Ineluctable Modality of the Empathetic: Extra-Linguistic Empathy in Joyce’s Ulysses

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

James Joyce’s Ulysses points up language’s limits and empathy’s extra-linguistic nature to lay the ground for a robust understanding of human relationships. Intersubjective connections remain conspicuously ambiguous throughout the novel, in content and form, exposing the flaws inherent in looking to language as a sufficient communicative link between people. Empathy serves as a nebulous bridge, attaining a status that transcends Joyce’s work by virtue of its intertextuality and ambiguity, working to unite the disparate parties involved in all aspects of the modern novel. Two chapters, “Proteus” and “Lestrygonians,” present Stephen and Bloom performing similar, yet tellingly different, phenomenological experiments. Contrasting Stephen’s individuality and intellectualism with Bloom’s pitying disposition and advertising acumen depicts a suppression of empathy within the novel, yet both episodes contain the groundwork for genuine empathetic responses from readers and characters, alike. I use a concept Suzanne Keen describes in Empathy and the Novel—“motor mimicry”—as a key to performing a more positive analysis of empathy in the novel. I then argue that the protagonists’ seemingly anticlimactic connection in “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca” is more symptomatic of language’s conditions than it is a defeatist statement on behalf of the author. Stephen’s and Bloom’s connection escapes containment within language. Indeed, it is what Joyce cannot speak about, given his medium, that he passes over in silence.

Empathy in Ulysses, like form and language, possesses protean states. A definition of the sentiment, provided here, is necessary to an adequate formulation of its role within Joyce’s novel. Suzanne Keen defines empathy as an “affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and which is identical or very similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.”[1] This definition assumes a predominantly reader response analysis of textual empathy, which Keen undertakes, while remaining conscious of the sentiment’s limits regarding political, or “prosocial,” action. Hedging her bets, Keen includes a vast array of theories, lamenting the current lack of empirical evidence to pin down any one “empathetic technique.” Certain techniques, however, do correspond with readers’ reports of empathetic responses to novels and their characters. For instance, alienating and disruptive narrative techniques, like Joyce’s protean styles, offer a slower-paced, active engagement with the text, opening up possible paths towards empathetic reactions. Keen acknowledges, however, Brecht’s equally valid claim to alienation as a means for reserving the audience’s base emotional response to works of fiction.[2] Likewise, first-person narrative techniques and free indirect discourse familiarize characters, yet ambiguously affect readers’ feelings regarding the novel.[3] A significant question remains, however: why does empathy matter?

The answer, I contend, is in the shortcomings of Fredric Jameson’s “Ulysses in History” and Jennifer Wicke’s “Advertising & the Scene of Writing in Ulysses.” Jameson describes a dire, reified modern city plagued by the “dissociation between meaning and existence.”[4] His cure for this existential crisis is to promote gossip and anecdote to the level of cohesive substance. Among countless other examples, Alf Bergan undermines this positive view of gossip, as he recounts of Mr. Breen, “He’s traipsing all round Dublin with a postcard someone sent him with U. p: up on it … and now the bloody old lunatic is gone round to Green street to look for a G man.”[5] Jameson’s “humane” gossip form too easily devolves into denigrating, weaponized hearsay in the hands of Bergan and others like him. Wicke responds in her essay, arguing for a more multidimensional analysis of advertising as a benign and necessary linguistic form to co-opt and transcend. Yet, even Ulysses’ transgressing the bounds of advertising, she argues, results in a mere “Pyrrhic victory.”[6] Joyce must go so far as to reinvent language to escape the market’s colonizing ubiquity. Despite their differences, both critics uphold language as the key to an inhabitable world. In light of Joyce’s novel, however, I reserve any hope for language as the paramount vehicle for connection. Instead, the extra-linguistic—a gentle touch between humans, or an intersubjective sharing of feeling beyond words—restores some meaning to an absurd condition. I follow Keen’s discursive reader response analysis, unpacking Joyce’s formal techniques to better understand empathy in, and outside of, Ulysses. Stephen’s phenomenological experiment in “Proteus” provides ample grounds to test Joyce’s narrative technique as it relates to empathy.

