The first sentence of Chapter 3 in James Joyce’s Ulysses begins with this half of a compound sentence: “The ineluctable modality of the visible.” When I first read this, I thought, “What?” So I reached for my dictionary and came to learn that Joyce was referring to the inescapable and continuous (ineluctable) compartmentalization (modality) of the visual world: my hand, my fingers, my fingernails, my right pinky fingernail, and so on. All the world is broken into more and more and more smaller and smaller and smaller parts, right down to our neutrons, protons, and electrons. Which is a long way to say what Joyce expressed in six words—so bravo that lesson in economy. Still, Ulysses is a book filled with a lot of interesting and economical sentences, but that one, perhaps above all others, has stayed with me for the twenty years since I first read it. I thought of it again this morning when I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” whose last verse contains the line, “You can add up the parts, you won’t find the sum.”
I have to admit that for some time I was enamored with how fancy Joyce’s sentence was, and as I grew older and wiser I became a bit ashamed of my continued fascination with it. Until I listened to Cohen. Stephen Dedalus makes his modality observation when he is sitting on a beach, and you could no more understand that beach pebble-by-pebble than you could understand a story word-by-word.
It is hard sometimes to be a person blessed with a brain capable of breaking the world down into its microscopic components. It is hard to see reality as the physicist sees light—as both a particle and a wave. And yet it is so. All separation is a necessary illusion so we can get about and tell stories in the world. But it is good from time to time to remember it is in fact only an illusion, to remember that what actually separates each of us – and the animals, and the plants, and the pebbles on the beach – is a desire to see life new, and that the whole cannot be shattered, only faceted like a diamond.
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