Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Error and Education in Ulysses

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Error and Education in Ulysses

Article excerpt

Our Classical Days

A whole history lies behind some mistakes. When Henry Scobie reads the note left by his mistress, in The Heart of the Matter, her spelling mistake provides a glimpse into another world:

My dear, my dear, leave me if you want to or have me as your hore if you want to. He thought: she's only heard the word, never seen it spelt: they cut it out of the school Shakespeare.

Reminiscent of Martha Clifford's typing, the poor punctuation and error in this passage act as "portals of discovery," although not as envisaged by Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. They not only mark the limits of Helen RoIt' s intellectual competence, for Scobie, they also mark the limits of her moral comprehension, undermining her attempt at self-sacrifice in relation to their affair (she doesn't understand what she's offering). Scobie' s observation connects her mistakes to Helen's formation at a basic level ("the school Shakespeare") and in a much broader sense. In contrast, when Stephen claims that "a man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery" (U 9.926-29), he treats error as a channel for untapped creative potential. Joyce's fiction is open to both views of error: Fritz Senn has ably described the "multiple gains" associated with Joyce's frequent recourse to "disorderly shapes"; but such fictionalised mistakes are also frequently imbedded in what his writing has to tell us directly and indirectly about the formation of his characters in intimate and sometimes painful ways.

In comparison with Greene, minor errors tend to proliferate in Joyce's work with comic effect. When Tom Kernan' s friends ponder the achievements of Pope Leo XIII in "Grace," their attempt to pool intellectual resources only leads them further into error:

- I often heard he was one of the most intellectual men in Europe, said Mr Power. I mean apart from his being Pope.

- So he was, said Mr Cunningham, if not the most so. His motto, you know, as Pope, was Lux upon Lux - Light upon Light.

- No, no, said Mr Fogarty eagerly. I think you're wrong there. It was Lux in Tene bris, I think - Light in Darkness.

- O, yes, said Mr M'Coy, Tenebrae.

- Allow me, said Mr Cunningham positively, it was Lux upon Lux. And Pius IX. his predecessor's motto was Crux upon Crux that is, Cross upon Cross - to show the difference between their two pontificates.

The inference was allowed. Mr Cunningham continued.

- Pope Leo, you know, was a great scholar and a poet.

- He had a strong face, said Mr Kernan.

- Yes, said Mr Cunningham. He wrote Latin poetry. (D 167)

Popes do not have mottoes, but the apocryphal Prophecies of St Malachy purports to predict their character using 112 cryptic Latin phrases. Popular Catholic tradition associates Leo XIII and Pius IX with Lumen in Coelo ("Light in the heavens") and Crux de Cruce ("A Cross from the Cross") respectively. In spite of his social authority ("the inference was allowed"), Mr Cunningham is doubly wrong because he also mixes English and Latin together indiscriminately, with no respect for Latin's case endings. When Mr M'Coy expresses assent ("O, yes, [...] Tenebrae"), he further confuses the question by echoing the Vulgate bible ("Et lux in tene bris lucei et tenebrae earn non compre he nderunt" [John 1:5]), probably thinking of the holy week ceremony oiTenebrae.

The obvious irony of this collective muddle about religion is that they aim to persuade Tom Kernan to join them on retreat. They share a tendency to mistake Latin with Leopold Bloom, who misremembers the phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("speak nothing of the dead but good") when thinking about the propriety of making jokes in a graveyard:

You must laugh sometimes so better do it that way. Gravediggers in Hamlet. Shows the profound knowledge of the human heart. Daren't joke about the dead for two years at least. De mortuis nil nisi prius. (U 6.791-94)

Bloom's erroneous substitution, "nisi prius," is a legal phrase used to describe "a civil action tried in a court of record before a judge and jury. …

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