On the dialogue of dialogues


Jan Fyt, “Two Greyhounds” (c. 1640), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

One of the most captivating things about Joyce’s Ulysses is its combination of types and styles of dialogue.  “Combination” may not even be the right word, since the book’s creative conjunctions of different idiolects, usages, and aims are often aggressively contradictory.  Different forms of dialogue start to have their own dialogue.

Without being overawed by Joyce’s exuberance or linguistic cunning, how could we start to make sense of this dialogue between dialogues?  What follows may seem to be an unnecessarily labyrinthine path to a question about Joyce’s use of dialogue, but my only defense would be that Joyce’s art is nothing if not a matter of circling and accumulating selections.

Here’s the first turn:  Supposedly when the poet Richard Blackmore (dubbed “Neverending” by Pope) asked the famous physician Thomas Sydenham what he should read to begin his studies of medicine, Sydenham pointed him to Don Quixote.  Sydenham himself was famous for his unorthodox treatments, often caring for patients in what we might call now holistic ways rather than merely following diagnostic conventions and theoretical procedures.

Unlike the hesitant partiality of the dull amateur scientists and collectors Pope satirizes in The Dunciad, Syndeham’s treatments were bold and imaginative, relying on sympathy and conviction in a higher purpose.  Not for him the indefinite delicacies of Pope’s myopic fly-hunters, to whom Dulness counsels that “by some object every brain is stirred; / The dull may waken to a hummingbird; / The most recluse, discreetly opened, find / Congenial matter in the cockle-kind (Norton 1161).  His attentiveness to symptoms and environmental facts like season and weather led him to first diagnose scarlet fever and chorea minor, now also called Syndeham’s chorea but most famous as St. Vitus’s Dance.

Here’s the second turn.  St. Vitus died as a martyr in Italy under the persecutions of Diocletian in 303, and he is usually depicted in a cauldron of molten lead.  His cult spread across Europe in the next few centuries and became especially popular among the Slavs, apparently acting as a surrogate emblem for an older four-faced god of light and fertility, Svetovid (also–for Lord of the Rings fans–associated with the Lutician god Radegast).  His feast day and his chapels became associated with outbreaks of dancing mania from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries, either becoming the occasion for frenzied singing and dancing or the site of mass cures for such outbreaks.  Gilbert Rouget argues that the Church struggled to control a specific version–tarantism–of these outbreaks of popular expression through various ritualizations of trance, possession, and sanctioned dancing under the sign of St. Paul, resulting in the group of Italian folk dances called tarantellas (Trance and Possession 39).

Instances of manic dancing that could not be translated into more stable social forms outside the church were increasingly categorized as medical cases, eventually becoming a label for the chorea resulting from childhood infections with a particular Streptococcus bacteria.  Like the occurrence of childhood tics and Obsessive-Compulsive behaviors, recent pathogenic explanations (autoimmune responses to early infections) coexist with psychoanalytic accounts (maladapted conflicts between unconscious impulses and reality): regressions to anal-sadistic modes of ambivalence and magical thinking produce compensatory defensive forms of intellectualization, undoing, and reaction formation lead to various forms of the talking cure; streptococcal  infections underlying acute rheumatic fever call for penicillin and Haloperidol, despite the latter’s risks of late-onset dyskinesia, or involuntary, repetitive, purposeless bodily movements.

And a third turn:  If Sydenham was happy to recommend Don Quixote, might he also have read Cervantes’ El colloquio de los perros, in which Cipión and Berganza, “dogs of the hospital of the resurrection in the city of Valladolid,” wander and offer their sardonic observations of Spanish life?  After hearing Cipión’s suggestion to retire somewhere to converse, Berganza notes that

I hear all you say, Scipio; and that you say it, and that I hear it, causes me fresh admiration and wonder.  It is very true that in the course of my life I have many a time heard tell of our great endowments, insomuch as that some, it appears, have been disposed to think that we possess a natural instinct, so vivid and acute in many things that it gives signs and tokens little short of demonstrating that we have a certain sort of understanding capable of reason. (Trans. Kelly, 1881; Gutenberg)

Yet being able to converse as they are, Cipión says, must be a strong portent “that some great calamity threatens the nation”:

BERG. That being so I can readily enough set down as a portentous token what I heard a student say the other day as I passed through Alcala de Henares.

