The Most Dangerous Book
The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
Kevin Birmingham
(The Penguin Press)
The way into Ulysses (if you must) is to find someone to be your guide at first until it begins to take you yes and then you will find somewhere yes along the way perhaps it can happen at the start, there in the tower with stately plump Buck Mulligan and sour Stephen the smell of his mother's whetted ashes on his breath in his soul and saying to Mulligan after his mother dies and Mulligan,

    --- What? Where? I can't remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations. Why? What happened in the name of God?

    --- You were making tea, Stephen said, and went across the landing to get more hot water. Your mother and some visitor came out of the drawingroom. She asked you who was in your room.

    --- Yes? Buck Mulligan said. What did I say? I forget.

    --- You said, Stephen answered, O, it's only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead . . .

    --- Absurd! I suppose I did say it. I didn't mean to offend the memory of your mother.

    He had spoken himself into boldness. Stephen, shielding the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart, said very coldly:

    --- I am not thinking of the offence to my mother.

    --- Of what then? Buck Mulligan asked.

    --- Of the offence to me, Stephen answered.

    Buck Mulligan swung round on his heel. --- O, an impossible person! he exclaimed.

§   §   §

There is a portrait of the artist as a young man here, facing page 148, looking right at us. He is twenty-two years old, cap, tie, vest --- hands in pockets, head tilted to the left. Clean face, eyebrows complete with an appealing enquiring slant, touch of arrogance; face, confident . . . clothing, clean.

There is another photograph further on, Joyce and his Barnacle, his odd true love, Nora drawn up: hard, her shell dangerous to those with tender skin, much like her namesake. Later photographs would show Joyce alone, hefting a huge, blotchy bandage over the right eye. It was taken after his 12th surgery for glaucoma, sometime in the early 1930s.

There was little to be done for the malady in those days, and those of us who have it in the 21st Century are startlingly lucky. There are drops --- Xanax, Alphagan --- that magically lessen the intraocular pressure, the one that over the years was to wreck Joyce's delicate optic nerve, not only nearly blind him, but, at times, leave him on the floor, writhing in agony.

The treatment of choice in the early years of this century was to slice directly into the orb, cutting through the iris, physically separating it from the lens. All while the patient was awake, looking on . . . as it were. Joyce would put off the operations as long as possible, but he knew that if he didn't want to go totally blind, it had to be done. The best thing for the pain was to tie on a big one. We often forget that alcohol was and to some extent still is reigns as the original pain killer. If they were going to lop off your leg 150 years ago, they fed you a bottle of rum. Joyce wasn't losing a leg --- but something as important.

No, in his case, more important: his eyes.

§   §   §

His habits were few, but strong. Reading, writing, writing and reading (or as Dodson had it, writhing and reeling). And at night here would be Joyce, drunk out of his mind.

    One night, Joyce became outraged by someone's egregious barroom offense, and when the scrawny novelist realized he was arguing with a man he could hardly see, he turned to his barrel-chested companion and shouted, "Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!" Hemingway decided to deal with Joyce by carrying him home to Nora. "Well, here comes James Joyce the writer," she said in the doorway, "drunk again with Ernest Hemingway."

There were a few select words that the Prurience Police deemed were not to be written, printed, or read. A few words, really --- in contrast to the hundreds of thousands that came and went in Ulysses. And for the sake of those precious few words, Joyce's most lovely book was banned in the United States and England (and Ireland) and much of the rest of the world too . . . and those caught with the book in their possession could be and were fined and might expect to spend a bit of time in the pokey. A couple of dozen words out of 262,869 in total. It was thought that if you saw those words in cold hard print you would be damaged, your soul unknit, your ability to function in the civilized world --- the world that gave us World War One --- mauled and damaged . . . merely by carrying in your hand the book called Ulyssses.

And the full force of the federal, state and local government was there to make sure that you and I should never be exposed to those words. There were entire departments of our democratically elected officials assigned to protect our minds . . . your mind my mind the minds of right-thinking citizens, making sure that we were all safe from the devilment hidden in these words, the terrorists of their day: they invaded your mind, set it aflame, destroying democracy. It was vulgar, dangerous, right up there with The Confessional Unmasked, The Perfumed Garden, A Cocksure Sailor, and Casanova Jr.

Joyce . . . that dickens . . . never ever gave in to the demands of his friends (Pound, Woolf, Beach) who told him to cancel just a few of them. When it first went on sale at Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in 1922, orders came in from William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson, T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken, Eugene O'Neill. But not George Barnard Shaw. He had told Beach earlier, "I am an elderly Irish gentleman . . . and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for a book you little know my countrymen."

He finally did read it, and reported, It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization . . . but it is a truthful one.

