A Millionaire of Words

Morten Høi Jensen

In his essay on “Invented Languages”, the poet Craig Raine observes of the stylistic hybridity of A Clockwork Orange that “sponge-meat is better than spam” ‑ that is, the compound “sponge-meat” is a richer, more suggestive, more visceral, way of representing spam on the page than the word itself. (It is also a great deal funnier, as literary detail often is.) It is a little explosion of literature: by encouraging us to think of spam as a conjunction of sponge and meat, we see it afresh and realise that, yes, spam is actually like sponge-meat.

Our ability to think of one thing as another is what Ted Cohen calls our “talent for metaphor”, and it is above all this notion that informs Ulysses. Forget all the stuff about Homer; Joyce’s great novel is a paean to metaphor, to language. A cattlewoman, her “wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs”, is seen by a field milking the “dewsilky cattle”; the kidney Leopold Bloom cooks for breakfast “oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish”; walking by Trinity College, Bloom, in low spirits following Paddy Dignam’s funeral, catches sight of the city’s trams and reflects on the transience of existence:

Trams passed one another, ingoing, outgoing, clanging. Useless words. Things go on same; day after day: squads of police marching out, back: trams in, out. Those two loonies mooching about. Dignam carted off. Mina Purefoy swollen belly on a bed groaning to have a child tugged out of her. One born every second somewhere. Other dying every second. Since I fed the birds five minutes. Three hundred kicked the bucket. Other three hundred born, washing the blood off, all are washed in the blood of the lamb, bawling maaaaaa.
Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on. Houses, lines of houses, streets, miles of pavements, piledup bricks, stones. Changing hands. This owner, that. Landlord never dies they say. Other steps into his shoes when he gets his notice to quit. They buy the place up with gold and still they have all the gold. Swindle in it somewhere. Piled up in cities, worn away age after age. Pyramids in sand. Built on bread and onions. Slaves. Chinese wall. Babylon. Big stones left. Round towers. Rest rubble, sprawling suburbs, jerrybuilt, Kerwan’s mushroom houses, built of breeze. Shelter for the night.
No one is anything.

It is this aspect of Ulysses that Michael Wood alludes to when he says that while reading Proust makes him want to spend the rest of his life writing a commentary on À la recherché du temps perdu, reading Joyce makes him want to write a very good book that has nothing at all to do with Joyce. I take his comment to mean that Joyce’s mad delight in language has a childlike quality that whets one’s own creative appetite, and that all claims pointing to Ulysses as a dead end for the novel are mistaken for failing realise this. Ulysses is a one-off, but Joyce, like Shakespeare, showed us what language, when coaxed ‑ and stretched, and twanged ‑ by a genius, can really get up to. This is why the Irishman’s presence is detectable in writers as diverse as Saul Bellow and Nabokov, Julián Ríos and Gabriel Cabrera Infante, Sam Beckett and Salman Rushdie.

Would that more critics felt like Wood; we might have been spared a dozen or so impenetrable scholarly tomes, and James Joyce might have seemed to the common reader less forbidding, less obscure. As things are, however, and as they are likely to remain, Joyce continues to be a touchstone for many an academic timeserver: there are at least a few thousand scholarly studies out there, and rarely a month goes by without a new book emerging from the Temple of Joyce Studies. (A perfunctory search on Amazon reveals that, in May, Andrew Gibson’s The Strong Spirit: History, Politics and Aesthetics in the Writings of James Joyce 1898-1915 will be published by Oxford University Press.)

Of course we have the great writer himself to blame for some of this. In his book on Joyce the poet Ian Pindar observes that “obfuscation was one of Joyce’s strategies for acquiring lasting fame, as was his decision never to challenge the numerous, often conflicting interpretations of Ulysses” and Joyce famously said as much to his French translator: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Surely he found a boyish delight in all the academic and critical attention heaped on his work. Stuart Gilbert’s pioneering 1931 study James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study could not have been completed without the hints, clues and ideas Joyce provided him with.

This is why, despite its nastiness, I have always thought there was a grain, a dram, of truth to Virginia Woolf’s characterisation of the author of Ulysses as “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples” (it is her quip about him being working class that troubles): of course Joyce is like the superior student making an ass of his peers and professors; faced with the full force of his jokes, puns, and play (“Pat is a waiter who waits while you wait. Hee hee hee hee”), the majority of Joyce scholars seem stricken with rigor mortis. Over and over, year after year, wet, juicy Joyce is wrung dry by stuffy academics. What could be more humorless and absurd, for instance, than Peter Costello’s decision to include in his James Joyce: The Years of Growth, 1882-1915 a diagram of Joyce’s genetic makeup, and a four-page “astrological chart”?

To the common reader, to those of us who don’t care if the model for Emma Clery in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was Mary Elizabeth Cleary and not Mary Sheehy, Joyce scholarship is a foreign country whose native tongue is altered the minute you think you’ve gained a modicum of fluency. This is immediately apparent to anyone brave enough, and patient enough, to spend an evening ‑ or a year ‑ with Praharfeast: James Joyce in Prague, edited by David Vichnar, David Spurr, and Michael Groden, and published last year by the Charles University in Prague.

