Blesok no. 44, September-October, 2005
At a first glance, Joyce is a repulsive icon of modern literature. The academic circles often use his life and work as a privileged polygon for that part of erudition, which those favouring banality call pedantry and hair-splitting. His inheritance is wrapped in thick layers of written sheets, which often report about commas and other punctuation marks. Consequently, his works inspire honest people with deference, even with awe. In Joyce-land every stone is marked and put on the maps by all possible surveyors, who are tying to prove the exclusive match between their hypotheses and his texts. However, this transparency of the harsh landscape can have interesting effects. A curious eye, frightened by the strictly controlled zones, often sets off to the more obscure corners, which might otherwise remain deep in the shadow of anonymity. One of them is Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle, the woman whom he – then aged twenty-two – first met on 16 June 1904 in Dublin, and who accompanied him through his entire life. The letters, mostly written during his young years in Trieste, tell the utterly intimate story of a young intellectual, who was searching for a unique personal artistic expression, and an audience for it. So – what started on that fatal 16 June 1904, on Bloomsday, the mythological day of the later gigantic Romanesque research – the famous Ulysses?
Their first encounter was totally accidental. Joyce first saw Nora on 10 June 1904 in Nassau Street in Dublin, and addressed her right away. Obviously, his appearance was unusual enough for the newly fledged chambermaid to take him for a Swedish sailor. He talked her into meeting him on 14 June, but the actual encounter took place on the infamous day. The opening – though scarce in volume – but important part of their correspondence is from the early phase of the long-lasting love relationship. Joyce took advantage of the epistolary medium for his self-presentation. His was the experience of drifting dissatisfaction. As if he were constantly pursued by a dislike for the rigid society imbued by petty bourgeois and Christian beliefs, unbending and cemented in the eternal repetition of outdated mental and behavioural patterns. His failed attempts at studying medicine, law and music, the sorry waning of theatrical ambitions, the domestic shambles and many other things to him seemed proof of his incompatibility with the surrounding world. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond, he tells Nora, fearing that the simple country girl, brought up in Catholic shyness, may not be able to put up with his restless nature, with the man constantly ravaged by various doubts about the existing world and totally absorbed in his own personality and its artistic ambitions. However, too much blackness and self-pity doesn’t promise much good, so Joyce militantly calls out to his beloved: The actual difficulties of my life are incredible but I despise them. Nora accepts the challenge without tactic hesitation, without a possibility of retreat. In the second half of 1904 Joyce suddenly makes a decision: he would not only record his rambling life in a resigned manner, but make it his modus vivendi with a radical gesture. He would bid farewell to his native Ireland and leave for the continent, for distant Trieste lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And the only fellow traveller in this adventure would be Nora.
As if she – although only after three months of acquaintance – had provided the initiative for the immense decision to leave, for a life-long exile, for the realisation of the fate he perceived as the only authentic expression of his being. Nora was the only oasis of peace and security in the slippery world. A deep spiritual alliance was formed between them, mutual conscious determination to sail the rough oceans together. For the constantly distant Joyce this kind of mental closeness and support was an unprecedented miracle, an almost incomprehensible excess, which life – for a change – provided in his favour. The relationship with Nora was therefore free of secular definitions; it was established by the power of utter spiritual kinship, unbreakable and eternal. This is why – in the early letters – Nora features as a spiritual figure, wrapped in the veil of countless ethereal expressions of tenderness. However, for the inspired Joyce even these expressions are but pale approximations of his inner experience. Why should I not call you what in my heart I continually call you? What is that prevents me unless it be that no word is tender enough to be your name? The famous formulation of the spiritual depth of love, which Joyce later resorted to from different motives – for the purposes of creative writing.
The central part of the correspondence between Joyce and Nora is from the second half of 1909, the year when Joyce spent two successive prolonged periods in his native Dublin. The story, which until then had been so spiritual, acquires new, not at all spiritual nuances. The first time the expellee sailed home with his son Georgie, but soon after arrival his former friend Vincent Cosgrave mockingly told him that he had become involved with the woman who had been the pass-time of many others; moreover, he – Vincent – himself was supposed to have had an affair with her at the time when Joyce’s romance was beginning. Joyce’s world collapsed; the only creature that he idolised like a divinity of sincere innocence on the altar of his dark premonitions had been unfaithful to him. How could he again believe her sincerity, trust her emotions? Is the beloved woman, too, just an illusion, her words empty pleasing, a manoeuvre without foundations in reality? Is the saint in fact just a whore? His suspicions draw him into a whirlpool of horrible accusations. Is Georgie truly his son? Were you fucked by anyone before you came to me? He is interested in the tiniest details of what is hidden in the dark. Joyce is humiliated and furious, his words are no longer an epiphany of tenderness; for the first time they contain hard-core pornography. With harsh words he fires at the beloved woman and wraps her spiritual aura in a coat of carnality. A jealous man knows no mercy.
