Clack back

In Brief

As he did in Telemachus in response to Mulligan's suggestion about Haines, Stephen briefly indulges a murderous fantasy in Proteus only to swiftly change his mind and opt comedically for pacifism. His language suggests that he is visualizing the scene as a motion picture, running the film in reverse to bring the man back to life.

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The memory of an employee who slammed the post office door in his face two minutes before closing time rouses Stephen's fury: "Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bits all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt?  O, that's all right. Shake hands. See what I meant, see? O, that's all right. Shake a shake. O, that's all only all right." Just as the alliterated sounds of the second sentence imitate a "bang shotgun," the onomatopoeia and alliteration of the third sentence ("khrrrrklak," "clack back") seem to evoke the metallic clanking and whirring of a movie projector. The "bits" of the man's body "all" move "back" into "place" in reverse slow motion.

This cinematic special effect has become very familiar, but in the early 1900s it would have been as strikingly new as the medium itself. The Lumière brothers patented their cinematograph and shot the first true motion-picture film (one viewable by many people at once, as opposed to the peep-show machines called kinetoscopes or mutoscopes) in 1895. In 1896 Louis Lumière filmed Demolition of a Wall, which used reverse-motion footage for the first time. The brothers publically screened many of their earliest short films in Paris, before taking them to other major cities around the world.

In December 1909 Joyce returned from Trieste to launch Dublin's first full-time cinema, on Mary Street. His involvement in the Volta Cinematograph lasted for less than a year, but it demonstrates his fascination with the new technology of moviemaking (as well as his capacity for entrepreneurship).

In "Joyce, Benjamin, and the Futurity of Fiction," an essay in the collection Joyce, Benjamin, and Magical Urbanism (Rodopi, 2011), edited by Maurizia Boscagli and Enda Duffy, Heyward Ehrlich writes, "Joyce was careful to avoid anachronisms in representing photography and cinema in Ulysses, which takes place five years before his attempt to open the Volta as a permanent cinema house in 1909. Traveling cinematographic companies had performed in Dublin before 1904, but Joyce limits Bloom's knowledge to the pre-cinematic mutoscope. By contrast, Stephen—and presumably Joyce as well—has seen a movie in Paris, and one of his poignant memories of his stay there is represented as a cinematic hallucination in Proteus" (207).

Joyce seems to have had a keen awareness of the new visual media's capacity for (Stephen's word in A Portrait) "kinetic" representations of the human body, both sexual and violent. Ulysses associates both the photograph and the mutoscope with prurient sexual voyeurism. Stephen's imagination of how cinema could show bodies blown to bloody bits (and then reconstituted) seems almost prophetic in light of the movies of the last fifty years.

JH 2016
Postcard from the early 1900s showing a man with a hand-crank movie projector. Source: www.valuablepostcards.com.
The Volta Theatre in Mary Street, in a later photograph held in the Irish Film Archive. Source: www.census.nationalarchives.ie.