Joycean modality of the ineluctably visible. Signs of all things we are here to read. Words, words, words... The 'Proteus' episode of Ulysses, Stephen Hamlet's soliloquy on Sandymount Strand, is a hermeneutic minefield strewn with interpretive traps for wary readers. (Joyce doesn't bother trapping the unwary; that's too easy.) Stephen's thoughts look 'deep,' and Joyce works overtime to achieve this appearance, taking us on an eccentric allusionary tour through his mental library of philosophy, theology, aesthetics, etc. As a consequence, most readers miss the most crucial point of the section: its shallowness. I began to understand this only after traveling to Dublin and spending a sunny Sunday morning on Sandymount Strand. The strand is a huge sandflat. At low tide the soppy sand stretches far out to the barely visible edge of the sea, and it's possible to walk out over the flat, if you don't mind trudging through shoe-sucking muck. When the sea stops holding its watery breath and exhales back toward the land, the tide comes in very quickly over the flats. I know from experience how easy it is to find yourself stranded on a slight rise as the water rills in around you. (I still have an old pair of shoes stained darker brown by Irish Seawater.) When reading 'Proteus' we must realize that although Stephen is indeed at the edge of the sea, it is a pathetically shallow sea. Even at high tide, you can probably wade out a considerable distance before the water hits your waist. Likewise, while Stephen Dedalus appears to be a Hamlet plumbing his depths, those depths are in fact almost all shallows. Whenever his broody musing threatens to touch a deep place in himself, a place of guilt or shame or anxiety about sex or death, Stephen flies off on yet another tangent, soaring away into his mental library, into the rhetoric of theology, philosophy, history, into memories and fantasies, into self-mockery. (The passage in which the cocklepicker man orders his dog away from the dead dog's body reproduces the structure of the entire episode in miniature: the Claudius-voice of Authority orders Stephen Hamlet to put off these thoughts of death ["Tatters! Out of that, you mongrel!"]) This self-mockery may be the most important because it's the beginning of self-criticism, but it's only a beginning. And most of it is, importantly, aimed at his former self, an "other me" who can be more safely dismantled. Stephen went to Paris with grandiose dreams of forging great art in the soul's smithy; now he's back in Dublin and still in the process of realizing that he must first forge his soul.
Another point about this shallowness: late in the section we see Stephen's naked emotions, his loneliness and neediness and self-pity; we glimpse a kind of depth, and it's not a pretty picture. This depth is, in fact, embarrassingly shallow: adolescent, maudlin. Stephen's emotional life is not an acceptably complex, avant-garde construction; it mocks his "Latin Quarter hat," and so it must be fled. I suspect that this, rather than the book's proletarian roughness, is the aspect of Ulysses that Virginia Woolf found so repellent. Posh Virginia wanted to believe that all human beings (or at least that tiny minority that finds its way into serious fiction) are unfathomably complex. Joyce knew that most of the time we are insufferably shallow creatures, ankle-deep and mucky like Sandymount Strand.
There are some endlessly interesting juxtapositions of writing, sex and death near the section's end. Stephen, so horny he's kissing the air, has a thought and writes it down on a torn scrap of paper, a wordy ejaculation that we cannot read. Soon after, while the tide comes erotically in ("long lassoes from Cock Lake"; Cock Lake is a long phallic inlet of the sea into the Strand at low tide), Stephen lies back against the sharp rocks and masturbates, jesuitically mortifying his flesh even as he pleasures it. This is the 'job' he thinks of in the line "Better get this job over quick." He's giving himself a quick handjob as the tide rolls orgasmically in. (The eroticized description of the tide might thus be understood as a construction of Stephen's masturbating consciousness.) And after this, after he comes, he punishes himself with a guilty vision of sexual putrefaction (the drowned man as a "bag of corpsegas" with a "quiver of minnows" in its trousers). And from this vision he predictably flees into pseudo-Hamlet, The Tempest and typically Dedalean intellectual parody. (My masturbation interpretation, which runs counter to the general critical consensus on these passages [most critics think Stephen is urinating here, despite the fact that he's reclining (a good way to wet one's trouser legs) in full view of any passing pedestrians; a pocketed reclining handjob makes more sense], resonates perfectly with Bloom's later masturbation on a different part of Sandymount Strand [in "Nausicaa"]. Sandymount, it seems, was where Dubliners went to wank in 1904. Today they have internet porn.)
The deep power of "Proteus," the part that hurts, is Joyce's bulls-eye portrayal of young male literary consciousness. This is how English majors think--a fact that I can only acknowledge now that I'm older than Bloom. We think we're out far and in deep, but we're really just wading in the shallows, wanking on the strand.