“Ineluctable Modality of the Visible…”…James Joyce

Free Translation Widget

James Joyce

If you came to this post to find out what “Ineluctable Modality of the Visible” means.    This is the best I have to offer right now:

This is the entire sentence as it appears in Ulysses:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.”

This means his current thought is only about what he is observing through his eyes.  “at least that and no more” implies the limitations of eye sight and he is saying here that there is more.  There is an old saying that goes  “there is more than meets the eye.”

Ineluctable – that which cannot be escaped from.

modality– A condition like eyesight. Hearing is a modality. However, from each condition a limitation can also be implied. As eyesight is a modality, it also implies the limitation of not being able to hear, or being limited by the quality of our eyesight.  A modality only offers a partial reality.  Eyesight doesn’t give us reality in its entirety, because it can’t give us hearing or taste, both which add aspects to reality.  Eyesight, hearing, and taste are all visible modalities, and all limiting, even together.

James Joyce with Nora

By its nature of being visible, it is an ineluctable modality. That which is visible is limited because it’s being observed by a modality which implies a limitation.

The product of an ineluctable modality is sin. Sin is shortsightedness. Sin is not being able to see the whole picture. We cannot escape from sin and every sin is a limitation.  Sin limits the scope of our lives and the expansion of our minds, therefore it is a product of the  ineluctable modality of the visible.  Sin is caused by the visible, not by the invisible which is God.

Joyce, although he professed to be non-religious, I think he was only against organized religion, like the Catholic Church in which he was raised.  From what I’ve read, he disowned the Catholic Church, and all religion, but always went to church on Easter.  If you read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” you can certainly see his conflicting feelings about religion and his disappointment in the people who professed to be religious.  From his Catholic upbringing, he certainly was sin conscious and guilt ridden.  You don’t need to be raised a Catholic to have those conditions, but those conditions seem very ingrained in the Catholic mind.

Our sin not only limits our view of the world, but our limited view of the world also results in sinning.  People who seem to be absorbed in sin also seem to have limited views of reality.  People who are the worst sinners are those who either most want to escape reality or have such limited minds that they can’t see any reality beyond what is visible to them.  Everyone has met people–usually professed atheists–who say that the only things that they believe is what they can see or hear or touch.  These types of people appear to be without imagination.

When a person becomes more awake to reality and doesn’t reject it, they seem to sin less and less.  I also think people sin less and less as they become happier and happier, and one becomes happier as they stop running away from reality.  However, no one is so awake in reality that they never sin, unless they are a Jesus or a Buddha or a saint.

Perhaps maturing just means doing away with sin, but there is no way of ever getting rid of it totally.  It’s ineluctable.

This post is a work in progress.

If you disagree with me or have a different insight, I would love to hear it.

Update:  6/16/2012

I was on a bus in Manhattan today, and I started thinking about this.  I think I got some new insight.

If whatever is visible is limiting, then that which is invisible would not be limiting.  For instance, our imagination.  The imagination is not an ineluctable modality of the visible.  It is invisible and therefore unlimited.  For something to be eternal or unlimited it must be invisible.  God is eternal and unlimited and invisible. Also, that which is eternal, unlimited and invisible is without sin.  You can imagine sinning, but the imagination itself is not sin.  It can’t be because it’s not visible and therefore not an ineluctable modality.  Even though people have limited imaginations, some more than others, the imagination itself is unlimited.  The imagination does not come to us through a modality like eyesight or hearing.

A young James Joyce

If you are  interested in reading more about James Joyce, please check out my post entitled James Joyce’s 129th Birthday Today, or my most current post on James called James Joyce on Art and Artists.

I have another post called Thoughts on Ulysses on another blog of mine called Gayle’s Stream of Consciousness, in case you would have any interest.

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52 thoughts on ““Ineluctable Modality of the Visible…”…James Joyce

  1. The struggle for Irish Home Rule was in full swing in the early 20th century. Surveillance is a persistent theme. The Irish could not escape the real or perceived watchful eye of the British. It is comparable to the Bentham’s Panopticon which was expanded upon by Foucault. One is always visible so they never know if they’re ever actually being watched. Ineluctable modality of the visible. The only escape for the Irish, other than fleeing the island altogether was through their own imagination.

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  2. I’ve always tried for a simpler translation just using the dictionary: how about?
    THE UNDENIABLE REALITY OF SIGHT. See, simple.
    As to Joyce’s adult relationship to religion, organized or otherwise, what Joyce was against, if against is the right word, was superstition. this is very elegantly shown in the Dubliners: if one contrasts the boy’s statement in the Sisters, when he observes that he knew,”…that two candles must be set at the head…”
    (the key word here being the imperative “must”); to the wonderfully defiant
    announcement of Mr. Kernan in Grace when he exclaims, “No candles…I bar the magic lantern business.” So the boy’s dogmatic “must” becomes the man’s reasoned refusal, no.

