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James Joyce’s Untamable Power | The Nation

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James Joyce’s Untamable Power

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Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, in 1922

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in 1922

The Most Dangerous Book
The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
By Kevin Birmingham.
Buy this book

What matters most about the mythic structure of Ulysses, consequently, is not that Leopold Bloom corresponds loosely to the wandering Odysseus, in search of the rock of Ithaca, or that Stephen Dedalus corresponds loosely to the wandering Telemachus, son of Odysseus, in search of his father; what matters is that these mythic correspondences offered Joyce a logic that inspired the stylistic experiments that constitute our experience of his book as language exfoliating on the page. For instance, in the episode that corresponds to Odysseus’ encounter with the giant one-eyed Cyclops, the writing itself becomes gigantic, grossly hyperbolic and shortsighted: “The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairlegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.” And in the episode embodying the seduction song of the Sirens, the writing becomes egregiously musical, sound nearly obliterating sense: “Lid Ker Cow De and Doll. Ay, ay. Like you men. Will lift your tschink with tschunk.” And in the episode corresponding to Odysseus’ encounter with the seductive Nausicaa, the writing becomes floridly romantic, riddled with the clichés of sentimental fiction:

She would have fain cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has run though the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

These sentences describe the orgasm Leopold Bloom achieves while watching the young Gerty MacDowell lean back to reveal her undergarments to him. Before the sentences appeared in the first edition of Ulysses (published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris), it appeared in an issue of The Little Review, edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap with the assistance of Ezra Pound. Somehow, a copy of this obscure little magazine, edited by lesbian feminists and devoted to modernist experimental writing, appeared in the mailbox of the teenage daughter of a businessman named Ogden Brower. Brower wrote a letter of complaint to the New York district attorney’s office, and the DA’s office consulted with the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

By the time this happened in 1920, The Little Review had already been suppressed by the US Post Office Department on several occasions, once for publishing a short story by Wyndham Lewis and three times for publishing other episodes of Ulysses, one in which a boyish participant in a discussion of Hamlet invokes a less reputable drama (Everyman His Own Wife, or A Honeymoon in the Hand [a national immorality in three orgasms]), another in which Bloom recalls his first sexual encounter with Molly (“Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman’s breasts full in her blouse of nun’s veiling”), and a third in which a drunken Dubliner jokes about King Edward VII’s legendary womanizing (“There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo”). The editors of The Little Review knew what they were doing, publishing such sentences in a moral climate fueled on the one hand by the Great War and its aftermath and by the fight for universal suffrage on the other: in such a climate, the phrase “wildly I lay on her” could seem as threatening to national security as Bolsheviks and birth-controllers. Pound also knew what he was doing, delivering such sentences to The Little Review: he censored Joyce’s prose before it was published, cutting out some of the naughty bits, but not enough.

* * *

John Quinn, a powerful New York lawyer who was a friend of Pound’s and a patron of many modernist writers and painters, represented the editors at the Jefferson Market Courthouse. No passage from Ulysses was read into evidence; the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice argued that it would violate the law to do so, since the book was “so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting that a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed upon the records thereof.” Cannily, Quinn based his defense on the Hicklin Rule (formulated by a British judge in 1868 and still current at the time), which maintained that the “test of obscenity” was whether or not the language in question would tend to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Language could not deprave and corrupt, Quinn argued, if nobody read it: “You could not take a piece of literature up in an aeroplane fifteen thousand feet into the blue sky, where there would be no spectator, and let the pilot of the machine read it out and have it denounced as ‘filthy,’ within the meaning of the law.” Quinn was himself an avid reader of Joyce’s prose, but in court he argued that Ulysses was like the entry on “and” in the OED: Who would get through it?

Quinn lost, and the trials of Ulysses, which at this point had not yet been published in its entirety, were far from over (it would be put on trial again in a US District Court in 1933 and in a US Circuit Court of Appeals in 1934). But what Quinn was trying to persuade the court to recognize is that the signature epic of the twentieth century is not simply a racy realist novel, even though it maintains a powerful relationship to the tradition of the realist novel. Ulysses the mythic phantasmagoria is hard to read—at least as hard as Paradise Lost—not because Joyce prized difficulty, but because ambitious works of literary artistry are by their nature hard to read. Writing Ulysses, Joyce wanted to produce a work of art in a relatively new genre, the novel, that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the most challenging and time-honored achievements of Chaucer, Spenser or Milton. To the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who was writing in the eighteenth century, the notion that a future century’s signature epic might take the form of a novel would have seemed as implausible as the notion that a century’s signature epic might be a dictionary. And even today, when a writer like Joyce might aspire to be published not by a small bookstore on the Left Bank but by Amazon, the relationship of the novel to artistic achievement remains in some quarters equivocal: dismissing Ulysses, Richard Ford is not implying that he prefers to spend his evenings curled up with a copy of The Faerie Queene.

The legal history of Ulysses has been examined many times, most elegantly by Adam Parkes in Modernism and the Theatre of Censorship (1996), a book that shows how several modernist novels may be seen, in retrospect, to diagnose the terms of their own censorship. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” casts its nets more widely, synthesizing enormous amounts of information and describing in detail the multiple circumstances surrounding the gestation, publication and suppression of Ulysses. Birmingham is a fluid writer, and the more intricate the detail, the more compelling the narrative he constructs: his account of the rise of American obscenity laws, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the first postal obscenity legislation in 1865, is as gripping to read as his account of the barbaric eye surgeries Joyce endured or his account of the nearly slapstick manner in which Samuel Roth published a pirated edition of Ulysses in 1929—the edition on which the first trade edition of Ulysses, published by Random House in 1934, would mistakenly be based.

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