Simon Smith (Bio)

The scent of lemon soap: social subjectivity in James Joyce’s Ulysses

Our concepts of the self are not what they were. The solid-state substance of Boethius and his consubstantial brethren has been reconstructed along dynamic lines. Following the likes of Austin Farrer and Ludwig Feuerbach, one current version locates the self in and as creative participation in the becoming of another. But the dialectical path is narrow and we who walk it do not walk alone. Descartes’ ghost is never far away; likewise, Whitehead’s roaring rush of pure process threatens to engulf us; and up ahead, the old question: society or individual, transcendence or immanence, being or becoming? Philosophy, with its love of black-and-white binaries, may not be equipped to articulate or even fully comprehend the reality of a social self without falling into one error or the other. Fortunately, we may augment our abstract philosophical diagrams with the life and colour of artistic revelation. Let us turn, then, to a most extraordinary work of literature: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s Dublin day overflows with references and allusions borrowed from every facet of human culture; enough, indeed, to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries.’ Why so many? Because Joyce sought to capture the entirety of human experience. Having captured it, he ladles it into the heads of his protagonists: Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. In so doing, Joyce exposed the essential sociality of subjectivity. The novel plunges us from one stream of consciousness to another; and as we surf these turbulent waters, we are surrounded always by an ocean of public discourse. Be they never so private, every thought, every self-reflection, every poetic inspiration is drawn from a millennium or more of human culture and human experience. Thus, in true dialectical style, Stephen and Mr Bloom become the mirror wherein, to use their own words, we ‘see ourselves as others see us.’