You may well ask: Of all the things to geek out on, why James Joyce? Why not Proust? Why not Derrida? For that matter, why not something useful, like oral hygene? Good questions all; here are my answers, point by point:
1) Why not Proust?
Proust is good, but Joyce’s world encompasses a vastly larger field. If you geek out with Proust, you’ll certainly come to know quite a lot of ephemera applying to someone sealed inside his cork-padded study voyeuristically imagining other people’s lives, but Joyce brings the noise of the street with him, and makes it absolutely sing. Like Proust, he lived in obscene luxury at times, but just as often found himself in the direst poverty, and his literature never shied away from all aspects of the human condition. It’s true that Joyce could speak French as fluently as any native speaker, but he was also natively proficient in Italian, Triestino, Swiss-German, and Latin. Plus, he could get by in Dutch, Spanish, German, Greek, Hungarian, and countless bario-dialects, never settling for where he was – or who he was – always reaching. Oh yeah, he was also really good with English.
2) Why not Derrida?
Because Joyce is easier to read than Derrida. Plus, you’ll never understand the PoMos until after you’ve read some Joyce anyway.
3) Why not something useful, like oral hygene?
You may have me on this one. Joyce’s teeth rotted so badly that the infection spread into his sinuses and eventually caused terrible iritis. Twenty-plus eye operations later, Joyce may have been asking himself this same question.
But I digress. Joyce’s top order was to explore language and its potential for human expression, and he did it like no other author. This website’s primary purpose is to put forth the argument, in as many ways as it can, that Joyce was indeed onto something truly useful.
Scott Elliot, who occasionally joins us for reading group here in Santa Fe, gave me a copy of Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which pokes some pretty serious holes in my oral hygene/eye infection hypothesis. Birminghan apparently discovered fresh evidence that Joyce’s eye infections were caused primarily by syphilis.
Ouch. It was easy enough to dismiss Kathleen Ferris’s syphilis claim. Her book: James Joyce and the Burden of Disease had the nerve use Finnegans Wake as her primary “evidence,” suggesting that Joyce was a syphilitic madman when he wrote it. Birmingham, thank God, suggests no such idiocy. He simply reports his findings from the medical history he culled from reading Joyce’s various correspondence, and the conclusion you would draw from reading his book is the direct opposite of Ferris’s: Joyce didn’t write Finnegans Wake because he had syphilis, he wrote it despite that truly painful and debilitating disease.
Ultimately, we’ll never know for sure about the syphilis – it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if it were true. But brain damage was definitely not one of its symptoms – anyone who spends any time at all with Finnegans Wake can see that.