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Joyce's Love Letters

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 354-357 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0024

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Joyce's love of letters—of anagrams, acrostics, and palindromes—is well known. Even before the twistings and turnings of HCE in Finnegans Wake, the writer toyed with the shapes and correspondences that letters could suggest. In Stephen Hero, we find that the aspiring writer "put his lines together not word by word but letter by letter" (SH 32). Letters are also part of the many plots in Ulysses and of the characters' imaginative lives; one recalls, for instance, the missing L from Bloom's name in the paper (U 16.1260); the added L in Martha's letter when she confesses that she does not like that "other world" (U 5.245); Stephen's playful acknowledgement of his debt in "A. E. I. O. U." (U 9.213); Crawford's explanation of the code used by the journalist Ignatius Gallaher to convey information about the Phoenix Park Murders—"T is viceregal lodge. C is where murder took place. K is Knockmaroon gate" (U 7.661-62); the mystery surrounding the postcard to Breen—"U. P." (U 8.257); Bloom's mulling over what I.H.S stands for—"I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is" (U 5.373); the men carrying the sandwich boards—"H. E. L. Y'S filed before him" (U 10.310); and Bloom's anagrams on his name and his acrostic love poetry (U 17.405-16). The list goes on.

Ulysses, I suggest, also lovingly casts its own letters into portentous shapes from the very beginning: its first three capital letters—"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" (U 1.01)—Stephen, Bloom, Molly—are a kind of compressed shorthand for an unholy Trinity. Hugh Kenner has also drawn attention to the initial letters of the book's three parts (S M P): "Stephen, Molly, Poldy? The three members of a syllogism?" "Subject," "Middle," and "Predicate" imply a hidden logic of sorts, and this kind of linguistic craft extends to the book's last word "Yes" (U 18.1609); as Kenner observes, when read in Hebrew fashion from right to left—"s e y," "yes" returns us to the opening—Stately (155). Kenner noticed these tricks in passing, but Joyce may have put the experiments at his novel's center as well as at its periphery. That is, Ulysses may be hinting at its cryptical ingenuity as it goes along.

In the "Ithaca" episode of the novel, as part of the answer to the question, "What did the first drawer unlocked contain?" we are told that Bloom has three letters from Martha "in reversed alphabetic boustrophedonic punctated quadrilinear cryptogram (vowels suppressed) N. IGS./WI. UU. OX/W. OKS. MH/Y.IM" (U 17.1774, 1799-1801). To crack the code, one writes out the alphabet, then writes directly beneath it the alphabet in reverse, assigning A to Z, B to Y, C to X, and so on. When the above message is decoded, we get "M.RTH./DR.FF.LC/D.LPH.NS/B.RN." Once the vowels have been added to these surreptitious avowals, we see: "Martha Clifford [the surname has been reversed for extra protection] Dolphin's Barn." This much, of course, Joyceans know.

Boustrophedonic writing (meaning literally "as the ox turns") is a form of Greek epigraphy. The term was originally used to describe the writing on early Greek inscriptions in which the lines of writing run alternately from right to left and from left to right, as the ox pulls the plough in successive furrows (note that in the letter above, the central part of the cryptogram turns on the letters OX, and an echo of the word is heard in the sounds of the letters in the next part of the code, OKS). The process of reading right to left in Ulysses, though, also has Judaic echoes; one thinks of Bloom's vision of Rudy at the end of the "Circe" episode, when "[h]e reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page," or of his recollection in "Aeolus" of "[p]oor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me" (U 15.4959...



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