“I close my eyes, and can see…”

Aria the Animation — just typing its name gives me a sense of peace, both because of its predominant themes, and because there exist human beings capable of producing something like this, which means there must be hope for our species after all. I wanted to sum this one up in a single post, but I realized around the end of the fourth episode that a mere one post would not be enough, could not possibly be enough by any stretch of the imagination, so consider this the first in a series of indeterminate length. And the funny thing is, I probably wouldn’t have liked Aria at all a few months ago, back when I was writing off Lucky Star and Hidamari Sketch, or at least I probably wouldn’t have liked it enough to see past my dislike and run it through my infernal criticism machine.

Granted, I might be jumping the gun saying I wouldn’t have liked Aria a few months ago. It isn’t an unreasonable assumption — my tastes have been tumultuous this year, for some reason — but it’s only one of two possibilities, as I see it. On the one hand, I may have enjoyed Aria so much because my tastes have changed recently; on the other, I may have enjoyed Aria because Aria subtly changed my tastes. Just as a budding illegal drug enthusiast probably shouldn’t jump straight into heroin before working through marijuana, it’s likely that delving unprepared into hard slice of life was an ill-conceived plan on my part. I suspect that Aria might serve as a gateway drug of sorts, a gradual introduction, given how it snared my attention in the first place.

It all began with the aforementioned line from the opening: “I close my eyes, and can see the direction the wind is taking.” As you might glean from the title of this post, I’m interested primarily in the former half of the quotation; as you might glean from my Joyceophilia, it grabbed me immediately with its conceptual similarity to the beginning of “Proteus,” the third chapter of Ulysses:

INELUCTABLE MODALITY OF THE VISIBLE: AT LEAST THAT IF NO MORE, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o’er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.

Won’t you come to Sandymount,
Madeline the mare?

Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.

Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see.

See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.

Believe me, I’m thrilled to be able to tie Ulysses into the fabulous world of anime at long last — but not as thrilled as you are to read a passage from Ulysses in a blog post about anime, I’m sure!

I’m not about to annotate the entire passage. That would be a — forgive me — Ulyssean feat, and it’s not necessary; just bear in mind that it consists mostly of allusions to philosophers and literature that don’t have much to do with Aria. Our primary concern here is that Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego and modern-day Telemachus, walks along the beach at about ten in the morning, contemplates the nature of existence, and reaches a hasty sort of conclusion on the matter. In applying Stephen’s thought process, we can move toward the idea (or one idea) suggested by Aria’s first episode1.

Let’s begin where Stephen begins, with the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” Modality is tricky here; it’s something of a pun, as it can refer to a primary physical sense, as the sense of vision. Given that “mode” can be taken to mean an essential, underlying quality of something, we can also interpret “modality” as quidditas — a slightly younger Stephen describes this in the fifth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as “the whatness of a thing,” and, as it originated with Aristotle, it no doubt has its roots in Plato’s eidos, that underlying form shared by all things of one kind, continually sought by Socrates in his dialogues. Thus, it seems most likely that Stephen is contemplating the unavoidable “visibleness” of the visible.

I know what you’re probably thinking — “What the hell, Joyce?” (if not “What the hell, Pontifus?”) — but bear with me. In the first sentence of “Proteus,” a question is raised: what is the modality of the visible? What underlying qualities make it what it is and nothing else? Conveniently enough, Stephen’s thoughts immediately turn to color, nodding to the Aristotelian precept (via all that “diaphane, adiaphane” business) that what is seen is seen because it has color2. The modality of the visible, then, would be color; under normal circumstances, color cannot be heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. And, as Stephen suggests, as long as one’s eyes are open and working, color is “ineluctable,” ever-present, altering (perhaps confounding) one’s perception of what is seen.

But the measure of a thing cannot be had by its color alone, as Stephen understands. His surroundings exist on planes beyond the visible, and, in his effort to read the “signatures of all things” as fully as possible, he “[shuts] his eyes and [sees].” Sound familiar? See, I am getting to a point here. Stephen spends a bit of time walking with his eyes closed, contemplating the “ineluctable modality of the audible,” of which he becomes particularly aware as soon as the modality of the visible stops ineluctably getting in the way. He ends his brief foray into the world of sound by wondering if the visible world has ceased to exist during his period of unawareness of it, and subsequently proving its existence by opening his eyes. “There all the time without you,” he tells himself, “and ever shall be, world without end.”