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  3. I feel this is missing out on the Aristole reference. Inelecutable modality of the visible refers to the philosophy of an object and its essence. In this context, we have to separate what can be seen from what it truly is.

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    1. Saying god is invisible and therefore unlimited is about as valuable as saying just because we can’t find WMD they must exist Why? Because we’ve heard it so many times. We are asked to prove God doesn’t exist, aren’t we? But who proves the existence of what’s never been seen. To say god exists because of all the wonderful things by which we are surrounded can be restated in this way: they exist, they are. How do we know? We experience them. To say they are there because of god is a determination of cultural need, fear, puzzlement over questions unanswered. Why not say we have no answers? Even the belief in god provides no answers, only the dead end, the halt in investigation, the backing away from the questions: god.

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  4. Nobody’s post, the one you found incomprehensible, is correct. (Just my opinion of course)
    What he said means he thinks Joyce is pondering the simple fact that ninety percent of the time we rely on vision to inform us what is really happening, and this reliance is terribly restricting. Vision is merely a channel for information and a limited one. Even much of our imagination is composed of images.
    So when confronted with a novel situation, we don’t listen into it, we don’t feel into it, but we do look into it. When we understand we don’t say “I smell what you mean” we say “I see what you mean”. We fall into visual mode and visual metaphors instinctively. It’s as ineluctable as gravity.
    I think perhaps Joyce was pondering what might be perceived if our means of apprehension were not confined in this way.

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  5. I don’t agree with this interpretation. I believe the modality refers to semiotics. In semiotics a modality is the way in which information is encoded within a medium. In this phrase, the medium is the visible. The ineluctable modality of the visible would in this case mean: The ineluctable way in which information is encoded in the visible medium. I think Dedalus is contemplating whether or not the preset information encoded within the signs perceived by the eye, are the only thing one can derive from the visible medium. He knows for sure that the modality of the visible can be thought through his eyes, but he’s considering whether or not there are some things which can be understood without connotations to a preset modality. For example, is there more to derive from a bicycle, than the information from the signs, which are inherent to the culturally predetermined modality (e.g. it’s a racing bike, the bicycle looks expensive)

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    1. I think nobody is correct. Think of it this way. In Joyce’s time philosophy, science (physics) (evolution theory) and literature were exploding into the mainstream. Some philosophers even questioned whether reality was just in our heads. I think what Joyce is pondering is connected to the spiritual; and, since everything else was apparently in question then the one modality was ineluctably certain. For me, God is light (how things are illuminated) and therefore what is seen is ineluctably spiritual. These “moments” are truly ours.

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  6. “Everyone has met people–usually professed atheists–who say that the only things that they believe is what they can see or hear or touch. These types of people appear to be without imagination”. This is an unfortunate statement and untrue. I find that the trappings of religions limit the imagination more than they help it. If the belief in a God take “imagination” doesn’t that requirement make a God less likely to be real and not more likely? Should we diagnose delusional paranoia as – awesome imagination? Your sentence betrays an agenda. That agenda is your own ineluctable modality. Try to imagine what it means outside of your world view.

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    1. Thank you for joining the conversation. I will think about your comment. My present world view hasn’t always been my world view, it’s only where I am now in my mental evolution. My intellect and emotions are still evolving.

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  8. “WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET!” – FLIP WILSON
    🙂
    A similar idea ~ that ‘what you see’ or the ‘way that you see it’ ~
    is part of the consciousness.

    Excellent article ~ Thank You Gayle!

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  16. I thought you might enjoy seeing the inspiration for my travel to this page of your site. It begins with the daily post (A.Word.A.Day, from wordsmith.org) by Anu Garg on the word, “ineluctable”, and continues by clicking on the marvelous illustration (to see it full-sized) and looking ve-r-r-ry closely at the picture.
    http://wordsmith.org/words/ineluctable.html

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  17. Stumbled across this..
    Gayle, rather than a religious frame of reference, look at the world without it. There is a certain, unavoidable, ineluctability when faced with particular frustrations which lead to tragic solutions. These are not sins and have nothing to do with religion. It is the result of human diversity; we either accept it or not. This is what I think James said at the opening of chapter 3 and its why so many readers throw in the towel and close the book at this point. My suggestion to them is just skip chapter 3 and go to chapter 4, but if you do, you miss out on a really cool exploration of Bloom’s imagination….

