It’s a good few decades since I first read the opening lines of the “Proteus” chapter in Ulysses, the chapter in which Stephen Dedalus walks along Sandymount Strand. I read the words "Ineluctable modality of the visible," reached for the dictionary and looked up the meaning both of ineluctable and modality, and I think I was at least very slightly wiser afterwards.
Now I know, or at least I’m given to understand, that this is a reference to Aristotelian notions of form and substance, that what the eye sees is not inherent in the thing seen. At one point Stephen closes his eyes and wonders if the world still exists, to which the all too obvious answer is “Duh.”
At the very least I suppose those words mean that we can’t escape the visual, though I’m not sure why we’d want to.
And of course there’s a double bluff going on here, in that Joyce’s novel is transforming a visual experience (though obviously not only a visual experience) into a verbal one, into a text. And I often think, as I walk in the world, that the separation between the verbal and the visual is largely a false one.
I’m a writer and I love words, but a lot of the time I write about what I see. And occasionally I take a photograph to capture details that I might otherwise forget, even as I accept that taking the photograph changes the nature of forgetting and remembering.
But the fact is, the world I see when I’m walking is full of language, visible language, words in a landscape. Cities seem to be full of fragmented poetry and prose, right there on the wall or the floor, and very occasionally up in the sky.