Wrestling with Proteus: Overcoming Ulysses’s Most Notorious Episode

Figure 1 Artistic rendition of the Proteus episode

Joyce’s Proteus episode in Ulysses is famous for convincing readers that the book is too difficult or convoluted to be worth reading. The first few lines of the episode, narrated from the perspective of Stephen, are infamously complicated. In part, this is because Stephen frantically jumps between seemingly unrelated and highly esoteric references to metaphysics, theology, literature, and aesthetics (amongst other things). Perhaps more troubling for some readers is the fact that Stephen’s rambles are often disrupted by phrases from other languages, ellipses (where his thoughts run aground), anaphoric reference (addressing characters across Joyce’s oeuvre) and pretentiousness. But I choose to argue that readers are rewarded for putting up with Stephen and that by trying to build a coherent interpretation, they are inadvertently acknowledging Joyce’s desire for the episode: to encourage us to interpret and assemble meaning as we perceive the world in all its Protean Flux (more on this later).

Narratively, Joyce encourages participation through a free indirect style. In other words, he channels the movements of Stephen’s mind as they present themselves to him. If you look at the second paragraph of this episode, you can see that the narrative transitions between the voice of the narrator (1) and Stephen (2): “(1) Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. (2) You are walking through it howsomever.” Because of this, it is often very easy to forget that this episode is not being narrated by Stephen, who might simply talk of himself in the third person. The same technique appears in Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait.

Figure 2 First edition of A Portrait, worth over £300

Therefore, we cannot consider A Portrait, or even the Proteus episode of Ulysses, as Stephen’s autobiographical representations of himself - the artist in development. There is another presence that must be acknowledged to appreciate both works as they were intended: the narrator, who is too often mistook for Stephen himself.

There has been much debate in academic circles, for example, surrounding the title of A Portrait. It simultaneously implies that Stephen is artist in question and that he is the fumbling, naïve “young man” that is unrealised as an artist. Most readings of the book look towards Stephen as the hero, the uncompromising aesthete who is both intellectually gifted and poetically inspired. Although this is a valid reading, I believe it disregards the great irony that Joyce tangled into the title. Stephen is not the artist of this novel, it’s Joyce. Without him there’d be very little worth listening to. Nevertheless, there’s the temptation to believe that everything we bear witness to is the work of Stephen. This perhaps reflects one of Joyce’s narrative tenets, that the artist should be, as Flaubert wrote in a letter to his mistress, “like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”. It important to remind ourselves, then, that Stephen’s thoughts have been carefully mediated by this near-invisible narrator for them to be coherent, meaningful, and worthy of art.

This narrative decision was undertaken by Joyce to deliberately undermine the character of Stephen and, in a stroke of genius, help to achieve the narrative goals of the Proteus chapter. By attempting to refute Stephen’s difficulty in perceiving the changing face of the world and by noticing the subtle presence of the author who is capably organising the puzzle alongside us, we can begin to understand the prism Joyce wanted us to look through. Stephen is a hopeless artist. By intellectualising all aspects of his experience, he alienates himself from the universality of human experience. No more apparent is Stephen’s alienation than the Proteus chapter, when Stephen contemplates the usury of Buck Mulligan for shutting him out of the tower and withholding the key and becomes disillusioned with objects of perception.

To break this idea down, it’s important to remember that by the time Stephen returns to Dublin and appears in Ulysses, his ability to generate art is still in question. His exile, which was self-imposed upon artistic principles, has been a complete failure. In Proteus, Stephen frames this artistic failure as a perceptual crisis the artist alone cannot resolve.

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes”, Stephen says to himself in the opening line of the episode, affronted with the inescapable formlessness of the visible world as we perceive it. A good way to translate the line if you’re having difficulty might be: “inescapable formlessness of the visible: if the world isn’t perceived this way by others, it at least appears this way to me.” Stephen’s artistic crisis is inspired by Berkeleyan immaterialism. Berkley was famously responsible for the phrase “esse est percipi”, or ‘to be is to be perceived’. In other words, Berkeley believed that all objects of perception are manifested into existence upon being perceived. This means that there is no universal basis for perception, as all objects can be perceived differently. In simpler terms, Stephen believes that everybody perceives the world differently. In fact, the world doesn’t exist until it’s realised by an individual, so two people cannot agree on the fundamental properties of an object (or assert that it even exists), without depending upon the subjective faculty of perception.

A good way to relate to this idea is to remind ourselves of the instances when we have had a perceptual disagreement with others. Is this colour black or navy? Red or purple? If not with others, we can at least admit that we’ve explored this idea ourselves; is my understanding of red the same as yours? Are strawberries redder to you than they are to me? Eventually, after much effort to solve the problem, we arrive at the conclusion that colour cannot be determined intrinsically. For example, to establish that the colour white is white, we must also be able to establish that it is not black. How then does this relate to Berkley’s argument? More importantly, how does this idea disrupt Stephen’s ability to generate art?