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    1. i found your site quite by accident – though i am always joyce surfing…
      i just translate “ineluctable modality” as: the undeniable reality of…
      i think the author’s point here is simply that we ‘know’ the phenomenal through our sense, and that sight is the primary, or most informational of them.
      as to the question of joyce’s relationship to religion in general or catholicism
      specifically, i think what joyce – through his books – is specifically against or wants to separate himself from is “superstition”.
      from Dubliners – the boy in “sisters” says/thinks in the (way over analyzed)
      opening paragraph, “i knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse”. the most important word here being the imperative “must”. then, in “grace” the man, mr kernan says, defiantly, ” i bar the candles,…
      i bar the magic-lantern business.” this, to me is joyce’s primary concern: to separate himself and his heros from superstition.
      i really like your cat picture. he/she is really good-lookin!
      and the pooh quote and picture (i was brought up on pooh) is to die for!!!
      peace.

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  18. Thanks. I thought this was really interesting. I’d forgotten how Joyce used the phrase ‘ineluctable modality’, but I like the sound of it so much I typed it into google and found your post. I thought the direction you took the concept of sin being an ineluctable modality, an inescapable reality, was clever. Divergent from, but not inconsistent, with the text. Whether or not Joyce believed in god is an argument I am not prepared to join, but I have no doubt that on some level he still believed in sin. Thanks. – David McDonald, Melbourne.

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  19. I tend to see the world in spiritual ways,my frame of reference, and being lived in primarily the visible world does lead to sin or at least not to true love..I helped my 8th grade daughter write a paragraph on love for school, concerning Romeo and Juliet and we use this quote from Joyce.
    We also included poem from Thomas Merton: Late have I loved you , beauty so ancient and so new,..late have I loved you….Lo , you were within,,,,,but I outside, seeking there for you, She liked it. Thanks for interesting point..People write material and the meaning may be totally unknown to them because it comes from an unconscious scource. Brian Hocum

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  20. I’m fairly sure that Joyce is just writing about physical things here. When D closes his eyes, he can imagine that only his mind exists. When he opens them, he is confronted by an assortment of things that appear to exist independently of his mind – beach, stones, sea, sky, etc. Each of these things has its own unique “thingness,” its own modality.

    This phrase crops up on the Wikipedia entry for “subjective idealism,” which is worth a read for more on the debate as to whether we can truly know that anything exists outside our own minds. Bishop Berkeley rejected the idea that any true reality exists independently of us and it is interesting to read that Dr. Johnson refuted this by kicking a stone.

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  21. Joyce’s insights were rooted in his understanding of the origins of alphabetic literacy. The primary ineluctable modalities of literacy are in the chiastic crossover of the senses involved in the invisible: sound, being given visible form in the letter, and the visible letter being rendered “unseen” in the translation of the visible sense into acoustic modality. This hybrid space opened by the letter is semantically expansive precisely because it is iconically reductive and refuses to rest in the place of the fixed image. The mind is set on an unending journey for meaning.

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  22. This is a linguistic conundrum. Joyce played with language. It is not about religion . It is about experience and aesthetics. Immediacy and the process of reflection. invisible modalities ? Improbable wordgames. This is not about sin. Joyce revelled in the residual guilt associated with transgressing various social norms. Non serviam sounds petulant and adolescent when viewed through the prism of provincial hubris.

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    1. People with religious frame of minds, like myself, seem to analyze most everything from a religious viewpoint. I’m not sure the religious point of view is irrelevant or wrong, just a different way of explaining things than the way the secular mind explains things. Thank you for your comment. It gives me something to think about.

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  24. Irish , Catholic(don’t want to be but that’s ineluctable too.) and can relate to Joyce’s feelings.Thanks for your thoughts.

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  25. sorry, it just seems like you’ve taken key words and linked them arbitrarily to something that you wanted to say already. it’s not even like your beliefs shaped your understanding because you didn’t attempt to understand. it seems like you are the one who is limited and scared to delve into the truth of things. if God is at the core of the truth, then there should be no fear for those with faith.

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  26. i think you defined one example of ineluctable modality very accidentally by showing what religiosity (and by this i don’t mean simply adherence to a religion) can do to one’s understanding; joyce was getting at something far more earthly and tangible than sin. you have found a way to distort this great modernist’s ideas so that they conveniently support and nurture your own worldviews. that’s an example of ineluctable modality: how modes or patterns inevitably affect what would otherwise be a completely uninformed, and thus more open and unbiased perspective of anything. the ineluctable modality of the visible is how all our knowledge and experience will shape our understandings of anything we sense.. i reckon.

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  27. love the two contrast photos! still beautiful and eccentric! … the first pic looks like you had a modeling gig? i love the pink bike with basket! cheers lovely lady!

    Like

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