Trivial in itself

In Brief

As J. J. O'Molloy lights a cigarette in Aeolus, a bizarre utterance also flares up and leaves as suddenly as it came: "I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives." The sentence is supremely enigmatic, and readers may be tempted to write it off as merely absurd, or as some kind of obscure send-up. Parody is certainly involved—some of Charles Dickens' prose is echoed verbatim—but on close inspection the sentence speaks volumes about what Joyce once called "the significance of trivial things," and about his daring experiments with narration.

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For an inquisitive reader, the sentence raises many basic questions. Who is the "I"? What relationship is referenced in "both our lives"? How could a flaring match possibly determine their "whole aftercourse"? From what temporal perspective does the "I" find itself "looking back" at the present action? Why does the reflection take the form of such a teasingly periodic sentence? Does any of this—the first-person narrator, the human relationship, the retrospective view, the extravagant claim, the ornate style—possess enough substance to amount to representation of something, or is it mere linguistic fluff, a gesture toward narrative signification that gets blown away in the breezes of this windy chapter?

Wholly satisfying answers to these questions may prove elusive, but Joyce supplies enough tantalizing details to tempt readers to dig in. In Ulysses the presence of an "I" outside of quoted speech immediately suggests the possibility of interior monologue. This sentence does not quite fit the pattern: although its "I" does think private thoughts, it also seems to seize control of the narration, telling the story of what happened in the newspaper office from the vantage of a distant future. Cyclops will introduce first-person narration for the span of an entire chapter. Here, it lasts for one sentence and narrates nothing more than its own thoughts.

The brief quasi-narration occurs in close proximity to sentences of pure interior monologue whose source is unmistakable. When O'Molloy first signals to Stephen Dedalus ("J. J. O'Molloy turned to Stephen and said quietly and slowly") his intention to recite the words that Seymour Bushe uttered in trying a case of alleged fratricide, Stephen lapses into his own thoughts about fratricide: "And in the porches of mine ear did pour. / By the way how did he find that out? He died in his sleep. Or the other story, beast with two backs?" Lenehan obsequiously announces the delivery of "A few wellchosen words" and demands "Silence!," whereupon O'Molloy ponderously produces his cigarette case and gathers his thoughts, prompting some irreverent person to think, "False lull. Something quite ordinary." Again this must be Stephen, because when the speech is over O'Molloy asks him if he has enjoyed it and "Stephen, his blood wooed by grace of language and gesture, blushed." The skepticism that he expressed in interior monologue has been overcome.

Third-person narration returns after the thought "Something quite ordinary," but now with an odd word choice that suggests free indirect style not far removed from the realm of interior monologue: "Messenger took out his matchbox thoughtfully and lit his cigar." It seems odd to call O'Molloy a "messenger" rather than just a rememberer or reciter of Bushe's speech, but attentive readers will recall that Stephen employed that word in Telemachus to characterize the old milkwoman. This sentence, then, seems to continue the focus on Stephen's thoughts: if a "quite ordinary" person like the milklady may be an Athena bringing messages from the numinous realm, then O'Molloy too may possibly be worth listening to.

There follows the numinous insight into the occult powers of matches, expressed in the efflorescent style of the strange "I." Gifford observes that "This stylistic intrusion echoes the Dickens of David Copperfield (1849-50) and Great Expectations (1861); as, for example, David on the wedding of Peggoty and Barkis: 'I have often thought, since, what an odd, innocent, out-of-the-way kind of wedding it must have been! We got into the chaise again soon after dark, and drove cosily back, looking up at the stars and talking about them' (chap. 10)." In chapter 8 of Great Expectations, Pip remarks of Miss Havisham, "I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust." Similar expressions occur several more times in that novel.

Joyce's verbatim repetition of "I have often thought since" is indeed remarkable, but there is more of Dickens in his sentence than simply a stylistic flourish. Between the first-person narratives of David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Dickens wrote Bleak House (1853), a novel that (uniquely in Dickens' corpus) alternates first- and third-person narratives. Joyce possessed a copy of Bleak House in his Trieste library, along with David Copperfield. In chapter 31, when co-narrator Esther Summerson goes with Charley to visit the brickmaker's family, she employs a close analogue of the relevant phrase to reflect on changes in the course of her life: "I had not thought, that night—none, I am quite sure—of what was soon to happen to me. But I have always remembered since, that when we had stopped at the garden gate to look up at the sky, and when we went upon our way, I had for a moment an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was. I know it was then, and there, that I had it. I have ever since connected the feeling with that spot and time, and with everything associated with that spot and time, to the distant voices in the town, the barking of a dog, and the sound of wheels coming down the miry hill."

