Richard Ellmann, ‘Finally, the Last Word on Ulysses: The Ideal Text, and Portable Too!’, in NY Times (15 June 1986)

[ Source: NY Times Archive - online; accessed 01.05.2021.]

Since Ulysses is as difficult as it is entertaining, readers have often felt it puts them on their mettle. The decipherment of obscurities has gone on apace. But certain tangles have escaped notice because readers assume that they have missed something, not that Joyce has nodded. For some time now we have known that neither was to blame. The text was faulty. Given its unprecedented idiosyncrasy, mistakes were inevitable.

Joyce was too scrupulous a writer to tolerate even minor flaws. Soon after Sylvia Beach published the first edition of Ulysses under the imprint of Shakespeare & Company, on Feb. 2, 1922, he compiled a list of errata. It was by no means complete. Further corrections were made from time to time in subsequent printings. Then in 1932 his friend Stuart Gilbert, freshly aware of more errors because he had just helped with a translation of the book into French, amended the text for the Odyssey Press edition published in Hamburg, Germany. Finally, in 1936 Joyce reread the book before it was published in London by the Bodley Head. After that year there is a history of publishers with varying degrees of conscientiousness trying to correct misprints, and quite often adding more. A famous instance is the final dot at the end of the penultimate chapter. This was assumed to be a flyspeck and dropped, when in fact it was the obscure yet indispensable answer to the precise and final question, “Where?” Joyce gave specific instructions to the printer to enlarge the dot rather than to drop it.

The situation has been confused enough to require expert assistance. Hans Walter Gabler, a professor at the University of Munich, trained in the rigorous textual-editing school of the University of Virginia, conceived the idea of a new edition. This would not merely touch up the text of 1922, but would return to manuscript evidence, typescripts and proofs. His rationale for this procedure was fairly complex. Typist and typesetter had tended to conventionalize Joyce’s mannered punctuation and spelling, and Joyce, on the lookout for large issues, did not always notice details of this kind.

It appears also that he rarely had an earlier version beside him when he was correcting a later one. Relying on memory, he sometimes sanctioned the inadvertent dropping of phrases; at other times, not recalling the earlier version exactly but sensing something was missing, he devised a circumlocutory substitute. Add to these propensities his defective eyesight and frequent haste. With so many complaints, one wonders that such an author ever wrote such a book. Fortunately he plugged on.

The new edition relies heavily upon the evidence of existing manuscripts; where these have been lost, it attempts to deduce from other versions what the lost documents would have contained. Happily Mr. Gabler is conservative in his construction of this ideal text. Few of the 5,000 and more changes he has introduced will excite great controversy. Most of them involve what textual scholars call “accidentals,” matters of punctuation or spelling. No one will belittle the importance of punctuation in prose that is so carefully wrought and close to poetry as Joyce’s.

The substantive changes, though less frequent, are often obvious improvements. Among those that reviewers have enumerated the following examples are notable. In the old editions, Bloom, as he looks in the window of a tea merchant, feels the heat: “So warm. His right hand once more more slowly went over again: choice blend, made of the finest Ceylon brands”. This makes no sense. The new edition recovers some lost words: “So warm. His right hand once more more slowly went over his brow and hair. Then he put on his hat again, relieved: and read again: choice blend”.

Similarly, old editions read, inscrutably: “Smells on all sides, bunched together. Each person too”. What Joyce wrote was: “Smells on all sides bunched together. Each street different smell. Each person too”.

It appears that the famous telegram from Simon Dedalus to Stephen did not read when delivered to him in Paris, “Mother dying come home father,” but “Nother dying come home father”. Hence it was, as Stephen recalls, a “curiosity to show”. The typesetters could not believe their eyes in this instance, nor in another when the black horn fan held by the “whoremistress” Bella Cohen asks, “Have you forgotten me?” and is answered, “Nes. Yo”. They changed it to “Yes. No”.

For purposes of interpretation, the most significant of the many small changes in Mr. Gabler’s text has to do with the question that Stephen puts to his mother at the climax of the brothel scene, itself the climax of the novel. Stephen is appalled by his mother’s ghost, but like Ulysses he seeks information from her. His mother says, “You sang that song to me. Love’s bitter mystery”. Stephen responds “eagerly,” as the stage direction says, “Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men”. She fails to provide it. This passage has been much interpreted. Most readers have supposed that the word known to all men must be love, though one critic maintains that it is death, and another that it is synteresis; the latter sounds like the one word unknown to all men.

Mr. Gabler has been able to settle this matter by recovering a passage left out of the scene that takes place in the National Library. Whether Joyce omitted it deliberately or not is still a matter of conjecture and debate. Mr. Gabler postulates the skip of an eye from one ellipsis to another, leading to the omission of several lines - the longest omission in the book. The principal lines read in manuscript: “Do you know what you are talking about? Love, yes. Word known to all men. Amor vero aliquid alicui bonum vult unde et ea quae concupiscimus ...