However, Joyce soon discovers that everything was just a wicked joke, and that Nora was quite wrongly accused of being a fickle lover. But a return to pure spirituality is no longer possible; the step had been taken, although in the rage of jealousy. Jealousy proves to be the tectonic power, which fundamentally changes their relationship. For through his accusations Joyce indirectly confesses that he does not see his beloved only through the prism of spiritual presence. Her body as well – though bathed in the light of dirty carnality – is the object of his obsession. Sexually charged litany cannot easily be forgotten; carnality claims its place in their verbal communication. I see you in a hundred poses, grotesque, shameful, virginal, languorous. Give yourself to me, dearest, all, all when we meet. All that is holy, hidden from others, you must give to me freely. I wish to be lord of your body and soul. The feverish body finally finds its place in their vocabulary; from that moment onwards their love will no longer be conceivable without the awareness of a close interconnection between the spiritual and the sensual elements. Only immersion in both spheres of the beloved being ensures the uniqueness of the story. The jealous attack opened the valve and set free the demon of the flesh – feverish, bent, shivering in ecstatic pleasure. Joyce’s present, which he sent to Nora in Trieste, was a symbolic expression of his new will: three large bags of cocoa! In order for her body to become fuller, more seductive, more voluptuous. We have suffered and been tried. Every veil of shame or diffidence seems to have fallen from us.
It is time for intimate words expressing the up-to-then hidden experiences of carnal pleasure. Let the jealous accusations turn into a waterfall of arousal. But the shift is harder than it might seem to the sane mind, although the new circumstances are favourable. During Joyce’s first trip to Dublin a direct plea for mental sex through letters is not yet possible. The feeling of profanating the idealised vision of love is for the last time stopping the eruption of carnal lust. Another, mighty powerful, blow will be needed before the wall falls and the bodily juices finally squirt out. The illusion of glazed spiritual love will finally disintegrate during Joyce’s second stay in Dublin. Again, the decisive tool will be jealousy. An accidental event, quite fleeting in nature, will ignite the jealous spark, which will establish itself as a traditional stance, something that can never more be avoided. With its all-embracing focus the jealous eye will become the mechanism opening wide the door to carnival, to the feast of the body and its dances.
During his second journey home the jealous Joyce clearly demonstrated that obsession was capable of ever more powerful outbursts. He once more started scrutinising the matter ostensibly put away, this time even more persistently; his thirst for learning the details about Nora’s imagined erotic adventures is almost unbelievable. What was she doing to him? Did he have an orgasm? Suspicions are nourished by all possible signs that might conceal undisclosed erotic experiences. Everybody is a potential suspect, everybody is against Joyce: what if Nora, too, is just a cunning snake seducing him with her purity and playing treacherous games behind his back?
The key to the question of whether or not Nora was faithful to him must be in her past actions. But Joyce’s scrutiny is based on very scarce information. Nevertheless, despite the inadequate starting points, the past with its fascinating secrets pulls him into a whirlpool of even stronger doubts. To the territory, which – by sinking into nothingness – irrevocably escaped his visitations and empirical attempts: his eye would never reach it. What is opening up behind the milky screen of the past? When Joyce thinks about Nora’s past, his jealousy acquires the quality of a sieve filtering every inch of their relationship with doubts about her sincerity. A possibility of a decisive experiment and final judgement is forever washed away. The witch cannot be thrown into the water to see whether she’ll drown or swim ashore.
