Thursday, February 14, 2013

How James Joyce Invented Twitter

 In honor of Valentine's Day (and because no one else would publish it), Matt Domino takes a look at his two loves: Joyce and Twitter.

This February, while most people are celebrating (and rightfully so) Black History Month, and while others are celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the movie Groundhog’s Day (respectable as well), we should also take a moment to pay tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses and how it impacts our daily lives. Namely, our daily use of that hallowed social media instrument known as Twitter.

James Augusta Aloysius Joyce was born on February 2, 1882. So, though Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904—and Bloomsday is celebrated on that day each year—I truly think of February as “Joyce Month.” Besides, the month of February, in most parts of the world, is a dark and depressing winter month, which is a perfect time for modernism-loving book readers, like myself, to hail their hero and how his work presaged the coming of the current “Age of the Tweet.”

While many people believe, or have been led to believe, that James Joyce invented the technique of  stream-of-consciousness writing, this is simply not true—Flaubert and Tolstoy both touched on the style before Joyce; Edouard Dujadin’s We’ll to the Woods No More influences Joyce immensely; and Proust was publishing installments of In Search of Lost Time while Joyce was writing Ulysses. However, in Ulysses, Joyce did innovate and master the technique of stream-of-consciousness writing; so much so that we are constantly quoting Joyce’s cadences each time we use Twitter.

Ulysses is famous for its array of literary styles, but there is a basic “Ulysses style” in which a majority of the book is narrated. We follow our main protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Mr. Leopold Bloom, throughout their day and are privy to their inner thoughts. Stephen is an intellectual, a poet, and his thoughts at their simplest appear like this:

“In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood…”

And at their most difficult:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.”

Meanwhile, Bloom is the everyman and he has a tendancy to think about everyday things such as a woman’s butt, his wife and his daughter, going to the bathroom, and his cat:

“They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them”

Each of those examples adds up to less than the 140 characters of a tweet. In each case, you can see the unique mix of economy and poetry in the language that we can often find in some of our favorite and most articulate Twitter feeds. In his novel, Joyce was trying to capture the rhythms of the human mind, which, as it turns out, might be at its most nimble when kept in a specific character range.

One of the most amusing aspects of Twitter is when an inanimate object becomes the focal point of public interest, which is then followed by that object taking on an obligatory Twitter handle. The most notable examples, in my opinion, being Angelina’s Leg, Kanye’s Skirt, and The Wimbledon Roof.

In the “Circe” episode of Ulysses, a tired Mr. Bloom follows a very drunk on absinthe Stephen Dedalus to an area of Dublin called Night Town. While in Night Town, Stephen visits a brothel while Mr. Bloom tries to save him from losing his money and getting beat up. However, throughout the episode both Bloom and Stephen experience a variety of hallucinations that are funny and triumphant, but mainly upsetting. In these hallucinations, when an inanimate object is referenced, very often it comes to life. For example, when the Madame of the brothel approaches Mr. Bloom with an oriental fan, the fan says:

The Fan: (Tapping.) We have met. You are mine. It is fate.

Or, later, when a drunk Stephen attempts to explain his aesthetic/philosophic theories to his friend Lynch and the prostitutes, he points to Lynch’s cap and asks, “Which side is your knowledge bump?” The cap responds as follows:

The Cap: (With saturnine spleen.) Bah! It is because it is. Woman’s reason. Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet. Death is the highest form of life. Bah!

No offense to the clever minds behind those excellent object-based Twitter handles, but Joyce was already putting words in the mouths of inanimate things almost 100 years ago—and in many cases doing it in under 140 characters.

Despite the moments of articulation and the clever account names, the majority of Twitter is comprised of written nonsense. And Joyce predicted that as well. In the “Oxen of The Sun” episode of Ulysses, Mr. Bloom and Stephen sit with their fellow Dubliners at a bar in a maternity ward (yes, things were different back then) and discuss philosophies of birth, life, death and art among other things. The style of the chapter is presented in the evolving phases of the English language, starting from chanting, moving through Latin, Old English, Shakespearean English, Modern English and forward to a pidgin English of the future. (There’s a lot more nuance to it than that, but bear with me.)

This “future English” is hard to follow or discern. For narrative purposes, it is meant to convey the increasing drunkenness of the men at the bar; but for thematic purposes, it reads as Joyce’s prediction or belief as to where the English language is going. A few examples presented in the Twitter parameters:

“Query. Who’s astanding this here do?”

“You move a motion? Steve boy, you’re going it some. More bluggy drunkables?”

“Golly, whatten tunket’s yon guy in mackintosh? Dusty Rhodes. Peep at his wearables.”

Clearly, this kind of narrative is difficult to follow (well, once you get to know the story it becomes easier, but I won’t brag about that). At points during this section of “Oxen of the Sun” it is hard to know what character is speaking what small outburst of language, what actions are occurring, or if you are even supposed to be enjoying or following the written words at all. Yet, Joyce clearly revels in the freedom that this specific style affords him to make jokes with the English language and its vast array of rhymes, slangs and sounds. And, you can’t deny its uncanny resemblance to the majority of the Tweets that appear under any random trending topic.

Understandably, there was no way that Joyce could have predicted that the entire human race would spend their days on computers (he was a genius, though, so he might have), and that our language would evolve along with the capacities those computers had to simplify and prop up our language with videos, pictures and symbols. However, he was absolutely a student of history, of the evolving nature of the English language and the beauty that could be found within each passing age of that language. In my opinion, more than perhaps any other author I’ve read, James Joyce understood that we never truly own a language, that it is constantly evolving and slipping away from us, but that didn’t stop him for looking for “that word known to all men.”

So, for the rest of this month, as you browse your Twitter timelines and try to come up with your next witty tweet, take a moment to remember old Jimmy Joyce and the artistic vision he had almost 100 years ago. Take a moment to remember and appreciate the influence and history of the English language.

Or, as Stephen Dedalus might have tweeted were he living today, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”


  1. Bravo, Matt. This is most excellent.

    With admiration,


  2. One of the worst and most overdrawn accounts of Joyce I have encountered. You are groping for similarity. Too many examples to recount but that "Joyce was already putting words in the mouths of inanimate things" is a stupidly circumstantial reading of history and literature. You are describing personification, the basis for myth and already a trope when Homer used it. At this point you might as well talk about how ee cummings presaged your drunkenly texting your girlfriend, or Hemingway (after some nonsense about his war on commas) laid the basis for illiterate status updates. Not to mention your character-limit syllogism that completely mishandles the universal and particular aspects of English sentences and the data limit of a social media program. Twitter is no less essential and little more actual than an engine based on artifice, against which (I"m sure you've read this quote too) all poetry revolts.

  3. Hey Anonymous,

    Great points all. And I imagine if more people that truly read and loved Joyce (like you obviously do) read this, they'd probably feel similarly and similarly rip into me. This was just more of my attempt to bring Joyce "to the masses" — or at least to the few people who follow or stumble along to my site — and make them think a little bit about language and history the next time they use Twitter. But again, you're totally right.

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  5. Some people think he foresaw Facebook in Finnegans Wake with the phrase "The handwriting on his facewall." It sounds nice, but people are too eager to reach for things that seem to fit. Although there was also the phrase "Nike with your kick shoes." in FW. Some 30 odd years before Nike even existed.