Today in history: February 2, 1882

Today is the birthday of James Joyce. He was born on February 2, 1882, in Rathgar.

Joyce wrote:

I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning. … I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.

I chose one of my favorite Joycean quotes as the tagline to this blog … and you know what? Even though I look at the quote every day … it stilll inspires me.

In honor of his birthday, I will post some of my favorite quotes ABOUT James Joyce – said by his fans and fellow writers.


— Nora Joyce, his wife, said: “I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, hasn’t he?”

— T. S. Eliot said, after reading Ulysses: “He single-handedly killed the 19th century.” (This way pissed Gertrude Stein off, because she was already convinced that SHE had killed the 19th century. hahahahaha)

— Nora Joyce (Joyce’s wife) – after Joyce’s death – was asked about which new writers she read. Here is what she said: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

— James Joyce worked on Finnegans Wake for 17 years. Nora, looking at the gibberish pages, the ciphers, the codes, said, “Why don’t you write books people can read?”

However: Nora always thought that Finnegans Wake – which pretty much the entire world thought was incomprehensible – was his best book. She understood it. She understood the language. Years after his death, she was still pestererd by reporters about James Joyce. And nobody ever asked about Finnegans Wake – which confused her. It was always Ulysses, Ulysses, Ulysses. She commented once, “What’s all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book.”

— George Bernard Shaw said, upon reading Ulysses (a book which disturbed him greatly): “If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”

— Ernest Hemingway wrote in a letter to Sherwood Anderson – after reading Ulysses: “Joyce has a most goddamn wonderful book. It’ll probably reach you in time. Meantime the report is that he and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week…The damned Irish, they have to moan about something or other…”

— Gertrude Stein was very pissy and irritable about Joyce’s phenomenal success. Here is what she said about him: “Joyce is good. He is a good writer. People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him. But who came first, Gertrude Stein or James Joyce? Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908. That was long before Ulysses. But Joyce has done something. His influence, however, is local. Like Synge, another Irish writer, he has had his day.” Joyce was told Stein’s comment, and his response was: “I hate intellectual women.”

— TS Eliot said a lot about Ulysses but one of his comments that I really like is: “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” Writers everywhere had the same response.

— Carl Jung read Ulysses and was so moved and disturbed by it that he wrote Joyce a letter about it:

Dear Sir,
Your Ulysses has presented the world such an upsetting psychological problem, that repeatedly I have been called in as a supposed authority on psychological matters.

Ulysses proved to be an exceedingly hard nut and it has forced my mind not only to most unusual efforts, but also to rather extravagant peregrinations (speaking from the standpoint of a scientist). Your book as a whole has given me no end of trouble and I was brooding over it for about three years until I succeeded to put myself into it. But I must tell you that I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also don’t know whether you will enjoy what I have written about Ulysses because I couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired. The 40 pages of non stop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.

Well I just try to recommend my little essay to you, as an amusing attempt of a perfect stranger that went astray in the labyrinth of your Ulysses and happened to get out of it again by sheer good luck. At all events you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.

With the expression of my deepest appreciation, I remain, dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,
C.G. Jung

My favorite thing is that Joyce was so proud of this letter (and rightfully so) and he read it outloud once at a dinner party, and Nora snarked after he finished: “Jim knows nothing at all about women.”

— Joseph Campbell said, upon reading Finnegans Wake: “If our society should go to smash tomorrow (which, as Joyce implies, it may) one could find all the pieces, together with the forces that broke them, in Finnegans Wake.”

— James Joyce said: “When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the ‘second’ city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world.”

— — James Joyce said, in 1907:”If I knew Ireland as well as R[udyard] K[ipling] seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.”

— Here is what Samuel Beckett had to say about the language in Finnegans Wake: “You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.

— Ezra Pound, one of Joyce’s greatest champions, had this to say about Ulysses and The Oxen of the Sun episode: “In a single chapter he discharges all the cliches of the English language like an uninterrupted river.”

— Poet Hart Crane had this to say after reading Ulysses: “I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”

— Sylvia Beach, book store owner and publisher of Ulysses had this to say about Joyce: “As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.”

