Ulysses: Proteus

Episode 3 of Ulysses takes place almost entirely in Stephen Daedalus’ head. In the first two episodes, the bulk of the “action” is in the dialogue between characters. In this episode, we join Stephen as he walks along Sandymount strand and has more than a moment with his thoughts. The episode name is Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god of the sea. In my opinion, Proteus presents the first major challenge of following the book. Joyce gives us the insights into what Stephen is thinking and, closer to reality than any other book that I’ve read, the thoughts flow from moment to moment with loose association from one to the next.

Early in the episode, he considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house. Then he plays out either a memory or a projection of what the visit will entail along with dialogue from his disapproving father. From here, things start to jump around a good bit.

This episode is particularly interesting to me as someone who is interested in Zen Buddhism. When practicing Zen meditation, called Zazen, the idea is to sit erect and stare blankly at the wall for a period of time. What usually happens is before finding any form of quiet is that thoughts just bounce around. What do I need to do after this? Yes – change the light bulb outside the garage door. Oh but I needed lightbulbs from the store. Darn! How did I forget that? Make sure to add it to the shopping list as soon as this is done. Then in my mind’s eye, I walk into the pantry where bulbs are stored and I look down at the couch, where my daughter routinely leaves partially consumed water bottles. Why can’t she take them with her? Maybe I should just stop buying water bottles. But no, we need them for the sports activities. And so on… The first step to practicing Zazen is to just sit with it. Over time, we become more aware of our thoughts as they’re happening and we can start to limit the damage that our runaway thoughts inflict on us. Eventually, we even begin to find glimpses of quiet.

I started reading Ulysses before I started approaching Zen with any real discipline. Now having practiced for a couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate Proteus more than ever. It is still difficult to follow. But it should be. We’re in the head following the thoughts of a well-educated human being who is thinking of events current to him at the turn of the 20th century.

Themes

In addition to the constant flow from thought to thought, Daedalus shifts from English to French and back again with a smattering of other languages. I will readily admit that I don’t follow all of the references yet; and this is my fourth read. Other lengthy tomes have been written on the content, so I’m touching on some key themes that stick out to me.

  • Mother: Stephen continues to be haunted by the death of his mother. He sees two midwives and thinks of umbilical cords and Eve’s navel-free stomach, which makes him think about his own conception by “the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghost woman with ashes on her breath.” He thinks of the telegram from his father that called him home from medical study in Paris to his mother’s deathbed and Mulligan’s earlier comment, “The aunt thinks you killed your mother.”
  • Irish / Ireland: Stephen thinks of Patrice Egan whom he knew in Paris. He thinks of Kevin Egan, Patrice’s father and exiled Irish nationalist, and the conversations about nationalism they had in a French cafe.
  • Money: “Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.” “By the way go easy with that money like a good young imbecile.” Stephen thinks about the money that he’s recently gotten, his historically bad handling of money, and the savings advice from Mr. Deasy.
  • Hamlet: There were major references to Hamlet in Telemachus, the first episode, and a few in Nestor, the last episode. In Proteus, there is a small call out of Elsinore, which is the castle where the play is set; and Hamlet is again referenced with, “nipping and eager airs.”
  • Father: There is much talk about father and son with reference to Hamlet earlier in the book, but in this episode Stephen’s relationship to his father begins to materialize for the reader. When Stephen considers going to his aunt Sarah’s house at the beginning of the episode, it gives way to a vision that involves his condescending father providing disproving overtones. He thinks about his and other “houses of decay,” which we’ll learn later is a marker for his father’s inability to maintain a consistent family home.

As mentioned earlier, Proteus is the shape-shifting god of the sea. The episode Proteus takes on the shape-shifting characteristics as the topics and language shift like the tendrils of an anemone in the surf. I marvel at Joyce’s writing. To be able to interlace shifting thought and theme in a way that is relatable nearly 100 years after publication is simply awe-inspiring. 

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