|James Joyce and Nora Barnacle in 1929.
It cannot be overstated how important Nora Barnacle Joyce was to the career and life of her loving companion James Joyce. The annual Joycean holiday Bloomsday celebrates Joyce's most famous book, Ulysses, which entirely takes place on June 16th, 1904, immortalizing the day on which they went out for their first date. That wasn't his only dedication to her, though. Nora was the muse that inspired Joyce's entire artistic approach, as he wrote to her in a letter from September 1909:
Guide me, my saint, my angel. Lead me forward. Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you. O take me into your soul of souls and then I will become indeed the poet of my race. I feel this, Nora, as I write it.
(p. 169, Selected Joyce Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, underline in original)
This year as Bloomsday approached, I went back to Brenda Maddox's excellent biography of Nora to read the chapter about the summer of 1904 when Joyce and Nora Barnacle first met. Nora had grown up in Galway before moving to Dublin where she landed a job working as a chambermaid and barmaid at Finn's Hotel on Nassau Street. It was in front of Finn's Hotel where James Joyce was walking by on June 10th, 1904 when he encountered Nora for the first time. It was love at first sight (although Joyce had poor eyesight even then at age 22). He approached her and asked for a date the following week. As Maddox writes in Nora, "In Dublin, far more than in Galway, Nora was vulnerable to unwanted male attentions... Wariness of the male was Nora's strategy for survival. When a well-mannered, well-spoken, amusing and unthreatening young man stepped into her path one day in Dublin, therefore, Nora was quite happy to accept his invitation to meet him one evening. But she did not appear." (p. 40)
They had set a date for June 14th, 1904 but Nora stood him up, likely because she couldn't get off her shift at Finn's Hotel in time. Joyce wrote to her in dismay and reading his letter it's funny to contemplate how close this historic couple came to never linking up in the first place:
15 June 1904
I may be blind. I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me---if you have not forgotten me!
James A. Joyce
Q: Why did you pitch on June 16, 1904 for Bloomsday? Was it the day you met Nora?
A: Reply later.
(p. 41, Nora)
Gorman never did get a response about this and it was never confirmed during Joyce's life, probably because it was "too personal and too shocking," as Maddox surmises. If you are here reading this blog, I will take it for granted that you understand why that might be the case and what supposedly occurred between James and Nora on June 16th, 1904.
Moving on... in our Finnegans Wake reading group we recently read page 66 where there is a passage about the mysterious letter that keeps popping up all throughout the Wake, and that sparked a discussion about the postal service. Joyce in Finnegans Wake is frequently preoccupied with the postal service and on p. 66 in writing about the delivery of the letter he describes a postal service that sounds sorta like Fedex except there's a hidden meaning in its acronym: "Federals' Uniteds' Transports' Unions' for Exultations' of Triumphants' Ecstasies." The acronym here spells out FUTUE TE which would be the vulgar Latin curse word futue te meaning "fuck you" or "you all fuck." This comes at the tail end of a passage about how people all over the world and all throughout history getting together and having sex is how the species ensures its future (note the root for the word "future" is contained in futue te). If you parse that sentence, a rare Wake line with normal words, you can identify how it is a sophisticated and clinical way of describing people fucking. The first word federal, for instance, originally referred to a covenant and contains the root word for "faith" so this is all part of a faithful covenant, i.e. marriage. Faithful couples uniting in covenant for exultant triumphant ecstasies has allowed for the continuation of the species through time, that's basically what it says.
Immediately after that, Finnegans Wake asks "Will it ever be next morning the postal unionist's (officially called carrier's, Letters Scotch, Limited) strange fate... to hand in a huge chain envelope ...?" The letter and the postal service can be seen to symbolically connote the continuation of the species, hence why the parcel is called "a huge chain envelope." Elsewhere in the Wake we read how "ancients link with presents as the human chain extends" (p. 254) and later on "Since ancient was our living is in possible to be. Delivered as." (p. 614) The "huge chain envelope" to be delivered might be viewed as the DNA chain of humanity through generations, the links in the chain are formed by couples fucking.
The mysterious letter in the book has many different associations: on one level it represents the book itself; on another level it factors into whatever narrative can be said to exist in the Wake since it appears at the end of the book as being written by the wife Anna Livia in defense of her besieged husband Earwicker; on another level it embodies the dream itself and the sleeper's attempt to carry the dream information across the threshold of sleep so he can remember it in the morning, as John Bishop has argued; and one might also see it the way Eric McLuhan did when he suggested the letter is actually a red herring.
Going back to Nora and the summer of 1904 for a moment, though, it appears there might be something more personal to the Wake's obsession with mailing letters. Brenda Maddox writes:
The swift progress of their love affair depended on a superb postal system. There were five deliveries a day, with the first collection at quarter-past one in the morning. Joyce, who liked to write in the small hours of the morning, took full advantage of the service. After he came in from seeing Nora, he would stay up writing long, painful, self-revealing letters ('It is only fair that you should know my mind on most things') and took them to the box, confident that she would get them in the morning. Both of them relied on letters posted before lunch to make or cancel a date that same evening... (p. 46, Nora)
With all of that, it seems there's some good evidence to suggest that the letter in Finnegans Wake may actually be a love letter. That brings us to what I feel is one of the most brilliant studies of Joyce ever written, Benjamin Boysen's book The Ethics of Love: An essay on James Joyce (published in 2013 by University Press of Southern Denmark). In this large and ambitious book, Boysen examines all of Joyce's works (including Chamber Music and Exiles) and argues convincingly that the main theme throughout all of them is Love. Boysen's book has a large section devoted to Finnegans Wake that is especially filled with original insights that I have not seen other Joyceans touch upon. Most relevant to our current consideration is his discussion of the letter.
