James Joyce, language and stream of consciousness

Iconoclast, rebel, exile, explorer.

Here’s a  great introduction to James Joyce from School of life

Joyce was born in Dublin a city he both loved and loathed and which became “the universal city in my work” – and even the entire universe. He exiled himself to be free from twin oppressions of  Catholic morality and colonization by the British empire to Trieste where he would write, and write, and write and experiment and play with language and literary forms, delving inside the human spirit dissolving boundaries between  everyday life and great mythical adventure, and those between the streets of Dublin and  the cosmos.

The 12minute video shows how Joyce’s work had three great themes:

The Heroism of Ordinary Life
In probably his most renowned work Joyce likened a single ordinary day in the life of an ordinary Dubliner to the that most transformative of journey of legend: The Odyssey in which Homer’s tells of the trail, temptations of Odysseus, or Ulysses .

William Blake wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, Joyce found  all human history and literature, and the universe too in one day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin.

Stream of Consciousness
Polite society had become accustomed to portrayals of people politely speaking in turn those fully formulated and logical sentences, and it was taken as given that this was how people shared what they thought.

Joyce’s approach was different – he was determined to portray the inner workings of what actually goes on inside us; to capture what runs through through our heads moment by moment. He strove for it to come alive from the page the manner that thought arises – not in polite, mannered, neatly formulated sentences but jarred, jagged and jumbled; grubby, profane and taboo; all weirdly and wonderfully juxtaposed with running commentary on what we witness moment by moment.

He was one of a handful writers who attempted to capture and portray what William James had first given the name to: “stream of consciousness” became the term by which this form of writing is known – shocking at the time it has, in the hundred years since, become a commonplace.

Experience of Language
Adept with languages Joyce pushed at its limits by making up his own version of english using as many as forty different languages in the same sentence or even the same word. He wanted to capture on the page how language sounds inside our minds and also the many possible meanings loaded into a single word or phrase. What might seem impenetrable on the page comes alive when we hear it read out loud in the same way Finnegan came alive when when whiskey spilled whiskey on his face.

James Joyce’s writing is a lot like hearing voices, he did what they do- mix-up, mash-up and play games with words, meanings, ideas of what’s happening, what’s  happened, what might happen, and all the muddled mess of what’s inside – leaving we the reader/ listener to make our meaning or even as many meanings as we like – make our choices and make of it all what we will.

“If we could slice off the top of people’s heads and get a view of the diverse thoughts that circulate and cut across one another, contradicting, confusing, we’d have a much more accurate picture of our fellow humans and one completely at odds with the one we typically have: that people are psychological monoliths…”


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2 Responses to James Joyce, language and stream of consciousness

  1. Beautiful article. I love this: “William Blake wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, Joyce found all human history and literature, and the universe too in one day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin.”


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