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The Big Word in ‘Ulysses’

Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition

by James Joyce, prepared by Hans Walter Gabler, by Wolfhard Steppe, by Claus Melchior
Garland, 1919 (3 vols.) pp., $200.00

No one reading Ulysses from 1922 to the present can have been unaware that the text was faulty. It was difficult to be sure whether a given extravagance was a flourish of genius or an aberration of the typist or typesetter. Those humble functionaries should not be derided, for Joyce was idiosyneratic in the presentation of his work on the page as well as in the construction of its sentences and half-sentences. Mistakes were inevitable. Soon after Sylvia Beach published the first printing of the first edition on February 2, 1922, Joyce gathered together a list of errata. It was by no means complete. In 1932 his friend Stuart Gilbert, who had become aware of many more errors as he assisted with a translation of the book into French, corrected the text for the Odyssey Press edition published in Hamburg. Not all his changes had Joyce’s explicit authorization, however. Finally, in 1936, Joyce reread the book before it was published in London by the Bodley Head. After that year there is a long history of publishers with varying degrees of conscientiousness trying to correct misprints, and quite often adding more. A famous instance is the final dot at the end of the penultimate chapter. This was assumed to be a flyspeck and dropped, when in fact it was the obscure yet indispensable answer to the precise question, “Where?”

In this situation Hans Walter Gabler has come nobly to the rescue. A professor at the University of Munich, trained in the rigorous textual-editing school of the University of Virginia, he has conceived the idea of not merely touching up the text of 1922, but returning to manuscript evidence. His rationale for this procedure is that Joyce rarely if ever had an earlier version beside him when he corrected a later one. Relying on memory, he sometimes sanctioned the inadvertent dropping of passages which he presumably meant to retain, and at other times—not recalling the earlier version but sensing that something was wrong—he devised a circumlocutory substitute. Then, too, it was inevitable that the typist or printer would conventionalize Joyce’s mannered punctuation and spelling. What Gabler aims at then is an ideal text, based upon the evidence of existing manuscripts or upon the deduction from typescripts or printed versions of what the lost manuscripts must have contained.

The undertaking has its perils. Deductions may not always be right, and the fact that many versions have not survived adds to the editor’s difficulty. There is always the possibility that certain instructions to printer or typist were relayed by word of mouth or written down so casually that they were lost or discarded. Touchy situations arise when the printed text differs from all known manuscripts. In these the editor has to decide whether Joyce was responsible for the correction or not. Professor Gabler rejects the idea of “passive authorization,” on the grounds that the majority of instances show Joyce, under pressure of time, spotting one error and missing another.

Professor Gabler is happily conservative in his construction of the ideal text. It is unlikely that the five thousand and more changes he has introduced will excite great controversy. Most of them involve “accidentals,” matters of punctuation or spelling. No one will belittle the importance of punctuation in prose that is so carefully wrought and rhythmical as Joyce’s, but the changes are subtle rather than earthshaking. Admirers of the book will wish to have the splendid new edition, but need not expect to find it a new work. Ulysses has been given a commendably high polish and some of its small perfections recovered.

Our gratitude to Professor Gabler and his associates is not only for the clear text which occupies the right-hand pages. It is even more for the genetic text which occupies the left-hand pages. A reader who has mastered its diacritical marks can see instantly at which stage of manuscript or typescript, or at which set of the six proofs from Darantiere, particular changes were made. It will now be possible to study the history of the composition of the text without rushing from volume to volume of the Joyce archive, since the computer, expertly programmed by Professor Gabler, has done this for us.

For the purposes of interpretation, perhaps the most significant of the thousands of small changes in Gabler’s text has to do with the question that Stephen puts to his mother at the climax of the “Circe” episode, itself the climax of the novel. Stephen is appalled by his mother’s ghost, but like Ulysses he seeks information from her. His mother says, “You sang that song to me. Love’s bitter mystery.” Stephen responds eagerly, “Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.” She fails to provide it. This passage has been much interpreted. I suggested a dozen years ago that the word known to all men must be love.1 Hugh Kenner has suggested that it is “perhaps” death—a revelation that would hardly require a mother’s ghost to divulge.2 Another writer, Thomas Sawyer, in the James Joyce Quarterly, proposes that the word known to all men is “synteresis,” which would seem rather to be the one word unknown to all men.3 Anyway, synteresis, meaning conscience as a guide for conduct, is too cold and moralistic a concept for the excited Stephen to claim such prominence for it.

Gabler has happily recovered a passage that was, it seems, inadvertently left out of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode. When Stephen is talking about Shakespeare’s affection for his granddaughter, he suddenly bethinks himself, in a passage that the typist probably skipped because two closely succeeding paragraphs ended in ellipsis. He says, “Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men. Amor vero aliquid alicui bonum vult unde et ea quae concupiscimus….” The rather tortured Latin, which uses the vocabulary of Thomas Aquinas though I have not found in his works the exact passage, means, “Love truly wishes some good to another and therefore we all desire it.” (In Exiles Richard explains love to the skeptical Robert as meaning “to wish someone well,” as in the Italian, “Ti voglio bene.”) In this view Stephen is following his master Dante, who has Virgil say, in Canto XVII of the Purgatorio—that canto in which the meaning of purgatory is set forth—“Neither Creator nor creature, my son, was ever without love…and this you know” (Singleton translation).

