Form of All Forms: Fluidity of Divine Meaning in Ulysses
In many works of literature, water symbolizes the flow of life, creation, and fertility. For James Joyce’s Ulysses, the motif of the stream of life does not stray far from the aforementioned meanings, but it most crucially represents the fluidity of language and the ever-changing, constant flow of signification. Throughout the novel, Stephen Dedalus struggles to grasp meaning in language, art, creation, and religion. Stephen’s desire to forge art from the written word takes the form of a dammed river, stagnant against the barrier, but then slowly trickles free and eventually flows toward satisfaction and wholeness. The elusive nature of meaning itself, however, is described metaphorically through the title of chapter three: the sea god “Proteus,” who, upon being captured, changes shape and avoids defeat. Such unattainability makes Ulysses itself deeply provocative because, as Joyce implies, the current of water and language never ceases, and, in turn, the desire and quest for meaning can never be truly satisfied.
Because Stephen’s artistic medium is writing, he endlessly seeks true expression through language, which, due to the growing space between the signified and signifier, can never be attained. Therefore, Stephen’s comparison of God to a shout in the street exactly sums up his conceptualization of the meaning of words and beings–one cannot recreate, or truly ever express, that same shout in the street; it is fleeting, elusive, and its audible mark in time and space vanishes completely. Similarly, we cannot describe God, or any other concept that resides strictly within our unconscious, unable to be touched by language.
Human satisfaction, then, relies entirely on our acceptance of the imperative, all-encompassing, never-ending search for meaning, knowing all the while that life, language, and meaning are water: a stream that will always be flowing, and when we cup it in our palms, it will always run through our eager fingers. And bearing witness to this gentle, unheeding loss is ethereal beauty, is art residing both within and without the confines of time, of the restriction of the temporal sensory realm–the very same art Stephen Dedalus and James Joyce so purposefully set out to create. Our only confrontation with said beauty and divinity is through a silent, blind recognition and fixation upon what we can only recognize cognitively as being present. In chapter three, “Proteus,” Stephen confronts the space between the signifier and signified, seeking meaning through the signature of all things; Joyce’s interpretation of said space as divine becomes evident in the chapter as well as throughout the remainder of the novel and is resolved in chapter seventeen, “Ithaca.”
In The Subject of Semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure makes the point that there are two parts of the sign: the signifier and the signified. The signified is the concept that the written or spoken form (the signifier) evokes. The relationship is entirely conventional, and “Speech represents the realization or manifestation of the linguistic signifier, not the linguistic signifier itself. Writing, in turn, represents the transcription of speech” (8). We observe Stephen’s attempt to bridge the gap between the signified and signifier during his walk on the beach. He reflects, “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” (31, 1-3). He attempts to read the world as text, but finds the task, of course, difficult, because it is impossible. Jacques Lacan, a post-structuralist theorist, argues in his essay collection entitled Ecrits that the space between the signified and signifier is a space of void and absence perpetuated by personal losses, causing the individual to be confined within the realm of signification. He states: “Language isolates the subject from the real, confining it forever in the realm of signification; unconscious comes into existence with access to language,” and, in turn, the unconscious is organized around the unary signifier (166). The unary signifier, according to Lacan, “does not participate in meaning because there is not a linguistic system nor discourse to support it…[its] nonsensicality…annihilates meaning” (170). The unary signifier, at the center of our unconscious, cannot be touched by language, and in Lacan’s opinion then, must be devoid of meaning and eludes human comprehension. However, I argue that the unary signifier is a God-like figure, and can be seen as an irrepresentable, inarticulate image of the divine. Hence its pivotal stance in our unconscious: we cannot express the divine with language, it must remain forever out of our grasp.
Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction brings us closer to viewing the space between the signified and signifier as one brimming with divine meaning. In Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, we are given clear definitions of Derrida’s theory of deconstruction: “Deconstruction is the relentless pursuit of the impossible, which means, of things whose possibility is sustained by their impossibility, of things which, instead of being wiped out by their impossibility, are actually nourished and fed by it.” (32) Derrida prefers “experience” of impossibility, and in this instance, we can perceive “impossibility” as a reference to the spiritual or divine. To Derrida, “‘Experience’ means running up against the limits of what can never be present, passing the limits of the unpresentable and unrepresentable, which is what we most desire, namely, the impossible” (33). What we most desire (“the impossible”) can be understood as our attempt to present the “unrepresentable” through language, which is exactly what Stephen is attempting as he walks along the beach; divine meaning surrounds us and exists in all things, but we cannot articulate it through language, we must merely appreciate its presence in silent acknowledgement.
Michael Himes’ article “Finding God in All Things: A Sacramental Worldview and Its Effects” explicitly states the argument which Joyce certainly contributes to throughout Ulysses’ entirety. Himes’ ideas expand and build off of those presented by Derrida and Lacan, allowing us to observe the potential divinity of the space between the signified and signifier. As a baseline for his argument, Himes states that “‘God’ is the theological shorthand that we use to designate the Mystery which grounds and undergirds all that exists” (91). The word “God” can be considered shorthand because the ideas, feelings, and concepts behind God cannot be supported by a linguistic system. Such a concept allows us to perhaps view Lacan’s irreducible, unary signifier as a God-like figure. Using the theory of Himes and its connection to that of Lacan, we can evaluate Stephen’s definition of God that he nonchalantly expresses in chapter two, or “Nestor.” In conversation with Mr. Deasy, Stephen notes:
“That is God.”
Hooray Ay! Whrrwhee!
“What?” Mr Deasy asked.
“A shout in the street,” Stephen answered. (28)
Stephen’s assertion that God is “a shout in the street” directly correlates with Himes’ statement that the word God itself “designate[s] the Mystery which grounds and undergirds all that exists.” The shout in the street exists, yes, but its imprint on time and space fades as quickly as it appears. We cannot grasp it nor define it, and we can see the divinity in the ordinary “shout in the street” because it is part of the Mystery that underlies all existence. As for our attempted expression of God, Himes insists: “We speak as if what we are talking about–God–is perfectly clear and fully intelligible. Any language about God that is perfectly clear is certainly wrong” (92). The fact that a clear speech about God is incorrect causes Stephen’s definition of God to be slightly closer to the mark. A shout, as mentioned earlier, cannot be confined or recreated by a system of language–its sensory imprint is irretrievable. With the closest definition of God being such a mundane and ordinary metaphor, readers may mistake it for being insulting to religious belief. However, finding the divine in the ordinary does not degrade God or the concept of a higher power. Rather, the effect is quite the opposite: God is not an elevated being existing solely above us, but is present in all things, especially in the mysteries of language and meaning such as the space between the signified and signifier.
Stephen’s walk on the beach and his grapple with the Proteus-like forms of sight, language, and meaning manifests the metaphor of said concepts being water–elusive, fluid, and ever-changing. Facing the sea, he ponders: “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” (31: 1-3). His focus on “thought through my eyes” reveals his desire to directly relate to the world from his consciousness through his senses, somehow negating the need for a signifier, a sign, or a “signature” that he must read to interpret the world. Hence his acknowledgement of the “Signatures of all things I am here to read”: he views the world as text and desires to know what lies behind each signature (or signifier). To decipher whether or not the outside world is in fact real and not a projection of his consciousness on to space, he insists to himself to “Shut your eyes and see” (9). Once he realizes the world in fact exists outside of his own mind, he draws a conclusion: “See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end” (27-8). The world around us that we cannot read as text will always outlive us, and it is a “world without end” because we will never be able to process or articulate the meaning behind all of it, so it exists whether we recognize it or not. Stephen’s repetitive use of the word “see” should cause the reader to also begin pondering the sea as Stephen is. The answers he is seeking with his eyes resemble the sea, and most importantly, the sea god Proteus. Soon, the water directly enters Stephen’s stream of consciousness, and literally demonstrates the fluidity of thought and meaning. He begins to think of the “divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial,” and breaks off when he realizes “They are coming. waves” (32: 49-57). The waves he references are literal waves because he is walking along the shoreline, but they also represent the waves of divine meaning that exist beyond our comprehension that he must confront. He nears the sea to inspect its composition and “He had come nearer the edge of the sea and wet sand slapped his boots…He stood suddenly, his feet beginning to sink slowly in the quaking soil. Turn back” (37: 265-9). Due to Stephen’s fear of water, we are not surprised by his desire to “turn back” once the wet sand slaps against him. However, his fear of water can be perceived as his fear of divine recognition; an avoidance of what truly lies behind text, music, and images.
