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“Stream of consciousness…”

… is the last phrase uttered by Antonio Damasio in this interview. Damasio is a neuroscientist.

UD thinks a good deal about consciousness. The novels she teaches tend to be stream of consciousness works by the high modernists — James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. UD suspects she loves modernist novels precisely because they put consciousness, and degrees of consciousness, in motion, over time; they feature characters actively, eloquently, being conscious. These characters are basically saying, over and over again in their narratives, I exist, I have a life, I am surrounded by a particular world, I have a self that observes my organism, that organizes my experience… These modes of being are, as Damasio describes them, the constituents of consciousness.

Damasio calls consciousness “an add-on” to the comparatively passive, registering “mind.” It’s something “specialized, to create what we call the self.”

A passage like this one in Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom, at a cemetery, ponders what it must be like to be conscious that you’re dying, is, what, a tour de force of consciousness…. It begins not with Bloom’s stream of consciousness, but with a few lines from the novel’s disembodied third-person narrative voice. Only with “Well cut frockcoat” do we enter Bloom’s speaking consciousness.

Gentle sweet air blew round the bared heads in a whisper. Whisper. The boy by the gravehead held his wreath with both hands staring quietly in the black open space. Mr Bloom moved behind the portly kindly caretaker. Well cut frockcoat. Weighing them up perhaps to see which will go next. Well it is a long rest. Feel no more. It’s the moment you feel. Must be damned unpleasant. Can’t believe it at first. Mistake must be: someone else. Try the house opposite. Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet. Then darkened deathchamber. Light they want. Whispering around you. Would you like to see a priest? Then rambling and wandering. Delirium all you hid all your life. The death struggle. His sleep is not natural. Press his lower eyelid. Watching is his nose pointed is his jaw sinking are the soles of his feet yellow. Pull the pillow away and finish it off on the floor since he’s doomed. Devil in that picture of sinner’s death showing him a woman. Dying to embrace her in his shirt. Last act of Lucia. Shall I nevermore behold thee? Bam! expires. Gone at last. People talk about you a bit: forget you. Don’t forget to pray for him. Remember him in your prayers. Even Parnell. Ivy day dying out. Then they follow: dropping into a hole one after the other.

We are praying now for the repose of his soul. Hoping you’re well and not in hell.

So this is exciting, no? This is James Joyce’s consciousness in brilliant compassionate synergy with the consciousness of his creation – that’s the first reason it’s exciting. He’s making a never-alive human being live fictively. Great fiction raises the dead, or, rather, the never alive. Great art is the strongest and most beautiful reaching out of an individual consciousness to resuscitate human reality.

But in its own terms, Bloom’s consciousness, aroused by all the death around him to a most acute morbidity, is just as exciting. In this insanely condensed paragraph, these few moments out of Bloom’s consciousness-stream, we experience something more profound (if you ask UD) than, say, Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych.

Indeed, Bloom’s rapid-fire dawning-death narrative is a sort of Ivan Ilych for Dummies, ain’t it? The two-minute version…

Only it doesn’t really feel reductive, because it’s attached to a consciousness in whose reality we believe (even though, if you ask me now, I’ll concede that Leopold Bloom does not, and never did, exist), and whose comic, philosophic richness we admire, recognizing its intellectual maneuvers in the face of this sort of threat to its integrity (I mean, cemeteries, funerals – that threat) as rather similar to our own.

This is the great joy, the triumphant feeling, of Ulysses, the reason people adore it and perform their Bloomsday bacchanalia every year… Antonio Damasio calls consciousness an add-on, which falls rather short, descriptively, of the intoxicating miracle of this specialized thing brewed to make a self.

There’s no sweeter consciousness-cognac than James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Margaret Soltan, September 1, 2010 5:45PM
Posted in: james joyce

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