentionally perceives the beach through ‘reading’ signatures. An application of Ferdinand De Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics can better emphasize the mechanical thinking that occurs in Stephen’s mind, and in a broader sense, the employment of Joyce’s ‘internal monologue’ as a narrative method. Though the mental wanderings of Stephen seem disoriented and erratic, his cogitation of the sign responds to his poetic intention from Portrait; impulsively, Stephen is creating a conscience for his race. Due to the semi-autobiographical nature of Joyce’s preceding novel, Stephen’s artistic intention is also perceived as Joyce’s intention: analysis of lingual systems and exploring the boundaries of such systems becomes creative expression, incidentally.The Proteus episode is almost entirely presented through Stephen’s mental activity, a narrative technique labeled as ‘internal monologue’. The method relays the contents of Stephen’s thoughts and the ingenuity of Joyce’s craft, simultaneously. The dialogue streaming from Stephen’s mind is both characterized and supported by the “ineluctable modality of the visible”(Joyce 37), an Aristotelian concept that considers how individuals see the material world through sensible qualities. Ineluctability alludes to various aspects of the chapter, such as the unavoidable stream of thoughts that reside in Stephen’s head, evident only through the monologue. Stephen’s discernment of ineluctability, however, is his assumption that the beach is eternal, both static and dynamic, based on the inescapability of his vision and hearing; he is aware of the relationship between space and time, reality and imagination. Despite this connection, to properly understand the ineluctability of his “thought through his eyes”, he must read the signatures of all things. “Thought through my eyes,” then, is relative to two concerns: first, that one’s perceptions are themselves unreliable to the independent reality from which they arise; and, second, that the thoughts one constructs through an interpretation of the visual world are potentially untrue. Saussure postulates “without moving our lips or tongue, we can talk to ourselves or recite mentally a selection of verse. Because we regard the words of our language as sound-images…”(Saussure 853) In regards to semiology, Joyce’s narrative is a material interpretation of the mental verses that Stephen recites, as well as the anxiety he holds in the possibility of an external world. Accordingly, in Saussure’s study of semiotics, the external world exists—but its reality remains indistinct until language articulates it. Thus begins Stephen’s attempt to solidify his visual experience through language.When Stephen remarks, “signatures of all things I am here to read”(Joyce 37), he acknowledges himself as a perceiver, firstly in a visual sense. This realization describes the thought process he will adopt, that of the world being ‘real’ through the congruence of his eyes and mind. The activity of reading indicates two things: firstly, that the world exists before him as a text to read, and secondly, this mode of perceiving is also an artistic one. The subsequent list of things that litter the beach, such as the nearing tide and a rusty boot are saturated in meaning for Stephen, through association (water, for example carries negative connotations for Stephen, as it represents drowning, amniotic fluid, etc.). The corresponding colors: “Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust”(Joyce 37) are both in reference to his imaginative perception and Aristotle’s ‘limit of the diaphane’, color as a determinant of a body’s physical manifestation. To contemplate a physical world with and without color coerces Stephen to remember Aristotle’s ‘diaphane’, an attempt to visually fortify the signs he perceives. This exhibits Stephen’s maturation into an artist because he realizes he must organize his thoughts into both imaginative and philosophical categories. The Proteus episode is Stephen’s response to his poetic election, but also a self-realization that his intellect lacks the structural basis of language in relation to visual perception.Stephen persistently mistrusts his visual experience and decides to close his eyes, focusing instead on the aural experience of his surroundings. While listening to the sound his shoes make over the shells on the beach, the integration of an eternal world is tested through Stephen’s ears. According to semiology, language is form while speech is substance; Stephen makes this distinction and attempts to materialize the world through sound. His monologue continues: “I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the Nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o’er his base, fell through the Nebeneinander ineluctably!”(Joyce 37)Stephen discerns between the German terms, nacheinander(one after another, successively) and nebeneinder(next to one another, adjacent) and conceptualizes them as characteristic of time and space. The one-after-another, time-based perception inherent in auditory experience and in the experience of self is not different in kind than the side-by-side experience of the visual and sensory fields. Saussure provides a comparable semiotic explanation for audible signifiers: “Their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain. This feature becomes readily apparent when they are represented in writing and the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time.”