Joyce's Bad Words
By Tim Conley
Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words, writing prose:
--Cole Porter, "Anything Goes" (1934)
I like him lots coss he never cusses. (FW 459.24)
It is for the most part a truism among Joyceans that the evolution of Joyce as a writer, from Chamber Music to Finnegans Wake, represents an evolution of an understanding of language itself. A consequential problem of a more challenging nature invokes the possibility of an ethics, or ethical framework, to Joyce's written language. This is, I hasten to add, not to presume to probe the conscience of a man, but rather to examine what moral structure or polity an author lends his language. "There are no moral phenomena at all," insists Nietzsche, "but only a moral interpretation of phenomena" (Nietzsche 275). Recognizing that language is simultaneously a phenomenon and an interpretation, the reader grimly notes how quickly a study of Joyce leads to paradox. My solution is to posit that the amorality of language, while a very dignified-sounding phrase in itself, is untenable because an unconstrained entity called "language" is wholly theoretical (and thus, neither a tangible phenomenon nor a necessarily subjective interpretation). The language of a God may supercede morality, but I am not as yet prepared to consider Joyce in such terms (though I will return to this point in connection to Finnegans Wake).
The designation and positioning of "bad words" effectively offer signposts for the terminal points of "good" -- that is to say, moral, as opposed to immoral -- words and language. Generally speaking, it seems to me that obscenity is (regarded as) more objectionable as text than as image. The reasons for this range from the traditional authority which the word has retained (though perhaps at the cost of its popularity) to its implacable "hot" medium quality. If one wants to find an example from contemporary culture of a roughly drawn limit specifically for language, I recommend watching the film Lethal Weapon as modified by the Toronto-based CTV television network. Mel Gibson, with a mysteriously fluctuating voice pattern, tells his partner how "miffed" he is at the "funsters" who have just gunned him clear through a plate-glass window. It is the linguistic expression of violence, not its visual representation, which is unsuitable for the prime-time TV family.
Similar kinds of indirect approach constitute the first phase of Joyce's confrontation with "bad words". Narratives of immaturity recognize the existence, though characteristically do not dwell on the nature, of those "unspoken brutal words" (P 99) exiled from public and/or Wonderbread family discourse. Of course, the mystery of these words always has appeal. The protagonists of "The Sisters" and "Araby" are privy to the tantalising outlines of bad words, wondering with the reader at the blank in the phrase "one of those...peculiar cases" (D 10) and what "such a thing" did or didn't the young lady at the bazaar say (D 35). The narrator of "An Encounter" goes on a journey marked by unorthodox language: running from the institution which brands his choice of reading "rubbish" (D 20), he aligns himself with Mahony, the Tom Sawyer who "used slang freely" (D 22). The "queer old josser" (D 26) then tries to connect with the narrator via their "bookworm" brotherhood:
Of course, he said, there were some of Lord Lytton's works which boys couldn't read. Mahony asked why couldn't boys read them -- a question which agitated and pained me because I was afraid the man would think I was as stupid as Mahony. (D 25)
The implication that the narrator is, if only in the vaguest sense, aware of the stigma of such "works" (to be understood, perhaps, as the analogous adult "rubbish") illuminates Joyce's understanding, at least in the period of these writings, of "obscenity" as a suggestion of absence.
In its entirety A Portrait dramatizes a more complex debate. Joyce contrasts such absences with those "bad words" which depend upon context for their infamy, as in the contrast between the heretical inclusion of "nearer" in Stephen's essay (P 79) -- not a profanity in itself -- with the mannered exclusion of the objectionable name for Kitty O'Shea (P 36-7); presumably a word irredeemable by any usage. Stephen's growth (at least, as an intellectual) can be measured in his confrontations with the limits of acceptable language. The name of God is less a puzzle for Stephen than the "ugly" and "queer" word "suck" (P 11), though his own mythological ("like Latin") name is similarly "queer" (P 25); also like, lest we forget, the "queer old josser". The connection between "bad words" and Stephen is prophesied by Dante -- "the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home" (P 33; see also 35) -- as his moral downfall, but strangely doubles as the means by which he will allegedly be punished for this downfall: "the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust"; "O my dear little brothers in Christ, may it never be in our lot to hear that language!" (P 124). At his most fearful, Stephen is haunted by the singular word "Foetus" (P 89); at his most radical, he "is after saying a bad word" (P 193); but all the same, Stephen has not, by Portrait's end, reconciled himself to "bad words" and the power they hold over him, as he struggles with his "agenbite of inwit" in Ulysses.
