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Joyce’s “Rib Risible”?

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 347-350 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0051

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When Leopold Bloom leaves the Freeman’s office in “Aeolus,” the Professor and Lenehan gaze at him over the crossblind. Watching one of the young newsboys who follow Bloom, Lenehan exclaims, “O, my rib risible!” (U 7.448). “[R]ib risible” is an oddity even in an episode built on figures of speech: it is possibly a French pun rendered in English but unattested in any standard or slang dictionaries.1 Unlike established phrases such as “risible muscles” (or just “risibles”) or the slang use of “rib” meaning “woman”2 or “a teasing remark or action; a joke,”3 the construction under discussion appears to be a nonce-formation. While the production of laughter through rib-tickling is a well-known human experience, it does not seem to have given rise to a set expression in any western European language. In French, there is an expression, le côté risible, referring to “the ridiculous, or funny, side (of something).” Etymologically related, yet a different word, the French la côté means “rib,” and, indeed, “rib risible,” at first glance, looks like a playful, etymologized formation borrowed from the French. But is it?

Lenehan’s exclamation was a late addition to the text. The whole sentence is absent in the Little Review edition, and it does not appear in any intermediate stages up to Joyce’s revisions between mid-August and early September 1921.4 It was carried over into the placards for the 1922 edition from the purple late notebook, NLI 5A, National Library of Ireland, MS 36,639/5A. The note “[o] my rib risible” appears on p. 52, which is entitled “Eolus”; like other notes carried over into the placards, it is crossed out in blue.5 In other words, at some point between 1918, when the serialized Ulysses appeared in the Little Review, and August–September 1921, the phrase “rib risible” must have stimulated Joyce’s interest and eventually made it into the printed, complete Ulysses.6 Did Joyce himself coin the phrase? A word-play (and we are talking about “Aeolus”!) on the French “la côte” and “le côté” (“rib” and “side,” respectively) cannot be ruled out, of course—not least because these two meanings overlap in a number of contexts. Another source, however, offers itself. While “rib risible” cannot be found in dictionaries, it makes appearances, on several occasions, in writings by James Gibbons Huneker (1857–1921).

Huneker, regarded by his biographer as “the most versatile and one of the most entertaining and influential of American critics,”7 was a friend of the lawyer and patron of literature John Quinn, and he was the first critic of rank to review Joyce’s A Portrait in the United States.8 Most intriguing are the following quotations from two of Huneker’s major works:9 “The idea of a husband having any authority over her tickled her rib risible.”10 The second is in a passage from Huneker’s autobiography, which is quoted here in full:

In my lightest manner I said, after I shook hands: “Mr. Gabler, you make me think of an aunt of mine we always called an earnest gabbler.”11 The man’s face clouded, then turning to Marc he grimly said: “Bloomy, this young fellow would make a better piano-tuner than a trade-journalist, don’t you think so?” We left in a few minutes and around the corner Blumenberg exploded. I was nervous, but when I saw him holding his sides and roaring with glee I felt relieved. The silly pun had tickled his risible rib, and even if he had lost the advertisement, he would have laughed. He was that kind of a man.12

This is as good a source for “rib risible” in “Aeolus” as there can be. Apart from the “risible rib” (here inverted), “Bloomy” is occupied with an advertisement—an astonishing parallel to Bloom’s ad for Alexander Keyes (U 7.25–27, 122–60). Moreover, Bloomy, alias Marc Antony Blumenberg,13 is elsewhere described in Huneker’s autobiography as “a pragmatic Jew” and “trade-journalist” (Steeplejack 2:18). There are, unfortunately, no hints that Joyce owned or read any of Huneker’s...

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