(Saussure 855) The two modalities are also the sensory channels of the two modes of the linguistic sign: writing and speech. As Stephen’s experiment demonstrates, the modalities cannot operate independently: space cannot be distinguished without time or time without space. Similarly, reading and writing are not possible without a temporal capacity to the visual apprehension of the textual surface, and hearing depends upon a spatial closeness of some increment. Joyce, as the narrative style suggests, is more interested in unraveling the relationship between visual, spatial and written conditions of the sign. Once Stephen and Joyce’s exercise in linguistics is performed, artistic expression becomes more apparent; Stephen manipulates the language of his thoughts rhythmically, while Joyce inserts unconventional literary devices.From a semiotician’s standpoint, arbitrariness reigns over the process of signification almost entirely, arbitrary in that signs have no natural connection with the signified. For Saussure, the onomatopoeia and interjections are considered objections to the rule of arbitrariness, meaning they are relatively motivated. Saussure explains, “Onomatopoeia might be used to prove that the choice of the signifier is not always arbitrary. But onomatopoeic formations are never organic elements of a linguistic system.”(Saussure 855) Interestingly, the chapter of Proteus includes various moments of onomatopoeic moments that the narrative reproduces, such as, the sound of Stephen’s shoes on the sand: “Crush, crack, crick, crick” (Joyce 37) and when he recreates the sound of the bell rung at mass: “Dringdring! . . . Dringadring! . . . Dringdring! (Joyce 40). These forms of onomatopoeia represent fusions of visual and aural aspects of the sign and are potentially inserted due to the protean metaphor; as the figure of Proteus is transformable and flexible, perhaps Joyce’s choice of motivated signs is deliberate. In the literary tradition, particularly in works that strive for canonical recognition, the use of onomatopoeia is unusual. Although Joyce is known for breaking narrative boundaries, his emphasis on onomatopoeic moments carries a dual purpose: primarily as a means to coalesce visual and spatial cognitions into written form, and secondly as poetic insight into Stephen’s rapidly developing mind. Since the narrative is given through internal monologue, the onomatopoeic moments are occurring in Stephen’s thoughts, and though it is difficult to rationalize whether they are coincidental, it is certainly Joyce’s authorial intention.Stephen’s poetic participation occurs more distinctly as his meditation on ‘the ineluctable modality of the audible’ is further tested while listening to the sea. His thoughts, in reaction to a physical entity, particularly the crashing of the incoming tide, adopt a poetic rhythm. The following two lines are mentally recited: “Won’t you come to Sandymount, Madeline the mare?”(Joyce 37) To which Stephen then thinks: “Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. Acatalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.”(Joyce 37) He considers rhythm and poetic structure as elements within the audible modality. Stephen sees language in terms of reality, but he also seems to view the reality of language; language, itself, gallops even as it describes the galloping mare. The monologue documents a poem he mentally fabricates about a woman and intimacy, in conjunction with his scrambling to find paper. Through Stephen’s interior monologue, Joyce explores the fundamental affectations of writing and its convoluted interaction with the parallel modality of the audible. After Stephen writes his poem, he meditates on the most fundamental of these properties: “Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice.”(Joyce 48) Stephen’s anxiety of potential readership is characteristic of the artist and his carelessness in carrying any paper with him further extends the angst to literary permanence. The ‘white field’ is the bit of paper stolen from Mr. Deasy’s letter, the delivery of which Stephen is responsible; the mode of hasty transference of inspiration to torn paper proves unstable for Stephen. Joyce is perhaps allowing glimpses into Stephen’s persistent poetic naivety, even though his visual and audible perceptions are better developed. Despite Stephen’s erratic treatment of poetic thoughts, he, and ultimately through extension, Joyce, in the process of ‘creating a conscience’ for Dublin, are also apprehensive of their art’s immutability.Upon reviewing the Proteus episode’s heavy saturation in linguistic exploration and particular emphasis on the sign, it is important to reconsider A Portrait’s concluding lines once more: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”(Joyce 213) Joyce and his literary representation, Stephen, consciously re-enter the reality of experience in relation to the act of reading and writing. The episode’s interaction with the linguistic sign, and the visual and aural modalities that coincide with it, is an exercise in ‘creating conscience’; Stephen and the internal monologue is Joyce’s vehicle for forging a mode of individual thinking for literary consideration. The language used to depict the mental activity reaches towards the eternal in its dissatisfaction with fixed interpretation. Stephen, and essentially Joyce, transform words and often reiterate them in different languages, attaining definition only through multiplicity of meanings and subtle translations. The omniscience of the narrative relays both the thoughts of Stephen and the lingual ingenuity that Joyce possesses. Considering the semi-autobiographical nature of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen’s artistic intention is also perceived as Joyce’s intention: analysis of lingual systems and exploring the boundaries of such systems becomes creative expression, incidentally.Works CitedDe Saussure, Ferdinand. “Course in General Linguistics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: Norton and, 2010. 850-63. Print.Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Jeri Johnson. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Jeri Johnson. New York: Oxford University Prss, 2000. Print.

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