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Joyce: A Postal Inquiry

His ironies may therefore be said to compete with each other. At one end of the scale he filters self-abasement through mockery; at the other, he approaches grandeur, feels it verging on grandiosity, and turns abruptly away. He wrote to inform his friend in Trieste, Alessandro Francini Bruni, of the magnificent praise which Valéry Larbaud had lavished upon Ulysses, then wryly concluded: “Son diventato un monumento—anzi vespasiano!” (“I have become a monument—no, a Vespasian!”) When he announced to his brother that his situation in Trieste was a “voluntary exile,” he meant it, though the word “voluntary” before “exile” begged the question a little.

Joyce did regard himself as a hero, but thought it advisable not to say so explicitly; he thought of himself also as in some ways a martyr, but as usual his way of saying so is by seeming to repudiate the idea. Referring to this Christlike resemblance, he wrote his brother, “I must get rid of some of these Jewish bowels I have in me yet.” And in another letter he said, “I am not likely to die of bashfulness but neither am I prepared to be crucified to attest the perfection of my art.” The figure pleased him, and a year later he remarked once more, “I have written quite enough and before I do any more in that line I must see some reason why—I am not a literary Jesus Christ.” But three disavowals of the crown are less convincing than one. Whatever he might say in the cold mutton of letters, Joyce was fascinated by the Christlike analogies of the artist, and developed them fully in A Portrait of the Artist. A powerful sacrificial feeling sustained him as he fought for a literary foothold around southern Europe, staving off mosquitoes in Pola, instilling an alien tongue into Triestines, cashing checks for other people in Rome. But he undercut it with modesty by jokingly or grimly calling attention to his defects and failures.

HIS BEHAVIOR WITH HIS BOOKS was a similar combination of aloofness and self-advertisement. The enormous pride of the artist was compatible with enormous exertions. He had his own press notices printed up and sent them, with chilling formality, to possible reviewers. He did not condescend to explain his own work, but through letters and conversations he laid down, as he told Harriet Shaw Weaver, the terms in which Ulysses was subsequently discussed. He was equally skillful with Finnegans Wake.

A mixture of effrontery and involvement, of supplication and reserve, permeates his letters and is somewhat explained by them. Joyce often appeared to be cold and aloof, but in his own view these qualities were less fundamental than others. He thought of himself most fondly as fragile and vulnerable. Once this part of his self-portrait becomes visible, other elements take shape around it. The “enigma of a manner,” which he speaks in the first draft of A Portrait of consciously fabricating, is seen as an attempt at self-protection. “Can you not see the simplicity which is at the back of all my disguises? We all wear masks,” he writes to Nora Barnacle, and he is pleased, at least temporarily, when she pierces his “magnificent poses” and recognizes him to be an “imposter.” His asperities show as attempts to overcome an indulgence to which he feels so apt to become prey, and the method of his prose books is a kind of absorption of the universe rather than a facing up to it; he seems to draw it bit by bit inside him, and conceives of the imagination as a womb.

JOYCE LIKED TO THINK OF HIMSELF as weak and of others as stronger than he. Like Shem, he “disliked anything anyway approaching a plain straight-forward standup or knockdown row.” Men were stronger physically and women stronger spiritually. “I am so helpless tonight, helpless, helpless!” he writes his wife, and in his poem, “A Prayer,” he begs, “Take me, save me, soothe me, O Spare me.” This attitude is the one he regularly assumes in his letters to his wife, and is the more surprising in that she might have been expected to take it towards him. The letters to Nora Barnacle Joyce, which make this position plain, are psychologically the most important he wrote; they move gradually towards self-surrender as if it were a kind of Ultima Thule.

At first their tone is jaunty, with some of that “assumed dongiovannism” which he attributed to the young Shakespeare. But within a month of the beginning of their courtship, the tone is solemnized. She must become his mistress, to be sure, but he seems more occupied with something else, that she become his fellow-conspirator against the established order. “My mind rejects the whole present social order and Christianity—home, the recognized virtues, classes of life, and religious doctrines,” he writes her in August, 1904. His intransigence to the world is related to his submission to her. Their elopement must not be sportive but agonized, a sign and portent of his future work. He was aware that to his father, and to many of his friends, the relationship with Nora Barnacle was a misalliance. Though he pretended to be impervious to their criticism, “their least word,” he told her, “tumbles my heart about like a bird in a storm.” Yet like Heine, as he says, and like others he does not trouble to name, he had the courage to see that the world was wrong about this as about other things. By virtue of being poor and in love with him, Nora became the banned sweetheart of a banned artist. “It seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself.” Chambermaid and prodigal son might make a match of it; obloquy was a state they might share like pleasures of the bed.