— Oliver Gogarty, friend of Joyce, and immortalized in Ulysses, said: “Looking back, there was something uncanny in his certainty, which he had more than any other writer I have ever known, that he would one day be famous. It was more than mere wishful thinking. It governed all his attitudes to his compatriots and accounts for what many referred to as his arrogance. He was never really arrogant, but seemed to have a curious sense of his own powers and wouldn’t tolerate anyone who didn’t really appreciate his work.” (That comment about Joyce’s supposed arrogance reminds me of one of my favorite quotes – this one from Bette Davis: “I was thought to be “stuck up”. I wasn’t. I was just sure of myself. This is and always has been an unforgivable quality to the unsure.”)

— William Faulkner said: “You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.”

— More from TS Eliot: “I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

— Hart Crane wrote about Ulysses: “The sharp beauty and sensitivity of the thing! The matchless details! His book is steeped in the Elizabethans, his early love, and Latin Church, and some Greek … It is my opinion that some fanatic will kill Joyce sometime soon for the wonderful things said in Ulysses.”

— Edmund Wilson wrote: “Yet for all its appalling longeurs, “Ulysses” is a work of high genius. Its importance seems to me to lie, not so much in its opening new doors to knowledge — unless in setting an example to Anglo-Saxon writers of putting down everything without compunction — or in inventing new literary forms — Joyce’s formula is really, as I have indicated, nearly seventy-five years old — as in its once more setting the standard of the novel so high that it need not be ashamed to take its place beside poetry and drama. “Ulysses” has the effect at once of making everything else look brassy.”

— Paul Leon wrote: “[Joyce] had the necessary courage, perseverance, inner strength, and energy of mind — any one of which might easily have been insufficient — to overcome all obstacles, all suffering, and to attain perfection. When his work comes to be judged according to its true value, as posterity will judge it, it will appear overwhelming, if only because of the crushing labour that it obviously represents, and one man’s life will seem to have been conceived on too small a scale in comparison with the immensity of the effort involved.”

— Dr. Joseph Collins, reviewing “Ulysses” in The New York Times: “Ulysses will immortalize its author with the same certainty that Gargantua and Pantagruel immortalized Rabelais and The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky … It comes nearer to being the perfect revelation of a personality than any book in existence.”

— William Carlos Williams wrote: “Joyce is too near for me to want to do less than he did in Ulysses, in looseness of spirit, and honesty of heart — at least.”

— WB Yeats wrote about Ulysses: “It is an entirely new thing — neither what they eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

— John Banville said: “Ulysses is not mainstream, nor was it ever meant to be. When people claim Joyce had his eye on posterity, that is true, but it was intellectual posterity he was after, not mass approval.”

— John Waters, columnist for The Irish Times, wrote: “Ulysses was about Ireland but it was not for Ireland. You could even say that it was against Ireland because Joyce was alienated from, and by, Ireland.”

— Carlos Fuentes wrote: “That James Joyce is indeed a black Irishman, wreaking a vengeance, even wilder than the I.R.A.’s, on the English language from within, invading the territory of its sanitary ego-presumptions with a flood of impure, dark languages flowing from the damned up sources of collective speech, savagely drowning the ego of the traditional speaker and depositing the property of words in everybody, in the total human community of those who speak and have spoken and shall speak.”

The events of June 16, 1904 – and their importance in the Joycean mythology

— Sylvia Beach: “I was on the platform, my heart going like the locomotive, as the train from Dijon came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone — me. In a few minutes, I was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing them Copy No. 1 of Ulysses. It was February 2, 1922.”

— James Joyce: “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.”

— Virginia Woolf wrote about Joyce: “He’s a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”

— Stefan Sweig on meeting Joyce: “He was inclined to be testy, and I believe that just that irritation produced the power for his inner turmoil and productivity. His resentment against Dublin, against England, against particular persons became converted into dynamic energy and actually found release only in literary creation. But he seemed fond of his own asperity; I never saw him laugh or show high spirits. He always made the impression of a compact, somber force and when I saw him on the street, his thin lips pressed tightly together, always walking rapidly as if heading for a definite objective, I sensed the defensive, the inner isolation of his being even more positively than in our talks. It failed to astonish me when I later learned that just this man had written the most solitary, the least affined work — meteor-like in its introduction to the world of our time.”

— Ezra Pound, Joyce’s greatest champion, wrote: “Joyce — pleasing; after the first shell of cantankerous Irishman, I got the impression that the real man is the author of Chamber Music, the sensitive. The rest is the genius; the registration of realities on the temperament, the delicate temperament of the early poems. A concentration and absorption passing Yeats’ — Yeats has never taken on anything requiring the condensation of Ulysses.”

