Wednesday, August 10, 2016

About Consciousness

I'm reading Christof Koch (Consciousness: confessions of a romantic reductionist) and James Joyce (Ulysses) right now and once again pondering the nature of consciousness.

Joyce tries to reveal his characters more fully by means of his "stream of consciousness" method. I'm skeptical. If you have ever tried to turn the power of introspection onto your consciousness by asking "What am I thinking about right now?" I suspect that the answer you got was "What am I thinking about right now?" At least that's what I always get. Trying to remember what you were thinking about recently might be more fruitful, but, at least in my case, not by much.

For me, at least, only a little of what comes to my attention seems to be words. The other stuff, sensory experiences, memories, and connections, needs to be translated into words to be described. Joyce is trying to transcend the limitations of the narrative description by translating these other fragments into word fragments, but that seems to be something of a fool's errand to me. Evolution has provided us with the narrative form for the purpose of describing events, real and imagined, and also with the capability for decoding that narrative form.

If I understand correctly, Joyce's attempt to give us a more direct look at his character's thought produces a broken, spastic narrative. My guess is that he probably started with a more conventional narrative and constructed his prose to fit his notion of what it felt like in stream of consciousness. To understand it, the reader (this one, anyway) is forced to translate it back into a more conventional narrative. I liken it to writing a novel in English, having a really incompetent translator turn it into Chinese, and then forcing a reader with a poor grasp of Chinese to figure it out. This exercise has provided endless fun for generations of English lit majors, but I am less amused.

If I'm lucky, some bright literary type will explain to me just how and why I am so so wrong about this - preferably in clear declarative prose.

More later about Koch, who uses a much different method to tackle similar questions.

More grousing: the only clause that so far sticks with me is "Full fathom five thy father lies."

Of course that is Shakespeare, from the Tempest.

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell. ” — William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Sc. II