The parallels between this scene and Joyce's sentence are extraordinarily compelling. Looking back from a future in which she has become something very different from what she once was, Esther fixates on a seemingly ordinary moment in her past life that nevertheless seemed to her, and still seems, pregnant with the possibility of change. A garden gate, the cold night sky, the sounds of a dog barking, people talking, wheels slopping down a muddy road: none of these details holds in itself any particular prophetic promise, but for her they expressed what her life was about to become. If the writer were not Dickens but Joyce, they could be called an epiphany—one of those ordinary but eloquent moments that the young Joyce wrote down as seeds of future stories. His epiphanies were symbolic, and he gave them a religious name to describe their mysterious power, but instead of pointing toward transcendental realities he saw them as opening windows into the moral lives of human beings.

The person who gazes at the flaring match in Aeolus makes just this kind of connection between a mundane event and the mysteries of human change. The action is certainly "trivial in itself," but Joyce loved to defend his representation of trivialities. Ellman's biography notes that when he was writing Stephen Hero in 1904 he said to his brother Stanislaus, "Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don't mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody that could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me" (163). Small moments and small actions seem significant when they have a clear connection to the course of a human life—say, by suddenly ending it. But when the connections are less obvious, it falls to the artist to show how intimately our lives are bound up with the things of our experience.

The sentence in Aeolus asserts a connection much stronger than the one Esther asserts in Bleak House. When she writes, "I have ever since connected the feeling to that spot and time," a reader might understand her to be saying simply that her changed state was "associated" with the scene on the road. Joyce's "I" instead says definitively that the lighting of a match "determined" the course of his life. Postmodern readers might hear in this claim of distant causality an anticipation of the "butterfly effect," that commonplace of late 20th and early 21st century culture which holds that a butterly flapping its wings in Delhi can affect lives several weeks later in Omaha, say by changing the path of a tornado.

This meme of our times derives from the 1960s-era chaos theory of the American meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz, who noticed that tiny input changes in a mathematical weather model could, over time, produce large changes in output. A colleague expressed the finding by saying that a seagull flapping its wings could permanently alter the weather, and Lorenz, embracing this image, changed the gull to a butterfly. By coincidence, however, when one plots the "Lorenz attractor"—a set of solutions to the system of three differential equations that Lorenz devised to predict the chaotic effect of non-linear deterministic systems—the resulting graph resembles the wings of a butterfly.

The randomizing determinism that is chaos theory found its breakthrough formulations in the 20th century, but its roots go back at least to German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte's The Vocation of Man (1800): "you could not remove a single grain of sand from its place, without thereby, although perhaps imperceptibly to you, altering something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole. . . . Suppose it to lie some few paces further inland than it does:—then must the storm-wind that drove it in from the sea have been stronger than it actually was;—then must the preceding state of the weather, by which this wind was occasioned, and its degree of strength determined, have been different from what it actually was . . . and thus you have, without stay or limit, a wholly different temperature of the air from that which really existed, and a different constitution of the bodies which possess an influence over this temperature. . . . how can you know, that in such a state of weather as may have been necessary to carry this grain of sand a few paces further inland, some one of your forefathers might not have perished from hunger, or cold, or heat, before begetting that son from whom you are descended; and thus that you might never have been at all, and all that you have ever done, and all that you might ever hope to do in this world, must have been obstructed, in order that a grain of sand might lie in a different place?" (trans. William Smith, 1848).

There may be legitimate philosophical and scientific reasons, then, for supposing that something as trivial as the striking of a match could affect "the whole aftercourse" of a human life. But does the novel encourage readers of this passage to take its extravagant claim so seriously? Joyce's imitation of Dickens' language is close enough to be called a parody, and it feels much like the long parodic imitations that irrupt in later chapters like Cyclops, Nausicaa, and Oxen of the Sun. If Stephen is the subject responsible for these thoughts, he could be mocking the spiritual pretentiousness of his "epiphanies" with some overblown Victorian language, as he has already done more crudely in Proteus. But Joyce's stylistic parodies typically combine mockery with sympathetic engagement, and in this instance the text encourages a sympathetic reading, because Stephen is focusing on an image that is often associated quite unmockingly with his spiritual aspirations: the lighting of a fire.

Stephen has a well-documented history of looking at sudden blazes and seeing the hidden life of the soul. In part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist he watches the dean of studies lighting a coal fire in a grate and thinks that "his very soul had waxed old in that service without growing towards light and beauty or spreading abroad a sweet odour of her sanctity." Later, he speaks to Lynch of the moment in the artist's life "when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal." He experiences such a moment just before composing his villanelle: "The instant flashed forth like a point of light . . . An afterglow deepened within his spirit, whence the white flame had passed, deepening to a rose and ardent light."

