With Ulysses — as with all of Joyce’s work (I haven’t read Chamber Music enough to know if it extends to this) but think one of his primary concerns is with how context (cultural and in so much as landscape is culture) produces identity.
To say Ireland is a backdrop makes it sound as if a reader could substitute Ireland — Dublin, June 16th 1904 — for another backdrop and I don’t think so at all. This landscape, time, and place are the essential investigation of the book. The term backdrop seems to come from the Literary Catalog of Technique and would be cross referenced with Writing with a Sense of Place. I also wonder if these are things, like the borrowed scaffold of the Odyssey in Ulysses, intended to demonstrate without question the epic nature of just a day in Dublin, just any day in any old city that is home.
I find Ulysses’ obsession with place and identity very exciting. I began a novel from an emulation exercise on Ulysses that is very much about a time and place in the Pacific Northwest, and until I started writing this note, I didn’t see the connection — I thought was I was appropriating Joyce for my own purposes. But in thinking about it, I might share a similar purpose.
I am less interested in all of writing in the Pacific Northwest that aspires to “a sense of place.” Most of this work strikes me as hopelessly blind to the actual place where we live. It seems to be a kind of romantic reconstruction of a northwest that ought to be rather than the spent, burnt, and still beautiful place that actually remains. I remember hiking through a clear cut on the Cascade Crest Trial and coming to a lake that had a thin veil of trees left on its bank. The lake itself was stuffed with deadfall and tangles of fishing line. But once I was in among the trees I had the brief illusion of being out in the middle of a wild forest, and then the wind would blow and the trees would move and I could see the miles and miles of nude mountain side. It was still pretty. It was still the mountains, but the industrial nature of the site couldn’t be denied. Major resource extraction had occurred there — a strip mine of the forest. In most Pacific Northwest section of bookstores there are pioneer narratives, eco-lit books by David James Duncan, books by Craig Lesley — generally narratives of a kind of hopeful, progressive bent about responsibly living in the Northwest or overcoming nature or restoring nature — but they do not address some of the psychologies of being in the Northwest — namely, that it is a place of escape, of low stakes, easy isolation, and ready made desolation
The Pacific Northwest as a place is also conscious / subconscious. I could say and believe that consciousness is identity is environment; identity is environment is consciousness.
The outer edge of consciousness and one I’ve been thinking about in a very inarticulate way is this idea of pan-consciousness. I do not mean this in a mystical or religious way because I have a firm faith in the biological basis for consciousness, and yet at the same time identity is created through a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Identity is an expression then of family history as well as the place where we grew up. To draw strict boundaries around the self seems to me a culturally handy thing to do, but something that is subject to the general drift in our cultural understanding of what it means to be a person.
I write by thinking and then trying to write it down; and sometimes I try not to think and write that down; this is a step. I take what I have written and then force it as well as I can into formal structures, such as short stories and novels and lists. I am somewhat inept at this and am a little nervous that the more I do this the better I will get at it and I will eventually arrive at a fluency that destroys whatever qualities were in my first couple of books.