Chapter 3 (Proteus)
If we could somehow travel the world looking at every copy of Ulysses that has been abandoned in frustration, we would probably find more bookmarks and dog-eared pages in the third chapter than in any other section of the book. Ulysses is famously difficult and while the first and second chapters are far from easy, the third (known as “Proteus”) gives readers a taste of just how difficult Ulysses can be.
The Proteus chapter takes its name from an episode in the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey. Still seeking his father, Telemachus speaks to Menelaus, one of the kings under whom Odysseus fought in the Trojan War. Menelaus describes his own lengthy journey home, including his struggle to gain information from the shape-shifting sea-god Proteus about the fate of Odysseus. Proteus’ ability to change form—as he wrestles with Menelaus he becomes a lion, a serpent, a leopard, water, and so on—gives us the word “protean.”
In Ulysses, Stephen wrestles a different shape-shifter: his own mind. Stephen is clever, someone who thinks in lieu of acting (one of the reasons Joyce also links him to Hamlet) and in the third chapter we are given a largely unfiltered presentation of his thoughts. To do this Joyce uses the technique for which he is probably best-known: interior monologue (often erroneously referred to as stream of consciousness). The writing recreates the protean nature of thought itself as Stephen’s mind moves from one idea to the next, sometimes following logic, sometimes following the random course of association, and sometimes prompted—even interrupted—by what Stephen sees and hears as he walks along Sandymount Strand, a muddy stretch of beach along Dublin Bay.
So, why all those abandoned bookmarks? Part of the answer can be found by looking at a criticism made by Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. In a letter to a friend she had this to say about Ulysses, “It’s a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed and unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.”
For now, I will skip the charge of pornography (it was common at the time) and look at the second, more interesting, objection. For Wharton, the “raw material” of life can only become art if it is first shaped by an artist. Of course, it isn’t true that Joyce is presenting “raw material.” Joyce spent nearly a decade laboring over Ulysses and it is a testament to his skill that the depiction of unfiltered thought is so convincing that it seems “unformed.” Nevertheless, I think Wharton articulates a complaint many readers have with Ulysses. Unlike writers of more traditional novels (including Dickens, Flaubert, Austen, and Wharton herself) Joyce refuses to distill the raw material of life in-the-moment into elegant, artful prose that leads the reader along. Instead, the reader must do some of the work, sifting through the raw material him or herself. This makes Ulysses difficult but, for many readers, it also makes it uniquely rewarding: through a work of art, we become more attentive to the texture of daily life and even the patterns of thought itself.
It is impossible to follow all of Stephen’s ideas (especially in excerpted form) so I recommend simply letting the flow of thoughts wash over you as you read. To aid in this, I have included a full-cast vocal performance of the excerpt from from the unabridged radio production of Ulysses broadcast on RTÉ in 1982:
To help you keep your bearings, here is a brief summary of the excerpt (lines 317-415): Stephen roughly interrogates himself about whether he, like his friend Buck Mulligan, would risk his life to save a drowning man. Stephen’s fear of dogs keeps his attention fixed on two cocklepickers (people looking for clams) and their dog. Observing the cocklepickers more closely, he realizes that they are gypsies. Stephen senses the beginnings of a poem in the sounds of word and phrases that occur to him and looks for a piece of paper. Seeing his own shadow he likens the darkness of words on a page to shadows and wonders if anyone will read what he has written.
He saved men from drowning and you shake at a cur’s yelping. But the courtiers who mocked Guido in Or san Michele were in their own house. House of… We don’t want any of your medieval abstrusiosities. Would you do what he did? A boat would be near, a lifebuoy. Natürlich, put there for you. Would you or would you not? The man that was drowned nine days ago off Maiden’s rock. They are waiting for him now. The truth, spit it out. I would want to. I would try. I am not a strong swimmer. Water cold soft. When I put my face into it in the basin at Clongowes. Can’t see! Who’s behind me? Out quickly, quickly! Do you see the tide flowing quickly in on all sides, sheeting the lows of sands quickly, shell cocoacoloured? If I had land under my feet. I want his life still to be his, mine to be mine. A drowning man. His human eyes scream to me out of horror of his death. I… With him together down… I could not save her. Waters: bitter death: lost.
A woman and a man. I see her skirties. Pinned up, I bet.
Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man’s shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. On a field tenney a buck, trippant, proper, unattired. At the lacefringe of the tide he halted with stiff forehoofs, seawardpointed ears. His snout lifted barked at the wavenoise, herds of seamorse. They serpented towards his feet, curling, unfurling many crests, every ninth, breaking, plashing, from far, from farther out, waves and waves.
Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags, and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.
—Tatters! Out of that, you mongrel.
The cry brought him skulking back to his master and a blunt bootless kick sent him unscathed across a spit of sand, crouched in flight. He slunk back in a curve. Doesn’t see me. Along by the edge of the mole he lolloped, dawdled, smelt a rock and from under a cocked hindleg pissed against it. He trotted forward and, lifting his hindleg, pissed quick short at an unsmelt rock. The simple pleasures of the poor. His hindpaws then scattered sand: then his forepaws dabbled and delved. Something he buried there, his grandmother. He rooted in the sand, dabbling delving and stopped to listen to the air, scraped up the sand again with a fury of his claws, soon ceasing, a pard, a panther, got in spouse-breach, vulturing the dead.
After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke. I was not afraid. The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell. That was the rule, said. In. Come. Red carpet spread. You will see who.
Shouldering their bags they trudged, the red Egyptians. His blued feet out of turnedup trousers slapped the clammy sand, a dull brick muffler strangling his unshaven neck. With woman steps she followed: the ruffian and his strolling mort. Spoils slung at her back. Loose sand and shellgrit crusted her bare feet. About her windraw face her hair trailed. Behind her lord his helpmate, bing awast, to Romeville. When night hides her body’s flaws calling under her brown shawl from an archway where dogs have mired. Her fancyman is treating two Royal Dublins in O’Loughlin’s of Blackpitts. Buss her, wap in rogue’s rum lingo, for, O, my dimber wapping dell. A shefiend’s whiteness under her rancid rags. Fumbally’s lane that night: the tanyard smells.
White thy fambles, red thy gan
And thy quarrons dainty is.
Couch a hogshead with me then.
In the darkmans clip and kiss.
Morose delectation Aquinas tunbelly calls this, frate porcospino. Unfallen Adam rode and not rutted. Call away let him: thy quarrons dainty is. Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles: roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.
A side-eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit I am not. Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load. A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine, oinopa ponton, a winedark sea. Behold the handmaid of the moon. In sleep the wet sign calls her hour, bids her rise. Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled. Omnis caro ad te veniet. He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets. Mouth to her kiss. No. Must be two of em. Glue ’em well. Mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of air: mouth to her womb. Oomb, allwombing tomb. His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayawayaway. Paper. The banknotes, blast them. Old Deasy’s letter. Here. Thanking you for hospitality tear the blank end off. Turning his back to the sun he bent over far to a table of rock and scribbled words. That’s twice I forgot to take slips from the library counter.
His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur’s rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words?