Stephen’s interior monologue in “Proteus” complicates a commonly held belief in literary theory regarding free indirect discourse and empathy. On one hand, Stephen’s monologue asymptotically approaches complete synchronicity with the narrator and the reading experience. Stephen begins, “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.”[7] Indeed, the reader experiences Stephen’s thoughts through his eyes, and what proceeds is a near stream-of-consciousness account of Stephen’s grappling with disparate philosophical and linguistic thoughts, images of people, animals, and corpses, and, finally, the creative process. The reader apprehends Stephen’s ideas instantaneously, feeling as if she has complete access to Stephen’s consciousness. Joyce reduces the gaps between character, narrator, and reader to a highly concentrated focal point. Seemingly unmediated, Stephen’s mind flows into the reader’s own consciousness. Free indirect discourse, Keen explains, “best promotes character identification and readers’ empathy,” a commonplace assumption among literary theorists.[8] Closing the spatial and temporal gap in the narrative, Joyce invites the reader into his character’s head, priming her to identify with Stephen.

On the other hand, Stephen’s consciousness spouts inaccessible linguistic erudition, and a narrow-minded preoccupation with its own thoughts, prompting a simultaneous distance between Stephen, the physical world, and the average reader at the level of content. Joyce makes evident Stephen’s phenomenological experiment as emerging from the character’s own individualistic, intellectual preoccupations through spatial description. Geographically, Stephen walks alone on Dublin’s coastal periphery, as he wonders, “Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?”[9] A bustling urban city, teeming with human life, remains distant from his egoistic ruminations, which threaten to float away into eternity. His second-hand boots and ashplant mediate the point of contact between his physical body and the world, emphasizing his dispossessed condition.[10] Always at a distance from the physical world, Stephen’s thoughts lie with Aristotle, Bishop Berkeley, and Shakespeare. Empathy here is as dead as the poets and philosophers whom Stephen co-opts in order to feel. A parallel between Stephen and T.S. Eliot’s understanding of Tennyson and Browning, expressed in Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” illuminates Stephen’s inability to transcend his thoughts and synthesize his reality. Eliot explains that these literary figures “are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose.”[11] Likewise, Stephen withholds the ability, at least until the chapter’s end, to feel with any synthesizing immediacy. Drawing this connection, the reader understands her own lack of empathy for Stephen as stemming from the character’s inability, even unwillingness, to engage with the world beyond the mind. Stephen’s phenomenological experiment betrays the dissociation of sensibility that lies at the heart of his dispossession, restraining the reader’s potential to empathize with him.

Joyce riddles Stephen’s thoughts, moreover, with multilingual and intertextual references, as Stephen thinks in English, Italian, French, Latin, and German, rendering the linguistic nature of the distance between reader and character immediate and material. Stephen thinks, “—C’est tordant, vous savez. Moi, je suis socialiste. Je ne cois pas en l’existence de Dieu. Faut pas le dire à mon père./—Il croit?/—Mon père, oui./Schluss.”[12] Recollecting his conversation in Paris in its full French, Stephen ends the image, “Enough,” in German. His mind’s linguistic mobility, appropriate for the chapter’s title, a reference to the mythical shape shifter, and art, “Philology,” threatens to outpace the reader at each sentence and stifles a smooth reading progression. His consciousness takes its cues from a fragmented modern world of disparate languages and modalities. German abruptly silences French, exemplifying a paralytic and fragmentary linguistic divide between humans at a global scale. Keen explains that theorists, like David Miall, maintain this kind of alienating technique as a gateway to empathy. She describes that these theorists “see foregrounding as a means for slowing the reader’s pace, gaining his or her attention, and allowing for empathy as well as other insights into texts to transpire.”[13] Yet, Stephen’s cerebral contemplations preclude this empathetic bridge and emulate a disjunction devoid of intersubjective connection. How can the reader experience an emotional state “identical or very similar” to Stephen’s ascetic, highly intellectualized mind? Or, more importantly, is empathy possible in the modern world? The reader, I argue, must venture beyond Ulysses to establish a meaningful connection with Stephen.