SCIP. What was that?

BERG. That of five thousand students this year attending the university—two thousand are studying medicine.

SCIP. And what do you infer from that?

BERG. I infer either that those two thousand doctors will have patients to treat, and that would be a woful thing, or that they must die of hunger.

Excited by the prospect of speaking and conversing about their lives, the two dogs tell as much as they can, promising not to interrupt each other too often.  Berganza begins by talking about growing up in a slaughterhouse, terrified by the way the butchers respected no king and “make no more of killing  a man than a cow.”  Running from one owner to another, students, bailiffs, and rogues, Berganza eventually runs off with a drummer and a group of soldiers, wherever they might be headed.  Cipión applauds Berganza, commenting that one of his clever masters had said that “that the famous Greek, Ulysses, was renowned as wise solely because he had travelled and seen many men and nations.”

At one point, Berganza is embraced by an old woman, Cañizares, who tells him the story of Camacha, a powerful witch said to be able to turn men into brutes.  “I never could,” says the old woman, “make out how this was done; for as for what is related of those ancient sorceresses, that they turned men into beasts, the learned are of opinion that this means only that by their great beauty and their fascinations, they so captivated men and subjected them to their humours, as to make them seem unreasoning animals.”  Camacha’s two disciples, Cañizares and Montiela, turned to white magic, but Camacha nevertheless became jealous of their growing abilities.  Acting as midwife to Montiela, she turned her two sons into dogs.  Now old, Cañizares thinks Berganza is one of Montiela’s lost sons.  Berganza and Cipión debate the point, but decide that such foolishness only expresses the sad and ambiguous state of witches.

Wounded while acting in interludes with a theater company, Berganza finds his way to the hospital and sees Cipión carrying a lantern for Mahudes.  After a last pair of stories about patients in the hospital and a great knight of the city, the sun is rising and the dogs are left to hope that the next night will bring them the gift of speech again.  At different points in the colloquy, the two dogs had debated the meaning of philosophy, the use of Latin and Greek, the nature of faith and the fairness of punishments, but throughout they are concerned to express themselves fully and well.  Articulating their memories and their thoughts for the first time in spoken form seems to offer a powerful and satisfying release, but only if they can assure themselves that they are still abiding by the rules of honor and virtue that they have learned along their travels.  Even here in a case of words given as a gratuitous gift, gabbling and purposeless speech is strictly disciplined.  Most if not all of the comedy of the dialogue comes from Cipión’s demands for a clear, intelligent narrative.  Unlike the people surrounding them, they are not given to uncontrolled gestures and actions.

And here’s the final (and irresponsibly twisty) turn:  Joyce had a copy of Cervantes’ Colloquy in Italian translation in his library in Trieste–as well as German versions of Strindberg’s plays, Der Vater, Gläubiger, and Fräulein Julie, and an English translation of The Confession of a Fool.  Strindberg famously complains in the preface to Miss Julie that

Theater managers send out orders for nothing but farces, as if the joy of living lay in behaving like a clown and in depicting people as if they were afflicted with St. Vitus’s dance or congenital idiocy.  I find the joy of living in the fierce and ruthless battles of life, and my pleasure comes from learning something, from being taught something (674).

Consequently, Strindberg (who was corresponding with Nietzsche at around the same time and claiming that he had intuited many of the philosopher’s key concepts) crafts his plays such that “the motivation for action is not simple” and “the point of view is not single”–despite the fact that the spectator “generally chooses the [cause or motivation] that puts the least strain on his mind or reflects most credit on his insight” (674).  Unlike the the vulgar spasms and mindless contortions of the audiences for popular farces, Strindberg hopes for an intensely disciplined and focused intellectual response: a reeducation in superior forms of what Strindberg calls modernity’s “inveterately curious souls,” our obsession with finding the hidden seams, strings, and machinery behind everyday life (678).

Does Joyce take after Cervantes’ colloquy and present language as a potentially redemptive medium for excuses and account-giving, allowing for the articulation of both skepticism toward ideal pictures and the expression of an impulse toward idealization?  Or does he follow Strindberg’s preface and present language as a series of weapons, worn in various ways by their use in primal conflicts between warring sexual and biological drives?

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