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.