Jameson describes cross-referentiality in Ulysses as a destabilizing mechanism whereby a process of reification comes to fruition. He states, “In such cross-referencing, indeed, one can say that the referent itself is produced, as something which transcends every conceivable textualisation of it.”[14] He proceeds to uphold gossip and anecdote as linguistic mediators between disparate individuals, enabling solid, reified materiality to “be dissolved back into the underlying reality of human relations and human praxis.”[15] Substituting empathy for gossip, I maintain that the former emerges here from the reader’s cross-referencing between Joyce’s novels. Intertextuality provides a bridge between reader and character that reaches beyond the limits of Ulysses as a unified work. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man chronicles Stephen’s childhood as a budding artist, familiarizing the reader with Stephen’s history and creative development. Stephen’s closing lines, “Welcome, O life! 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…. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead,” hold significance for the reader approaching Ulysses.[16] Portrait witnesses Stephen’s grandiose exit, a proclamation looking to a hopeful future. Upon reading “Telemachus,” however, the reader feels Stephen’s dejection at a poignant level. His mother’s death, his offensive, if oppressive, roommates, and his sense of exile at home immediately resonate with the reader and promote pity, if not sympathy or empathy for Stephen. In “Proteus,” Stephen thinks, “Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world including Alexandria?”[17] Portrait helps the reader fill the gaps in this passage, as she recalls the epiphanic episodes to which Stephen now refers. Stephen’s inquiry, as interior monologue, refers to his self, yet the intertextual process that Portrait lends to the reader extends that question beyond the character’s reflective consciousness. Pre-established familiarity does not necessitate empathy, but Joyce provides in his previous work a foundation for the sentiment to emerge at the reader’s disposal. In making the reader perform this intertextual reference, moreover, Joyce has his reader mimic the cross-referential nature of Stephen’s own mind, thereby connecting the two through shared action. Keen describes motor mimicry as a vehicle for the transference and sharing of emotions, which she calls emotional contagion. She writes, “’the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize…movements with those of another person and consequently, to converge emotionally’ offers a compelling explanation of a component of our empathy as arising from our physical and social awareness of one another, from birth.”[18] Just as Stephen’s thoughts reach out to esoteric texts, the reader’s thoughts reach beyond Ulysses, tapping into an empathetic psychological disposition.

If “Proteus” resembles a disembodied, unrelatable intellect at the level of immediate content, “Lestrygonians” grounds reader and character in an intimacy that recalls T.S. Eliot and the metaphysical poet’s necessary recourse to the digestive tract. Again, Joyce employs a free indirect discourse style, reducing the distance between Bloom and reader. Bloom’s chapter witnesses a plethora of physicality and sensation, as he comes into contact with and feels for living beings. I argue, however, that Bloom’s capacity for empathy more often resembles pity, and his advertising acumen undermines full-fledged empathy. The sentiment, again, resides out of reach of the novel’s linguistic medium. Bloom engages in a similar phenomenological experiment to Stephen’s in “Proteus,” yet his project’s frame of reference remains in an other’s subjectivity. He observes the blind stripling on the curbside, thinking, “No tram in sight. Wants to cross. —Do you want to cross?” to which the young man “did not answer,” but instead, “His wallface frowned weakly. He moved his head uncertainly.”[19] Bloom’s words fall flat; language, here, remains an insufficient communicative mode between people. The words “weakly” and “uncertainly” show Bloom feeling pity for the stripling (“Poor young fellow!”), yet he self-consciously checks this pity on the next page, thinking, “Or we are surprised they have any brains. Why we think a deformed person or a hunchback clever if he says something we might say.”[20] Observing Bloom correct his pity and reinstate the stripling’s dignity, the reader finds Bloom’s internal musings worthy of respect, yet wanting in meaningful connectivity. Recognizing his inability to communicate with the blind man, Bloom “touched the thin elbow gently: then took the limp seeing hand to guide it forward.”[21] This gentle touch mirrors his previous contact with Mrs. Breen, as the narrator reports, “Mr. Bloom touched her funnybone gently, warning her” to allow the eccentric Tisdall Farrell to pass.[22] Physical touch, here, represents the necessary extra-linguistic component of authentic human communication. That Joyce describes Bloom’s touch as gentle bears witness to the compassion Bloom shares for living beings, and renders readers susceptible to emotional contagion.