Now that we can be certain that the word known to all men is love, we can verify the implications of Stephen’s question. He is asking his mother to confirm, from the vantage point of the dead—for he thinks she may know now—what from the vantage point of the living he has already surmised. Presumably the dead can fathom the “bitter mystery.” (It will be remembered that at the end of A Portrait his mother hopes that he will learn elsewhere what the heart is and what it feels, and Stephen says “Amen” to that.) Stephen is of one mind with Leopold Bloom, who at an equally tense moment in the “Cyclops” episode declares, “But it’s no use…. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.” “What?” says Alf. “Love,” says Bloom. “I mean the opposite of hatred.”

Bloom’s simple statement is immediately mocked. The citizen comments, “A new apostle to the gentiles…. Universal love.” John Wyse Power offers a weak defense, “Well…Isn’t that what we’re told? Love your neighbor.” “That chap? says the citizen. Beggar my neighbor is his motto. Love, moya! He’s a nice pattern of a Romeo and Juliet.” The citizen has quickly changed his tack from mocking love to mocking Bloom. At this point the inflationary narrator—Pangloss in contrast to Thersites—takes up the love theme.

Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly…. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr. Verschoyle with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs. Verschoyle with the turnedin eye…. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen…. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.

Does this twaddle invalidate Bloom’s remark? Some have said so, but we may find the mockery less telling if we remember that it parodies not only Bloom but Joyce’s master, Dante, and Dante’s master, Thomas Aquinas. (Aquinas says, in the Summa Theologica I, q.20, a.1 and a.2, that God is love and loves all things.) It is the kind of parody that protects seriousness by immediately going away from intensity, as Bloom drops the subject and leaves. Love cannot be discussed without peril, but Bloom has nobly named it.

The larger implications of Ulysses follow from the accord of Bloom and Stephen about love. Both men are against the tyranny of Church and State, and the tyranny of jingoism—tyrannies that make history a nightmare. What they are for is also explicit. If we consider the book as a whole, the theme of love will be seen to pervade it. “Love’s bitter mystery,” quoted from the poem of Yeats which reverberates through the book, is something Stephen remembers having sung to his mother on her deathbed. It is something that Mulligan, though he quotes the song too, cannot understand, and that is alien to the experience of Boylan as of Thersites. But Bloom does understand it, and so does Molly, and both cherish moments of affection from their lives together as crucial points of reference.

The nature of love has to be more intimately anatomized, subjected to attacks of various kinds. In the “Nausicaa” episode Gerty McDowell claims soulful love, yet her physical urges make their sly presence felt. The body pretends to be soul but isn’t. In the following episode, the “Oxen of the Sun,” the medical students scorn love and deal only with the intromission of male into female parts. The soul pretends to be body but isn’t. In “Circe” Stephen opposes the forces of hatred, violence, and history in the form of the British soldiers, his mother’s threats of hellfire, and Old Gummy Granny’s insistence that he lose his life for Ireland. Bloom similarly opposes the soldiers, the sadistic nun, and the Gardai (the Irish police), as well as the sexual brutality of the brothel. He does so largely out of concern for Stephen—comradely and paternal love being among the forms that love takes. At the end of the “Circe” episode Bloom confirms Stephen’s theory of artistic creation as like natural creation, when he imaginatively evokes the figure of his dead son, Rudy, not as he was when he died at eleven days, but as he might be at eleven years. Finally in the last episode of the book, Molly Bloom, after some equivocation between her physical longing for Boylan and her thoughts of Bloom, comes down firmly on the side of Bloom and of their old feelings for each other. She proves by her discrimination that love is a blend of physicality and mentality.

Joyce is of course wary of stating so distinctly as Virgil does to Dante his theme of love as the omnipresent force in the universe. But allowing for the obliquity necessary to preserve the novel from didacticism, the word known to the whole book is love in its various forms, sexual, brotherly, paternal, filial, and is so glossed by Stephen, Bloom, and Molly. At the end the characters, discombobulated in “Circe,” return to their individual identities as if like Kant they had weathered Hume’s skepticism. The book revolts against history as made up of hatred and violence, and speaks in its most intense moments of their opposite. It does so with the keenest sense of how love can degenerate into creamy dreaminess or into brutishness, can claim to be all soul or all body, when only in the union of both can it truly exist. Like other comedies, Ulysses ends in a vision of reconciliation rather than of sundering. Affection between human beings, however transitory, however qualified, is the closest we can come to paradise. That it loses its force does not invalidate it. Dante says that Adam and Eve’s paradise lasted only six hours, and Proust reminds us that the only true paradise is the one we have lost. But the word known to all men has been defined and affirmed, regardless of whether or not it is subject to diminution.

It has been said by Hugh Kenner that Molly Bloom’s thoughts may not end.4 But Joyce has put a full stop to them. The full stop comes just at the moment when her memories culminate in a practical demonstration of the nature of love which bears out what Stephen and Bloom have said more abstractly. It has been asserted by the critic Michael Groden that Joyce never finished Ulysses, just abandoned it, the grounds for the statement being that he was revising it up to the last moment.5 But other writers have stopped writing because of deadlines, and we do not say that their books are unfinished. I should maintain that Joyce finished his book in that sense and in another sense as well. Because Molly Bloom countersigns with the rhythm of finality what Stephen and Bloom have said about the word known to all men, Ulysses is one of the most concluded books ever written.


It’s Love February 14, 1985

  1. 1

    Richard Ellmann, Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 147, 174.

  2. 2

    Hugh Kenner, Ulysses (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980), p. 129.

  3. 3

    Thomas Sawyer, “Stephen Dedalus’ Word,” James Joyce Quarterly vol. 2, no. 2 (Winter 1983), pp. 201–208.

  4. 4

    Hugh Kenner, Joyce’s Voices (University of California Press, 1978), p. 98.

  5. 5

    Michael Groden, Ulysses in Progress (Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 13.

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