Wordsmoker Word of the Day: “Quidnunc”
February 26, 2009 in Wordsmoker Word Of The Day
No one knows more about not finishing James Joyce’s Ulysses than I do. You don’t want to throw down with me on this. I can extemporize at length on the topic, and am available to do so at your next book or Rotary club meeting for a modest fee. Routinely listed at the top of lists of Greatest Books Since the Last Ice Age, Ulysses makes strenuous demands on the reader with its use of lengthy internal monologues, multiple dialects, convoluted parodies and pastiches, not to mention neologisms and puns rooted in several languages. To my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone who’s read it cover to cover.
It’s not like I didn’t have expert help close at hand when I didn’t complete Ulysses. I’ve probably consulted more works about this confounding Modernist masterpiece than anyone else (who hasn’t finished it). My tattered copy is surrounded on the shelf by reference works that crowd it like a bedraggled entourage. A dingy bookmark is still planted where I left off, highlighting my doleful progress.
Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses is a trustworthy, if stolid, guide to the underlying structure of the novel. The now familiar mapping of episodes between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey is laid out in numbing detail. Beyond the Homeric references, Joyce wanted the reader to know how each chapter was associated with an organ, an art, a color, etc., and Gilbert made certain they did. The verbatim quotes are long and frequent, owing partly to the ban on the novel here in the U.S. until 1933.
Joyce’s hand is clearly visible in Gilbert, who frankly acknowledges the debt. Gilbert was criticized in some circles for having Joyce as his silent partner, but surely insight on an author’s intent can be valuable when confronting a work as recondite as Ulysses. There is of course a school of thought that holds that the author’s motives, beliefs, and biographical details are nothing more than an interpretative prison – the theory of the “death of the author.” Rest assured, gentle reader, that none of that homopomo hokum will be on offer here [I shouldn’t count on any more awards if I were you. – Ed.].
Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey, written by a celebrated Joyce (and Wilde) biographer, acknowledges Joyce’s scaffolding without being chained to it. He also considers a somewhat different schematic Joyce previously sent his Italian translator, Carlo Linati. His book breathes more life into the material than does Gilbert’s, offering a supple analysis of the relationship between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, the characters’ philosophies of nature and art, the underlying theme of usurpation, and the interplay between sacred and profane elements in the novel. If you could read just one book on Ulysses, you could do worse than Ellmann. (Then again, consider the source of this advise.)
Anthony Burgess, who gave us the teenage language Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, weighs in with Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce. (Burgess also has a go here at Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which makes Ulysses read like the Cliff Notes for a Danielle Steele novel.) An accomplished composer as well as a linguist, critic, and novelist, Burgess introduced words such as chumble, drencrom, and guttiwuts to the popular imagination. Burgess eases aside dead Greeks to focus on the live sounds emanating from the pages of Ulysses. He takes your arm as you stroll through Dublin, pointing out how vowels act as class markers, and the significance for Anglo-Irish relations of shifts in their pronunciation. Just as the philology starts to get wearying, Burgess stands you to a pint in Temple Bar (where today you’ll find terrific Indian food), and then recites passages from the book, encouraging you to recognize the changing rhythms of Joyce’s prose, to tease out its counterpoint, canons, and fugues, and to fully understand the musical puns and mimetic devises which enliven eye and ear.
With all of this literary firepower at hand, I should be a reigning expert on Ulysses. Instead I am reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt when he attempted to stop smoking: I recognized a need, made plans, marshaled resources, and proclaimed the virtues of my mission to everyone I knew. And what a sound plan it was: read a chapter of Gilbert, a chapter of Ellmann, followed by the associated chapter of Ulysses; repeat, and add a chapter of Burgess on alternate cycles. To paraphrase Lewis, I did everything, in fact, except finish Ulysses. Perhaps my nun-controlled early education hindered me from going with the flow and simply enjoying the exuberant language for its own sake. Wasn’t Burgess hinting that he tossed aside his Joyce books while writing his own when he said “I have now a very large Joyce library, but I do not know where it is?” A friend recommended that I read Ulysses straight through without trying to understand every cultural and literary allusion. But what would it say about me if I didn’t exert myself? I dismissed her as a gloopy soomka and continued on my noble, futile path.
The action of the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, where Dedalus and Bloom finally meet, starts out in a maternity ward and moves on to a pub. [Wouldn’t the other way round have made more sense? – Ed.] The entire chapter is a riot of gestational imagery, fecund, wet, overflowing with fertile blasphemy and fleshy desecration. It parodies English syntax and prose styles going back centuries, climaxing in what Ellmann calls “a series of random ejaculations, a spray of words in all directions.” Malachi (“Buck”) Mulligan, Stephen’s friend, antagonist and tower-mate, proclaims his willingness to impregnate any woman in Ireland whatsoever:
His project, as he went on to expound, was to withdraw from the round of idle pleasures such as form the chief business of sir Fopling Popinjay and sir Milksop Quidnunc in town and to devote himself to the noblest task for which our bodily organism has been framed. Well, let us hear of it, good my friend, said Mr Dixon. I make no doubt it smacks of wenching. (Ulysses, Vintage Books, 1961, p. 402.)
The word of the day is Quidnunc. Literally “what now?,” a quidnunc is a nosy person or a gossip, a person who exhibits a constant need to know the very latest information, even – or especially – when it’s trivial in nature. I presume the appellation would apply to most bloggers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, quidnunc was first spotted in our language in the18th century. Pre-internet Stephen Dedalus is prepared to abandon salacious gossip in favor of wanton sex. That sounds like a pretty good trade to me.
Please continue to send your word suggestions to me at renesance1 (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll work through the backlog of e-mail as quickly as possible. [Weren’t you just whinging to me the other day that no one had written to you yet? – Ed.]