The volume is a collection of lectures and essays originally presented at the XXIInd James Joyce Symposium in Prague in June 2010, and it purports to situate “Joyce’s work within the many international contexts of multicultural spaces like the Prague one and also reviews the state of Joycean manuscript scholarship at the dawn of our present condition”. Its contributors are an exotic crew, and they’ve all written Joyce books with exotic titles: James Joyce and Sexuality (Katarzyna Bazarnik), James Joyce: A Postculturalist Perspective (Richard Brown), Cannibal Joyce (Thomas Jackson Rice). Some are editors of distinguished Joyce journals: David Vichnar edits Hypermedia Joyce Studies and Richard Brown coedits The James Joyce Broadsheet. (Robbert-Jan Henkes, alas, is merely a “regular contributor” to Genetic Joyce Studies.) They are mostly professors or chairs or directors, with a lone exception: Clifford Mak, a doctoral student writing a dissertation that “examines the various ways in which British and American modernist writers deploy certain styles, modes, and affects in order to articulate and explore the ethics and biopolitics of care, pedagogy, survival, and animality”.

But although they roam in separate, far-flung corners of Europe and North America, the contributors to Praharfeast all have one thing in common: they treat literature as though it were a specimen splayed out in a laboratory awaiting inspection. They are all firm in their belief that, given a century, we can crack its genetic code, understand its digestive system and come to terms with its nocturnal behaviour. Accordingly, no detail is too small to dissect, as the second paragraph of the introduction makes painstakingly clear: “Praha, when read backwards, yields ‘a harp’ – possibly the ‘eastern harp’ of Celtic prehistory? The potential of this particular reading is too meaningful to ignore.”

If only they had. Trudging through Praharfeast’s twenty-something essays provides an education in academic futility. The first section of the book is titled “The Joycean Kafkaesque?” and aims to “establish connections between the two writers.” Why? The rationale appears to be: why not? And so, for the hell of it, some fifty pages are expended on bringing together two very different writers whose only real linkage, until now, was an essay by Hermann Broch detailing their overwhelming differences and aesthetic incompatibility.

This is doubtless absurd, and yet it is entirely in tune with the strange laws of Praharfeast, which decree that no writer, art, or discipline is too farfetched to connect Joyce with. Take David Ferrer’s contribution, “The Possible Worlds of Joycean Genetics” an essay that, to this reader, stood out as something truly noxious to the study of literature. Ferrer begins by dealing with “modalized” propositions: “technically you would say that it transposes problems of intentionality on an extensional level”. Right. Ferrer then entertains the possibilities of “a world in which a new draft of ‘Proteus’ is found, a world in which Joyce is a painter, a world where Ulysses does not exist.” The question, he writes, then becomes “the relation between these hypothetical worlds and the actual world”. Got that?

Next he introduces a number of figures and charts to demonstrate the various propositions, and though he concedes that “it sounds terribly abstract and remote from our preoccupations”, he nevertheless finds that Joyce, in Ulysses, had “similar concerns”. While working on “The Wandering Rocks” episode apparently, he used to play a game with his daughter called “Labyrinth” in which he was able to catalogue six main errors of judgment players would fall into trying to find a way out of the maze. “We might surmise,” Ferrer observes, “that Joyce’s reflection on accessibility and inaccessibility had a more general bearing on Joyce’s literary aesthetics”.

I don’t know how or why we would surmise that from biographical hearsay; nor does it seem to me plausible, let alone possible, to apply logic to Joyce’s writing. There is, to begin with, no fixed style or point of view in Ulysses and, secondly, it is a book of such richness and depth that saying anything about it with certainty would be, one the one hand, impossible, and, on the other, entirely beside the point. About the novel’s critics, though, we can say this with infinite certainty: too many of them have taken Joyce’s taunt about all his puzzles much, much too seriously.

None of this is meant to slight the proper achievements of Joycean scholarship. Gilbert’s study of Ulysses is a deeply informative guide, and books like Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey or Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction offer disciplined, rigorous readings without any irritable reaching after pseudo-botanical jargon. More knowledgeable and better read than we are, these critics perform the indispensable service of literary scholarship perfectly: alerting us to the text’s allusions, its larger literary-historical context, its myriad readings and interpretations. But above all they seem to operate from a position of genuine, deeply-rooted enthusiasm; reading them, we are seldom in doubt that they understand the limitations of their discipline, that questions exist that will remain unanswered, and unanswerable.

Jorge Luis Borges, one of Joyce’s earliest critics, and a writer who, though not a scholar, was knowledgeable in the extreme, wrote a review of Ulysses for the Argentinian literary journal Sur in 1925 (when he was in his mid-twenties). The review remains exemplary for its unbridled excitement. Ulysses was, Borges wrote, a “novel of cathedral-like grandeur”; “conjecture, suspicion, fleeting thought, memories, lazy thinking, and the carefully conceived enjoy equal privilege in this book; a single point of view is noticeably absent”; Joyce is “a millionaire of words and styles”. Borges closed the review by citing Lope de Vega’s words about Góngora:

Be what it may, I will always esteem and adore the divine genius of this Gentleman, taking from him what I understand with humility and admiring with veneration what I am unable to understand.

I don’t know that we necessarily have to admire the things in Joyce we don’t understand, especially since there are a lot of things I don’t think we are meant to understand, but it remains sober advice nonetheless. The main charge one might level against a book like Praharfeast is its failure to grasp the necessity of ignorance, its zealous ambition to understand everything. Nabokov once told an interviewer that Ulysses was a “divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths”. And though, as mentioned, the mischievous author is not blameless for this scholarly narcosis, the Society for the Advancement of Incomprehensible Joyce Studies is not organic to his writing. So let’s stop humouring him. Let’s acknowledge instead that, despite his pranks and games, and sometimes because of them, James Joyce wrote one of the central artistic achievements of literary culture: a funny, moving, infuriating, universal novel of superb stylistic exuberance and profound human depth. A novel that should send us, not into the cold embrace of the examination room but “back to the world again”:

Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you. Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.


Morten Høi Jensen’s book reviews have appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, the Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.