The Book as Artefact, Text and Border

By Anne Mette Hansen; Roger Lüdeke et al. | Go to book overview

The Potency of Error (exemplified in Joyce’s
Ulysses)

Fritz Senn

Whatever pivotal forces are at work in Joyce’s verbal universe, an emphasis on how things go wrong plays an effective part. All his works exemplify the humanity of error. Joyce may have carried platitudinous insights farthest, into the processes of the mind and, above all, into verbal expressions, style and language. Nothing, on its surface, is ever ‘right’ in Finnegans Wake (“the wright side and the wronged side” signals the principle and acts it out, FW 597.11), but the practice set in at the very outset, say “them with the rheumatic wheels” in the first story of Dubliners.

As publishers, reviewers and outraged readers testified all along, Joyce did things wrong without fail, he never seemed to conform. Like his selfappointed predecessor Daedalus, the arch-artificer, he sent his mind out towards structures or arts that were not as yet known, or accepted— “ignotas…in artes” in the proud boast lifted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is prefaced to A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. In this headlong advance Joyce lost admirers as he pursued his provective path, irrespective of conventions; no-one ever could have predicted the next stage to come. Joyce was censured and censored all along. In his own Ireland the pendulum gradually swung the other way; at first the country vilified or neglected him (there are still letters to the Irish Times to this effect), in the meantime he has become a national icon. Nowadays genuine appreciation is at variance with crass commercialism.

This outline focuses on errors, mistakes, whatever goes wrong, and it wisely refrains from any definition of what is right or wrong in which circumstances. Terms like “wrong, error, mistake” are employed in relation to goals or expectations; the main emphasis is on structural or lexical disruptions, a disregard for commonly observed, traditional norms (grammar, concordance, register). One of the effects of Joyce’s liberal training is a basic skepticism about all types of absolutes (though one still finds unquestioning certitude in Joyce scholarship.)

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