JOYCE’S AFFECTION for Nora Barnacle developed rapidly, though she complained it lagged behind her own. He was already unconsciously altering his role in the affair from active to passive. “Allow me, dearest Nora,” he wrote her, “to tell you how much I desire that you should share any happiness that may be mine and to assure you of my great respect for that love of yours which it is my wish to deserve and to answer.” The word “love” was one that mustered up all his doubts, doubts of his own sincerity, doubts of the emotion itself. To talk of “spiritual love,” he informed Stanislaus, was “lying drivel,” though in a few years he used the phrase without irony. But as he said, he was deeply impressed by the unqualified feeling Nora Barnacle had for him, and the fact that she expressed it without the coyness he had come to expect in girls of his age. “I never could speak to the girls I used to meet at houses,” he wrote her later. “Their false manners checked me at once.” Stephen Dedalus represents Shakespeare as equally shy. If Nora was untutored she was also unspoiled, a “simple honorable soul,” and one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” It was very important for him, knowing with what intricate devices he met most people, to have in her someone he could trust. His reserve, his sense of watching his own dignity, are involved in almost all his other relationships. With Miss Weaver, for example, he seems to want not only to act politely towards her, but to see himself as meeting the English Protestant middle class with adequate decorum. A certain gentleness comes through regardless, but almost against his will. With Nora there was the possibility available to him nowhere else, of complete self-revelation, a great relief to a suspicious man. He came to feel that she was more than wife or mistress; she must triple as a symbol of Ireland and a more genuine one than Yeats’s Maud Gonne. In her he saw, as he said, “the beauty and the doom of the race of which I am a child,” and he asked her, “O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race.”

This yielding of himself was not achieved without difficulty. Joyce had to pass through stages of amusement, perplexity, boredom, and even distrust. The last was of course the most serious. In 1909, on his first trip back to Dublin, he was led mistakenly to believe that Nora had been faithless to him during a period which he held sacred, the early months of their love. In a few days he was undeceived, and felt guilty for having so misjudged her. His first letters were filled with remorse: “What a worthless fellow I am!” But gradually he tried to turn the incident to advantage by ushering her into a greater intimacy. His letters became a turbulent mixture of erotic imagery and apologies for it, the apologies being accompanied by equally extreme flights of adoration. His relationship with her had to counterbalance all his rifts with other people. Having become partners in spiritual love, they must now share an onanistic complicity, agitating each other to sexual climax by means of their letters. In this way Joyce renewed the conspiratorial and passionate understanding that they had had when they first left Ireland together.

THESE LETTERS of 1909 and 1912 present Joyce with more intensity than any others. Often they transfer habitual attitudes to a different plane; he does not ask her for more money, as he does others, but for more proof of affection. He reminds her constantly of his art, often combining it with love tokens: the first present he brings her from Dublin is a necklace inscribed with a line from one of his poems, and the next is a manuscript of Chamber Music, laboriously copied out on parchment. His art is the lofty counterpart of that deeper nature which he will divulge otherwise only to her. And he mixes his pleas with tender rebuke, scolding her for scolding him. She is too rude to him, ruder than he deserves. To vary the note, he sometimes delights in acknowledging his faults, including his infidelities with prostitutes, in imagining her as even more merciless to him, as whipping him like the ladies of Sacher-Masoch, and with furs on to complete the picture. “You have me completely in your power,” he enjoys telling her, pleased to have, as whipping-boy, her undivided attention. Then, to renew his innocence and hers, he leans upon her as if she were a mother, and longs to be her child or even her unborn infant: “Take me into the dark sanctuary of your womb. Shelter me, dear, from harm!”

Yet one route of distrust remains: he can never quite understand her implacable unlikeness to him. He finds himself suspicious again: “Are you with me, Nora, or are you secretly against me?” When most allayed, this feeling can tease itself almost pleasurably with a curiosity like John Donne’s about her body’s life before she knew him, but she cannot reassure him enough: “I am sure there are finer fellows in Galway than your poor lover but O, darling, one day you will see that I will be something in my country.” And he writes again, in a letter three years later, “Can your friend in the sodawater factory or the priesteen write my verses?” He adores her as “my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower,” and compares her to the Virgin, then desecrates this romantic lyricism by naming her his “fuckbird” instead. One moment he is an angel, the next a frog, and then back again. He likes to boast of his prudishness with men, at whose dirty stories he never even smiles, to give a greater secretive value to his outspokenness with her, and to indicate that this erotic singleness must prove the essential innocence of his nature.

