- Joyce and Jolas: Late Modernism and Early Babelism
As an epigraph, I would like to quote the limerick written by Joyce in honor of his friend and editor, when he saluted the publication of Eugene Jolas’ experimental poems, Mots Déluge, in a new version provided by Jolas in his recently republished Man from Babel:
“VERSAILLES 1933 There’s a genial young poetriarch Euge Who hollers with heartiness huge: Let sick souls sob for solace So the jeunes joy with Jolas Book your berths: Après mot, le déluge!” 1
Joyce not only plays on Jolas’ name but also puns on his own name, using it as a verb (“...the jeunes joy with Jolas...” sounds almost like James Joyce) to re-write the cynical motto attributed to Louis XV. The French king allegedly offered this famous mot when he brushed aside importune criticism of his extravagant spending, showing too that he was aware of the impending crisis that would erupt after him with the 1789 Revolution. Here, “Après moi, le déluge” (“After me, the deluge”) becomes “After (the) Word, the Deluge,” thus stressing multiple and overdetermined links among the old embattled Ego, the ongoing “Revolution of the Word” and an apocalyptic consciousness of time’s end. The Ego (Moi) has been replaced by a Mot, or a “Verbe” (Hebrew Dabar, Greek Logos, Latin Verbum, English Word) that condenses all the qualities formerly associated with an egoistic or egocentric subject. The fact that Joyce wrote the limerick at Versailles in 1933 gives it, too, a sense of ominous [End Page 245] foreboding.
Joyce’s relation to Eugene Jolas can be understood as much in terms of overlapping Egos and Names as in terms of parallel philosophies, politics, and esthetics, in a movement that can be placed precisely in history—around the end of the 1920s, the beginning of the 1930s, and the waning of a certain type of “happy avant-garde” and its obsession with a “new language” or a “counter-language.” It can also be understood within its context, as seen from the vantage point of the present, now that we have reached the end of this century, a century in which Ulysses has come to embody our highest literary values as “best novel of the century.” Let us not forget, in case we happen to be persuaded by the Modern Library jury’s vote, that Jolas and his associates had long ago announced the death of the novel: “The Novel is dead/ Long live the novel”—a proclamation to be found at the end of transition n°18 (November 1929, n.p.) that vigorously asserted, “The novel of the future will take no cognizance of the laws imposed by professors of literature and critics.”
It is not surprising to see how fast Jolas became Joyce’s confidant, falling into the shoes of the friend and publisher that was Sylvia Beach. Like Beach, Jolas would allow Joyce the luxury of multiple page-proofs upon which he could keep adding curiously unpronounceable words. Joyce used these as we would work with a computer screen today, but to considerable expense. Thus, Jolas explains first in transition n°21, (p. 252) and then in his autobiography that the printers had become so used to Joyce’s last-minute corrections that the author’s name became a common swearword when they would say “Joyce, alors!” 2 Joyce was delighted to realize that his name could not only be translated into French as “jouasse” (a slang term meaning “extreme happiness”) but also that the “word Joyce” could turn into a printer’s “verb of objurgation.” 3 Jolas does not use “verb” at random here. His most fundamental belief is that the Word creates the world, and this is probably the one thesis he shares entirely with Joyce—or, in the very clear terms used in Finnegans Wake: “This exists that isits after having been said we know. And dabal take dabnal!” (Wake, 186.08–9). The metamorphosis of a phrase such as “And the Devil take Dublin” into richly stratified layers using Sanskrit and Hebrew overtones testifies to the ongoing textualization of a Biblical dabar (speech). Later, Lacan...