Boysen calls our attention to a passage that starts on p. 420 of the Wake which describes some of the notable characteristics of the letter. Beyond the familiar qualities that it was written by Shem the Penman and carried by Shaun the Postman, the passage provides a long, cryptic and comical list of the letter's many misadventures in postal conveyance. Here is a list of some examples (with page and line numbers and my clarifying notes in brackets):
- "Initialled. Gee. Gone." p. 420.19 [Initials are gone.]
- "Tried Apposite House." p. 420.21 [Try opposite house.]
- "Nave unlodgeable." p. 420.23 [Name illegible.]
- "Noon sick parson." p. 420.24 [No such person.]
- "No such no." p. 420.25 [No such number.]
- "Opened by Miss Take." p. 420.26 [Opened by mistake.]
- "None so strait." p. 420.28 [No such street.]
- "Wrongly spilled." p. 420.33 [Wrongly spelled.]
- "At sea. D.E.D. Place scent on." p. 420.30 [At sea. Dead. Please send on.]
- "Kainly forewarred." p. 421.05 [Kindly forward.]
- "Overwayed. Understrumped. Back to the P.O." p. 421.07 [Overweight, understamped. Send back to post office.]
Within this catalogue of characteristics, Boysen notices the presence of Leopold Bloom---on p. 420.22 you find the initials "L.B." and p. 420.33 mentions "Return to City Arms" which would be City Arms Hotel in Dublin where Ulysses describes the Blooms as having once lived---and then he also points out the presence of Joyce's loving companion Nora in the phrase "Loved noa's dress." That would be "left no address" but it's also saying "I loved Nora's dress." He further observes the presence of Finn's Hotel, the place where Nora worked when Joyce first met her, in this passage: "Finn's Hot." (p. 420.25) (It's worth mentioning that, according to some sources, Joyce's original planned title for Finnegans Wake was actually Finn's Hotel.) Boysen calls our attention to another appearance of Finn's Hotel later on in the Yawn chapter (III.3) where Yawn is asked for the name and address---"name or Redress" (p. 514.17)---of the Wake's subject and his cryptic response is ".i..'. .o..l." (p. 514.18) We can't be certain but it is very likely the answer there is "Finn's Hotel." If that is indeed the case, Boysen concludes:
it means that all empty spaces, the uncertainties, the indeterminacies, and the obscurities of the book as such are meant to be interpolated by the singular event of James Joyce's coup de foudre [love at first sight, in French literally "stroke of lightning"] when meeting real love for the first time. What I suggest is nothing less than that Joyce's encounter with Nora---as commemorated in Ulysses by choosing 16 June 1904 (the date where Joyce had his first rendezvous with Nora) as the principal day---is similarly pointed out as a fateful event or Hintertext informing Finnegans Wake. (p. 351, The Ethics of Love)
To suggest June 16th, 1904 is a major event at the heart of not only Ulysses but also Finnegans Wake is a groundbreaking assertion for Joyceans and the literary world as a whole, as there's no literary event quite like Bloomsday. Boysen bolsters his theory by informing us that the passage on p. 420-421 which lists out all the addresses of the letter (which, as I mentioned, can be seen as a stand-in for the book itself) in fact lists out the addresses where James Joyce lived in Dublin in the years prior to his life-altering encounter with Nora in 1904.
I won't list them all out here, you can find a list of them at Fweet here, but Boysen makes it abundantly clear that the passage contains not only the names of the Dublin districts where pre-June-1904 Joyce lived but also many of the specific addresses (Fweet lists nine of them). On top of that, all of these addresses where Joyce lived before he met Nora are mutated in the language of the Wake to carry dark, depressing connotations. Quoting from Boysen once again:
As "Destined Tears" (FW p. 421.10), these early addresses (French destinataires) embody tearful destinies, which nonetheless did not come true on account of the amorous meeting. In other words, the letter comes to represent the author's metaphysical love-letter to existence, to love, and to himself as a young man not yet transformed by the amorous event. The letter is the mature author's gift to himself as a young man untouched by the amorous transubstantiation, testifying to Walt Whitman's lesson that "love is to the lover, and comes back most to him, / The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him - it cannot fail" ('A Song of the Rolling Earth' 2, vv. 15-16). As it says in Issy's love-letter, the letter gives testimony on behalf of "my old evernew" (FW p. 460.36) self, which is transformed and ever renewed by the gift of love and existence. (p. 352, The Ethics of Love)
Elsewhere in his book, Boysen writes: "In sum, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are to be perceived as great love letters expressing an existential gift to history and humankind." (p. 348) We can now be sure that the historically famous day of June 16th, 1904 is a pivotal day not only for Ulysses but also for Finnegans Wake. Nora Joyce herself, speaking to Joyce's friends after her husband had died, in response to their questions about the great author of Ulysses, responded, "What's all this talk about Ulysses? Finnegans Wake is the important book." While there's no doubt that Ulysses deserves to be celebrated, maybe it's about time we heed Nora's words and start giving some more attention to Joyce's grandest epic, Finnegans Wake, when we celebrate James Joyce every year on June 16th.