Ulysses, James Joyce, Proteus, Giordano Bruno

Decoding Dedalus: Signs on a White Field

Actuality and the material world demand a winnowing down of facts to one linear story which serves one party, is the shout of the victor. In Ulysses, the human form is allowed to be infinite; no fact is considered unhistorical, no victory will be dismissed as pyrrhic. Everything is included because Ulysses is the epic of recovered time and redeemed space. – Alistair Cormack

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 47-48 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “His shadow lay…” and ends “… the more the more.”

Finally, we find ourselves in the closing pages of “Proteus.” Stephen has found his creative spark and begun composing his poem – his main artistic output of June sixteenth. As readers, we find ourselves on the downslope on a mighty hill, but remember, reaching the summit of a mountain is only half the climb. We still have to find our way down. 

His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. 

Here we see Stephen, in the grips of the poetic muse, bending over an ersatz table made of rocks on Sandymount Strand, jotting down the lines about the pale vampire traversing the seas on his bat-winged ship. Stephen sees his own shadows and ponders its limit. Of course, he’s not thinking only of his literal shadow, but also the shadow cast by his genius and the acclaim he hopes to achieve. Keep in mind, this is the same young Artist who requested his works be sent to all the great libraries of the world upon his death (including the long-ago-burned Library of Alexandria) in order to preserve his memory (a request that James Joyce made in real life of his brother Stanislaus).  rZSuJjadWhen Stephen asks, “Why not endless till the farthest star,” he is asking why can’t his “shadow,” his legacy extend to the far reaches of the universe? The thought of “the farthest star” leads to thoughts of the stars visible from Earth, hidden by the brightness of the midday sky. He recalls his earlier inversion of the Bible verse John 1:5, “darkness shining in the brightness.” 

Uncouth Stars

This passage contains the first of three mentions in Ulysses of the “delta of Cassiopeia.” At its most basic, this refers to the delta star in the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, a star known by its Arabic name Ruchbah, meaning knee. It’s not a particularly bright or important star from an astronomical point of view, but as mentioned, it gets three shout-outs in Ulysses, so we readers can’t get away with slacking off here. In the ninth episode, “Scylla and Charybdis,” Stephen claims that William Shakespeare’s birth was marked by a nova appearing over Cassiopeia, which for now we’ll just say is sort of true but not really. The nova’s appearance was particularly portentous since the constellation looks like a W for “William.” As Cassiopeia travels across the sky, that W tilts on its side and looks a bit like the Greek letter sigma, which could stand for the S in “Stephen.” Delta would be the first letter of his “Greek” last name. The “delta of Cassiopeia” is the initials of Stephen Dedalus written by God upon the night sky. As above, so below. 

Me sits there with his augur’s rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. 

The “augur’s rod of ash” is Stephen’s ashplant, his walking stick, his “familiar.” Augury is an ancient practice of divination that reached its height under the Romans, though its earliest mention is found in Homer’s Iliad. In short, augury involves dividing an area of land or sky into sections during a ceremony and analysing the patterns of birds in each division. The quantities and types of birds would indicate to the augur (the person interpreting the birds’ actions) what the outcome of any given decision might be. For instance, after an election, an augury ceremony would be held to ask the gods if they approved of an official taking power, thus inaugurating them if the gods approved. The ceremony was conducted using a rod of ash called a lituus and accompanied by a constant background of flute music. Later in “Scylla and Charybdis,” Stephen connects himself with the Irish god Aengus, who is often encircled by the birds of inspiration. Checks out so far.

Giordano Bruno

Stephen is hoping to catch a glimpse of his immortal legacy or even the limits of a less-than-immortal one. Michael Seidel suggests that “a reign of uncouth stars” is a reference to the work of the Nolan himself, Renaissance-era hermetic magician Giordano Bruno. In this analogy, Stephen’s augur’s rod and borrowed sandals are symbols of the god Hermes. In his moral treatise Spaccio della bestia trionfante, Bruno wrote that the corrupt societies on earth can be reformed by first solving the corruption of the stars above. He felt that the questionable morality of the classical Greek characters depicted in the sky, including the “Cassiopeia of Vanity,” lead to iniquity on Earth.  Jupiter (as Bruno believed the planets to be living, celestial animals) would need to call a planetary council and purge these “uncouth stars” in favor of more moral symbols. In order to achieve this, the constellations would need to be totally redrawn. Only then could people on the earth benefit from the wisdom of the stars above. Since this purification hasn’t occurred yet, the zodiac is of no use guiding our young Artist, as seen most starkly when he is confronted with a nightmare version of the zodiacal symbols accompanying hermeticist AE Russell in “Circe.” Stephen finds no guidance in the hidden stars, by the light of day or in darkness. 

