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  • The Nora Letters as a Source of Joyce’s Performativity
  • Christine Van Boheemen-Saaf (bio)

Some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy and spiritual: all of it is myself.

James Joyce on the letters to Nora (SL 169)

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen points out that his recourse to the aesthetics of St. Thomas of Aquinas has a restriction: “When we come to the phenomena of artistic conception, artistic gestation and artistic reproduction I require a new terminology and a new personal experience” (P 209). The notorious letters Joyce wrote to Nora in December 1909 record that new, intersubjective experience, linking the act of writing to the drive, while marking a significant event in Joyce’s aesthetic development.1 If we understand an “event” as a moment indicating an irreversible change, we may see these letters as the beginning of the incremental movement in Joyce’s fiction away from mimesis to an ever more performative and rhythmic style in which the act of writing overrides the desire to create a transparent copy of real life. Samuel Beckett notes, “[Joyce’s] writing is not about something; it is that something itself.”2 The movement towards enactment instead of representation, which Beckett sees as characteristic of Joyce’s writing in Finnegans Wake, had its beginnings in Joyce’s correspondence with Nora.

That the Nora letters are highly performative is obvious. Written to sustain the “onanistic complicity” between husband and wife (SL xxiv), they feature the characteristics of performative speech. They use the present tense, and they comment on the activity of reading and writing, as well as on the relationship between reading and masturbating: “Darling, I came off just now in my trousers so that I am utterly played out. I cannot go to the G.P.O. though I have three letters to post” (SL 190); “[Y]our letter was lying in front of me and my eyes were fixed, as they are even now, on a certain word in it. There is something obscene and lecherous in the very look of the letters. The sound of it too is like the act itself, brief, brutal, irresistible and devilish” (SL 180).

Representing a process of increasing fetishization, the letters stand in for the absent body of the beloved. The tangibility of the paper, [End Page 469] which once was touched by the now-absent correspondent, and the materiality of the letters—their very shape and size—become sexual and emotional triggers. Joyce loves to look at the word on the page. He instructs Nora how to use writing to make him respond physically. Soon it becomes clear that it is not the meaning, or even the forbidden status, of the word but the fact that it has materialized as black ink on white paper which excites him. That Joyce’s later works are fetishistic in their itemizing detail and proliferating accretion is something Joyce scholars take for granted. The point of this essay, therefore, is not to suggest that Joyce fetishized language or the process of publication and revision but to claim that, through the performativity and the fetishization enacted in these letters, he moved to a practice of writing that made the rhythmic activity of writing, the performance of flowing black ink on a white page, an aesthetic resource that ultimately came to characterize his style. The Nora letters of 1909 provided the “new experience” that resulted in revolutionary writing.

In order to demonstrate this, I must briefly draw a didactic comparison between experimentation in modernist writing and developments in its sister art, painting. Just as Joyce’s contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque began to move away from realist representation in the direction of stylization and an abstraction concerning itself with the resources of the medium rather than the making of recognizable images, we see a similar movement in Joyce’s writing. If we view Finnegans Wake, for instance, as a Jackson Pollock painting, we perceive the distinctive features of Joyce’s oeuvre not in terms of theme, subject matter, characterization, or narrative patterns but in contrasts, rhythmic patterns, intensities, uses of pitch, stress, and...


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