Verbivocovisuals: James Joyce and the Problem of Babel


This article situates Joyce’s work within a larger discourse about the problem of Babel or about how, in a newly globalized world, different cultures and language groups might best communicate with one another. The journal transition—in which Joyce’s work was serialized and whose editor, Eugene Jolas, he knew well—served as a clear-inghouse for ideas about how a new universalism might be forged: either through Joyce’s Wakese and other avant-garde experiments or through the philosopher C. K. Ogden’s Basic English. Fascinated by these theories of universal language and drawn to the anti-imperialist politics underlying them, Joyce, in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, turns to visual and gestural languages—film, hieroglyphics, and illuminated manuscripts—in an effort to subvert theories of an “Aryan” language and to imagine a more inclusive origin for all the world’s cultures in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ideas of linguistic or media “purity” are allied in Joyce with the danger of Nazi claims for racial purity. His emphasis on the commonality of writing and new media becomes a political gesture: a way of insisting on the unity of all races, cultures, and languages in a mythic past.