Figure 3 James Joyce

The argument that Berkley presented was that reality is actualised by means of perception and therefore not universal. For Stephen, who had once measured the beauty of art by its ability to communicate “the splendour of truth” (a Platonic stance that Stephen outlines in A Portrait), this is a grave scenario. How can the artist communicate universal truth if reality is individually realised by different subjects, if there is no intrinsic understanding of truth? Hence Stephen’s choice of the word “ineluctable”, which is most often defined as ‘something that is impossible to avoid’. Subjectivity poses a genuine threat to the artistic responsibility to universalise experience. Capturing reality in language, Stephen argues, is not possible. This is because language necessarily depends upon the subjective faculty of perception.

Stephen therefore argues that reality can only be interpreted and communicated through “signs” and “signatures”, which are constantly in flux and without proper meaning. For this reason, Stephen’s perceptual crisis also addresses the changing face of the world. Stephen expresses this by drawing the reader’s attention to objects as they transform and engage in a process, “the nearing tide, that rusty boot”, or the fact that we depend upon the constancy of other things to define objects (we see this when Stephen blends together two colours, “snotgreen, bluesilver”, to cognise the objects he is experiencing).

To explore perception and cognition, Stephen uses the terminology of German aesthetician Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Our ability to cognise objects of perception depends upon an interrelationship of objects of perception (e.g., objects presented alongside one and other) or nebeneinander. Cognition can also depend upon our ability to understand things as part of a process of transformation (e.g., objects presented after one another), or nacheinander. Can you see the issue Stephen presents himself with? Cognition of any object of perception is dialectically dependent upon another object of perception. To return to a previous argument, we cannot say that the colour white is white without saying first that it not black. There is no such thing as an intrinsic understanding of objects of perception, the same way that there can be no intrinsic understanding of Platonic truth.

This is where Joyce’s name for the episode becomes essential to this reading. “Proteus” comes from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey and specifically references Menelaus’s task of wrestling with the formless sea god Proteus who shifted between “all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire” during the duel. As a reward, Menelaus would receive answers concerning the whereabouts of Odysseus and Proteus would restore the winds that had left Menelaus’s ship and crew stranded on their journey back to Sparta. For his willingness to do battle with a creature who continuously changed and transformed, Menelaus gains a greater understanding of his circumstances. This stands in parallel to Stephen, who has convinced himself that all objects of perception exhibit Protean Flux and therefore cannot be arrested meaningfully.

Figure 4 Menelaus wrestles with Proteus

The struggle Joyce is painting in the episode does not take the form of a physical struggle, as Menelaus. Instead, it is concerned with the artistic ability to overcome the anarchy of perception and to capture (arrest as Menelaus did), a Protean reality. This profitable struggle is symbolised by another Homeric reference in the closing lines of the episode: the promise of a ship “homing” towards Dublin, as Menelaus “homed” towards Sparta upon the restoration of the wind.

Protean flux, “the distressing impermanence of all earthly things, against which the human mind wages perpetual war” (John Hunt, joyceproject.com), makes Stephen feel entirely alone in his pursuit of truth. By cognising objects of perception, the subject consolidates an independent reality that is more notably distinct to other subjects than it is universal. Thus, the artist is alone in his understanding of the world and truth, at least as far as Stephen believes. Stephen’s wrestle with Proteus is endless because he cannot accept the fundamental dynamism of the world.

Figure 5 Stephen walks Sandymount (thecrackedlookingglass.com)

But this is not what Joyce wants us to accept, which perhaps explains why the narrator is omniscient without ever intruding. Perception does not isolate people, it unites them. Perception does not prevent us from constructing a truth that appears universal. Perception does not leave us stranded in a desert of the incommunicable. In fact, it does the very opposite. The very fact that we feel sympathy towards Stephen in his inability to understand the changing face of the world and to know what is worthy of truth is emblematic of the universal human experience, which seeks to build universality in spite of subjectivity.

True beauty, in the Joycean model, is a symptom of shared human feeling which serves as the universal basis for overcoming Stephen’s aesthetic estrangement. In this way, the narrator can be understood as a dialectic counterpart to Stephen. Whilst Stephen wrestles with the existential crisis of perception and figurative estrangement from society, the narrator offers a frame of reference that instils hope; the title of the episode reminds us that Menelaus’ wrestle with Proteus was a success. It reminds us that, against all odds, he was able to overcome his estrangement and, at the same time, to overcome the problems a changing, flowing world presents. The two stories are presented alongside each other to encourage the reader to bridge the similarities: understanding the universality and pertinence that an almost three-thousand-year-old epic still has in the modern-day trials of a handful of Dubliners on the day of 16th of June 1904. This is how the narrator can generate great art. Unlike Stephen, he has solved the artistic dilemma of communicating “the splendour of truth” whilst acknowledging the subjectivity of human experience. The beauty of great art is established through the ability to tap into the “communal feeling” of human experience that Kant talks of. It is not impossible to share the idiosyncrasies of our experience, as Stephen might think. At the end of Ulysses, a hopeful “Yes” represents the bond that Molly and Leopold share despite all their difficulties, and the title, “Penelope”, reflects the parallel shared in Homer’s poem. The final images of both stories appear as a promise of triumph and unison over the temptation to view the world as lonely, or ourselves estranged. In wrestling with the Protean matter of life, we draw closer together, not further apart.

Figure 6 Drawing of Leopold Bloom.

For some good notes and a comprehensive guide through the Proteus episode, I recommend using The Joyce Project, which can be found here:


Tom Westhead

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