Sensory Overload in James Joyce's Ulysses
In writing about the experience of reading Ulysses, one critic has commented that "it's rather like wearing earphones plugged into someone's brain, and monitoring an endless tape-recording of the subject's impressions, reflections, questions, memories and fantasies, as they are triggered either by physical sensations or the association of ideas" (Lodge 47). Indeed, the aural sense plays a crucial role throughout much of the novel. But in the "Wandering Rocks" section especially, one experiences a sort of sensory overload as one is presented with nineteen vignettes of one hour in the life of Dublin's denizens which, while seemingly disparate, are skillfully connected events.
Parallax, a term chiefly found in photographic terminology, refers to "an apparent change in the direction of an object, caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition). It is as if Joyce uses 19 different "live" camera shots in this chapter, shuttling between wide angles, and zooms, dissolving from one extreme close-up to a long slow dolly shot. Visual acuity is often distorted from Joyce's simultaneous angles of narration. As one scene abruptly "flips" to the next by Joyce's literary remote control, the reader is bombarded with an accretion of visual stimuli--not unlike watching a multi-channel television screen. What results is a sort of parallax of prose, an interesting chapter in which Dublin society is presented as both connected and disjointed; as imprisoned and yet wandering aimlessly through turgid streets.
What seems to be of particular significance in the "Wandering Rocks" section is how Joyce's narrative technique--primarily focusing on the visual sense-- presents an ambiguous picture of the citizenry of Dublin. According to Trevor Williams, the chapter is the only one in Ulysses in which characters are viewed in a larger sociological construct, rather than as individuals. He contends: "Here, as if through both sides of the telescope simultaneously, one can observe the nineteen sections reproduce the division of society into independent and conflicting spheres (economy, politics, law, culture, religion, morality, family, etc.)" (Williams 267). Kirk Winters has called "Wandering Rocks" a microcosm of the entire novel, a section in which "three authorities of human perception (time, space, and causality) shift" (11).
Kumar has commented on the structural significance of the "Wandering Rocks" chapter, noting that it: ". . .possesses an inner diversity, consisting of fragments from different worlds of perceptions. In such an episode continuity and connection are ensured mainly through external means -- by the prevalence of temporal and spatial contiguity in an external sense.... here we find a narration that mimes the pseudo-objective discourse of reports" (69-70). The primary question,...