An American Jesuit on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’: obscene, blasphemous and ‘against the natural law’
From the editors: We offer this selection from Sept. 1, 1934, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ulysses. It was written many years after James Joyce published the novel.
A great pother has been bubbling up for the past twelve years about James Joyce's writings. He tells forlornly in a letter to Dear Mr. Cerf, of Random House, who made a scoop on the sale of American copies of “Ulysses,” how he could never get Dublin publishers “to publish anything of mine as I wrote it.” No less than twenty-two publishers and printers read the manuscript of “Dubliners,” but not one wished to be entangled in the muck. The twenty-second printed it ; one “kind” person bought out the entire edition ; and, since it was highly inflammable, the whole edition became burned up. Mr. Joyce arrived in Paris, in 1920, in the summer, with the voluminous manuscript of “Ulysses” and his umbrella. Miss Sylvia Beach, energetic, ran a small English bookshop and lending library, and called herself Shakespeare and Co. Brave, she was braver than professional publishers. Mr. Joyce says: “She took the manuscript and handed it to the printers.” The author's eyesight, those eyes which had evidently seen so many sights, permitted him to read the proofs himself. He approved of his work when the first printed copy was presented to him on February 2, in the year 40, James Joyce, otherwise 1922.
The book was written in a new technique, in a pseudo-English, of words that were sometimes normal, sometimes foreign, sometimes archaic, sometimes merely a succession of letters, meaningless and inane. Many of the words were scummy, scrofulous, putrid, like excrement of the mind. The words are listed in the dictionary, but never in the writings or on the tongue of anyone except the insane, or the lowest human dregs. The critics said how brave. The sexual neurotics said how lovely. The normal person said I'm sick.
"The book was written in a new technique, in a pseudo-English, of words that were sometimes normal, sometimes foreign, sometimes archaic, sometimes merely a succession of letters, meaningless and inane."
Mr. Joyce used his words to tell what flowed through the minds of three people, Stephen Dedalus, a Dublin man in shabby black and cast-off shoes, Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew, and Marion, who was as the reader suspects she was. The flow through their minds continued for twenty-four hours, according to the Joyce recording; though the events, it may be concluded, summarized twenty-four years. What they and the other characters thought and imagined, what trivialities, what nonsense, what drunken dreams, hallucinations, eroticisms, vulgarities, blasphemies, silliness, malice, and the like streamed through their consciousness and unconsciousness is what James Joyce labored for seven years to transmit to 768 closely printed pages. The poor man, with his own distorted twist of mind, was unable, or did not choose, to express this stream of thought intelligibly. Because of this, the esoteric critics exclaimed what incomparable art. Because of the filthiness that whirled in the stream, those seeking to be pornographicized exclaimed what excitement. And the man with a sound brain and a sound heart exclaimed what twaddle and what rot.
The book sold in Paris, I am told, for forty dollars. And so everybody wished to read it, and a lot of literary fustians wished to write of it. “Ulysses” became internationally famous. It was barred entry into the United States, and that captivated the American imagination and aroused the American curiosity, which curiosity is unequalled the world over. The professional defenders of literary vice exploiters labored indefatigably to spread the mess made by James Joyce before the eyes of all Americans. They arranged a test case which was duly brought before John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge. His decision that “‘Ulysses’ may, therefore, be admitted into the United States,” rendered December 6, 1933, was hailed ecstatically by Morris L. Ernst, the legal protagonist of literary sexuality, as “the New Deal in the law of letters,” as “a major event in the history of the struggle for free expression,” as raising Judge Woolsey “to the level of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as a master of juridical prose,” and other Oriental exaggerations.
In his Foreword to the American edition of “Ulysses,” as in his numerous pleas for unrestricted sexual expression, Mr. Ernst is quite distempered. We who disagree with him have no desire “to emasculate literature.” We have not tried “to set up the sensibilities of the prudery ridden as a criterion for society.” It is not our aim “to reduce the reading matter of adults to the level of adolescents and subnormal persons,” and we have not, at all, “nurtured evasions and sanctimonies.” We desire that Mr. Ernst and his authors should not seek “to phallicize literature.” We have objected to those who “set up the eroticism of the sex ridden as a criterion for society.” It is our aim to withstand those who would wish “to reduce the reading matter of adults to the level of pornographers and neurotic persons.” We are opposed to those “nurturing vilenesses and corruptions.” Then again, Mr. Ernst devotes a paragraph to a parallel, that “the first week of December, 1933, will go down in history for two repeals, that of Prohibition and that of the legal compulsion for squeamishness in literature.” Mr. Ernst's preoccupations would not allow him to see that the Prohibition repeal brought, or was intended to bring back, the pure in alcohol, not the poisonous stuffs. We have never had a Prohibition law against the pure and wholesome in literature. His success through Judge Woolsey has opened the way for the poisonous and the soul killing in literature.