As the blind stripling feels his way down the street, Bloom embarks on his phenomenological experiment, claiming, “Want to try in the dark to see.”[23] Joyce depicts a strong contrast here between Bloom and Stephen, showing both characters testing their sensory perception by closing their eyes. Stephen perceives visible and audible modes of reality, constructing his world through language, whereas Bloom builds his world out of the physical sensations of another person. Likewise, Joyce locates Bloom geographically within the city, assigning an organ, esophagus, to the chapter in his Gilbert schema. Whereas Sandymount strand reflects Stephen’s intellectual distance, Bloom’s position in Dublin’s streets, and his association with the physical organ, reflects his intersubjective proximity. His experiment depicts this closeness, enabling an empathetic response in both character and reader. He muses over the blind man’s extra-sensual capacities of color and sex, proceeding to touch his own hair “With a gentle finger,” and then, “gently his finger felt the skin of his right cheek.”[24]Bloom’s gentle touch extends in all directions: to others, his self, and the reader. His experiment leads to his mulling over the world’s injustices, which expand in scope as he thinks, “Where is the justice being born that way? All those women and children excursion beanfeast burned and drowned in New York…. Dear, dear, dear. Pity, of course: but somehow you can’t cotton on to them someway.”[25] Acknowledging his inability to fully comprehend the New York catastrophe, Bloom’s thoughts touch David Hume’s in A Treatise of Human Nature. There, explains Keen, Hume describes the effect that distance commands over one’s affects, writing, “The sentiments of others have little influence, when far remov’d from us, and require the relation of contiguity, to make them communicate themselves entirely.”[26] Again, Bloom’s psychological awareness tends to promote the reader’s identification with the character. The reader understands distance as a factor in her own lack of empathy, paradoxically triggering her empathy for Bloom who remains close in Joyce’s free indirect speech.

Bloom’s advertising sense, however, works to prevent empathy as a positive emotional contagion from spreading through connective webs. Overshadowing the various compassionate moments in the chapter, Bloom recalls his marketing idea, “I suggested to [Hely] about a transparent showcart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blottingpaper. I bet that would have caught on.”[27] Bloom objectifies his imagined “smart girls,” employing his uncanny ability to tap into the human psyche—the same ability that enables empathy—as a means to a profit. Jennifer Wicke, in her “Scene of Writing in Ulysses,” argues, “Bloom…directs his gaze to a new, personal narrative beyond the mere print on the page, to a mysterious inner reading that only a practiced advertising subject can produce at will.”[28] A structural mirroring between advertisements and Bloom’s consciousness inheres at a formal level, promoting Bloom to linguistic king of the modern condition. Bloom as creator transcends the market and outputs significant production. Wicke too quickly dismisses Jameson in her essay, however, as Bloom’s reification of the “smart girls” suggests. Wicke addresses this passage, admitting, “The advertisement scheme sets them up in the street but hesitates over whether they actually produce any writing.”[29] Yet, she proceeds to emphasize the way in which advertising wields the literary process in new, fecund ways. The reader observes, however, that genuine empathy ceases to remain a possibility within the realm of advertising, as the latter supplants the former as the product of emotional contagion. Advertising, that is, co-opts empathy, directing what ought to be intersubjective connectivity towards a reified relationship between people and objects. Similarly, Bloom’s first sight of the Elijah ad prompts him to incorrectly postulate, “Bloo…. Me? No./Blood of the Lamb.”[30] Conditioned to read the world through advertisements, Bloom sees his self reflected, reified, through the advertisement. These opening few lines, and similar advertising passages throughout the chapter, depict Bloom as narcissistic, even predatory, a stark contrast from the gentle, compassionate touch he exhibits towards Mrs. Breen and the blind stripling. Complicating empathy’s ethical implications, Keen describes its potential utility as a weapon. Fascism, for example, employs a kind of “emotional contagion” theory, capitalizing on people’s feelings as vehicles for an oppressive agenda.[31] Empathy in the hands of advertising, as in the hands of fascists, submits human subjects to a reified state in order to promote a hegemonic agenda. The “mysterious inner reading that only a practiced advertising subject can produce at will” is actually a suppressed predisposition to authentically empathize with others.