Stephen cannot turn back from the water; he eagerly seeks the meaning in the signification of the world, and it is flowing around him, stalking behind him even when he turns back. Walking the path above the rocks, he realizes “The flood’s following me” (37: 282). The tide that has wet the sand becomes a flood following Stephen. His realization could be brushed off as his fear of water, but reading the water as a metaphor for incomprehensible divine meaning, we can speculate that Stephen would be more fearful of the latter. He even notes that “These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here” (37: 288-9). His recognition that language is as part of the earth as the wind, tide, and sand reveals that perhaps it is impossible to separate our signification of the world with the world itself, causing the language to become tide. Hence his attempt to write and sound out words for a poem only to question if anyone will ever read them–he wishes to recreate the direct signification of the earth around him, only from his own mind. “His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of air: mouth to her moomb. Oomb, allwombing tomb. His mouth moulded and issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayaway. Paper” (40: 401-7). As the wind moves the tide and forms the sand into signification (a language, of sorts,) Stephen takes the same approach to forming words. He allows his breath to form “unspeeched” sounds as an attempt to purely grasp his thought. Reflecting on his poem in connection to the signification as his soul (self) through shadow, he wonders: “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? Signs on a white field” (40:412-16). By throwing his “ended shadow” from him, he is attempting to separate his essence of being (soul, or self) from his body (and therefore his senses). He must call back his “manshape” because it is inescapable, or ineluctable. The self, the soul cannot be separated from the body nor escape the senses as hard as Stephen may try. If his shadow were endless, would it still be his? As he asks, would it be the “form of my form?” Stephen wonders if the shadow, being endless, would still represent his sense of self–something he believes to be able to escape the confinement of his “manshape” or human limitations. From another angle, we can look at his shadow as being an image for his signification of self. In this case, could the signifier be endless, and therefore become as irreducible as, say, Lacan’s unary signifier? Assuming the latter, his question of “Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read this written words?” reflects his pondering of the extension of signification and its ability to convey true meaning. He views his words as “Signs on a white field” because he views them as they are–signifiers for an inarticulate signified.
Stephen’s wonder with the space between the signified and signifier and the human confinement within the realm of signification is clearly shared by Joyce as it is experimented with at key points in the novel. In Stephen’s urination scene on the beach, his description of the sound as signification directly correlates to the scene shared with Bloom toward the novel’s close. Alone, Stephen thinks:
Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop slop slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling. (41: 456-60)
His urine takes on a “fourworded wavespeech,” and is composited of onomatopoeias for the sound of his passing of water. Stephen’s (and Joyce’s) need to assign a language to all states of being shows us the need to view all human thought and action as being signifiable–it cannot escape signification because we ourselves as a whole must succumb to it. However, the passing of water through urination proves to be the most divine action or encounter for humankind because we are involved in the flow of divine meaning. The fact that Stephen attempts to capture his urine in signifiers tells us that it, too, eludes our grasp because it embodies the traits of the divine. Such a notion touches on Joyce’s discovery of the divine in the ordinary, the mundane, and even the perverse. A haunting, or even touching, image of the divine, however, closes chapter three, which re-establishes the presence of the divine in all things. Stephen, feeling embarrassed and watched, wonders: “Behind. Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstreets, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship” (42: 502-5). Someone is indeed there, but it is an invisible other in form of a “threemaster,” a ship with three masts resembling the trinity that must remain silent. The word “silent” is repeated twice: the ship is “silently moving,” a “silent ship.” Joyce purposely repeats himself to express the importance of the fact of the irreducible signifier which cannot be supported by the linguistic system. Hence the final image at the end of the “Proteus” chapter: it recapitulates everything Stephen was searching for among the landscape, forming sounds that were not yet words, piecing together signification, and yet he finds himself confronting a silent three-masted ship, and he cannot signify it because it represents the unary signifier: the divine crucifixion, the meaning behind language and all thoughts of words.