The atmosphere is not one of Catholic guilt, but it is certainly not one of pagan insouciance either. He feels compelled to set images of purity against images of impurity. He dwells upon the association of the sexual and excretory organs, then fears she will consider him corrupt, although he has found learned sanction in Spinoza, yet he also wants corruption to be a part of their love as well as incorruption. “Are you too, then, like me,” he asks hopefully, “one moment high as the stars, the next lower than the lowest wretches?” They must share in shame, shamelessness, and unashamedness.

FRANK AS THESE LETTERS ARE their psychology can easily be misunderstood. They were intended to accomplish sexual gratification in him and inspire the same in her, and at moments they fasten intently on peculiarities of sexual behavior, some of which might be technically called perverse. They display traces of fetishism, anality, paranoia, and masochism, but before quartering Joyce into these categories and consigning him to their tyranny we must remember that he was capable, in his work, of ridiculing them all as Circean beguilements, of turning them into vaudeville routines. Then too, the letters rebuke such obvious labels by an ulterior purpose; besides the immediate physical goal, Joyce wishes to anatomize and reconstitute and crystalize the emotion of love. He goes further still; like Richard Rowan in Exiles, he wishes to possess his wife’s soul, and have her possess his, in utter nakedness. To know someone else beyond love and hate, beyond vanity and remorse, beyond human possibility almost, is his extravagant desire.

In later life Joyce evidently wrote Nora in a similar vein, but with more sense of human limitations. Their relationship never achieved the complete understanding for which he had striven. The only letter of importance that has survived was one sent her in April 1922, when against his will she took their two children to Galway. She seems to have said she would not return, and wrote to ask him for money to remain. He replied:

8.30 a.m. Thursday

My darling, my love, my queen: I jump out of bed to send you this. Your wire is postmarked 18 hours later than your letter which I have just received. A cheque for your fur will follow in a few hours, and also money for yourself. If you wish to live there (as you ask me to send you two pounds a week) I will send that amount (£ 8 and £ 4) rent on the first of every month. But you also ask me if I would go to London with you. I would go anywhere in the world if I could be sure that I could be alone with your dear self without family and without friends. Either this must occur or we must part forever, though it will break my heart. Evidently it is impossible to describe to you the despair I have been in since you left. Yesterday I got a fainting fit in Miss Beach’s shop and she had to run and get me some kind of a drug. Your image is always in my heart. How glad I am to hear you are looking younger! O my dearest, if you would only turn to me now and read that terrible book which has now broken the heart in my breast and take me to yourself alone to do with me what you will! I have only 10 minutes to write this so forgive me. Will write again before noon and also wire. These few words for the moment and my undying unhappy love.


This letter, written while Ulysses was meeting with great success, is humorless and sad like almost all Joyce’s love letters. It assumes the old humility of subject to queen, but as usual it is the subject who controls the royal treasury. He is as eager now as fifteen years before to buy furs for her. Each sign of weakness has its implicit limit: he begs for more affection, but is still able to threaten that without it they must part forever. His heart is broken, so she must read his book. His “undying, unhappy love” and his physical collapse are proofs of his dependence upon her, but they are also curiously self-regarding. With all his testimony of surrender, Joyce utterly dominated that scene.

A MORE GUARDED PICTURE of his mind can be elicited from his imperfect and rather eerie liaison with Martha Fleischmann in Zurich in 1918 and 1919. Joyce wrote this young Swiss woman quite a few letters, of which four have survived. Their idiom is a less intense copy of that which he employed with his wife; he writes pitiably, with many references to physical weakness, and he prostrates himself before Martha. Though well aware that women are not necessarily susceptible to advances of this sort, Joyce seems to have been able to use no others. The letters make Martha his Virgin and Madonna like Nora before her; he suggests she might be Jewish but asks her not to take offense, since Jesus was born from the womb of a Jewess. And throughout he calls attention to his art, as in his slightly inaccurate remark that, at the age of thirty-five, he was at the same point as Dante when he began the Divine Comedy and Shakespeare when he had his affair with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. He was actually thirty-six.