— Letter from James Joyce to Nora on Sept. 16, 1904 – shortly before the two of them fled Ireland together, without getting married: “When I was waiting for you last night I was even more restless. 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. There is no life here — no naturalness or honesty. People live together in the same houses all their lives and at the end they are as far apart as ever … The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy … Allow me, dearest Nora, 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.”

Interviewer to Joyce: Whom do you consider the greatest writers in English today?
Joyce: Aside from myself, I don’t know.

— Joyce said: “Ireland remains the brain of the United Kingdom. The British, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget — the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature.”

— Stanislaus Joyce (Joyce’s brother) wrote: “Jim says that he writes well because when he writes his mind is as nearly normal as possible.”

— Edna O’Brien wrote: “To call this man angry is too temperate a word, he was volcanic.”

— Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “Ulysses, of course, is a divine work of art and will live on despite the academic nonentities who turn it into a collection of symbols or Greek myths. I once gave a student a C-minus, or perhaps a D-plus, just for applying to its chapters the titles borrowed from Homer while not even noticing the comings and goings of the man in the brown mackintosh. He didn’t even know who the man in the brown mackintosh was. Oh, yes, let people compare me to Joyce by all means, but my English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game.”

— And I hope Jimmy won’t mind – but I’ll give his wife Nora the last word:

“I don’t know whether or not my husband is a genius, but I’m sure of one thing, there is no one like him.”

Photograph of James and Nora below.

Happy birthday, dear Jimmy Joyce, murderer of the 19th century!! (All Joyce posts here)

Oops – want to include this as well. An essay by Mary Gordon about Joyce’s “The Dead”. Love it:

Mary Gordon on James Joyce’s “The Dead”

It begins with a slap in the face. “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”

Well, and did you fall for that one? Literally? Don’t you know the difference between literally and figuratively? You’re no better than Lily herself, are you? Or perhaps you’re not Lily, but the garrulous speaker of the second paragraph, the platitude-spouting fool. “It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance … Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember … Though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond-bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.”

“The Dead” is built around a party, and for most of its duration we, like partygoers, swim in a clamor of voices, not only Gabriel’s and the omniscient narrator’s. Even Gabriel has many voices. There is the self-conscious Gabriel, the prissy Gabriel, the pompous Gabriel, the affectionate Gabriel, the lustful Gabriel. But many others speak: Miss Ivors, the political nettler; Mr. Browne with his forced jokes; Freddy Malins, who’s just a little bit “screwed”; his mother, who tells us everything is “beautiful”, including the fish her son-in-law caught in Scotland and had boiled for their dinner by the innkeeper. There is the novelettish voice of such sentences as “Aunt Kate was making frank use of her handkerchief,” and the society-page gabble of “the acclamation which followed was taken up beyond the door of the supper-room by many of the other guests and renewed time after time.” There is Aunt Julia’s voice singing “Arrayed for the Bridal” and Bartell D’Arcy’s singing “The Lass of Aughrim.” There is the voice of Patrick Morkan, Gabriel’s grandfather, imitated by Gabriel: the very model of a stuffy twit when his h orse makes a fool of him by walking round and round the statue of the King: “Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? … Most extraordinary conduct! Can’t understand the horse!”

To add to the tumult, Joyce offers us a series of lists, giving us information we have no need of: things that are only there for the pleasure of their naming. Guests are introduced briefly, for the sound of their names: Mr. Bergin, Mr. Kerrigan, Miss Power, Miss Furlong, Miss Daly. There are the secondhand booksellers on the Dublin quays: Hickey’s on Bachelor’s Walk, Webb’s and Massey’s on Aston’s Quay, O’Clohissey’s in the by-street. And, most important, the meal spread out before us, like Homer’s catalogue of ships. Followed by dessert, the sweetmeats joined together by their jumpy integument of “and’s”.

