Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ineluctable Modality, or something (or nothing)

Trying to be clever once again, in my last post I used the phrase "ineffable modality of the tangible" to reference my attitude towards a physical rather than electronic system of diary-keeping.  This was a misquotation, half deliberate and half sloppy, of James Joyce.  Let me explain.

Joyce’s original, in ‘Ulysses’, is “the ineluctable modality of the visible”.  I misremembered ‘ineluctable’ as ‘ineffable’; and I purposely substituted ‘tangible’ for ‘visible’ (that’s the ‘trying to be clever’ bit’).  But what did he, or I, mean?

‘Ineffable’ means, more or less, ‘not expressible’; so you could conclude that I got that bit right…  But the proper phrase (which sits at the core of the novel) stuck in my mind from my very first reading (albeit with rather obviously sub-standard glue).

‘Ineluctable’, though, is a much deeper word.  ‘Not able to be escaped from or avoided.’  The visible (or the tangible, or the audible) can’t be escaped or avoided.  This is a banal thought.  But Joyce isn’t talking about that.  He’s talking about the ‘modality’ of these things.  And that takes us even deeper.

The dictionary entry for ‘mode’, and hence ‘modality’, covers an unexpectedly wide expanse of meanings, from music through computing, fashion and petrology (!) to philosophy.  I’d always taken it to denote a kind of granularity – after all, a musical mode is a selection of notes to the exclusion of others – and I stand by that.  But in my mind the definition that comes closest to Joyce’s intention is this: “openwork between the solid parts of lace”.

What he’s saying, I think, is that we can’t escape the fact that we see the lace, not the holes. What we perceive is no more than a tiny part of what’s really there.  We completely miss the totality, in which the holes are as real as the threads.  A physicist, as well as a philosopher or a genius, will affirm the truth of this.  Dark matter, in every sense.


Don’t worry, I’ll lighten up next time.


  1. Joyce was a complete piss take.

    Check out Dan Brown for a ripping yarn Tim.

  2. Please, sir, can I be excused philosophy. I have a headache.

  3. I'm grateful, that is most helpful.

  4. You'd have to be really miserable to see the holes rather than the lace. Chin up, dear heart.

  5. Glad I was able to clear that up. I suppose Dan's next novel will be about quantum mechanics.
    Z, I disagree. The lace wouldn't exist without the holes. I find that an exhilarating thought - not miserable in any way!

  6. Hang on, darling, you've moved swiftly from either/or to with. I'm more than happy to have it both ways too.

  7. This needs more detail.
    The lace under discussion may, perhaps, be the modality of the type referred to by Jiles Perry Richardson Jnr. when he immortally announced, so ineluctably, that (additionally to the lace)
    "a wiggle in her walk & a giggle in her talk make the world go round".
    Dark matter indeed.
    Oh baby that's what I like.

  8. Thank you Tim. I stole ineluctable for something I was writing last night. It might have to go before I've finished though because it's the only long word I've used.
    Now I'm going to look up granularity as it makes me think of sugar, not music.

  9. when eating a polo I only ever see the hole

  10. Z, I'd gladly pursue this on to the next philosophical plane, but Richard seems to have already achieved that.
    Mig, I used up three of my five long words in there.
    Zig - you have eyes inside your mouth? But actually, I don't think you are a 'mint half empty' person.