Dangling Our Toes in the Stream of Consciousness
I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours…
So, I picked up Ulysses the other day – as one is wont to do – and dove into the roiling river which is Molly Bloom’s beautifully, rudely fecund tale at book’s end. With my mind groping towards a subject for today, I read not only for the jaw-dropping poetry of the words tumbling across the page, but also for their precise, artful construction.
After last week’s discussion of structure and time, it feels only natural to turn this week to a structure often entirely out of time, stream of consciousness. As a matter of history – and by now you know how I love my literary history – the term was first used by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890) to describe the uncensored way thoughts play across the mind. Writers picked it up as a narrative conceit, a means to imitate the interior chatter that fills our brains. Though some say his baby brother Henry (and a few other 19th-century scribes) toyed with the style, it did not really catch on until the 20th century.
Which brings me back to Joyce – and to Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and other masters of stream of consciousness. Ulysses, The Waves, As I Lay Dying, Strange Interlude, all are modern classics with interior narratives as intricately constructed as Chartres cathedral. They lead the reader into the mental meanderings of characters, each word leaping off the page like a synaptic spark, seemingly random, spontaneous, and free. Yet they knew what too many novice writers do not: an imitation of unfiltered thought is not 9truly unfiltered. Intimations of freedom require restraints.
Now, as an editor, I lay the trouble many people have with SofC at the door of misguided youth and J.D. Salinger. (For the younger generation, consider the culpability of the vast Cyberian wasteland and the Twitter/Facebook anything-I-think-is-brilliant-because-I-think-it mentality.) Back when we were teenagers many a would-be writer sat in third-period English poring over The Catcher in the Rye, carried along by Holden’s free-wheeling SofC narrative. Chances are a generation of well-meaning teachers even assigned stream-of-consciousness essays, urging a generation to emulate Salinger and capture the spontaneity of his style. And why not? We were young and easily enamored by the freedom SofC embodied, believing that it’s simply a matter of turning on a tap and going with the verbal flow.
While this may be great for dusting the morning cobwebs from a sleepy brain, or dislodging a paralyzing case of writer’s block, an objective look at such writing will tell you that it may be ‘free’ but chances are it’s not very good. Even journaling, personally fascinating and helpful as it may be, seldom rises to the level of literature. (Pepys, Nin, Woolf, and a few other extraordinary diarists are the exception that proves the rule, and in some cases, they clearly wrote their diaries with an eye on posterity, making them more intentionally artful. But I digress….)
The fact is, if you look at Joyce or Woolf, you will see that there is no happenstance in their words. (There was a reason it took Joyce 12 years to write Ulysses.) They are filtered through character and structure and rules, each stream-polished stone placed just so, that it might catch the sun perfectly. Like each stroke Jackson Pollock put on canvas, there is purpose and intent behind every word. There is the meticulous manifestation of choice.
Throwing paint at a canvas doesn’t make someone Jackson Pollock – as the above non-Jackson Pollock illustrates – and spilling random words onto paper doesn’t make you James Joyce. Literary stream of consciousness is not automatic writing, it just feels that way.
And that is the writer’s magic. The studied art of effortlessness.
Dive in, if you dare.