(Non-majors: in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, the men in the bar pass around a letter from a hangman offering his services to the High Sheriff of Dublin. The letter ends, “i have a special nack of putting the noose once in he can’t get out hoping to be favoured i remain, honoured sir, my terms is five ginnees.” Then, with the capital letters firmly in place, comes the signature: “H. Rumbold, Master Barber.”
(In the “Sirens” episode a pretty part of the decor is “Bronze by gold, miss Douce’s head by miss Kennedy’s head” — that is, in a different bar, the heads of two flirtatious barmaids, redheaded Miss Douce and blonde Miss Kennedy.
(And one more joke, about the real H. Rumbold, is spelled out for the historical record in the preface to Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.)
Published in 1888 for the Cotton Bale Medicine Company of Helena, Arkansas, this pair of store display cards, each one measuring about 11 by 14 inches, is housed in the Library of Congress in relic state: faded and damaged and mounted for preservation on a backing sheet. In 1888 it wouldn’t have been seen this way. To imagine it as it was then, we probably won’t be able to escape our education. I, at least, find myself imagining literarily. When I display the poster before my mind’s eye, I find myself thinking it into a setting like Jason’s store in The Sound and the Fury, smelling of pine and heat.
But I also have the photoresources to reconstruct it physically, without regard to any shelfspace it may fill in the library of the imaginary.
I look at what I have done and I think I have helped something made of pictures and words escape from time. That thought turns out to be the consequence of an optical illusion, however. The illusion has enabled me to think I can now move in close to “Merit and Success” and read again the fine-print phrase “free to all,” but of course I can’t. When I teach Ulysses in the years that have followed its day in 1904, I have to bracket a word into the text to make sure the class reads Poldy’s throwaway in “Lestrygonians” as a constative, not an imperative: “All [are] heartily welcome.” All used to be understood to mean everybody, but that sense seems to have gone obsolete. Rhetoric has lost something that sounded somehow grander than everybody: not restricted to the mere body or the mere human but universal.
And of course the fine print in the lexicon of the Remedies also says free.
I have reconstructed that word too, but reconstructed it in a time when the people of the bales can read it and write memos of their own. In 1888 that word on this page wouldn’t have been read as ironic by the readership for which it was intended, but it turns out that reading takes place now across a different spectrum. I have also reconstructed the page’s 1888 colors, but even that purely spectral act turns out to be complicated by words. Post-1888 terms that we have to know now when we read this page, for instance, include not just color but also colored and the colored.
And in the sky, cottony clouds . . .
Metaphor too has undergone a change of clothes. There are no remedies for this ceaselessness. Language, it turns out, never was color-fast.
She didn’t finish reading Mr. Bloom’s book. Nevertheless, she understood.
Happy Bloomsday, Mrs. Woolf.
The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), December 24, 1890:
The print doesn’t welcome your presence. But notice that Mr. Joyce himself persisted with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Persist, therefore. Think of yourself as Gabriel at the Christmas feast and afterward, paying attention right to the end.
Clio and Apollo will rest you merry.
A Note about Joyce and the Jews
Toward the end of the Ithaca episode in Ulysses, the conversation between Stephen and Mr. Bloom turns to the subject of their two ethnicities, Irish and Jewish, and Stephen sings Bloom a ballad about a Jewish woman who cuts off the head of a little boy named Harry Hughes. The ballad is a folk version of the legend of Hugh of Lincoln, which English majors will recognize (oh well: ought to recognize) from another version: the ending of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale.
Chaucer died in 1400. The roots of the murderous canon of Christian tales about Jews go deep into English culture. As George Orwell’s excellent 1945 essay “Antisemitism in Britain” will demonstrate, Jew-hatred became impolite in England after the rise of Hitler, but it has always been present and – impolite or polite – it has never gone away.
Among Joyce’s important literary contemporaries, for instance, the expressed attitudes toward Jews generally ranged from snide (George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and, yes, at the beginning of his career, George Orwell) through defamatory (the professional Catholic G. K. Chesterton and his collaborator Hilaire Belloc), with suggestions of genocide audible offshore from Eliot’s Jew-hating mentors Charles Maurras (French) and Ezra Pound (American). Virginia Woolf sincerely loved her Jewish husband, but she despised his family and every other Jew who crossed her path. Over the years a few non-Jewish authors have raised their voices against the general detestation, but only a few. From the Victorian era I can single out George Eliot and Charles Dickens; from the desperate years just before World War II, J. R. R. Tolkien and Basil Bunting; from today, J. K. Rowling. But today, also, literary England has a flourishing population of open Jew-haters with solidly established reputations, from A. N. Wilson on the political right to Tom Paulin on the left. About the hate, down the centuries, little to nothing has changed.
To all this the great exception is James Joyce.
One biographical explanation is straightforward. From 1905 to 1915 Joyce taught English in a commercial language school in Trieste, a city that’s now in Italy but was then part of the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one of his students there was a Jewish businessman named Ettore Schmitz. Schmitz was also a novelist, he and Joyce became friends, he introduced Joyce to some members of Trieste’s Jewish community, and the rest is literary history.
Or, say, a small part of the rest. The big part, the interestingly mysterious part, we might think about in the form of a question: what immunized Joyce against his culture’s normative attitude toward Jews?
No, I don’t expect you to answer. I certainly can’t, myself. But what I can ask you to do is be aware of how different Joyce was and is from his European Christian culture, how profound was his rejection of it, and how radical was his experiment in synthesizing a replacement culture out of words alone.
— English 440 (James Joyce), University of Hawaii at Manoa, spring 2019
Three artifacts from the time before social media: The Washington Times, 21 May 1922, page 57; 21 June 1922, page 70; and 28 July 1922, page 5:
As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.
Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.
The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.
But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.
But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.
It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.
Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.