Joyce described what was for him the truly painful part of Nora’s past in the outstanding novella The Dead. It is personified by the only man whom Nora was ever in love with before Joyce. He was a boy from Galway, who was connected to Nora in deep mutual affection, but the possible development of their love came to a halt with the boy’s death. The tragic death froze the love and made it resistant to time. It is definitely no coincidence that, in The Dead, Nora’s alter ego – Gretta Conroy – believes that the boy died for them in order to glorify their love. In The Dead Joyce revealed the fatal dimension of the perspective from which he looked upon Nora’s important experience. Joyce’s alter ego, the young intellectual Gabriel Conroy, upon leaving the annual celebration suddenly realises that his wife is his only ally in the midst of social senility, even hostility. Pleasant memories are intertwined with sexual desire. The arena for their lust is to be a hotel room. However, at this point his awareness is pierced by another shocking blow. Gretta’s confession faces the hero with the fact that while he was totally absorbed in their story, she abandoned herself to memories from the past. Their separate minds run in two different directions. The dead man is the phantom that breaks into their reality. Although – in the ritual toast – Gabriel was exalting the living above the dead, he suddenly feels the cold presence of the latter. The image of two blank pages, the whiteness of which started filling up in the shelter of their love, finally dissolves. Their worlds are two ships, which came sailing from different seas to fatally meet at an accidental crossing. The total equality of their cargoes was just an illusion. The absolute has different measures. The snow, which erases differences, and covers the living and the dead with the coat of oblivion, is gently merging with the echoing melody of Joyce’s novella.
Only jealousy can colour the experiential split with anger, with the feeling of a kind of spiritual and corporal deprivation. From Joyce’s inside there crawl out accusations about the selfishness of the beloved person, who buried within herself more hidden treasures than the unwritten contract of their high-frequency love, based on the total compatibility of their souls, foresaw. Now he’s more than ever before interested in the details. When you were with him in the dark at night did your fingers never, never unbutton his trousers and slip inside like mice? Did you ever frig him, dear, tell me truly or anyone else? … The boy from Galway is just a channel for the general question: Did you never, never, never feel a man's or a boy's prick in your fingers until you unbuttoned me? Let her – in the name of sincerity – confess all the sins, in which he did not take part! For Joyce very well remembers how she, on their first date, had shamelessly ‘frigged’ himself. For him, the erotic part of their experience is the decisive blow, which opens up the wound, infected with aching doubts. Has she had more pleasure than him? Are their common experiences the peak of their awareness? Have they truly experienced together what seems to be the decisive and unique in their lives? In fact, Joyce is troubled by his own status. Is he really the one who – with his sharp intellect – brought to life the decision, which was fundamental: to flee together from their homeland? Is he the one who is controlling the situation and directing it – or is his so glorified reason just a helpless illusion defending him from the truth that she has been the one who has whole-heartedly participated in the game of life from the very beginning, and he has been just a ridiculous by-stander, doomed to the twistings of reason, and to his own absurd blabbering.
The passionate doubt necessarily led to doubting his own superiority; what else could his desire for dominating the whole of Nora’s life be? At the very heart of uncertainty the erotic charge – so typical of Joyce’s jealous storm – had to break and turn to its object, torn out of all possible contexts. The desire for even more intense participation in actual intercourse prevails over the spiritual search. Merging of their beings becomes the imperative of volition, and no longer a motto, which could freeze their relationship into a stable and measurable monolith. Instead of territorial colonisation, the siege of yesterday, today and tomorrow, Joyce is focused on the now and measures the potential for a dizzy takeoff. Darling, darling, tonight I have such a wild lust for your body that if you were here beside me and even if you told me with your lips that half the redheaded louts in the county Galway had had a fuck at you before me I would still rush at you with desire. The liberated lust becomes the bridge across which Joyce will try to sneak to heaven.
The jealous doubter is turning into an orgiastic, passionate man, who finally admits that – in addition to spiritual yearning – he has a strong desire for Nora’s body. But, side by side and inside this spiritual love I have for you there is also a wild beast-like craving for every inch of your body, for every secret and shameful part of it, for every odour and act of it. My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or to fling you down under me on that soft belly of yours and fuck you up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the very stink and sweat that rises from your arse… Joyce’s words are no longer accusations, but an avalanche of quite open sexual insinuations. In addition to all the tender nicknames Nora becomes his little fucking whore. The distance between Trieste and Dublin makes actual intercourse impossible, so their letters become an unbridled expression of their desire, the documents of absence, on the one hand, and a kind of helping tool for masturbation on the other. Joyce often praises Nora’s sincerity and encourages her to write as dirty as possible. The body finally settles in the conscious part of their relationship and vehemently enters the sphere of volition. The restless flesh with all its members, juices and secretions. The letters, which once were full of spiritual heights, now burn with the flaring tones of jealousy, with the fever of hedonism, with all possible bodily actions.
