At a first glance, Joyce is a repulsive icon of modern literature. The academic circles often use his life and work as a privileged polygon for that part of erudition, which those favouring banality call pedantry and hair-splitting. His inheritance is wrapped in thick layers of written sheets, which often report about commas and other punctuation marks. Consequently, his works inspire honest people with deference, even with awe. In Joyce-land every stone is marked and put on the maps by all possible surveyors, who are tying to prove the exclusive match between their hypotheses and his texts. However, this transparency of the harsh landscape can have interesting effects. A curious eye, frightened by the strictly controlled zones, often sets off to the more obscure corners, which might otherwise remain deep in the shadow of anonymity. One of them is Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle, the woman whom he – then aged twenty-two – first met on 16 June 1904 in Dublin, and who accompanied him through his entire life. The letters, mostly written during his young years in Trieste, tell the utterly intimate story of a young intellectual, who was searching for a unique personal artistic expression, and an audience for it. So – what started on that fatal 16 June 1904, on Bloomsday, the mythological day of the later gigantic Romanesque research – the famous Ulysses?
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Their first encounter was totally accidental. Joyce first saw Nora on 10 June 1904 in Nassau Street in Dublin, and addressed her right away. Obviously, his appearance was unusual enough for the newly fledged chambermaid to take him for a Swedish sailor. He talked her into meeting him on 14 June, but the actual encounter took place on the infamous day. The opening – though scarce in volume – but important part of their correspondence is from the early phase of the long-lasting love relationship. Joyce took advantage of the epistolary medium for his self-presentation. His was the experience of drifting dissatisfaction. As if he were constantly pursued by a dislike for the rigid society imbued by petty bourgeois and Christian beliefs, unbending and cemented in the eternal repetition of outdated mental and behavioural patterns. His failed attempts at studying medicine, law and music, the sorry waning of theatrical ambitions, the domestic shambles and many other things to him seemed proof of his incompatibility with the surrounding world. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond, he tells Nora, fearing that the simple country girl, brought up in Catholic shyness, may not be able to put up with his restless nature, with the man constantly ravaged by various doubts about the existing world and totally absorbed in his own personality and its artistic ambitions. However, too much blackness and self-pity doesn’t promise much good, so Joyce militantly calls out to his beloved: The actual difficulties of my life are incredible but I despise them. Nora accepts the challenge without tactic hesitation, without a possibility of retreat. In the second half of 1904 Joyce suddenly makes a decision: he would not only record his rambling life in a resigned manner, but make it his modus vivendi with a radical gesture. He would bid farewell to his native Ireland and leave for the continent, for distant Trieste lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And the only fellow traveller in this adventure would be Nora.
As if she – although only after three months of acquaintance – had provided the initiative for the immense decision to leave, for a life-long exile, for the realisation of the fate he perceived as the only authentic expression of his being. Nora was the only oasis of peace and security in the slippery world. A deep spiritual alliance was formed between them, mutual conscious determination to sail the rough oceans together. For the constantly distant Joyce this kind of mental closeness and support was an unprecedented miracle, an almost incomprehensible excess, which life – for a change – provided in his favour. The relationship with Nora was therefore free of secular definitions; it was established by the power of utter spiritual kinship, unbreakable and eternal. This is why – in the early letters – Nora features as a spiritual figure, wrapped in the veil of countless ethereal expressions of tenderness. However, for the inspired Joyce even these expressions are but pale approximations of his inner experience. Why should I not call you what in my heart I continually call you? What is that prevents me unless it be that no word is tender enough to be your name? The famous formulation of the spiritual depth of love, which Joyce later resorted to from different motives – for the purposes of creative writing.
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The central part of the correspondence between Joyce and Nora is from the second half of 1909, the year when Joyce spent two successive prolonged periods in his native Dublin. The story, which until then had been so spiritual, acquires new, not at all spiritual nuances. The first time the expellee sailed home with his son Georgie, but soon after arrival his former friend Vincent Cosgrave mockingly told him that he had become involved with the woman who had been the pass-time of many others; moreover, he – Vincent – himself was supposed to have had an affair with her at the time when Joyce’s romance was beginning. Joyce’s world collapsed; the only creature that he idolised like a divinity of sincere innocence on the altar of his dark premonitions had been unfaithful to him. How could he again believe her sincerity, trust her emotions? Is the beloved woman, too, just an illusion, her words empty pleasing, a manoeuvre without foundations in reality? Is the saint in fact just a whore? His suspicions draw him into a whirlpool of horrible accusations. Is Georgie truly his son? Were you fucked by anyone before you came to me? He is interested in the tiniest details of what is hidden in the dark. Joyce is humiliated and furious, his words are no longer an epiphany of tenderness; for the first time they contain hard-core pornography. With harsh words he fires at the beloved woman and wraps her spiritual aura in a coat of carnality. A jealous man knows no mercy.
However, Joyce soon discovers that everything was just a wicked joke, and that Nora was quite wrongly accused of being a fickle lover. But a return to pure spirituality is no longer possible; the step had been taken, although in the rage of jealousy. Jealousy proves to be the tectonic power, which fundamentally changes their relationship. For through his accusations Joyce indirectly confesses that he does not see his beloved only through the prism of spiritual presence. Her body as well – though bathed in the light of dirty carnality – is the object of his obsession. Sexually charged litany cannot easily be forgotten; carnality claims its place in their verbal communication. I see you in a hundred poses, grotesque, shameful, virginal, languorous. Give yourself to me, dearest, all, all when we meet. All that is holy, hidden from others, you must give to me freely. I wish to be lord of your body and soul. The feverish body finally finds its place in their vocabulary; from that moment onwards their love will no longer be conceivable without the awareness of a close interconnection between the spiritual and the sensual elements. Only immersion in both spheres of the beloved being ensures the uniqueness of the story. The jealous attack opened the valve and set free the demon of the flesh – feverish, bent, shivering in ecstatic pleasure. Joyce’s present, which he sent to Nora in Trieste, was a symbolic expression of his new will: three large bags of cocoa! In order for her body to become fuller, more seductive, more voluptuous. We have suffered and been tried. Every veil of shame or diffidence seems to have fallen from us.