Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Cult of Unintelligibility


Joyce's greatest champion while writing Finnegans Wake was Eugene Jolas, who published thirteen extracts from 'Work in Progress' in his avant-garde journal, transition

In 1932, for an edition of transition marking Joyce's 50th birthday, Jolas got the Spanish artist, C├ęsar Abin, to do this caricature of him. The comic details were all suggested by Joyce himself.

While many of Joyce's critics rejected 'Work in Progress'  as unintelligible, Jolas loved it for that very reason. In 1929, he published a manifesto, The Revolution of the Word, in which he wrote:

THE WRITER EXPRESSES. HE DOES NOT COMMUNICATE.  

THE PLAIN READER BE DAMNED.  

This was signed by sixteen writers, but not by Joyce. He refused not only because he did not sign manifestos, but also because he believed that he was writing for the plain reader!

Jolas helps Joyce correct Wake proofs in 1938

No matter what Joyce believed, his association with Jolas and transition led to him being seen as a figurehead of a 'Cult of Unintelligibility'. That's the title of an article written by the socialist writer, Max Eastman, for Harpers in 1929. 

Eastman accused Joyce of inventing a private language:

Max Eastman (1883-1969)
James Joyce not only polishes the words that he sets in a row, but moulds and fires them in his own oven. From free grammar he has taken the farther step to free etymology....Joyce is equipped for creative etymology as few men ever were. He has a curious and wide learning in languages and their ways; he has a prodigiously fine ear.  You feel that he lives in a world of spoken sounds, through which he goes hearing as a dog goes smelling....The goal towards which he seems to be travelling with all this equipment of genius is the creation of a language of his own — a language which might be superior poetically...to any of the known tongues....But how little would it communicate, and to how few....Until we establish an international bureau for the decoding of our contemporary masterpieces1, I think it will be safe to assert that Joyce's most original contribution to English literature has been to lock up one of its most brilliant geniuses inside of his own vest.

Not long after this article was published, Eastman was in Paris where he visited the Shakespeare & Co bookshop and met Sylvia Beach (publisher of Ulysses). Eastman expected hostility from Beach, but she surprised him by saying, 'Joyce likes your essay in Harper's so much - I wonder if you would have time to take tea with him while you are in Paris.'

Eastman described his subsequent meeting with Joyce in his 1931 book The Literary Mind: Its Place in An Age of Science, which the postman delivered to me this very morning. It's the source of some famous quotations from Joyce, such as 'The demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.' But because the book is hard to find, and it's so fascinating, I've scanned the whole Joyce section. The chapter's title is 'Poets Talking to Themselves'.














1 There is now 'an international bureau for the decoding' of Finnegans Wake - it started in 1962 with Clive Hart and Fritz Senn's Wake Newslitter. The findings were put together in book form by Roland McHugh in three editions of Annotations to Finnegans Wake. Now it's all online in Raphael Slepon's wonderful fweet website.

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