The Stream of Consciousness in William Wordsworth and James Joyce

Imagine yourself immersed in a beautiful landscape, and being moved by the view before your eyes. To remember the experience, perhaps you might take a photograph. But while a photograph can snap a single moment, a still image doesn’t really reflect the way your original experience unfolded through time. Can writing achieve something different? Both William Wordsworth and James Joyce were interested in the problem of how to represent the continuous stream of conscious experience. Adam James Cuthbert trains his eye on the poetry and fiction that they produced, and suggests that their literary efforts can be understood through an analogy with the camera.

This talk focuses particularly on William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1798-1839) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Adam Cuthbert situates Joyce in creative dialogue in Wordsworth, arguing that Wordsworth prefigures and anticipates Joyce’s cinematic representations of the stream of consciousness. He defines the stream of consciousness as a psycho-philosophical concept with respect to the works of Victorian philosopher Shadworth Hollway Hodgson.

His talk examines the development of the stream of consciousness as an intermedial literary technique in The Prelude. Wordsworth’s visualisation of memory within the ‘spots of time’ emphasises memory as ‘spectacle’, appropriating techniques and effects derived from pre-filmic, public visual entertainments, namely the panorama. Wordsworth adapts the sensation of virtual space and time travel achieved by technical illusions of the panorama into a psychological phenomenon that is realised by memory. In doing so, Wordsworth anticipates modern concepts of mental time travel, which build on notions of the stream of consciousness in addressing our ability to mentally project ourselves backwards in time to relive past experiences.

Wordsworth’s literary visualisation of memory also demonstrates affinities with photography and cinema proper, despite The Prelude predating these technologies. This talk argues that Wordsworth’s method acts as a foundational model for later nineteenth and twentieth century treatments of subjectivity, memory, vision, and temporality, thus anticipating Joyce’s intermedial techniques. In Portrait and Ulysses, Joyce also demonstrates practice of mental time travel, in relation to the temporality of the stream of consciousness.

From snake women to Islamic mythology, the beginnings of sound film to the burning of Shakespeare’s globe, Late Summer Lectures in 2018 explored the theme of ‘Beginnings and Endings’ in literature.

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