In the seventeenth chapter, or “Ithaca,” of Ulysses, all said themes come into play. Joyce manifests the impossibility of expressing the divine meaning in all things through gesture and symbolic reference to the Holy trinity. Noting Stephen’s attempt at interpreting signification on the beach and ultimately confronting the irreducible “silent ship” that floats atop water as a reference to the presence of a God figure, we can assume Joyce is insinuating that language fails and will always fail to express the signified and disassemble the unary signifier. On this subject, in The Gift of Death, Derrida asks
Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, if such a thing exists? Under what conditions can we speak of a history of religion, and first and foremost of the Christian religion? (2)
Derrida’s questions support the issue that Ulysses presents over and over again: that a linguistic system fails our attempt at expressing meaning of any kind, let alone the presence of Truth. To Derrida, the “secret” that lurks out of our grasp should (and will) remain there because we have not a right to it as limited conscious beings. The great “mystery” of a higher power is described as such: “The secret of the mysterium tremendum (‘terrifying mystery’) takes over from a heterogeneous secrecy and at the same time breaks with it” (7). The mysterium tremendum breaks with heterogeneous secrecy because what we hold as “secret” we must acknowledge as existing, somehow, within the realms of our consciousness. If we cannot fathom what we believe to be “secret,” it therefore is elevated to a form of mystery–the most terrifying mystery–and break with our definitive hold on secrecy. If such a mystery is intangible and inexpressible, we must acknowledge its presence in silent recognition. According to Derrida,
The mysterium tremendum…[necessitates] the exposing of the soul to the gaze of another person, of a person as transcendent other, as an other who looks at me, but who looks without the-subject-who-says-I being able to reach that other, see her, hold her within the reach of my gaze. (25)
It must be noted that the “person” mentioned in the above passage is not a human at all but is rather a divine figure. “This supreme being, this infinite other, first comes across [the individual], it falls upon [him or her]” (The Gift of Death 32). The “gaze” Derrida references can be interpreted as the aforementioned silent recognition of a sacred presence that lies beyond our grasp. Furthermore, the “exposing of the soul” to a “transcendent other” breaks the boundaries that Stephen paced around during his walk on the beach; the shoreline between the sea and his human form literally represents the boundary between self and recognition of the mystery. Joyce not only ends the novel with the image of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly becoming part of the flow of meaning, language, and Truth that is water; he also places great emphasis on the “gaze” and subtle acceptance of sacred impossibility.
In the “Ithaca” chapter, Stephen’s attempt to interpret the “wordspeech” of his urination is elevated to a shared experience of the flow of life and meaning that pulses behind language and is therefore inaccessible. The closest we will get to accessing such incomprehensible divinity is through a level of transcendent acceptance–the acknowledgment of the presence of a “supreme being” and “infinite other.” Before the scene of mutual urination, however, we are told that Stephen still fears and mistrusts what language conceals. Bloom washes his hands “in fresh cold neverchanging everchanging water” (550:223-4) and Stephen rejects the concept, “distrusting the aquacities of thought and language” (550:240). To a reader that does not view water as a metaphor for the constant ebb and flow of incomprehensible meaning and the presence of the other would be wary at Stephen’s excuse to not wash his hands. However, reading the text as I have entreated us to, we can plainly see that Stephen recognizes thought and language as being water, and due to his fear of water (and divinity), he must distrust it. We can assume Stephen begins to overcome such a fear through the following question and answer segment:
What visible luminous sign attracted Bloom’s, who attracted Stephen’s, gaze?
In the second storey (rere) of his (Bloom’s) house the light of a paraffin oil lamp with oblique shade projected on a screen of roller blind supplied by Frank O’Hara, window blind, curtain pole and revolving shutter manufacturer, 16 Aungier street. (576:1171-1176)
Bloom gazes at the Molly’s lit window while Stephen is attracted, by “gaze,” to Bloom. Recalling Derrida’s theory on the gaze, we can safely assume that while both are gazing at persons (or the representation of a person), their gazes are actually directed at the transcendent other that lies outside of our field of vision, yet remains somehow traceable in another human. Such an assumption would begin to loosen Stephen’s distrust of the “aquacities of thought and language” because what lies behind the tide of language and thought is a divine presence, or the superior other, which is precisely what we can assume both men have set their gaze upon (one another and Molly).
Finally, Stephen, Bloom, and Molly are joined in a symbolic trinity through the passing of water and the gaze. Having the three characters physically enter the flow of thought and divine meaning that lies out of reach of language is Joyce’s way of surpassing the reliance on a linguistic system (though, ironically, he writes it) and presenting the transcendent experience with the sacred other.
At Stephen’s suggestion, at Bloom’s instigation both, first Stephen, then Bloom, in penumbra urinated, their sides contiguous, their organs of micturition reciprocally rendered invisible by manual circumposition, their gazes, first Bloom’s, then Stephen’s, elevated to the projected luminous and semiluminous shadow. (577:1185-8)
Notice the emphasis not only on the mutual urination, but also on the elevated gazes on the form of the shadow. Assuming Stephen still questions the form of the shadow as the form of the self, gazing upon a shadow of another, or the other, is “viewing” a transcendent presence. Should the shadow be eternal, would it still be the form of self, of being, of the soul? Joyce answers Stephen’s question through the correlation of the three humans (Stephen, Molly, and Bloom) with the corresponding constellations. As the trinity is formed on earth, “A star precipitated with great apparent velocity across the firmament from Vega in the Lyre above the zenith beyond the stargroup of Tress of Berenice toward the zodiacal sign of Leo” (577:1210-3). The celestial movement in conjunction with the fixation upon the divinity that lies just outside of our comprehension on earth represents the eternal shadow: the extension of self beyond our field of vision and understanding. This, essentially, is what Ulysses insinuates remains untouched by language but always flows around us.
Stephen’s distrust of the fluid tendencies of thought and language, his recognition of the “silent ship,” and the subtle and mundane encounter with divinity all attempt to articulate the inarticulate. What lies behind the word “divine?” What lies just outside of a linguistic system, just beyond the limitations of human understanding? A divine presence ebbs and flows behind language, overflows our conscious comprehension, and submerges us in a driving sense of unity and purpose that cannot ever be recreated or demonstrated. Joyce uses questions, sounds, and images to provoke us into wondering what goes unsaid, but we must always accept its presence because it is eternal, the form of all forms, and it will only ever run over our fingers, trickle out of our reach and such a loss is the most transcendent encounter we will ever experience of the inexpressible.
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Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Willis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1995).
Himes, Michael. “‘Finding God in All Things’: A Sacramental Worldview and Its Effects.” As Leaven in the World: Catholic Perspectives on Faith, Vocation, and the Intellectual Life. Ed. Thomas M. Landy. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001. 91-103. Print.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random House (1986). Print.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.
Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. London: Oxford UP (1983). Print.