Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
As a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t introduce an error. But at the risk of undermining that solid principle, there is an occasional exception.
Enter James Joyce.
The length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.
Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards. Brenda Maddox, in Nora, notes that Joyce wrote ‘as much as one third of the final text of Ulysses in the form of corrections or additions in the margins of the proof sheets’.
So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.
Oxford University Press’s 1990s reprint of the 1922 text of Ulysses, edited, introduced, and supplemented by Jeri Johnson, is a fine edition for anyone interested not only in Joyce’s mighty novel but in its fraught publication history. Appendixes and explanatory notes, ample without being overwhelming, supplement the work to great effect.
Johnson’s essay ‘Composition and Publication History’ nicely sketches the debate over authenticity and concludes that the 1922 text, though ‘botched’ and ‘error-ridden’, with over 2000 mistakes, ‘is also the least faulty’. Her introduction zeroes in on a couple of errors (and ‘errors’) to show how intricate the problem was for both Ulysses and the idea of error itself.
Leopold Bloom (Ulysses’ protagonist) reads a list, in the newspaper, of attendees to a funeral and sees his name misprinted as L. Boom – the initial L, contrasted with the forenames of others listed, underscoring its absence from the surname. Bloom is ‘nettled not a little’ by this ‘graphic lie’, this ‘bitched type’, but amused by other ‘nonsensical howlers’ in the newspaper’s account, such as its inclusion of Stephen Dedalus, who was not present at the funeral.
But the original French edition of Ulysses, Johnson notes,
mistakenly ‘corrected’ the fictive Dublin typesetter’s mis-set ‘L. Boom’, just as they mistakenly deleted the mistakenly reported ‘Stephen Dedalus’. Joyce correctly reinstated these errors in the Errata lists.
She goes on:
When earlier in the day, Bloom (this time in the guise, not of L. Boom, but of Henry Flower) reads Martha Clifford’s billet-doux, he encounters more ‘bitched type’: ‘I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world. … So now you know what I will do to you, you naughty boy, if you do not wrote’. Her substitution of ‘world’ for ‘word’ teases the imagination: we notice, perhaps for the first time, that ‘world’ contains ‘word’ (plus a floating ‘l’ – the one gone missing from ‘Boom’?), the two being inextricably joined in this book.
One of the chief ways world and word are joined, albeit by contrast, is through the novel’s two main characters, Bloom and Dedalus. Dedalus is a self-styled philosopher preoccupied by academic and metaphysical matters; he ‘transforms the material world around him through mental acts of speculation’, Johnson writes. For him, matter is fuel for mind: he seeks to ‘control the unruly material world through the distantiating transformative power of language’.
Bloom is more grounded in sensation and material stimuli; he ‘prefers the realized “here and now”.’ He enters the text eating giblets ‘with relish’, and his thoughts keep returning to bodily impulse and physical activity – his own and that of the world around him. When Bloom is to the fore we see what Johnson describes as a ‘somatizing of the text’:
There Stephen’s penchant for metaphor urged narrative transformation of mundane objects into symbols, here Bloom’s solid pragmatic presence seems to cause every attempt at metaphor to founder on mundane physicality: ‘Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish’ (that ‘relish’ is as much ‘condiment’ as ‘gusto’).
So the use of world for word in Martha Clifford’s love letter to Bloom is no mere slip of the pen in a text-within-a-text (in a character’s mind in our mind): it’s virtually a hologram of one of the book’s major themes. Johnson continues:
Her second mistyping, ‘if you do not wrote’, floats into Bloom’s mind a paragraph later: ‘I wonder did she wrote it’. The odd thing about this mistake is that Joyce the author wrote ‘write’. It was either the typist or the typesetter who ‘wrote’ ‘wrote’. Joyce did not notice it until several proofs of this episode had been pulled and had repeatedly repeated ‘wrote’. When he did notice it, Joyce the writer wrote Bloom’s ‘I wonder did she wrote it’, thus opening wide his authorial arms to embrace the typesetter’s mistake. As Stephen Dedalus says later: ‘A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery’.* Errors, it seems, are volitional even when made by someone else.
Johnson reflects on the trust and scepticism the reader feels towards the text of Ulysses:
We trust, that is, that despite their erroneous status ‘L. Boom’, ‘world’, and ‘wrote’ communicate meanings that lie outside the scope of narrow rectitude. Ulysses repeatedly reminds us that certitude aligns itself with bigotry, racial hatred, blind nationalism, egotism, violence. … Joyce’s alternative authority is one which recognizes the inevitability of error, exercises a healthy scepticism, and yet happily embraces the new world occasioned by the fall, the lapses.
One of the things Ulysses does best is to dissolve boundaries by the dozen: between fact and fiction, ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, art and criticism, symbol and thing-in-itself. By accepting error as part of a new and deliberate reality, Joyce eagerly, playfully, adds to that list.
[Further reading: posts about, or featuring, James Joyce]
* In a final edit of this post, I noticed I had typed Her errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.