James Joyce: Master of Literary Mindfulness

Dr. Ian Ellis-Jones blogs about stream of consciousness writing—where the thoughts and feelings of a character are presented as they happen... from moment to moment. 

James Joyce, 1915. Photo by Alex Ehrenzweig

In recent years I have had the pleasure of rediscovering James Joyce and his “stream of consciousness” style of writing.

The expression “stream of consciousness” comes from one of my favourite philosophers and psychologists William James.

Stream of consciousness writing aims to provide a textual equivalent to the stream of a fictional character’s consciousness, thus creating the impression that we, the reader, are eavesdropping on the flow of conscious experience in the character’s mind, thereby gaining direct, intimate and unmediated access to their personal, private “thoughts.”

Writing of this kind involves presenting in the form of written text something that is neither entirely verbal nor textual.

Take these examples from Joyce’s literary masterpiece Ulysses:

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water … Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill,God send you don’t make them in the one pot.

Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you. They aren’t going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm full blooded life.

Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words. Thoth, god of libraries, a birdgod, moonycrowned. And I heard the voice of that Egyptian highpriest. In painted chambers loaded with tilebooks. They are still. Once quick in the brains of men. Still: but an itch of death is in them, to tell me in my ear a maudlin tale, urge me to wreak their will.

As we, or mother Dana, weave and unweave our bodies, Stephen said, from day to day, their molecules shuttled to and fro, so does the artist weave and unweave his image.

The first excerpt above is pure Zen, is it not? “When I makes tea I makes tea … And when I makes water I makes water …” It is also the essence of Mindfulness.

In stream of consciousness writing the thoughts and feelings of a character are presented as they happen … from moment to moment. This is also the essence of Mindfulness—observing and noting one’s thoughts and emotions as they arise.

In Mindfulness one does not seek to judge, criticise, evaluate or analyse one’s thoughts and feelings. One simply observes … is aware … and notes. However, we all do engage in such self-evaluation and criticism from time to time as do Joyce’s characters:

Would the departed never nowhere nohow reappear? Ever he would wander, selfcompelled, to the extreme limit of his cometary orbit, beyond the fixed stars and variable suns and telescopic planets, astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space, passing from land to land, among peoples, amid events. Somewhere imperceptibly he would hear and somehow reluctantly, suncompelled, obey the summons of recall. Whence, disappearing from the constellation of the Northern Crown he would somehow reappear reborn above delta in the constellation of Cassiopeia and after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors, a dark crusader, a sleeper awakened, with financial resources (by supposition) surpassing those of Rothschild or the silver king.

When we find ourselves engaging in self-evaluation we need to note what we are doing and gently bring ourselves back to the present moment. Not that it is wrong to engage in self-evaluation and self-analysis from time to time, for, as Socrates pointed out, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” However, there is a time and place for everything, and we need to ensure that when we engage in self-evaluation and self-analysis we do so consciously and deliberately … and not “mindlessly”.

One can never say this too often. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention … in the present … purposefully and receptively … deeply and openly, and non-judgmentally … to whatever arises in the present moment … moment to moment … both inside and outside of us.

Happy stream-of-consciousness-ing!