Through experimentation, Stephen has found that the numbing or annulling of one mode of perception removes distractions that prevent the maximum efficacy of others. That in itself isn’t mind-blowing; we see it in individuals afflicted with blindness who develop better-than-average hearing. Consider, however, that the phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to the physical senses. Stephen seeks “signatures,” and this is likely a reference to Thomas Aquinas3, who explains the concept of signate matter in the second chapter of “On Being and Essence”:

…Only signate matter is the principle of individuation. I call signate matter matter considered under determinate dimensions. Signate matter is not included in the definition of man as man, but signate matter would be included in the definition of Socrates if Socrates had a definition. In the definition of man, however, is included non-signate matter: in the definition of man we do not include this bone and this flesh but only bone and flesh absolutely, which are the non-signate matter of man.

Hence, the essence of man and the essence of Socrates do not differ except as the signate differs from the non-signate, and so the Commentator says, in Metaphysicae VII, com. 20, “Socrates is nothing other than animality and rationality, which are his quiddity.”

Thus, while Stephen seeks the non-signate quidditas of visible things and audible things, he likewise seeks the signate haecceitas of individual things, the qualities that set them apart from others of their kind, their individualizing attributes. Consider his approach: he begins with the general visual attribute of color, explores fully the related specifics of his surroundings (“Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs”), acknowledges that vision alone has limits (“Limits of the diaphane”), steps out of the visual modality and into the audible, and begins the process anew. Of course, Stephen’s surroundings are nonliving, nonthinking objects. Aquinas’s use of Socrates as an example suggests that, where human beings are concerned, signate matter consists of more than physical qualities: we must also take into account “animality and rationality.”

Now, look at the circumstances that allow Stephen to gaze so deeply into individual objects, through multiple layers of being. No distractions prevent him from choosing things — or people, though there’s no one around when “Proteus” starts — to examine in full, and, as tends to happen (remember why I do criticism?), his examinations generally reveal more about himself than his targets of interest. It helps that he’s not in the bustling center of Dublin, with its many sensory interferences; actually, he’s here:

Not that Joyce suggests that such a soothing environment as Sandymount Strand is required to free the senses from distraction and allow the comprehensive, extra-sensory exploration of things. In the next chapter of Ulysses, we meet Leopold Bloom, who undertakes all his many contemplations in Dublin proper. The key, I think, is becoming so familiar with your environment, so used to it, that you’re practically a part of it.

Kind of like…

Being an undine — literally, a water elemental — certainly counts, I’d say. The undines are such an integral part of Aqua’s identity that people vacation to Aqua specifically to see them. It’s no wonder that Akari is so enamored with Aqua; she’s in an ideal position to use the place as a philosophical catalyst. Or, no, that’s misleading; I think that Akari is in an ideal position to use Aqua as a philosophical catalyst in part because she’s enamored with it. That brings us to Aria’s “love what you do, and you’ll always be doing what you love” theme, which I’ll get to in a later post.

For now, though, let’s extrapolate. We’ve established one reason (among many) why Aqua is such a powerful setting, but what does that have to do with Aria as a gateway into the slice of life genre? Simply put, it seems that the way Akari uses Aqua (or, rather, the way Stephen Dedalus uses Sandymount Strand) is the way we should use slice of life shows. I’m not sure whether it’s accidental or a stroke of genius on the part of the directorial staff, but it’s convenient indeed that Aria hints in its first episode at how we can most enjoy the twelve episodes to come.

In Aqua-like fashion, slice of life shows remove the ever-present concerns that commonly tie up our story-processing senses, concerns such as contiguous plot and extraordinary circumstances. Months ago, I would’ve called that a bad thing, and I knew even then that I was simply missing the point, but now, thanks in large part to Aria, I think I’ve figured out how I should approach the genre. In the absence of tumultuous plot, one should not squander the rare opportunity to reach unobstructed into the depths of what is given — namely, simple characters, their relationships, and their daily actions which, if allowed to be, are profound in their frivolity.

Of course, the last few paragraphs mean nothing if I’m wrong, if Aria really hasn’t given me the tools I need to appreciate slice of life. After all, I once thought the same of Manabi Straight!, and mistakenly so. Thus, on that note, it’s time to dust off Hidamari Sketch and put my suspicions to the test.


