“An Epic Of The Human Body”

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 9 2014 @ 7:11pm

But first, a very NSFW reading of one of James Joyce’s love letters to his wife:

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In his about-to-be released The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham offers new evidence that the author was going blind from syphilis:

The Harvard scholar decided to “turn over every stone” to find out what might have caused Joyce’s deteriorating vision, compiling references to every symptom and treatment the author had. One item in particular sparked his curiosity: Joyce’s reference in two separate 1928 letters to the injections of arsenic and phosphorous he was receiving.

“It wasn’t too long before I found a medication that fit: galyl, a compound of arsenic and phosphorus that doctors injected multiple times. Galyl was only used to treat syphilis,” said Birmingham.

The drug is obscure, and Birmingham believes Joyce opted for this treatment, rather than the more effective drug salvarsan, because one of salvarsan’s side effects was that it could further damage his eyesight – and Joyce hated the idea of having to dictate his work.

As John Lingan’s review of The Most Dangerous Book makes clear, sex also figured into the obscenity trial that Ulysses sparked:

Fancying his book “an epic of the human body,” he filled it with every conceivable excretion and referenced a panoply of sex acts, from the mundane to the surreal. Moreover, its opening lines, a mock invocation of the Catholic mass over a shaving bowl, announced Joyce’s intention to revel in heresy.

Obscenity was the lifeblood of Ulysses, the proof that it truly comprehended all human experience. “To artists like Joyce,” Birmingham writes, “who considered free expression sacrosanct, censorship epitomized the tyranny of state power. … To publish a gratuitously obscene text—to deny ‘obscenity’ as a legitimate category altogether—was a way to expose and reject the arbitrary base of all state power. It was a form of literary anarchy.”

The novel was eventually published in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company, another literary institution (this one in Paris) run by a strong-willed American woman. Sylvia Beach had opened her store in 1919, and it quickly became the Lost Generation’s literary locus, functioning as a library and mailing address for itinerant artists. Her version of Ulysses, with its iconic blue cover and monolithic title font, was priced up to 10 times higher than the normal rate for a new book, but was nevertheless so popular that she had to remove a copy from her store window to prevent mob scenes.

In a detail that will resonate with anyone who’s tried to make it all the way through Ulysses, James Longenbach notices one of the defenses of the book during the obscenity trial – that no one actually would read it:

John Quinn, a powerful New York lawyer who was a friend of Pound’s and a patron of many modernist writers and painters, represented the editors at the Jefferson Market Courthouse. No passage from Ulysses was read into evidence; the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice argued that it would violate the law to do so, since the book was “so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting that a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed upon the records thereof.”

Cannily, Quinn based his defense on the Hicklin Rule (formulated by a British judge in 1868 and still current at the time), which maintained that the “test of obscenity” was whether or not the language in question would tend to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” Language could not deprave and corrupt, Quinn argued, if nobody read it: “You could not take a piece of literature up in an aeroplane fifteen thousand feet into the blue sky, where there would be no spectator, and let the pilot of the machine read it out and have it denounced as ‘filthy,’ within the meaning of the law.” Quinn was himself an avid reader of Joyce’s prose, but in court he argued that Ulysses was like the entry on “and” in theOED: Who would get through it?