This sudden eruption of sensuality is not happening on a totally isolated stretch of their love relationship. It emerged from – or at least in close connection with – their deep spiritual kinship and affection. Georges Bataille claims that without prohibition, which is immanent to human beings in order to regulate life and prevent its annihilation, there is no step over, no transgression, where all limitations would be erased in orgiastic pleasure, and where the absolute might open up in the ecstatic annihilation of the self. Even if we cannot entirely trust Bataille’s dialectic and apply it to all possible variations of erotic relations, it seems useful for an explanation of the development of the relationship between Joyce and Nora. There is no doubt that the magnetism of their relationship was from the very start based on spiritual commitment, while the surge of sensuality was triggered off by the awareness of the sin, of the violation of the axiom fundamental to their union. The stakes were too high. If their experiences are never identical, if their spirits meet only at intersections, and not in every experienced shiver, they might ascend to that distant point, where the edges of awareness disappear in the mist, where – instead of the voluptuous horizontal – opens up the vertiginous vertical. What is important now is the quality of experience, the exclusive feeling of the immense limit, the experience of utter presence, which – with its radicalness – for a moment ignores the usual routine, lights it up with the flare of the infinite and the transient, to finally return to the known territory, which will never be quite the same again. The exhausted lovers return to everyday life as secret allies. The original spiritual tie acquires an even more intense form. Their secret knowledge is a liability urging them to seek further: where are the limits of our story? How far can the souls reach, how intensely can the bodies whirl? Where is the edge of our lives, where does death begin? How far will we get? The fatal adventure is not over yet, although the calm of the haven is more than welcome.
Soon after settling in Trieste, Joyce met the writer Italo Svevo; he thought very highly of Svevo’s novel As a Man Grows Older (Senilità, in Italian), published in 1898. Coincidence or not – the hero of Svevo’s novel is a young clerk, who goes through his only truly important love relationship ravaged by jealousy. The hero wonders whether he met a spiritual goddess or just a frivolous woman. He cannot take his words as a game: if they, pregnant with the glory of spirituality, were addressed at a wrong person, then he himself is a grotesque weirdo. However, unlike Joyce’s, his suspicions turn out to be true. Angiolina is a tart, who follows only her instincts, while the world of words is just the necessary evil for her. Brentani cannot accept the fact that he is not experiencing a great romance. Probably because his entire life is immersed in senility (which gave the novel the title), futility and numbness. The events, which for the first time seriously shook his being, cannot be a farce. For Brentani, jealousy is a kind of mechanism, which is to keep him awake and prevent him from sinking back into an eternal sleep, into levitation without disturbing impulses. On the one hand the jealous worm is eating through the imagined image of a spherical being bathing in celestial energy, but everything Brentani hears and sees is proof of the opposite. On the other hand the jealousy is determined by the object it is fixated upon. And this object is not the true Angiolina, but some dreamed-of image. Brentani is thus playing a game with himself, disturbing his own energetic surface, without ever trying or wanting to enter the true space of a fellow human being. This excited state is not something Brentani is used to; later, he will remember the affair with Angiolina with gratitude, especially when the last atom of desire for any activity in him finally wanes.
Joyce took a step further. He managed – or at least tried – to get very close to the spirit and body of the beloved person. In his story jealousy played a different part than in the novel of his Trieste friend. It was so ferociously eating through the spiritual assumptions about their relationship that the walls finally collapsed. Although this would never have happened if jealousy had not been accompanied and supported by the restless demands of the body. Because of the body the spirit had to yield and change the direction of its volition. The starting assumption, woven into the wedding clothes of their relationship – namely that their souls had been static until then, and would in the future harmoniously move in the same direction together – was too shattered. The sudden decision to open the valves for bodily lust was just the first step in the hunt for reality, an attempt to sink into the newly discovered magma of life, hoping that – in the surge of passion – the remaining awareness might perceive something immense, something, which is much more than the usual, the controlled, but sadly transient. Despite its pathological nature, in Joyce’s case jealousy played a vitalising role. It was a kind of unpleasant lever, which – through pain – opened up Joyce’s intimate communication with the world and probably led him to redemption.