1One might argue that what I’m doing here is using Ulysses as a critical or theoretical text — see, this is why I’m so inclined lately to say that criticism is art in and of itself. Criticism can inform our reading of literature, literature can inform our reading of literature, literature can inform our reading of criticism, and criticism can inform our reading of criticism. Likewise, both literature and criticism can inform our understanding of ourselves. That being the case, why must there exist a wall between literature and criticism?

2Thornton, Weldon. Allusions in Ulysses. UNC Press, 1968: 41-42.


Leave a comment


  1. Yes, Aria certainly is a gateway drug for slice-of-life.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll like ALL slice-of-life, though… if it’s bad, it’s just bad, regardless of pacing style or content.

    Anyway, glad you like Aria, keep on enjoying it, etc. :)

  2. Kairu Ishimaru

     /  24 October 2008

    Aria the Origination – very.. very nostalgic.

  3. Pontifus

     /  25 October 2008


    I shouldn’t have any problems with continuing to enjoy Aria — though I’m not letting myself watch Natural until I’ve written all I can about Animation, so it might be a while.

    @Kairu Ishimaru

    Hey, uh, do me a favor…when you comment on my site, try to make it look a little less like you’re farming for trackback hits.

  4. Now I’m pissed. I keep telling myself that I need to be at peace with my choices. Back at university (at least over a decade ago) I told myself to be at peace not reading James Joyce (and subsequently pursued Dostoevsky). Similarly, this year I told myself to be at peace not watching Aria (and subsequently committing to complete Monster). I feel like utter crap because I can feel the goodness, the goodness in this post… and I’m not dressed for the event. I hate missing out. This feels like a triple whammy: -Ulysses-Aria-I close my eyes, and can see


  5. eimajtl

     /  31 October 2008

    I think this just inspired me to watch this series. Finding philosophical meanings in series is wonderful, something I really enjoy. Hopefully I can find that same amount of enjoyment from it as you seem to have had. Modality is such a fun topic too, it’s really interesting to try and figure out what makes something what it is.

    It’s amusing that I read this now because yesterday I was making a discussion for Eve no Jikan and was trying very hard to think of the word I needed, but couldn’t remember it… modality. [that'd be a good series to check out for some philosophy diving if you've got 30 free minutes somewhere]

  6. lelangir

     /  31 October 2008

    how do you pronounce Nietzsche?

  7. Pontifus

     /  2 November 2008


    I know how you feel; it frustrates me that I can’t read and watch everything. It works in reverse, though; I chose a bunch of series over Monster and a bunch of authors over Dostoevsky, and now I wish I knew more about them both. I did try to include all the necessary information about Ulysses and Aria, though.


    Eve no Jikan…I’ll keep that in mind. Yeah, sensory modality is one of my favorite ideas from Ulysses, and when anything vaguely resembles something I like in Ulysses, I’ll find some way to make it relate. And let me tell you, it’s good to see more than just the usual crowd commenting here (not that there’s anything wrong with the usual crowd!).


    The philosophers aren’t my strong suit; I only know a passable amount about a few. But isn’t it “neat-cha?”

  8. I thought it was pronounced “neat-chee”, but who knows?

    As we see Aqua through Akari’s eyes, I keep feeling like that’s what I would see if I closed my eyes and imagined how the planet would be. So I could see her living my imagination. :3

  9. I’m still pissed. I did myself the favor of watching ‘The Animation’ (awesomeness that I’m not really prepared to discuss yet to be honest) but I still can’t make it here in this post because Joyce is such a big part of it. (WTH – Pontifus?)

    All that said, I watched Aria finally because of this post, and I only have thanks for it.

    >>the way Akari uses Aqua (or, rather, the way Stephen Dedalus uses Sandymount Strand) is the way we should use slice of life shows. I’m not sure whether it’s accidental or a stroke of genius on the part of the directorial staff, but it’s convenient indeed that Aria hints in its first episode at how we can most enjoy the twelve episodes to come.

    I agree, They gave us the key, or perhaps the Gondola-view that only Akari (not anyone else, even Alicia who is engineered to be loved) can give us. She’s like the non-touristy tour guide that I always wanted. She’ll take you to the very heart of the destination, not just the places that relieve you of your money.

  10. Preston

     /  27 September 2010

    I hate everything about this. And I hate you for writing it.


    The only reason I’ve gotten past 40 pages is that I have a strong desire to at least read enough for things to finally fucking make sense.


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