I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? 

Stephen wonders about the nature of his shadow, a symbol of the finite reach of his future artistic legacy. His shadow is restricted to his current form, his “manshape,” and isn’t as far-reaching or impressive as he’d like it to be. Stephen would rather project onto the world an endless form of forms, his eternal soul. If his artistic potential is limited in scope, then his attempt at augury is useless since he wants to see into infinity. Is he walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?

The young Artist’s frustration surely resonates with anyone who has struggled to be recognized for their art – the feeling of wanting your work and legacy to be as infinite and eternal as the soul that created it while wondering if anyone might ever even see your art. Stephen certainly isn’t helped by realizing that his poem is scribbled on a scrap of torn paper borrowed from Mr Deasy’s letter – not exactly ready for submission to the Library of Alexandria.

Signs on a white field. 

“Signs on a white field” has a dual meaning. First, it can mean the birds flying against an overcast sky for Stephen the augur to interpret. Second, the signs are the words that Stephen has written on his scrap of paper. How auspiciously these “signs” fly will determine the reach of Stephen’s shadow, so to speak.

Characterizing his writing in this way brings Stephen into another meditation on the philosophy of Bishop George Berkeley, who we first discussed in the opening paragraphs of “Proteus” as Stephen played around with the limits of his sense perception. Berkeley wrote that we don’t truly see the objects we encounter in the material world; we merely perceive their color, and through a set of conventions that we learn through experience, we extrapolate which objects we’re actually looking at. QJuWfu7For example, we know that a color pattern that’s large is often nearer to us spatially, while a smaller one is likely an object at a greater distance. Any information we receive through our senses is basically second-hand information since our senses act as an intermediary.

Stephen is regarding his scribbled poem in a similar Berkeleyan fashion – black marks on a white field. The black marks take on deeper meaning because the reader has ascribed meaning to them through repeated experience. The marks we perceive as letters are meaningless without an interpreter. They may as well be an augur’s birds, seaweed strewn upon the beach or a shadow bent over an outcropping of rocks. Berkeley wrote, “we never really see anything but the structures of language, signs that stand for different physical features only by comparison with other signs.” Written language adds another layer of distance onto our perceptual experience: abstract signs attempting to recreate the imprecise forms transmitted through our senses.

Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice. The good bishop of Cloyne took the veil of the temple out of his shovel hat…


The “good bishop of Cloyne” is Bishop Berkeley, who once presided over Cloyne near Cork in southwestern Ireland. His shovel hat, a flat, wide-brimmed style of hat traditionally worn by Anglican clergy, signifies him as a bishop of the Protestant Church of Ireland rather than the Catholic Church. Hidden inside his shovel hat is the veil of the temple, an elaborately woven piece of cloth that hung in the Temple of Jerusalem, separating worshippers from the Holy of Holies, an inner sanctuary where the Ark of the Covenant was held. 

It would be incautious to entangle ourselves in the idea of a literal veil, however. In the short story “Adoration of the Magi,” W.B. Yeats wrote, “I am always in dread of the illusions which come of that inquietude of the veil of the Temple, which M. Mallarmé considers a characteristic of our times .…” French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, in the essay “Crisis in Poetry,” wrote that the veil that separates the material world from the transcendental world had become unstable, fluttering just enough to make the border between those two worlds more porous. Movement of the veil changes the potential of its hidden secrets into the actual. Joyce was deeply fascinated with Yeats’ occult-influenced short stories (including “Magi”) as well as the French symbolists, so it can be inferred that the veil of the temple pulled from Berkeley’s shovel hat reveals more to Stephen than just a biblical Easter egg. The veil stood as a physical barrier between the sacred and the profane, shielding ordinary people from contact with the divine. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge that the veil obscuring reality was “a curtain of words.” Disrupting this verbal veil allows Stephen to gaze upon transcendance.

…veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field. Hold hard.

“Proteus” opens and closes with Stephen playing with the way his senses perceive the material world around him. Stephen knows that he’s encountering an illusory world through the ineluctable modality of the visible. What look like objects are just varying regions of color. To make sense of those colors, he must process them through his thoughts, relying on repeated conventions to interpret the colors. Likely, this will include a description through language, or “thought through [his] eyes” as he described in the first paragraph of “Proteus.” Stephen perceives the space around him as a diaphanous veil of signs and symbols on which reality is “hatched.” Hatching was a system of codes, usually lines or dots, that represented colors of heraldic symbols when they were rendered in black and white. Stephen’s environment is hatched with similar symbolic conventions, whether they are colors rendered intellectually into objects or written signs on a white field rendered into the deeper meaning of a poem, each separate from the reality they represent.

Coloured on a flat: yes, that’s right. Flat I see, then think distance, near, far, flat I see, east, back. Ah, see now! Falls back suddenly, frozen in stereoscope. Click does the trick. 

Ye Olde Viewmaster

More Berkeley here. The good bishop of Cloyne wrote in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision that we don’t directly see distance. We see instead flat regions of color and use their relative size, shape, clarity etc. to puzzle out the secondary quality of distance. Stephen is toying around with this idea as he scans his surroundings once more. Stereoscopic vision is when two images overlap slightly to give the impression of three dimensions in space. You might be familiar with a stereoscope, a toy that you look through to see two images that when viewed together look three dimensional. If you were a kid in the 80’s, think Viewmaster. While you might think this is also how your eyes work, Berkeley says no. He believed that humans do not have stereoscopic vision, only the ability to see flat colors that allow them to infer distance. Stephen looks around for the flat colors in his environment, and as he begins thinking about their relative distance, they “fall back suddenly,” creating the illusion of stereoscopic vision. I’m not sure what the “click” is, but I can’t stop imagining Stephen playing with a Viewmaster, clicking the little button to advance the image.

You find my words dark. Darkness is in our souls do you not think? Flutier. Our souls, shamewounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more.

Stephen alludes to his darkness shining in the brightness once more, but he renders it “flutier,” making his words more resonant and beautiful, like the music of flutes. He is a dang poet, after all. The final sentence in the paragraph is a more poetic version of, “Darkness is in our souls do you not think?” Stephen adds a more evocative adjective (shamewounded), the religious allusion to sin, the metaphor of the clinging woman, the repetition at the end. Hopefully this flutey revision will attract the birds of inspiration to Stephen’s augury ritual.


Further Reading:

Atura, A. & Dionne, L. Proteus – Modernism Lab. Retrieved from https://modernism.coursepress.yale.edu/proteus/ 

Beplate, J. (2007). Stephen’s lyrical language: memory and imagination in Ulysses. Études anglaises, vol. 60,(1), 42-54. https://www.cairn.info/revue-etudes-anglaises-2007-1-page-42.htm?contenu=article

Brivic, S. (1991). The veil of signs: Joyce, Lacan, and perception. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/yyzpanox 

Cormack, A. (2008). Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical history and the reprobate tradition. Farnham: Ashgate Publish Limited. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y4vgr9ht 

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Littmann, M., & Schweighauser, C. (1965). Astronomical Allusions, Their Meaning and Purpose, in “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly, 2(4), 238-246. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486518 

Livorni, E. (1999). “Ineluctable Modality of the Visible”: Diaphane in the ‘Proteus’ Episode.” James Joyce Quarterly, 36(2), 127-169. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/330177/_Ineluctable_Modality_of_the_Visible_Diaphane_In_the_Proteus_Episode 

McArthur, M. (1986). “Signs on a White Field”: Semiotics and Forgery in the “Proteus” Chapter of Ulysses. ELH, 53(3), 633-652. doi:10.2307/2873043. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2873043

Seidel, M. (1976). Epic geography: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y5zo88w6 

Steel, D. (2019, June 16). Astronomy on Bloomsday. Sciblogs. Retrieved from https://sciblogs.co.nz/out-of-space/2019/06/16/astronomy-on-bloomsday/ 

Vitoux, P. (1981). Aristotle, Berkeley, and Newman in “Proteus” and “Finnegans Wake”. James Joyce Quarterly, 18(2), 161-175. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25476353 

Yates, F. (1964). Giordano Bruno and the hermetic tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cassiopeia image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cassiopeia_constellation_map.svg

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