Despite empathy’s subdued position with respect to advertising, the chapters in which Stephen and Bloom unite depict an extra-linguistic connection that reinstates empathy in the novel. For instance, “Oxen of the Sun” witnesses a symbiotic comforting between Bloom and Stephen, yet one based in language, and, therefore, unable to produce genuine empathetic connection. Stephen, frightened by the thunderclap, “was now of a sudden quite plucked down and his heart shook within the cage of his breast as he tasted the rumour of that storm.”[32] The rumor of the storm, its linguistic weight, looms heavily in Stephen’s mind. It recalls his history, his identification with Lucifer, and God’s smiting powers, bundled into a linguistic package for Stephen in the form of thunder’s audible modality. Bloom, the Bunyan-like narrator explains, “spoke to him calming words to slumber his great fear, advertising how it was no other thing but a hubbub noise that he heard,” yet Stephen “had in his bosom a spike named Bitterness which could not by words be done away with.”[33] Bloom, here, reaches out to Stephen, attempting to calm him through a scientific account of thunder, but he cannot undo with language what language effects in Stephen by the latter’s own doing. Stephen’s preoccupation with, and commandment over, language renders Bloom’s words meaningless. Stephen then attempts to calm Bloom, as the latter worries, “will they slaughter all [the cattle]?”[34] Typical of Bloom, the reader understands, he worries over the violent fate of livestock, feeling pity for their helpless condition. The narrator proceeds, “Mr. Stephen, a little moved but very handsomely told him no such matter.” Stephen feels a little moved, yet the narrator qualifies this feeling, “handsomely,” emphasizing the reversion back to a distanced, conventional linguistic barrier.

“Eumaeus” depicts the beginnings of an extra-linguistic merging of the two, as the narrator reports, “Though they didn’t see eye to eye in everything a certain analogy there somehow was as if both their minds were travelling, so to speak in one train of thought.”[35] They discuss politics and work’s role in providing meaning to one’s life, reaching an impasse of disagreement.[36] Yet, they share solidarity in their party of two among the other shelter patrons and the latter’s nationalist chatter.[37] Their differences, Joyce emphasizes, remain merely linguistic, whereas their similarities—both remain exiles, others, in a nationalist Dublin—connect them on a deeper level. Similarly, in “Ithaca,” Bloom absorbs Stephen’s existential affirmation in the face of the void, “Not verbally. Substantially.”[38] A kind of extra-linguistic osmosis occurs between Bloom and Stephen on account of their physical proximity and psychological compatibility. This theme culminates as the two men urinate side by side.[39] The catechistical question asks, “What different problems presented themselves to each concerning the invisible audible collateral organ of the other?” The answer proceeds, providing the linguistic contents of their thoughts, which shows disparate ruminations the reader expects from two different characters. Yet, Stephen and Bloom, contextualized within a cosmic image, “A star precipitated with great apparent velocity across the firmament,” along with their unified urinating act, work to express a connection beyond language. Motor mimicry, again, works to unite the two characters who are poles apart in disposition. An act of urination recalls the physicality the reader associates with Bloom throughout the novel, whereas their cosmic gaze points to Stephen’s eternal musings. A the same time, Stephen’s urinating at the end of “Proteus”[40] and Bloom’s fantasy as an astronomer[41] rearrange and establish entwined connectivity in this scene. Jameson points to “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca” as Ulysses’ most boring chapters, which he believes foregrounds the equally cliché issue of subject and object duality.[42] I have argued, however, that these two chapters foreground language’s inability to capture a meaningful connection between two humans. Joyce’s stylistic devolution into psychological realism, instead, works to foreground empathy’s position outside the linguistic makeup of human consciousness.