Francis X. Talbot, S.J., on James Joyce: “Lewd and vulgar stories and incidents, with blasphemies that curdle the blood.”
But it is not Mr. Ernst, though he is a prime mover in this immoral crusade against decency, that I would discuss. It is Judge Woolsey. In the first place, “Ulysses” was not judged by a jury, but by the Judge alone. His decision is worth what he is worth, only less, under the circumstances. He read the entire book once, and the passages complained of several times; he read its “satellite” books; he gave all his spare time, through several weeks to reading, and thinking. It was a “heavy task.” He was thus equipped by study. Was he equipped in fundamental moralities, was he equipped in psychological perceptiveness, was he equipped with the firm conviction of philosophical thought? He was not guided infallibly; he judged as his personal determinants led him.
The Federal law governing the exclusion of books from this country uses but one word, obscene; State laws employ as many as seven words in their definitions of objectionable books. The word obscene, in Judge Woolsey's determination, which he bases on other decisions, is synonymous with “pornographic, that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.” And that definition, to my mind, is woefully loose; but on it, the Judge rendered his verdict. He strives to analyze the intent of Joyce in writing “Ulysses” as an entirety, and states:
Joyce has attempted—it seems to me with astonishing success—to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.
Joyce truly attempted this, and, due to the abysmally degraded characters whose consciousness he explored, attempted as an essential part to show how obsessed they were with certain organic functions, with erotic impulses of the lowest nature, with lewd and vulgar stories and incidents, with blasphemies that curdle the blood. These references and sections are the point of issue. These, Judge Woolsey admits, are in the book but excuses as part of the entirety of the recital. I wonder that the loyal Irish have not risen up in violent protest at his summarizing excuse of Joyce: “In respect of the current emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring." As if to say, the sex theme is inherent in a Celtic locale.
Judge Woolsey dove into the labyrinthine mind of Joyce, into a crawling diseased mire, as it were, without aid of bathysphere, and rose to the surface with the declaration that Joyce did not intend to exploit obscenity as his primary purpose in his entire 768 pages. Was he intentionally obscene in 100 pages, or fifty pages? If not intentionally, was he actually detailing obscenity in very many specified passages? These, the Judge expurgated from his mind. Yet these, I repeat, are the passages at issue.
“The Monumental Decision” of Judge Woolsey goes on to state that “the meaning of the word obscene as legally defined by the Courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.” He passes, then, from the subjective standard, that of the author's intent, to what he calls a “more objective standard,” that is, the result on the minds of readers. He used as a test for this two friends with average sex instincts, “what the French would call I'homme moyen sensuel.” They reported that the book, in its entirety, did not tend to excite their sexual impulses or lustful thoughts. I can well understand that. But I would like to understand more about these two “assessors.” And I would like to have assurance that the thousands who have read and will read “Ulysses” are gauged as they are.
"Only a person who had been a Catholic, only one with an incurably diseased mind, could be so diabolically venomous toward God."
Martin Conboy, United States Attorney, carried the case of “Ulysses” to the United States Court of Appeals. Judges Learned Hand and Augustus N. Hand upheld Judge Woolsey in his opinion. Judge Martin T. Mantón dissented, and declared: “Who can doubt the obscenity of this book after a reading of the passages referred to, which are too indecent to add as a footnote to this account? Its characterization as obscene should be quite unanimous.” Mr. Ernst and Judge Woolsey have had their way. Most surprisingly, a Catholic critic of standing most inexplicably pronounces that “we must recognize that Judge Woolsey is right.” He states that the Judge “won the approval of authorities both literary and legal.” He instances that “the ruling is in harmony with that sound principle of Canon Law, namely, that when the bearing of the law is adverse it is to be given the narrowest possible interpretation.” These are three whoopingly misleading statements. I counter them with the simple statement made by one who, in my opinion, is most competent to judge the book: “‘Ulysses' is against the natural law.”
As far as Catholics are concerned, the case of “Ulysses” is quite clear. Judge Woolsey states that the effect of the book is “emetic;" he does not find it to be “aphrodisiac." It is truly emetic. Our most emetic reactions would be caused not so much by its vulgarity, nor by its indecency, but by its rampant blasphemy. Only a person who had been a Catholic, only one with an incurably diseased mind, could be so diabolically venomous toward God, toward the Blessed Sacrament, toward the Virgin Mary. But the case of “Ulysses” is closed. All the curiosity caused by the extraneous circumstances of its being banned is over. It has now subsided into just a book. It will be discussed, undoubtedly, in the little literary pools of amateurs and young Catholic radicals. But for the most part it is in the grave, odorously.