The scene with O'Molloy is one of three such moments that Ulysses adds to the three from Stephen's past life. In Ithaca he is again present when someone kneels before paper, sticks, and coal assembled in a hearth. The prose conveys his Trinitarian, and demonic, habits of thought as Bloom lights a fire "at three projecting points of paper with one ignited lucifer match." In a similar echo of the earlier novel, Scylla and Charybdis returns to Shelley's image of a fading coal, joining it now very explicitly to Stephen's thoughts about the potential for personal change: "In the intense instant of imagination, when the mind, Shelley says, is a fading coal, that which I was is that which I am and that which in possibility I may come to be. So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be."

Any mockery implied by the parodic language would seem, then, to be overbalanced by the weight of five other passages in which fires are associated with Stephen's ongoing imperative to liberate his entrapped soul and become a Dedalean artist. But if one reads the passage in this way, what can be made of his projecting himself into an undefined future from whose vantage he and some unnamed person look back on the changed courses of their two lives? By the time she writes "I have always remembered since," Esther Summerson has married Mr. Woodcourt and enjoyed some measure of wedded bliss. Is Stephen imagining a time in which he and some as-yet-unfound spouse similarly look back on the events that brought them together? Is he thinking of his life and O'Molloy's? His and someone else's? Is the mysterious "I" even limited to the consciousness of Stephen?

At this point the questions that can be asked of the sentence probably begin to outstrip plausible answers. But at least one more interesting observation can be made about it. In a novel built on coincidences, there is one other moment in which someone stares at a tiny, insignificant, red object and sees his life writ small in its contours. In Oxen of the Sun Bloom becomes lost in thought gazing at a bottle of number one Bass ale. The rapture extends across three of the parodic styles of that chapter, all of which detect a numinous quality in his contemplation. "What is the age of the soul of man?" asks a passage inspired by Charles Lamb before it describes Bloom thinking about his past. A paragraph inspired by Thomas de Quincey speaks of voices blending in a "silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of generations that have lived." In a style evocative of Walter Savage Landor, Buck Mulligan says of Bloom, "His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods."

But Bloom is not contemplating transcendental realities. The section of Oxen that comes next dismisses "the preposterous surmise about him being in some description of a doldrums or other or mesmerised which was entirely due to a misconception of the shallowest character." Bloom, it says, has merely been "recollecting two or three private transactions of his own," and indeed the Lamb section has shown him recalling two or three scenes from his teenage life twenty years earlier. This would seem to be one of many moments in which Ulysses shows the minds of its protagonists following similar trajectories. Captivated by a red triangle, Bloom is transported far back into his young adult years. Captivated by the flare of a match, Stephen is transported far beyond his young adult years into a maturity in which he can see the shape that his life will have taken. As he says in Scylla and Charybdis, "in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be."

Is it possible, then, that "our lives" refers to Stephen and Bloom? If Stephen matures to become an artist who can write a book like Ulysses, then Joyce's autobiographical persona will have reached a point where, like Esther Summerson, he can join his creator as co-author of the story of his life. At that point his "I" will be virtually indistinguishable from the "I" of his maker, much as the person of the Son is consubstantial with the Father. And from that perspective he will be able to appreciate the confluence of forces that brought his life into alignment with the life of a middle-class ad canvasser.

This reading of the sentence would at least slightly ameliorate the absurdity of having a fictive character jump forward in time—because, in a sense, it is actually Joyce projecting himself into the action of his heavily autobiographical fiction. It would also assure the reader that despite the immense differences in their natures, and the younger man's evident hesitation to accept the friendly overtures of the older one, Stephen and Bloom are fated to discover connections as integral as those joining the butterfly's wings in a Lorenz attractor. Bloom's "small act" of helping a dazed young genius off the pavement and escorting him home may qualify as another event determining the aftercourse of two lives.

JH 2018
Close-up photograph of the head of a match igniting. Source:
Another photograph of the same phenomenon, slightly further advanced. Source:
The Smoker-TheMatch-The Cigarette, 1911 gelatin silver print by Anton Giulio Bragaglia, held in the Gilman Collection of pholographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Source:
Charles Dickens at his writing desk, cropped from an 1858 photograph by George Herbert Watkins held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Esther Summerson, the co-narrator of Bleak House, at her writing desk in an illustration by Hablot Browne. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Edward Norton Lorenz, 1917-2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, engraved by Johann Friedrich Jugel after an 1808 painting by Heinrich Anton Dähling. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The beginnings of a coal fire. Source:
A coal fire in a well-appointed Victorian fireplace. Source:
The Lorenz attractor, a set of chaotic solutions of the Lorenz system of differential equations, as plotted by Wikimol in 2005 with parameter values of  a=10, b = 28, and c = 8/3. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Another image of the Lorenz attractor, mapped by Paul Bourke. Source: