Monday Motivation: From James Joyce to Donald J. Trump
James Joyce was one of the first writers to exploit a narrative device called stream of consciousness. It’s an attempt to give shape to that inchoate interior activity that consists of a mix of words, sensations, shivers and apprehensions.
He honed his method in a 62-page section of his masterwork, Ulysses, in which, to the horror of the Mother Grundies of the 1920s, he explored the unexpurgated stream of thoughts and sensations gushing through Molly Bloom, wife of the novel’s chief character, Leopold.
Here’s a snippet from that largely unpunctuated section of the book:
“… no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didn’t call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage…”
It’s a kind of poetry, with a lilt and a rhythm all its own, illuminated by touches of humour, and a very particular “voice”. We have to find the pauses and the emphases without the help of punctuation.
There’s a logic to the flow of thought – but it’s not always apparent – and, of course, it’s never explained. We have to trace the associations that Molly makes, apparently quite spontaneously, as her thoughts move in mysterious ways from one subject to another, apparently unrelated topic.
Doctoral theses have, I’ve no doubt, been written to pin down the chain of emotional logic that drives this stream of consciousness.
I am a great admirer of Joyce, but I wasn’t always certain that Molly’s stream of consciousness was an accurate (although conventional) mimicking of what really goes on in someone’s head.
Until I came across a transcription of one of Donald Trump’s speeches delivered during his improbable recent campaign (with an even more improbably result).
Here’s a section of that speech:
“Look having nuclear my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer Dr John Trump at MIT good genes very good genes okay very smart the Wharton School of Finance very good very smart you know if you’re a conservative Republican if I were a liberal if like okay if I ran as a liberal Democrat they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh do they do a number — that’s why I always start off Went to Wharton was a good student, went there went there did this built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful my uncle explained that to me many many years ago the power and that was 35 years ago he would explain the power of what’s going to happen and he was right — who would have thought) but when you look at what’s going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now I would have said it’s all in the messenger fellas and it is fellas because you know they don’t they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men so, you know it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators so and they they just killed they just killed us.”
Now, if I’d come across this passage in a work of fiction, I’d have been full of admiration of the skill involved in the writer having his character so artfully skip from subject to subject – each connected, tenuously at times, to the next, but you can trace every link in the chain – before returning at the end to echo his opening salvos.
There are little egoistical flourishes (“… very good genes…” and “…okay if I ran as a liberal Democrat they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world…”); condescending asides (“…they haven’t figured that the women,” he says of the Iranians, “are smarter right now than the men…”); and detours (“… nuclear is powerful my uncle explained…”)
In other words, this little piece of – may I call it prose? – is full of unconscious artifice. Given the Donald’s reluctance to use teleprompters, and the spontaneity of his verbal gymnastics, his speeches appear to be a perfect reflection of the churn and tumble of his thought patterns.
Of course, whether word salad of this kind is admirable in the leader of what we persist in calling “the free world” is more debatable.
But as a template for a Joycean extravaganza, it can’t really be matched.
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