§   §   §

I read it in college a short eternity ago because our professor --- Professor Quinn --- told us to read it. There I was reading the most dangerous book in the world, and I confess at the beginning, I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. Not until Joyce took us into the offices of the Dublin Freeman's Journal (and the Evening Telegraph) and K.M.A.

[Kiss My Arse].



[Kiss My Royal Irish Arse].

That must have gotten through to me: two of the headlines in a chapter filled with headlines. Or was it Dedalus suddenly come to life, with his tale of those two old Dublin women waddling up to the top of Nelson's pillar, his telling the scribblers there in the newspaper's editorial room a rather strange and oddly moving story of two Dublin biddies, complete with the bawdy response of the noisy members of the 4th estate:


--- That's new, Myles Crawford said. That's copy. Out for the waxies Dargle. Two old trickies, what?

And suddenly Stephen, previously put upon by one Buck Mulligan, turns up in the newsroom amidst these crude reporters, telling a gentle story of The Two Vestal Virgins:

--- But they are afraid the pillar will fall, Stephen went on. They see the roofs and argue about where the different churches are: Rathmines' blue dome, Adam and Eve's, saint Laurence O'Toole's. But it makes them giddy to look so they pull up their skirts...


--- Easy all, Myles Crawford said. No poetic licence. We're in the archdiocese here.

--- And settle down on their striped petticoats, peering up at the statue of the onehandled adulterer.

--- Onehandled adulterer! the professor cried. I like that. I see the idea. I see what you mean.

--- It gives them a crick in their necks, Stephen said, and they are too tired to look up or down or to speak. They put the bag of plums between them and eat the plums out of it, one after another, wiping off with their handkerchiefs the plumjuice that dribbles out of their mouths and spitting the plumstones slowly out between the railings.

Plumtree's Potted Meat!

He gave a sudden loud young laugh as a close. Lenehan and Mr O'Madden Burke, hearing, turned, beckoned and led on across towards Mooney's.


Penis Champ! Sullen Stephen's suddenly sprightly story of the two "Vestal Virgins" --- the two old "trickies" mounting the top of Nelson's Pillar, a tale-within-the tale, the two old ladies scrambling up the 168 stone stairs of the great Dublin monument to Horatio Nelson --- a funny story on its own made far funnier by the bawdy newsroom of a local prudish daily, the rude Greek-chorus comments of a bunch of toffs sitting about the office, listening to Stephen's droll recitation the two bawds. Then over to the inevitable pub.

Whatever it was, it got me. After that I become a Ulysses slave, and every time I return to it it catches me again. Yet somehow differently.

One time --- being of scientific bent --- I got hooked by the long catechism question-and-answer session which told every detail of the water system that provides Dublin with water. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, for I had become fond of the rote of the catechism: catechesis, "the Christian religious teaching of children and adult in the tenets of the religion." A catechesis, if you will believe it, on the infrastructure of the bloody water-supply system of the City of Dublin:

    Did it flow?

    Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of #5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12-1/2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C.E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee, had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the importable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.

§   §   §

Once Ulysses captures you in its lurid song (a Siren on the rocks) it will never let you go. Now, sixty years later, it still thrums away somewhere back there in my consciousless unconsciousness. The first time, we either got bored and dumped it or saw it as a huge puzzle to be untwisted, dissected, examined, reëxamined, buried, dug up again, carved up, spliced back together, dealt with, loved, hated, continuing, as we (and it) age, to create new mysteries (of form, of poetry, of history, of psychology, of language) --- something that gets to you and gets in you and never lets you go.

Those who have never delved into it, be forewarned. You and I and the Three Weird Sisters (in the Year of the Big Wind) are here to tell you that once you get caught, you won't get uncaught. "No home is complete --- without Plumtree's Potted Meat?" An advertising slogan, dated 1904, Dublin, a potted meat product that means what it says . . . and, Joyce being Joyce: more. While the Dirt Police were digging into Molly's last long humid dream, right at the very beginning Joyce was pulling us in with wisecracks, puns and anagrams. Plumtree --- get it? Meat in a pot --- Plum. Tree. Potted Meat? Oh the sly bastard. He knew what censorship was: when they tagged something as raw or wrong, the old smutster knew and would double down.

The would-be publisher of Dubliners told him that he wasn't quite comfortable with the vulgar references to Queen Victoria. When he bounced it back to Joyce, it read "Here's this fellow come to the throne after his bloody owl' mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey."

Joyce returned it,

    Here's this fellow come to the throne after his bloody old bitch of a mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey." There just was no stopping him.

