Several years ago, I read a medical expert’s analysis of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He concluded that the book exhibited not genius but the workings of a diseased mind. If the doctor’s theory had been treated seriously, a number of literary critics and scholars who claim to understand Joyce’s use of “stream of conscious” might have found their expertise meaningless.
I, for one, have never been able to get past page 3 of Joyce’s novel, neither in college nor in my later attempt as a mature adult. Stream of conscious is a style where punctuation takes a back seat to mimicking the unfettered flow of ideas and feelings of human thought. James didn’t invent the style. Marcel Proust was among the first to use the device and others toyed with it. The poet Sylvia Plath and the novelist Virginia Wolfe are two examples. But Joyce didn’t nibble at the edges. He waded in to suicidal depths where only the brave dare follow.
As one who lacked courage, I was drawn to an article of Joyce’s edgy work in a recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. In it,the writer discusses evidence to suggest that Joyce suffered from syphilis, a disease which may have affected his mind. (“A Portrait of the Artist as a Syphilitic,” by Kevin Birmingham, Harper’s Magazine, July 2014, pgs. 76-77.) The new insight came not from Joyce’s personal documents. His friends and family destroyed most of his papers, deeming them to be “too personal” for public view. What gives credence to a suspicion of syphilis is a fresh look at the drug treatments employed to alleviate his numerous and chronic medical complaints.
Joyce’s symptoms have long raised suspicions regarding his condition. Delirium, hallucinations, persistent boils and numerous eyes surgeries that offered no relieve are pointers. But many of the drugs Joyce received during that time were not unique to the treatment of syphilis. Only one speaks exclusively to that illness — a concoction of arsenic and phosphorous which he received as injections. This little known combination had no other application but as a defense again the ravages of the disease. (Ibid pg. 77)
I admit, biography is a poor approach to grappling with an author’s work. Knowing that Stephen Hawking has spent the bulk of his life in a wheelchair doesn’t give me a better understanding of A Brief History of Time. Still, in Joyce’s case, there may be some merit to exploring the link between genius and insanity.