Joyce knew he was behaving absurdly, but he had never halted any line of action merely to avoid possible folly, and it is not necessary to doubt his statement in one letter that he was passing sleepless nights over her. That he intended only a clandestine affair, however, and so was not offering himself completely, is indicated by his caution in disguising his handwriting by using Greek e’s, as Bloom does in writing another Martha in Ulysses. The affair never came to much: These letters, and other information, suggest that Joyce engaged in a good deal of peering through windows at Martha Fleischmann, and that the chief pleasure he arrived at was probably voyeuristic like Earwicker’s in the Phoenix Park. He recognized the implicit comedy afterwards by depicting a similar episode in Bloom’s day, in which Gerty McDowell, like Martha Fleischmann, has a limp. There also a men’s retreat is going on at the Star of the Sea Church, and the prayers to the Virgin are amusingly juxtaposed with Bloom’s profane adoration of Gerty. Joyce, in turn, seems to have written Martha letters that contained obscene words, and his behavior also admixed detachment and passion.

The later parody of the emotions does not prove that earlier they were false, and it is unlikely that Joyce laughed at the time. But even though he kept his sense of comedy in abeyance as he clutched tentatively for support at another female figure, it must have existed in reserve as a defense against possible humiliation, ready if called upon to turn amorous defeat into artistic triumph when his original feelings had run their course.

THE DIP AND SWAY of Joyce’s love letters make an amusing counterpoint to his letters to men. With Nora the effort is to rip away pretenses, with men Joyce is very bespectacled and walking-sticked. There are exceptions, such as his bantering notes to Frank Budgen and Ezra Pound, but usually he pushes the correspondent away a little by continuing to employ “Mr.” after long association, by pretending some indifference to the things that most oppress him, by half-anticipating defeat in arguments, as with publishers, though he wishes to appear bold and steadfast.

The hints and declarations in his letters enable us to see Joyce a little as he saw himself. While he considered that rebellion had been for him the beginning of wisdom, a kind of birth of consciousness, he did not regard himself primarily as a rebel. His dominant image of himself was one of delicacy and fragility, of perpetual ill-health and ill-luck, of a tenor among basses. It led him to imagine himself as like a deer or a bird or a woman, or like a Gandhian Christ. He reacted against varieties of power by juxtaposing the strong with the weak, Boylan with Bloom or the Ondt with the Gracehoper. Then his wit challenged the powerful masculine energies until they had lost their strength. He wished to protect the lyrical center of his work by acknowledging with laughter all the absurdities of human conduct through which it must draw its breath. He counters a possible contempt for his almost effeminate delicacy by examining in the fullest and liveliest way its inescapably comic embodiment. Where other writers, like Wells, appear always to be thrusting, Joyce characterized himself more nearly by the parry. Each of his works concludes in a lyrical assertion, which is made possible by the undermining of maleness by comedy, as if brute force had to be overcome by subtler devices. In Finnegans Wake the Crimean War is reduced to a scatological joke, the Battle of Waterloo to an extravaganza in a waxworks museum, and the World War to a prizefight; in Ulysses the Cyclops is defeated; in A Portrait Ireland is left. Joyce’s distaste for war, crime, and brutality relate to this preference for all that is not the bully. His work is not conceived as a blow in the face, but, his letters help us to perceive, as a matrical envelopment.

But this appraisal of Joyce which his letters sponsor is not entirely satisfactory. His disclaimers of masculinity, his assumption of “feminine” weakness were secondary manifestations. After all, strong men have hidden themselves among women before. His succession of mewing exhortations always sprang from initial decisions inflexibly pursued. He cared for his daughter with a solicitude that could be called feminine, but his delicate coaxing and joking were directed to twist her mind back to sanity, like a resistant piece of iron. Though he lived in discouragement like a bad climate, and sporadically thought of not finishing his books, he needle-and-threaded each one to its conclusion. As if adjusting himself to his pliant, jointless body, which was basically tough and wiry, he imagined himself in the state of being malleable and passive, and commenced to live there, like a second residence. The mixture of such qualities as pride and plaintiveness, the flashes of cando amid stretches of tortuous reticence or confessions that are off the point, lend his spare self-portraiture in the letters an interest quite different from that to be found in the shaped nuances of Henry James or the open-collared eloquence of D. H. Lawrence. An urge to the immoderate is always there, but at various distances from the surface. Read in this light, Joyce’s letters—the best of them—are among the most interesting, and insinuating, ever written.

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