§   §   §

The Most Dangerous Book is --- theoretically --- a study of the printing and distribution history of the book Ulysses by James Joyce . . . coupled with the further studies of the author's quirks and foibles. But there is something here far plusher and interesting, a murder mystery: how one near-blind autodidact named James Augustine Aloysius Joyce nearly murdered himself (near-blind on the floor penning those huge letters) while singlehandedly causing the prigs and prudes of Britain and the United States to go mad --- blind mad --- over a few ancient Anglo-Saxon words that have been around since before the English had been painting themselves blue, since William the Bastard fought the battle at Hastings.

The mystery is how a few words spoken daily on the street and in the pubs (possibly in the bedroom) can suddenly, when they are transferred from hot air to hot lead and then cast on a page . . . how they then become so dangerous that the mere sight of them can cause the Lurid Police to start picking at Molly's Tweedy's dream after a night in Bloomtown where her man and his new friend Dedalus end up in the kitchen and then to bed, Molly and Poldy arsey-versey in her love-bed where she was dreaming of the old castles of Spain the old castle thousands of years old yes and

    those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp

§   §   §

Joyce would never let a word like "Plumtree" pass, the not-so-delicate pun for the membrum vitale that in Victorian Dublin would have been missed. Puns: one of Joyce's favorite delicacies of this or any other language. His last work, after all, was nothing but puns, causing one of his most favored strange-Puritan fans --- Harriet Shaw Weaver --- to plead: she called Finnegan's Wake the Wholesale Safety Pun Factory," "It seems to me you are wasting your genius."

    One morning Tim got rather full,
    his head felt heavy which made him shake
    Fell from a ladder and he broke his skull, and
    they carried him home his corpse to wake
    Rolled him up in a nice clean sheet,
    and laid him out upon the bed
    A bottle of whiskey at his feet
    and a barrel of porter at his head

    His friends assembled at the wake,
    and Widow Finnegan called for lunch
    First she brought in tay and cake,
    then pipes, tobacco and whiskey punch
    Biddy O'Brien began to cry,
    "Such a nice clean corpse, did you ever see,
    Tim, auvreem! O, why did you die?",
    "Will ye hould your gob?" said Paddy McGee

    Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner
    round the flure yer trotters shake
    Bend an ear to the truth they tell ye,
    we had lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake

And Nora banged on his door and yelled, "Now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing." Ezra Pound complained in a letter to Joyce that it was "nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp." But puns are built into language, and Joyce doted on them, and some of them pop up endlessly in Ulysses: Molly's lovely flowers from Iberia, "The Rose of Castille." Or, as Joyce turned it neatly into a railway system, "The Rows of Cast Steel." Or Buck Mulligan's oft repeated, "When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water." And the most lurid of them all, Mulligan's poem, the one that most certainly must have been right there at the top to get Ulysses on the Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum

    I'm the queerest young fellow that ever you heard
    My mother's a Jew, my father's a bird.
    With Joseph the Joiner I cannot agree
    So here's to disciples and Calvary.

    If anyone thinks that I amn't divine
    He'll get no free drinks when I'm making the wine
    But have to drink water and wish it were plain
    That I make when the wine becomes water again.

    Goodbye, now, goodbye! Write down all that I said
    And tell Tom, Dick, and Harry I rose from the dead.
    What's bred in the bone cannot fail me to fly
    And Olivet's breezy... Goodbye, now, goodbye!

If The Most Dangerous Book leads you into Ulysses, let it. It's a fine history of a demented writer trying his best to dement the world and the words the world thought wrong demented. That must have been how it happened . . .

When, twenty-five years after this mad half-blind ash-plant toting semi-alcoholic word pun-nut was able to reach and touch another, a quarter-century after, one least expected to be touched, a man in the high chair behind the bar, the man in the black cloak, there at the front of the room. And it all may have began to become unglued right there in the courtroom on November 25, 1933, in the Bar Association Building on Forty-fourth Street, New York, where, in front Judge John Woolsey, the prosecuting attorney --- a thin, bespectacled lawyer --- continues, "defending Ulysses more eloquently than the defense," talking about "a weird epitome of what is going on in a human mind," Woolsey began to wonder if that simultaneity really was the source of the book's peculiar power. For in the same way that a pair of horn-rimmed glasses reminds Leopold Bloom of his father who poisoned himself when Leopold was still a boy, the arching curve of the Hepplewhite chair might have reminded Woolsey of his mother sitting at home in South Carolina, where the rickety cotton pickers' shacks were visible through the windows.

A few years after they left that house, John Woolsey's mother, having left his father, threw herself from a window in Brooklyn.

Something about Ulysses, Woolsey said, left him "bothered, stirred and troubled."

Even now, some of the passages moved him in unexpected ways. Molly Bloom's final worlds --- the novel's final words --- stayed with him.

    O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

--- L. W. Milam
Go to a
pissing contest
between Bloom and Dedalus

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