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16 Jun

The Veil of the Temple

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? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice. The good bishop of Cloyne took the veil of the temple out of his shovel hat: veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field. Hold hard. 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.

James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 3: Proteus.

This episode of Ulysses is set at 11am on Sandymount Strand where Stephen sits on the rocks, idling away the hour and a half before he is due to meet Mulligan. While he sits, he reflects on form and substance, echoing the episode in the classical Ulysses, where Menelaus grips Proteus as Proteus changes into many forms.

In this section, Stephen’s study of his shadow (“form of my form”) leads to reflection on meaning and on sight. Identifying himself with written language, he wonders if anyone will read “these written words”. Writing leads to the idea of “signs on a white field” (his field of vision), which he links to a knights shield (“veil of space with coloured emblems”) which bears symbols that are part of a symbolic language, perhaps like the objects of sight including Stephen himself.

The allusion to the Bishop of Cloyne invokes Berkeley’s theory of perception. Berkeley said that what we see is a flat field of colours and shape and that we only learn from experience (primarily from touch) that some things are closer than others. In seeing similarities between distant objects, we learn to extrapolate depth from the flat field we are “given”. Stephen reflects on the experience of seeing depth step by step, first perceiving a flat scene, picking out objects and seeing one as further than another, then seeing the whole scene “click” in three dimensions, “frozen in stereoscope”.

Berkeley’s theory of perception was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries before it came to be criticised by scientists and philosophers such as Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (more on Berkeley’s theory and Abbott’s critique of it here). An analysis of the philosophical references in this episode of Ulysses can be found in Pierre Vitoux (1981) “Aristotle, Berkeley, and Newman in ‘Proteus’ and ‘Finnegans Wake'” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 161-175, URL= http://www.jstor.org/stable/25476353.

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