The Latin conjoins two phrases in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas is distinguishing between love, which, as he says in the first six words, “genuinely wishes another’s good,” and, in the next five, a selfish desire to secure our own pleasure “on account of which we desire these things,” meaning lovelessly and for our own good, not another’s. In Joyce’s play, Exiles, Richard explains love to the skeptical Robert as meaning “to wish someone well”.

Now that the word known to all men is established as love, Stephen’s question to his mother’s ghost can be seen to connect with the hope his living mother expressed at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” that outside Ireland he will learn what the heart is and what it feels. It connects also with Leopold Bloom, who in an equally tense moment in Barney Kiernan’s pub declares, “But it’s no use... . Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life”. “What?” he is asked. “Love,” Bloom is forced to say, and adds in embarrassment, “I mean the opposite of hatred”. HE drops the subject and leaves. That simple statement of his is immediately mocked by those left behind. The citizen comments: “A new apostle to the gentiles... . Universal love”. John Wyse Nolan offers a weak defense: “Well... . Isn’t that what we’re told. Love your neighbour”. The citizen, not wanting to be caught in impiety, changes his tack from mocking love to mocking Bloom: “That chap? ... Beggar my neighbour is his motto. Love, moya! He’s a nice pattern of a Romeo and Juliet”. At this point one of two narrators in this episode, who has scattered syrup intermittently during it, takes up the love theme: “Love loves to love love... . You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody”.

Does this twaddle invalidate Bloom’s remark? Some have said so, but we may find the mockery more qualified if we remember that it parodies not only Bloom but Joyce’s master, Dante, and Dante’s master, Thomas Aquinas. (Aquinas declares, in the Summa Theologica, that “God is love and loves all things”.) It is the kind of parody that protects seriousness by immediately going away from intensity. Love cannot be discussed without peril, but Bloom has nobly named it.

If we consider the book as a whole, the theme of love will be seen to pervade it. “Love’s bitter mystery,” quoted repeatedly from Yeats’s poem “Who Goes With Fergus?,” is something Stephen remembers having sung to his mother on her deathbed. It is something that Buck Mulligan, though he is the first to quote the poem, cannot understand, being himself the spirit that always denies. It is alien also to the experience of the womanizer Blazes Boylan. But Bloom does understand it, and so does Molly Bloom, and both cherish moments of affection from their lives together as crucial points from which to judge later events. Joyce is of course wary of stating distinctly -as Virgil does to Dante in The Divine Comedy - his conception of love as the omnipresent force in the universe. As a young man he had the greatest difficulty in telling Nora Barnacle that he loved her, and Molly Bloom, on the subject of Bloom’s declaration of love during their courtship, remembers, “I had the devils own job to get it out of him”. But allowing for the obliquity necessary to preserve the novel from didacticism or sentimentality, we perceive that the word known to the whole book is love in its various forms, sexual, parental, filial, brotherly and, by extension, social. It is so glossed by Stephen, Bloom and Molly. At the end the characters, discombobulated in the brothel, return to their habitual identities. Ulysses revolts against history as hatred and violence, and speaks in its most intense moments of their opposite. It does so with the keenest sense of how love can degenerate into creamy dreaminess or into brutishness, can claim to be all soul or all body, when only in the union of both can it truly exist. Like other comedies, Ulysses ends in a vision of reconciliation rather than of sundering. Affection between human beings, however transitory, however qualified, is the closest we can come to paradise. That it loses its force does not invalidate it. Dante says that Adam and Eve’s paradise lasted only six hours, and Proust reminds us that the only true paradise is the one we have lost. But the word known to all men has been defined and affirmed, regardless of whether or not it is subject to diminution.

It has been said that Molly Bloom’s thoughts may not end. But Joyce has put a full stop to them. The full stop comes just at the moment when her memories culminate in a practical demonstration of the nature of love that bears out what Stephen and Bloom have said more abstractly. Another critical suggestion has been that Joyce never finished “Ulysses,” only abandoned it, on the grounds that he was revising it up to the last moment. But many writers stop writing at deadlines, and we do not say that their books are unfinished. Joyce finished his book in the sense of regarding his work as done and in another sense as well. Because Molly Bloom countersigns with the rhythm of finality what Stephen and Bloom have said about the word known to all men, Ulysses is one of the most concluded books ever written. (Adapted from the introduction to “Ulysses: The Corrected Text” by James Joyce, edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior, to be published by Random House tomorrow - Bloomsday, the day on which the novel’s action takes place. The new publication is a single-volume edition of the three-volume corrected text published in 1984.)

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