Joyce’s Ulysses complicates the novel’s conventional treatment of empathy by omitting the sentiment, only to emphasize its significance in the modern world. In “Proteus,” Joyce brings the reader in close proximity to Stephen on a formal level through his free indirect speech style, which ought to promote empathy on behalf of the reader. This connection is suppressed, however, as Stephen’s erudite linguistic display works to alienate Joyce’s audience. Looking to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the reader broaches this impasse and constructs a connection with the character based on an intertextual process that mimics Stephen’s own cross-referential ruminations. I do not maintain that this necessitates empathy in the reader, but that it works against Stephen’s isolated persona as contained within the book, paving the way for a connection that reaches outside of the text. “Lestrygonians” offers a material look at empathy, as Bloom connects with various individuals. His gentle touch represents a physical connection required of the de-reified modern city, one that remains beyond language’s limits. Advertising, a ubiquitous language throughout the novel, displaces genuine empathy on behalf of a capitalistic program. Bloom represents capitalism’s sinister co-opting of the empathetic disposition, complicating his otherwise compassionate quality and likable character. “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca” witness a superficial anticlimax in style and action, yet point to moments in which two disparate, solipsistic individuals converge in solidarity as outsiders and members of a cosmic system. Joyce shows his characters crossing urination paths, while gazing at the stars, relating to the reader a shared verbal equivalent of empathy’s extra-linguistic nature and its passage through a universalizing act of motor mimicry.

[1] Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 173.

[2] Ibid., 56–57.

[3] Ibid., 92–99

[4] Fredric Jameson, “Ulysses in History,” in James Joyce: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993), 148.

[5] James Joyce, Ulysses, Gabler (New York: Vintage, 1986), 245–46.

[6] Jennifer Wicke, “Advertising & the Scene of Writing in Ulysses,” in Advertising Fictions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 124.

[7] Joyce, Ulysses, 31.

[8] Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 96.

[9] Joyce, Ulysses, 31.

[10] Ibid., 41–42.

[11] T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1932), 247.

[12] Joyce, Ulysses, 35.

[13] Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 87.

[14] Jameson, “Ulysses in History,” 151.

[15] Ibid., 154.

[16] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. John Paul Riquelme, Hans Walter Gabler, and Walter Hettche, 1st ed, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 224.

[17] Joyce, Ulysses, 34.

[18] Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 5.

[19] Joyce, Ulysses, 148.

[20] Ibid., 149.

[21] Ibid., 148.

[22] Ibid., 130.

[23] Ibid., 149.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 42.

[27] Joyce, Ulysses, 127.

[28] Wicke, “Advertising & the Scene of Writing in Ulysses,” 133.

[29] Ibid., 167.

[30] Joyce, Ulysses, 124.

[31] Keen, Empathy and the Novel, 150.

[32] Joyce, Ulysses, 323.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 326.

[35] Ibid., 536.

[36] Ibid., 526–527.

[37] Ibid., 523.

[38] Ibid., 572.

[39] Ibid., 577.

[40] Ibid., 41.

[41] Ibid., 137.

[42] Jameson, “Ulysses in History,” 157.

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