This is the hubbub of realims, the buzz and Babel of the nineteenth century. Words, words, words, talk talk talk, and in so many voices, such an abundance that of course there must be misunderstandings and mistakes. “The Dead” is chock full of mistakes, beginning with Gabriel’s ill-considered joshing of Lily about her beau, to which she replies, “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Twice, Aunt Julia misunderstands: she doesn’t know what galoshes are and doesn’t get Gabriel’s reference to the Three Graces. Browne repeated calls Freddy Malins Teddy and embarrasses the young laides by telling the kind of joke they don’t like. Errors of tone abound. Gabriel takes the wrong tone in responding to Miss Ivors’s political challenge, and he mistakes the pressure of her hand for a conciliatory gesture, when it is really a prelude to her standing on tiptoe to whisper into his ear: “West Briton.” Aunt Kate offers an ill-considered criticism of the pope’s decision to banish women from choirs in favor of young boys, and she is chastised for doing this in the presence of Mr. Browne, who is of “the other persuasion”. A conversation about monks sleeping in their coffin is dropped because it is too “lugubrious”. And Freddy is ready to pick a fight in defense of a black opera singer whom no one, in fact, has criticized. “And why couldn’t he have a voice too? Is it because he’s only a black?”

The mistakes and misunderstandings seem to be smoothed over by Gabriel’s speech in praise of his aunts and cousin, whom he compliments for their hospitality, their harmoniousness. There is the bustle of leave-taking, when Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne can’t make the cabdriver understand them, and everyone shouts directions from the door, only adding to the confusion. Finally, the cab takes off, and upstairs there is the sound of music.

In the quiet surrounded by music, Gabriel sees his wife standing on the stairs. “There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.”

We usually think of mistakes as affairs of language, a by-blow of the very separateness that causes us to wish to communicate with one another. But what Gabriel perceives and tries to create in silence — a woman who is a symbol — constitutes the central mistake both of his life and of the story. He assumes that the light in her eyes and the color on her cheeks have to do with him, as he will later assume that she has understood his desire for her and shared it. In his silent creation of Gretta — a creation brought about without a word from her — Gabriel has misconstrued the woman he has lived beside. Just as the narrator refers to Gretta only as Mrs. Conroy or Gabriel’s wife, Gabriel assumes that Gretta’s whole identity is connected to him. It is only after she speaks what is in her heart, after she tells her story, that the vision which both takes in and transcends separateness can occur.

She tells him of a boy she knew as a young girl in the West Country, a boy who died for love of her. Afterward, she sleeps. And in this silence, the silence which comes after true speech, Gabriel is transformed from petty if dutiful pedant to a man of vision.

The process happens in stages. He is dully angry, and this anger rekindles his lust. He is jealous. He is ironic. He feels humiliated, seeing himself as far less than the boy who died for her. When he speaks, his voice is “humble and indifferent,” the humility and indifference Joyce thought to be the necessary conditions of the true artist. Then he is terrfied at the “impalpable and vindictive being … coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.” He notes that Gretta’s not as young as she used to be and feels disgust for the reality of her body, represented by her petticoat string and the limp upper of her boot.

He thinks of his Aunt Julia’s impending death, and this thought, born of benevolence, leads him to understand that to be alive is to be in the process of becoming a shade. Tears fill his eyes, and his blurred physical vision allows him to imagine the dead boy — a shade, to be sure, but standing near, under a dripping tree. Gabriel loses himself, that distinct and separate self by which he has been able to be named. He is among the dead.

“His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world in itself which these had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.” What a strange word, the word “reared”. What does it imply? That the dead have nurtured the world we think of as the real one as parents “rear” a child, feeding it, sheltering it, educating it, until it is ready to leave them?

Gabriel’s vision takes him to the graveyard where the boy is buried. The snow is falling. In the extraordinary last paragraph of “The Dead”, the word “falling” is repeated seven times: seven, the theologically magic number, the number of the seven deadly sins, the seven moral virtues, the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The vagueness of the flickering shades subsides. Gabriel sees the snow on “the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns,” those singular sharp things asserting, inexorably, their individuality, their separateness from their fellows. But the snow that is falling generally falls on them all alike and muffles their sharpness, their distinctness. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Consider the daring of Joyce’s final repetitions and reversals: “falling faintly, faintly falling” — a triumph of pure sound, of language as music. No one has ever equaled it; it makes those who have come after him pause for a minute, in awed gratitude, in discouragement. How can any of us come up to it? Only, perhaps, humbly, indifferently, in its honor and its name, to try.

And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.

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2 Responses to Today in history: February 2, 1882

  1. Kerry says:

    It’s also Tony O’Malley’s birthday. Such fine company.

  2. red says:

    Happy birthday dear uncle Tony!!

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