In Lars Porsena, that very entertaining lament on the decline of English swearing, Robert Graves observes a "record of a novelist James Joyce" (71) whose Ulysses "could be studied as a complete manual of contemporary obscenity" (89). Indeed, "it is a deadly serious work in which obscenity is anatomized as it has never been anatomized before" (90). The snigger-inspiring business of a "deadly serious work" aside, there is here the seed of a reasonable argument that, put rather blandly, Ulysses is all "about" swearing. By this I don't mean to suggest that I agree, for example, with the identification of Bloom as "gross obscenity incarnate" (Graves 90) or of Molly as "a slut" and "a venture into the unconsciousness of evil" (Adams 166). Such critical insights remind one of the joke about the psychiatric patient who, upon being diagnosed with an exaggerated preoccupation with sex after a Rorschach ink-blot test, chastises the examiner, "but you're the one who showed me all the dirty pictures." For all the ballyhoo about the "scandal of Ulysses", the book is short on the four-letter usual suspects when compared with British prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffiths-Jones' fastidious selective concordance to Lady Chatterley's Lover (see Table 1).
A selective count of vulgar words in three literary works:
||Lady Chatterley's Lover
* Note that this count is constituted by exact words, and does not include variants (like Wakeisms) or cases where a given word occurs within a longer or compounded word (e.g., "shite", or the more unusual "cunty", both of which appear four times in Ulysses): thus, the two incidents of "fuck" in Ulysses do not account for the use of "fucking."
I have no real interest, however, in mere statistics and smug finger-pointing, any more than I have any interest in trundling out patchy platitudes about modernism as a more liberal canvas to explain, in a general and otiose manner, the appearance (or, because this should not be neglected, the lack of appearance) of taboo words. However, various "systems" exist which helpfully mete out for us poor sinners those words which are categorically "bad." In fact, Joyce has seen fit to provide a guide for reference.
"Perilous thing it is to swear," advises Dan Michel in his fourteenth century handbook for the pious, Ayenbite of Inwyt, or, Remorse of Conscience (Morris 63). Swearing -- not by any means the sum of the flexible series of "bad words" in any language, but always a reliably thorny subseries -- so interested this brother of the Cloister of Saint Austin at Canterbury that he carefully classified, in a merry post-Dante fashion, seven modes of swearing. (It is not difficult to see the attraction of such a system for Joyce, the catalogue fetishist.) Ulysses merrily runs the gamut of oaths and names taken in vain, from curses like "[t]he devil break the hasp of your back!" (U 117) and "shite and onions!" (U 160) to the final affirmation, "Yes" (U 933); a most solemn sort of swearing indeed.
These first two curses are of course uttered by Simon Dedalus, who in the opinion of Robert Graves, "swears admirably" (92). Taste in foul tongues aside, Stephen's father is an exemplar of what Dan Michel would likely identify as the "bold" swearer. Is Joyce, though? The notion is tempting, as it nicely correlates with the non serviam, rebel-against-a-cause portrait of a young man as the artist. When Bloom pictures the Holy Land as "the grey sunken cunt of the world" (U 73), Anthony Burgess, who is clearly not a Zionist, calls this "an exactly appropriate term" working in "the service of a legitimate aesthetic shock" (372) which he finds operating in Ulysses. Shock-swearers are certainly bold, but compared with D.H. Lawrence's fourteen uses of "cunt" in a much shorter book, Joyce seems, relatively speaking, more of what Dan Michel calls a "light" swearer. For every direct discourse example of profanity in Joyce's fiction there is an evasion: Mrs. Mooney's mitt-handy son's fondness for "soldiers' obscenities" (D 62); Corley's "uncalled-for expressions" (U 709); and of course, the "[u]nspeakable messages" (U 649) repeatedly attributed to Bloom:
THE NYMPH: (Her fingers in her ears) And words. They are not in my dictionary.
BLOOM: You understood them?
THE YEWS: Ssh. (U 657)
(More on yews shortly.) These words constitute whole "other worlds", to paraphrase Martha Clifford's telling mistake (U 95). They are thus the opposite of the "plain words" for metempsychosis (U 77), and also distinct from "those big words...which make us so unhappy" (U 38); but perhaps as mysterious as the word "known to all men" (U 61).
Swearing for swearing's sake is not part of Joyce's aesthetic, "legitimate" or otherwise: anyone who appreciates Joyce's economy of language senses this instinctively, but there are any number of examples of "bad word" usage clearly not presented to win huzzahs from the sweaty-palmed reader. There is a pair of examples, in fact, which both ably demonstrate a similar scheme of swearing and represent climactic moments in the thematic struggle with illicit language. Dan Michel knowingly informs us that those who swear by God and His saints are "worse than the Jews" (Morris 64), who are forever to blame for running in those iron nails. This is one of the greatest of the dark ironies of the Citizen: "By Jesus, says he, I'll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I'll crucify him so I will" (U 445). The twin moment of such dangerous but inherently ludicrous überverfluchen comes with the anticipated Stephen-Bloom intersection. If the Citizen is the defender of the faith, Private Carr is the loyal servant of the other of Stephen's "two masters", "[t]he imperial British state" (U 24):
PRIVATE CARR: (Tugging at his belt) I'll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king. (U 693)
And again, with more urgency:
PRIVATE CARR: (Loosening his belt, shouts) I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king. (U 694)
(Finnegans Wake also often chooses to echo parapraxes in curses: "Pass the fish for Christ's sake!" [FW 535.25] is an unusually straightforward example; the fish being a potent symbol in the discourse of Christian redemption.)