Joyce’s letters to Nora are thus an interesting testimony about a young doubter, whose restless nature and creative ambition drive his eternal search. His letters are interesting also because of the topic, which is often considered politically incorrect. Jealousy is a vile emotion, which a tolerant mind based on consensual trust should not too amply indulge. Let us remember Pushkin or Yesenin and their inspired lyrical heroes who, cheated and betrayed, grab for cold weapons and use them against the traitors or against themselves. Jealousy can be the cause of death, final separation and therefore sacralisation of the love which is no more. Joyce is telling us a different story. Jealousy can be the lever of a dynamic process, the mechanism reflecting the doubts of the mind and yet a desire to break through to the other side of the rigid frames to new, more fertile lands. What destroys can also strengthen. And the sharp blade of final farewell is constantly hanging above the heads of the participants in this stormy adventure.
When Joyce came to Trieste he brought with him a manuscript, which in the next decade became his first novel –Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It is the novel about growing up. As if Joyce wanted to compile his own apology while there was still time. The book describes the transformation of the spirit from child-like trust to all-embracing doubt having reservations about everything that is presented as indisputable truth. The concluding vision of Stephen Dedalus is very similar to the self-reflection the vagrant conveys to his beloved. Stephen’s intellectual development has reached the point when he must admit to himself that he has no more attachment to the things that he deemed sacred in his childhood. Confessional religion, fervour for the homeland, family – none of the allegedly self-evident values can anchor his life in a safe harbour. His will be the fate of a restless seafarer.
Let us stress that it took Joyce quite a long time to find the right form for his first novel. The writer was stubbornly poking into the archaeology of his knowledge as if he were afraid he would miss something decisive. The hero’s growing up ends with an elated faith in the power of his creative energy. Whence this enthusiasm in the midst of a mental havoc, whence the faith in the power of spirit, when all the signs were telling that it was his spirit that was driving him away from life with explosions of doubt? How can utter suspicion and euphoric belief coexist so close together? In the novel we read about the events, which in little Stephen arouse early doubts in the power of social institutions and the relations based on them. In this chain, sensuality is given an important place. The up-to-then pure consciousness is pervaded by sensual images. Very soon the boy makes it out with a prostitute. The experience is followed by a period of remorse, but the decision to participate in the world only on the spiritual level does not hold; the boy turns down the invitation to join the Jesuit order. As if the juices of the body pervaded the spirit and opened the door to a life, which is filling up the world on the other side of the membrane of the brain. The transformation is over, the decision to become an artist confirmed; it is time for a great adventure. The letters to Nora, which were written at the same time as the novel, appear to be a love metaphor of literary tectonics. The birth of the language is not the act of spiritual purity; it is smeared by the urges of the body and doubtful hesitation. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, despite its sharpness, does contain a great deal of Jesuit incense; sinful obscenities are wrapped in fog, through which we can sense only their pale contours. The writer’s desperate search for identity culminates in a mighty eruption, in unbridled merry-making, the gigantic Ulysses. Joyce writes an epopee of a usual, fantastic day. Eroticism is no longer concealed behind a safe veil. Joyce simply shatters the prose of his time and turns it into a supreme experiment of imagination. His Eros spills far beyond the love for a woman, everything pulsating around him – bodies, noises, metaphysical debates or sheer blabbering – is the polygon of his unbridled imagination. It is the material evocation into the world of art, into the promise of the transcendental.
Joyce is what he claims to be: a believer in art. And art is not just evoking the world in the sphere of a work of art, but is also a result of cold reflection, of the distance, which dams the flowing lava. Art always reveals those territories that cannot be found either by pure speculation or by fervent hedonism. And this is probably a general rule, Joyce being no exception. The excesses of Ulysses are probably due to the seeming incompatibility between the mighty expansion of imagination and strict formal elements. The split seems enormous, for Joyce is neither just a newly-fledged believer in the body, nor a cold by-stander. It is hard to talk about the autonomy of art, about its independence from various social vocations. Joyce’s art is such a heated, and yet durable pot, that it cannot be framed into the sphere of the discourse, which tries to regulate a society. Its explosiveness is totally evasive. Joyce is a madman, who proclaimed his madness and proved it. His faith in art as a refugee’s only homeland – although pervaded by constant doubts – is amazing. This is one of the reasons why – for a slightly surrealist mind – Joyce and Nora’s love story is a little story about great literature. Love stories mocking the time, which brings nothing good.
Translated by:Lili Potpara