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Essay on Use of Language in James Joyce's Ulysses

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Use of Language in James Joyce's Ulysses


In his essay “The Decomposing Form of Joyce’s Ulysses,” Henry Staten has argued “that Ulysses achieves some of its most characteristic effects by pressing the internal logic of mimesis to the limit, above all through onomatopoeia, which manifests in a peculiarly condensed way the self-contradictory character of the realist project” (Staten 174-5). Mimetic narrative and method are undone by an onomatopoeiac mode, which is conceived by Stephen “as the pure self-expression or self-annunciation of reality” (175): “Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide…” (Ulysses 3.2-3, emphasis added). “Listen: a fourworded speech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos” (3.456-7). In textually representing “wavespeech,” Stephen’s onomatopoeiac “signatures” foreground the mediated nature of our knowledge and perceptions of the world. Indeed, any ideal or phenomenal referent to which our signifying language is merely attached, acting as a transparent medium through which we might know and perceive the referent, is absent. One might say referents in Joyce’s text are in turn other signs. In other words, the unmediated or immediate reception of sense, of the sense of a thing’s ‘quiddity’ or ‘eidos,’ its ideal, “iterable” form is impossible. Language is not a transparent mediation of sense. There is always semeiotic mediation, a contingent though not necessarily arbitrary process.

The undermining of mimesis in language might be, Staten further argues, Joyce’s aesthetic intention. Perhaps Ulysses is the first novel to willfully undermine its mimetic composition, its own intentionality in attempting to mirror nature. It displays language as deconstructive of itself, ...


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...rcalated elements contingently link in series, composing, decomposing, recomposing. We have entered a thoroughly non-Platonic world in this passage of generalized simulacra. Perhaps Ulysses is an extravagant Rube Goldberg machine, or even transit system of signs, an indeterminate semeiotic. Even Molly’s closing words echo this contingent though non-arbitrary nature in her choosing Bloom for her life’s mate: “I thought well as well him as another … yes I said yes I will Yes” (18.1604-9). This “Yes” is an opening not a closing, the closed form of the novel is elided, and we find ourselves again, as indeed we had during our reading, in a world “there all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end” (3.27-8).

Works Cited

Ulysses. Random House: New York, 1986.
James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Casebook. (ed. Derek Attridge). Oxford University: Oxford, 2004.


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