Coincidental Joyce
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Coincidental Joyce

Though they never are, things can be imagined to have been different. We do it all the time by engaging in all kinds of fictions, daydreams, or at least we regret decisions taken or not taken.

Could things have been otherwise? Stephen Dedalus meditates on events in history:

They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind

(U 2.49–53).

Joyce’s own life, like ours, is open to the same questions. To judge from a letter at Cornell University, Joyce may have toyed with the idea of finding a position in South Africa (see JJII 262). Suppose for a moment he had tried his luck there, would we still have A Portrait of the artist as a Young Man, Exiles, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake as we have them now? Most likely not, or not in the identical shapes they have now. With his ambitions and perseverance Joyce would probably have achieved something momentous (unless he had opted for a career like singing). Weaving the wind! Under other circumstances Joyce might well not have been what he became on the literary landscape. Imagine that what is now Ulysses had not gone further than a bundle of manuscripts or typescripts to be discovered somewhere in an attic, perhaps to be edited with footnotes and an academic introduction. Was there some governing ineluctability about what in fact did take place?

In an obituary address to James Joyce by his Zurich friend Carola Giedion-Welcker we find a casual aside that ‘for him there was no such thing as chance’.1 Whether this was his consistent world view or a passing remark, his life, like everybody else’s, may have been determined more by chance than by planning.

What might have happened if a young man had not approached a girl from Galway in Nassau Street, no doubt by chance, and had not linked the rest of [End Page 16] his life with Nora Barnacle? If, furthermore, a young Joyce, intent on leaving Ireland, had not enlisted an English agency which then in a telegram directed him to Zurich where a post at the Berlitz Schools was promised, things would have taken a definitely different turn somewhere else. Without a decade of his life spent in Trieste, Pula, and Rome, his writing, based on different experiences, would have developed in ways we can only guess at.

It is also idle to speculate what would have become of him without the fortuitous support of Stanislaus Joyce, Ezra Pound, Harriet Weaver, Sylvia Beach, or Paul Léon and many others who came generously to his aid. Once these had come forward, however, Joyce ingeniously helped Fate along and tended to manipulate his fortunes with abandon and was not above resorting to downright exploitation.

‘Just a Chance’ (U 6.77)

Chance, or things not proceeding according to plan, is reflected in fiction. Plots depend on chance. In Ulysses neither the day of Stephen Dedalus nor that of Leopold Bloom day evolves as it was planned at the outset. It is Mr Deasy’s letter that brings Stephen to the newspaper office and then to the National Library; we do not know, however, what brings him to the Maternity Hospital. Almost as an exception, the plans of Molly Bloom and Hugh Boylan do come off, but Boylan is less lucky in his bet on Sceptre for the Gold Cup, ‘dead cert’ (U 7.388). In life and fiction many certs are dead. Gambling as a thematic thread makes sense in the present context: it is a matter of chance with an uncertain outcome. The race of the day seems to make everybody a loser, and that Bloom is assumed to be the only one to have cashed in on it will actually tell against him.

Bloom had clearly planned to pick up a letter in the post office, then to attend Dignam’s funeral, and to pursue some...