A Review of Tímea Mészáros and Dirk Vanderbeke’s “The flow of time….”

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A circle

Did you imagine that? Without words, I suppose.
Does the circle have a size? An empty interior? Just a ring of chalk line? Is it a ring of unbroken ink?
How many dimensions does the circle employ? Two, three, more?
How many words did you use to imagine that circle?

The Fall 2021 edition of the James Joyce Quarterly presented readers with a comprehensive amalgam of prior research and original analysis on the relationships among language, thought, space-time, and plot in Ulysses. This study arrives courtesy of Tímea Mészáros of the University of Bonn and Dirk Vanderbeke at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. 

Beginning the study, the authors quote Frank Budgen’s “image of Joyce as an ‘engineer at work with compass and slide rule….'” This quote is a daring way for Joycean scholars to begin a paper; there is no subject more terrifying to amateur “literaturists” than matters scientific and mathematical. The article titled “The flow of the language it is. The thoughts” is a success despite any reader temerity. Mészáros and Vanderbeke make the material digestible even to those who require gustatory rather than empirical analogies. They examine the elements of language, interruption, velocity, state of mind, speculation about street traffic, words per meter traveled, the effect of revisions to the text. In the course of the study, they detail what Gunn, Hart, and Beck called Joyce’s “strictly realistic frame of reference…” (JJQ 91).

Building on William James’ earliest commentary on internal dialogs that link rhythm, motion, and language, the authors under the lens of Chafe’s microscope reveal “The Flow of Thought and the Flow of Language.” They found the building blocks of stream-of-consciousness and human thought, then gracefully transitioned into the literary conclusions drawn from the science by Gunn, Hart, Beck, Wright, and others who conceptualized a linguistic packet, limited to two to three seconds of brain wave. The timing is conceptually tidy, but the difficulties encountered cannot be minimized. Tracing the tempo of thought in Aeolus, Oxen and Ithaca proved particularly difficult, but Gunn and Wright’s precise timing of Proteus, Lestrogonians, and Nausicaa helped break the impasse. Even so, the task was not easy. Nausicaa, for example, had to be accounted for in only thirty-three minutes meal and mass included [I have attended masses that lasted fewer than 20 mins] (93).

A compilation of thought bytes includes both nuggets from the original manuscript and underlined additions. A sample includes

  • What’s parallax?
  • Show this gentleman the door.
  • Ah
  • Never know anything about it.
  • Waste of Time. (96)

Note the differences among the length of line, word, and syllable counts. The two to three-second interval accommodates all.

Outlier details even in the timed episodes abound. In Lestrogonians, Hogan was forced to concede that the first two sentences were “perception but not formulated thought” (94). There was interference in the intermingling of conversation and thought (97), changes in the pace of stream of consciousness by characters, notably Bloom. Neither the number nor length of words nor the number of syllables significantly affected the results. Changes in punctuation that might signify pauses or inflection did not affect the findings (96). These anomalies may explain differences between Aelous and Proteus, for example. Consider that this study and the previous studies that source data are all based on Newtonian science.

Pronin and Jacobs noted the impression that time passes “at an off-kilter rate” (101). This is noticeable in Wandering Rocks and elsewhere. This leads back to the text and Bloom’s contemplation of the observatory at Dunsink (102). Einstein, who envisioned riding a beam of light across a curved universe, would approve. The mention of Henri Bergson in Mészáros and Vanderbeke’s conclusion marks the end of Positivism, the mandate for old empirical proofs in science, and the immutability of absolute time. We live both on Euclid’s flat Earth and in Einstein’s Curved Cosmos. That is why Aeolus, Oxen, and Ithaca operate under one Physics; Proteus, Lestrogonians, and Nausicaa under another.

If you are familiar with the popular rendering of science like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you might accept that thought doesn’t always employ words. Sensory data processes non-verbally too. It may even do so unconsciously. If you are familiar with Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, you might accept that fMRI studies show decisions made before the evaluation process was complete. If you buy both arguments, you might even admit that words are unessential to thought. Einstein might have added that words impede thought. Words, however, are elemental to literature. When words are used to think, rationalize, or argue, the process might join words into strings. In computer science, instructions can be packeted or concatenated. The stream-of-consciousness byte nuggets list we sampled above might appear as

What’s parallax?Show this gentleman the door.AhNever know anything about it.Waste of time.

The string might all be processed in one (1) two to three-second interval. Less, if words are only essential for literature or argument. The determinant is whether, at that instant, you reside on Euclid’s flat Earth or Einstein’s Curved Cosmos. This makes even the outlier episodes that don’t support the conclusion important to the thesis. So complete is the investigation that it includes a comprehensive understanding and summary of Ulysses in seven words.

-Touch. Fingers. Asking. Answer. Yes. Stop. Stop (102).

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