A good idea from ... James Joyce

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WHEN WE ask someone what they are thinking about, unless they reply with the standard (and, for the paranoid, devastating) "nothing", they will usually sum up the contents of their minds in one or two succinct sentences: "Just thinking about the garden," or "What we should do about John." Novelists have traditionally followed suit, offering us intelligible reports of the inner lives of their characters. In Middlemarch, George Eliot explains that Dorothea, the first time she meets her dusty future husband "said to herself that Casaubon was the most interesting man she had ever seen". Jane Austen tells us of Emma: "She was quite convinced of Mr Elton's being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already."

The method was good enough for most novelists until in 1921 a penniless Irishman living in Paris with a wife called Nora Barnacle ("She will not leave me in a hurry with a name like that," he wrote, on first meeting her) delivered to the world a novel with a radically different approach. James Joyce's Ulysses exploited a basic realisation - that we don't actually think in neat sentences. Though that's how we are used to conveying our thoughts to others, it is in fact a gross simplification of the fascinating, multi- layered, associative mush going on in our minds.

Joyce built his novel around the mush going on in a variety of Dubliners' heads on 16 June 1904 - in particular, those of an advertising canvasser, Leopold Bloom, his wife, Molly, and a teacher called Stephen Dedalus. Here, for example, is what Joyce picked up from a microphone put in Molly's mind (a monologue which Jung said had taught him more about female psychology than anything he had ever read): "It makes your lips pale anyhow its done now once and for all with all the talk of the world about it people make its only the first time after that its just the ordinary do it and think no more about it why cant you kiss a man without going and marrying him first you sometimes love to wildly when you feel that way so nice all over you you cant help yourself I wish some man or other would take me sometime ... "

The novel was hailed as a masterpiece. Virginia Woolf praised Joyce for helping to change modern consciousness. It's true; after a few pages of Ulysses, one can never think about inner consciousness in quite the same way again, one becomes attuned, perhaps for the first time, to the complexity within (and might, if foolhardy, even attempt a pastiche: "Readers thinking rubbish why not fool edited don't mind dinner now fish like wales independence").

However, Joyce's innovation didn't change the novel as much as people assumed it would, for the simple reason that listening to what is going in a head for too long is very boring. It's nice if a novelist pulls out the salient points from the mush. It would be annoying to ask friends what they were thinking and to receive a Ulysses-type answer in reply. And yet we should feel grateful to Joyce for making us aware of just how complicated mental activity is in its rawest state.