One hundred years ago, on February 2, 1922, James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel Ulysses was published. The same day was the last full day in the life of John Butler Yeats, the Dublin-born lawyer and painter who was the first to successfully articulate the argument that Joyce’s novel was not obscene.
Was it a coincidence that the architect of Odysseus’ liberation left the world the moment Odysseus entered it? But what is chance? What explains the strange way that JBY, as poet WB Yeats’ father was called, arrived in the right place at the right time, then walked out when Joyce’s novel was born?
Joyce and JBY had met in 1904 on Sandymount Strand, the stretch along Dublin Bay where Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, engages readers of Ulysses by asking, “Am I walk into eternity along Sandymount Strand?
The actual encounter happened as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, Buck Mulligan’s role model in Ulysses, were walking from the tower where readers now find Stephen and Mulligan in the opening episode of Ulysses. When the people of the tower asked JBY for a loan of two shillings, he replied that he had no money and they would spend it on drinks anyway. Still a scholastic logician, Joyce replied gravely: “We cannot speak of what is not.” He later explained to Gogarty that JBY ignored Occam’s razor, the principle of logic versus introducing superfluous arguments. It was enough for JBY to say he had no money, Joyce argued: “He had no right to discuss the possible use of the non-existent.”
While Joyce was working on her novel, JBY took a trip to New York that turned into a permanent residence, a luxury allowed by New York lawyer John Quinn, who paid JBY’s rent in exchange for manuscripts of poems by JBY’s son. When obscenity charges were brought against the New York publishers of an episode of Joyce’s unfinished novel in 1920, fate brought the publishers to Quinn to defend them.
81-year-old JBY understood right away that, as he wrote to Quinn, “it really is a serious matter…whether the books of Joyce and others like him are free or not” . He realized that “[T]The whole movement against Joyce and her terrible, naked and shameless veracity has its origins in people’s desire to live comfortably and, in order for them to live comfortably, to live superficially. Joyce’s “intense sense of what is real and true”, argued JBY, was more important to society than superficial comfort. Not wanting to be known as an advocate of “sex literature”, Quinn did not use JBY’s argument, instead pointing out that the episode in question could not corrupt because “no one could understand what it was about. was acting”. He lost the case and the publishers were banned from publishing any further episodes.
Joyce learned of this apparent deathblow to her novel during a visit to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. The intrepid Beach managed to publish Ulysses just soon enough to coincide with the 40th birthday of time-obsessed Joyce. Nevertheless, Joyce’s tarnished romance was banned by customs officials in the United States and England, and failed to reach a wide audience until 1933, when federal court in New York accepted reasoning similar to that of JBY and said Ulysses was not obscene.
Ulysses’ ingenious structure suggests a way to understand the mystifying connection between his entry into the world and JBY’s departure. Joyce’s novel purports to tell the events of a single day, but incidents spanning many years across great distances are simultaneously vivid in the minds of the novel’s characters and, indeed, its readers. Whether Joyce anticipated the idea in 21st century physics that time is imposed on reality by the structure of the human mind is unknown. What is clear is that February 2, 2022 is the right time to celebrate James Joyce and John Butler Yeats for their great contributions in establishing the right of authors to describe the world as they see it.
Joseph M Hassett’s latest book is Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life (Lilliput Press)