Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Twilight of Blindness Madness Descends on Swift.

Reading with the aid of a white suit and a magnifying glass
'The complete eclipse of my seeing faculties ... I am warding off by dressing in the three colours of successive stages of cecity as the Germans divide them; namely, green Starr; that is, green blindness, or glaucoma; grey Starr; that is, cataract, and black Starr, that is dissolution of the retina....So I had a jacket made in Munich of a green stuff I bought in Salzburg and the moment I got back to Paris I bought a pair of black and grey shoes and a grey shirt; and I had a pair of grey trousers and I found a black tie and I advertised for a pair of green braces and Lucia gave me a grey silk handkerchief and the girl found a black sombrero and that completed the picture.'  

To Harriet Shaw Weaver 20 September 1928 Letters 1. 269

In October 1928, when Joyce's eyes had been so bad that he could not read or write for four months, he dictated a very short piece which he called 'Twilight of Blindness Madness Descends Upon Swift'. Here's how he described it in a letter of 23 October to Harriet Shaw Weaver:

'I will send you in a day or two the only thing I have written in the last four months, a short description of madness and blindness descending on Swift in what Gilbert calls the damned trinity of colours, with a commentary. It is just fortyseventimes as long as the text.'


The 'damned trinity of colours' means green, black and grey - the colours which Joyce was wearing at the time in his superstitious attempt to ward off blindness. 
 
Joyce talks here about blindness as well as madness descending on Swift. He didn't go blind, though his eyes gave him terrible pain during his mysterious final illness:

'In October 1742...,his left eye swelled as large as an egg, and the lid appeared to be so much inflamed and discoloured that the surgeons expected it to mortify. The extreme pain he was in kept him waking near a month and during one week it was with difficulty that five persons kept him from tearing out his eyes.' 

Dr Patrick Delaney, Memoir of Swift

Here's the piece that Joyce dictated:

‘Unslow, malswift, pro mean, proh noblesse, Atrahora, Melancoloures, nears; whose glauque eyes glitt bedimmd to imm! whose fingrings creep o’er skull: till, qwench! asterr mist calls estarr and grauw! honath John raves homes glowcoma.’

The Gilbert referred to above is Stuart Gilbert, who later edited the first volume of Joyce's Letters, where he included the piece, along with this footnote:

'I well remember Joyce reciting to me this passage, which he had just composed, on an appropriately gloomy October afternoon. He was particularly pleased with, and moved by, it and asked me to type a copy. At my request he gave an exact explanation of each of the words employed and I took this down in the form of a glossary. Before I started on this he asked me the Burmese word for twilight, obviously intending to 'work it in' (I had spent many years in Burma and Joyce was interested in that unique and difficult language); hence its intrusion on this page'

Here are Joyce's explanatory notes:

Bumese–
Nyi–ako–mah– –thi–ta–thi= twilight
literally, (the time when ) younger brother (meets) elder brother, does not recognise him but yet recognises him.
Unslow = inevitably
pro mean
proh noblesse    = (ora) pro me, nobis. pro, proh, two Latin forms, usual and unusual, mean and noble
Atrahora = (Latin) black hour. c.f. Horace – post equitem sedet atra cura, black care sits behind the horseman
Melancores = (Greek, Latin, Spanish ending) black, colour, sorrow
glauque = (Greek, French) owl-sighted, green
glitt = glimpse of reason or sight
bedimmd, etc = bedamned, etc
fringrings = little circles made by fingers touching head, incipient dementia
creep o'er skull = crepuscule
qwench, etc = one star (Stella) is being quenched, name-calls another (wench), (Vanessa)
mist calls = calls wrongly, call through the mist, call an opprobrious name (mist, German for dirt)
asterr = (Greek) a star
estarr = (German) blindness. Green starr = glaucoma. Grau starr = cataract = grey. Schwarz starr (black) = dissolution of the retina
asterr
starr = Esther (Johnstin), Hester (Vanhomrigh)
graw = (German, Irish) onomatopopoetic? grey, love, cold
raves = delirium, dreams (French rĂªves)
homes = those of Stella and Vanessa
glowcoma = fireside and repose, glaucoma

I love that description of twilight as 'literally, (the time when ) younger brother (meets) elder brother, does not recognise him but yet recognises him.' What a shame Joyce didn't work it in!

Here's the piece again, set out as poetry

‘Unslow, malswift, pro mean, proh noblesse, 
Atrahora, Melancoloures, nears; 
whose glauque eyes glitt bedimmd to imm! 
whose fingrings creep o’er skull: 
till, qwench! asterr mist calls estarr and grauw! 
honath John raves homes glowcoma.’
 

This is written in the same style as Finnegans Wake, but Joyce didn't include it in the book, even though Jonathan Swift is everywhere in the Wake. Fweet gives 310 eucidations of Swift, and he gets a whole chapter in J.S.Atherton's Books at the Wake. Atherton argues that Joyce rejected the piece because it was too gloomy, but I can think of plenty of other personal gloomy passages ('A hundred cares, a tithes of troubles, and is there one who understands me?') . There are also several passages evoking twilight and glaucoma ('my sights are swimming thicker on me by the shadows of this place' 215.09; 'this semidemented zany amid the inspissated grime in his glaucous den' 179.26).  

The damned trinity of colours also found a way into the Wake, when Shem/Satan's flag is described as 'black, green and grey' at 441.04.

The original typescript, which Joyce gave Sylvia Beach, is now in the University of Buffalo.

Luckily for Finnegans Wake, Joyce found the brilliant Swiss opthalmologist, Dr Alfred Vogt, who performed a successful operation on his left eye in Zurich in 1930, restoring some of his sight. 

Vogt, a true hero to Joyceans, refused to accept any payment.

Joyce after his 1930 operation, from Kevin Birmingham's book on Ulysses

If you want to find out more about Joyce's eye problems, and the horrific treatments he endured, I recommend this excellent blog posting by PQ at Finnegans, Wake!