There is one more lover of "bad words" who might figure as a "needful" swearer, though I doubt Dan Michel would ever in his lifetime reckon with the possibility of Molly Bloom. If the contentious publication of the Joyces' rather explicit love letters actually serves to teach anything about his works (rather than about its students), it may be simply this: that Joyce understood and celebrated that eros may dwell in logos interdictus. Of particular significance is the apparent arbitrary nature of the "bad word" elected to service the need. "O Lord," swears Molly, "I wanted to shout all sorts of things fuck or shit or anything at all" (U 894); or, again:
I know every turn in him Ill tighten my bottom well and let out a few smutty words smellrump or lick my shit or the first mad thing comes into my head (U 930)
In The Anatomy of Swearing, Ashley Montagu speculates that swearing "is the culturally conditioned verbal expression or venting of the aggressiveness that follows upon frustration" (78). In trying to reconcile this "aggressiveness" with Molly's climactic "smutty words", it is worth considering that this pat definition appears within a chapter quaintly titled, "Why Do Men Swear?"
"Fik yew!" says Finnegans Wake (469.27), and the reader, already agitated by the stigma, size, and reality of the text which confronts him or her, is uncertain whether to take offence at its "Ibscenest nansence" (FW 535.19). No less anxious myself sitting on such a truly fiking yew, as a very open conclusion I will only make two general points about "bad words" in the Wake.
The first relates back to Mel Gibson and his problem with the "funsters." Beyond dramatic exclusion and verbatim expression, there is tantalising mnemonic substitution; what the Wake cheekily refers to as "hides and hints and misses in prints" (FW 20.11). Ulysses toys with some of the elliptical ways of employing bad words, such as the newspaper acronyms in "Aeolus" and the cloying ditty of The Prison Gate Girls (precursors, perhaps, to The Spice Girls?):
If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me. (U 616)
Cursing cryptically and euphemistically ("as if any fool wouldn't know what that meant" [U 890]) may be the keenest acknowledgements of the power of bad words. The words, those first mad things that come into the head, are not simply associations or representations of taboos, but the taboos themselves. Finnegans Wake is, by its own insistence, "antilibellous and nonactionable and this applies to its whole wholume" (FW 48.18-9), because Joyce, as the "sire of leery subs of dub" (FW 596.12), has rubbed and dubbed his words, "transtuled his funster's latitat" (FW 50.17; italics mine). Daringly picking up what George Steiner speculates as perhaps the "only one universal --the incest taboo required, if it really is, for the preservation and development of the human species" (Steiner 82), Joyce brightens the word with the merest gesture of anagram ("to commence insects with him" [FW 414.27-8]).
On to polishing the sky: my second Wake point relates to what Lynch calls "Pornosophical philotheology" (U 564). As a variously apocryphal and forged new "Evidentament" (FW 253.19), the Wake represents Joyce's decision to -- in the nice phrase of Oliver St. John Gogarty -- "extract the Logos, the Divine word or Reason from its tabernacle, and turn it muttering and maudlin into the street" (4). Francis Grose's 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue glosses the expression "Irish evidence" as false swearing and false witness; the final mode of swearing denigrated in The Ayenbite of Inwyt. This disingenuous element of the Wake, which will pardon heresy as hearsay, gives it the greatest licence in swearing against the most irreproachable, the Word and God. Jean-Michel Rabaté notes the "maternal function of heresy" at work in Dubliners and Ulysses (26), but does not consider the Wake, wherein the almighty father, whose very presence is a gambit at best, is being goaded to action in just such a rugged mother tongue ("Mummum" [FW 259.10]). In this sense the Wake runs counterpoint to scripture, exchanging the roles of authority by ironically investing the reader with the absent God's position, and thus, the one to whom offence is offered: "I will describe you in a word. Thou. (I beg your pardon.)" (FW 422.10). We ourselves have become Joyce's last bad word.
D -- Dubliners
FW -- Finnegans Wake
P -- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
U -- Ulysses
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Burgess, Anthony. You've Had Your Time. London: Heinemann, 1990.
Gogarty, Oliver St. John. "Roots in Resentment: James Joyce's Revenge." The Observer 7 May 1939 4.
Graves, Robert. Lars Porsena, or The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.; New York: Dutton & Co., 1927.
Grose, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. 1785. Menston, U.K.: Scolar, 1968.
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. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Ed. Chester G. Anderson. Viking Critical Library. New York: Penguin, 1977.
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