Ulysses I – Characterisationon August 28th, 2012
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan
It’s difficult for us now to comprehend how strange these words must have sounded to a pre-modernist ear. Even today we still struggle with Joyce’s revelatory concept of “characterisation” – the idea that individuals can easily be delineated for one another, and these individuals then be given characteristics. But for people at the beginning of c20th, such notions were revolutionary.
Inured in its delusion of an objective scientific understanding of the world and caught within a society which was rigidly stratified and in which people were at most comprehended and delineated – if they were comprehended and delineated at all – by their role in that society, the c19th was incapable of formulating any notion of man’s personality or his inter-relations. With the novel by its very nature bounded by whatever esoteric philosophy prevails among a small group of illuminati at any given time, it would have been as impossible for a c19th man to have written anything possessing a fine array of characters as it would for him to recognise that people of others races were equal. This is the reason why c19th novels are all of one type: humanity is shown as an amorphous mass; events happen, but they don’t happen to anybody; people are present, but they aren’t in any way specific people, merely instantiations of the popular idea.
But to start a novel with an adjective – and then another adjective! How daring! – For the adjective (an invention of Joyce’s) by its nature must be describing something; and by describing, of course, it is delineating. So immediately we are thrown in medias res into Joyce’s project. – Will we sink or swim? Or, more to the point, will Joyce’s “character” sink or swim? (As it happens, we find out at the exciting climax of chapter 1). – But then, what’s this? Another adjective! – There’s no compromise here with Joyce: it’s as if he’s challenging the whole c19th. Even we, at the start of c21st, might well be lost by this point. Not merely is something be shown as “stately”, in contrast to all that is comfortably “not stately”, but whatever it is, it is also “plump”. And then, not merely is this thing both both “stately” and “plump”, but it is also “Buck Mulligan”.
Readers who haven’t already given up will be spared having to struggle with one of Joyce’s cleverest innovations: the naming of his characters. The idea of using “proper nouns”, which had never occurred to anyone before, must be one of the most profound contributions of anyone to human understanding. By this one simple method, Joyce is able not merely to delineate object from object, or type of object from type of object, but he can specify and, as we shall see, re-specify, individual objects, to which he can then attribute adjectives and all kinds of other things which, through a highly complex process we shall come on to in further essays, will eventually lead these “characters” to having what Joyce termed “personalities”.
Next week: we discuss the next four word in Ulysses, “came from the stairhead”, and explore Joyce’s remarkable genius in applying “actions” to his newly invented “characters”.