As an Irishman, I was pleased to learn both of Peter Tyrer’s Celtic heritage and of his inclusion of Ulysses in his list of ‘ten books’.1 I agree with Tyrer that the sheer poetic beauty and creative manipulation of language make this book a great work. The author correctly points out Joyce’s amazing ability to describe emotions with both beauty and precision. I would like to add to this issue further; I believe it is Joyce’s description of complex feeling states that is one of the supreme facets of Ulysses. In drawing a distinction between emotions and feelings I do so in the same sense that Antonio Damasio does,2 i.e. that feelings represent a composite of often numerous emotions further elaborated by various thought processes and felt in the viscera or body.
Joyce captures subtle feeling states so well that I was surprised to find, upon a recent trip to the ‘auld sod’, a book in a Dublin airport store suggesting that Joyce had Asperger syndrome.3 I thought it a somewhat odd hypothesis that a man who could describe emotions/feelings so well would have a disorder whose key pathology is an impaired theory of mind. As Tyrer alludes, Joyce’s use of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique in his writing is much more akin to thought disorder – this was particularly true of his last book, Finnegan’s Wake. Although Joyce experienced certain difficulties in this life, there is little evidence to suggest he was ever psychotic; and his creative deconstruction of language was no doubt a reflection of his genius for writing. However, Joyce had a daughter who developed schizophrenia so if there was a suggestion of mental illness influencing his work, a psychotic trait seems a more plausible thesis to me than Asperger syndrome.
The second aspect of Tyrer’s article that I enjoyed was his anecdote of the late, great Aubrey Lewis berating a psychiatry trainee at the Maudsley Hospital for failing to have read Jaspers in the original German text. This made me smile, as I had an almost identical experience as a senior house officer in neurology in Dublin. At the time, I was working for a prominent neurologist, Hugh Staunton – who, by the by, went to the same school as Joyce. During a morning ward round I was minded by Dr Staunton that the reason I had failed to spot a neurological sign in a man with von Recklinghausen’s disease was that I had not read the author of this eponymous condition in the original German text. Somewhat belittled at the time, I now know I am in esteemed company.
- © 2009 Royal College of Psychiatrists