Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Misquoting Joyce

Academic journal article European Joyce Studies

Misquoting Joyce

Article excerpt

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.

("Attributed" to James Joyce, at Wikiquote1)

Jorge Luis Borges once suggested, in a highly quotable way, that every reader of Shakespeare is Shakespeare.2 While the argument from which this quotation is drawn is really one against the sequentiality of experience and thus the consistency of identity, it is also about language and, less directly, my subject here, quotation itself. The notion of becoming Shakespeare is, on the one hand, thrilling and uplifting: the promise of such shared eloquence is Utopian. In the most recent edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, R. W. Burchfield sighs: "In a perfect world, familiar lines or passages from the great classical works of English literature, or from famous speeches, would never be misquoted":3 the perfect world is characterized and perhaps itself created by the practice of accurate quotation. On the other hand, though, this promise of an inner Shakespeare waiting to possess us is stunningly constraining: the finitude of expression, bearing down upon every user of words, makes plagiarism inevitable and individual expression perhaps impossible. What if in that roomful of monkeys inexplicably pounding away at those typewriters there is even one particularly pathetic primate who above everything does not want to reproduce the works of Shakespeare, perhaps wants to find his own voice and write his own opus - isn't he doomed by both proverb and probability? "This is the monkey's own giving out":4 in this light, that is a somewhat sad way to introduce a quotation.

Does Borges' s remark about Shakespeare apply to Joyce? In my book, Joyces Mistakes, I suggested that we readers, scholars, and editors all misquote Joyce.5 But, as I also tried to make clear, this is not our fault - at least, not entirely. We are vexed by a very high degree of textual instability in Joyce's works, by which badly stretchmarked phrase I collectively refer to the sometimes bellicose history of publication, translation, and litigation of those works, plus the fascinating, frustrating aesthetic of error that Joyce himself explored as the complexity of his texts grew exponentially. (Allow me to stress that I do mean "complexity" and not "difficulty": the former is quantifiable and subject to, for example, certain fairly intuitive theories and laws of communication and logic.) Neither this history nor Joyce is wholly to blame. In the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson's remark that correctness is not the most prized quality of the scholar, and in response to Borges, I'd like to argue that every reader of Joyce is him- or herself, unique in his or her errors.

This essay draws out this crucial point by a sort of reductio ad absurdum trajectory. If we attempt to define misquotation, we may map out specific categories, recognizable "kinds" of misquotation. The OED (5th ed., shorter) serves as a cautionary tale, however, defining as it does, "misquote" (noun) as "an incorrect quotation" and, as a verb, "quote incorrectly". (The entry is complemented by no quotations demonstrating usage - a badly missed opportunity.) No less vexing is the definition provided by Wikipedia, that storehouse of received, recycled, and unreviewed wisdom. Consider how, for example, the syntax and vagueness of the following undermine the unknown quotable author's claims:

Some people are thought to have said certain things, but there is no evidence of these words in any of their surviving writings: when this is the case, the words have merely to be attributed [sic] to them. Many quotations are routinely [?] incorrect or attributed to the wrong authors, and quotations from obscure writers are often attributed to far more famous writers by lax quoters. Good examples of this [sic] are Winston Churchill, to whom many political quotations of uncertain origin are attributed, and Oscar Wilde, who has said far more witty things than he possibly could [sic].6

I will have more to say about both Wikipedia later; for the moment I wish to highlight the presence of Wilde as well as the strangely nearSteinian tone of the first half of this quotation ("some people are thought to have said certain things" sounds like a fugitive phrase from The Making of Americans). …

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