Notes on Annotation:
Ulysses, Pale Fire, and the Perils
of Limited Professions
Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils.
Footnotes always seem comic to a certain type of mind.
Originally published on About.Com’s Classic Literature Page
Before I read the Annotated Student Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I didn’t think there was much left to say about the art of annotation that Vladimir Nabokov hadn’t already illustrated in his 1962 novel Pale Fire. Ostensibly edited and annotated by an invented academic named Charles Kinbote (who turns out to be the mad, exiled king of the semi-mythic land Zembla), Pale Fire is a veritable map of misreading, a compendium of all the absurdities that could ever be perpetrated against a text by a so-called expert. Within the novel, Pale Fire is the title of a 999-line poem by Nabokov’s invented poet John Shade, and in a classic Nabokovian play of mirrors, the words “Pale Fire” lurk in the background of Kinbote’s 200+ pages of notes to the poem without him ever uncovering their source in Timon of Athens, which, in yet another Nabokovian gag, happens to be the only Shakespeare play that Kinbote has at hand, but it’s in his uncle’s Zemblan translation, and he can find no analogous phrase to the original Shakespearean lines: “The moon’s an arrant thief/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun (IV, iii, 437–8). Seemingly coincidentally, Kinbote even quotes his own retranslation of these lines from the Zemblan translation (“The moon is a thief:/he steals his silvery light from the sun.”), sending the reader on a hilarious goose chase that Kinbote has no idea about. It’s a perfect comment on the relationship between the artist and the commentator, the former a vibrant star reduced to a “Shade” by the latter—who, like Peter Sellers’ Quilty in the screen version of Lolita, ends up stealing the entire show. So hilariously feckless is Kinbote that even if he had discovered Timon’s statement that “there is boundless theft/In limited professions” (IV, iii, 426–7), he’d probably still have continued his notes as they were, unable to see that he was the butt of the entire joke.
Nabokov got the idea for the novel when he was translating and annotating Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, a project that ran into several volumes and that dedicated three times as many pages to the notes as it did to the text itself. Nabokov prided himself on being a religiously literal translator and his version of Eugene Onegin as a completely transparent window into the original text, but he also saw the potential irony in his own authority as a Pushkin expert—his supposed objectivity a completely subjective thing—and saw how easily he could mislead or be misled in his task. Nabokov was something of an exiled king himself, and to explore the depths of how far his notes could have been led astray by his own precarious circumstances, he adopted Kinbote as his Bizarro-self, the self-styled expert who got almost nothing right.
One of the obvious (and cruelly unfair) referents here is James Boswell, whose Life of Samuel Johnson comprises much of what we know (and almost all of what we believe) about the eminent literary critic. There’s even a quote from Boswell’s Life at the beginning of the book. But Nabokov’s joke goes much farther than just commenting on the perils of sycophantic fire-stealing. Kinbote does a real disservice to Shade’s work and life and family, and it’s possible that he’s dangerous to more people than just his readers.
Discounting Kinbote (as we’re meant to, other than as a brilliant entertainment), the question of notes still remains: How do we navigate the hazy line of objectivity when it’s not an insane neighbor/colleague who gets his hands on the text, when there’s no clear line demarking scholarship from narcissistic self-hagiography? And what happens when that text happens to be James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that the author boasted would have critics scratching their heads for centuries? It seems to me that critics living in the post-Nabokov age would automatically add Pale Fire to their repertoire of dos-and-don’ts before tackling such a project—that they’d laugh knowingly and then scramble to eradicate any Kinbotisms from their method. But with this new annotated edition of Ulysses, I think I’ve discovered an entirely new level of Kinbotian un-self-consciousness—and with it a brand new wrinkle to Nabokov’s game.
Kiberd’s launch into Ulysses begins plausibly enough, with his examinations of the book’s structure, language, characters, and place in Irish literature starting out fairly even-handedly, but then as the introduction progresses, Kiberd’s biases, blind spots, and pet theories rise far above his exposition of the various critical views that he’s pretending to summarize. In the section on the book’s characters, he becomes absolutely (and endlessly) adamant about how Bloom represents the Androgyne (an opinion that seems to have some validity) and about how the book largely concerns discovering the ideal of genderlessness (which is an outrageous overstatement). When that section ends and the part on Irish writing begins, his diatribe on gender then spills over and shapes everything that he has to say about that too, as if Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality and the Celticization of the androgynous Shakespeare were the entire history of Irish literature. Kiberd also goes to great lengths to stress Joyce’s conformity to then-current critical ideas about gender, even when the Foucauldian and feminist approaches are at complete odds with the book’s evidence, much like when John Shade’s poem fails to live up to everything that Kinbote hopes to find in it.
As is often necessary, I figured I’d give Kiberd the benefit of the doubt and just navigate my way around the distortions and exaggerations that his obsequious academic fealties lead him into, but then just a few pages into the novel itself, I had an epiphany that put the pale fire back into perspective. When Kiberd’s notes strangely didn’t say anything at all about the word “Kinch” (Buck Mulligan’s nickname for Steven Dedalus), I looked it up in the OED (it means “A loop or twist on a rope or cord, esp. the loop of a slip-knot; a noose” ) and then saw that the entry two spaces above it was the word “Kinboot.” It struck me as I sat there with the dictionary in my hand that Nabokov must have done the exact same thing (Joyce fanatic that he was) and that for just that split-second I was in on one of his grand jokes. What struck me even more, though, was how quickly Kiberd had led me to Kinbote (which is a variant of Kinboot and which means “Compensation paid, according to Old English usage, for injury or wrong-doing.” The “kin-boot” is booty paid to the surviving kin of the deceased/murdered). When I saw that the two annotators had somehow become one—and that Nabokov’s shade had left me yet another text-game to unravel—I knew that Ulysses was going to be an even more amusing challenge with the notes than it was without.
Reading at about ten pages an hour, with the notes taking almost as much time as the text, I once again relished what Mulligan says to the Englishman Haines about Mrs. Cahill’s Irishisms: “That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.” Joyce was clearly making a joke about how his own book would one day need extensive notes for anyone to understand it, but I doubt that even he could have foreseen how garbled the whole undertaking would become. (2)
Nabokov’s hand-drawn map of Ulysses’ action
Joyce’s drawing of Leopold Bloom
Another major issue with this edition is its basic text, which reprints the original 1922 version of the book rather than the current critically accepted version. In 1984, Joyce scholar Hans Walter Gabler published a “corrected text” of Ulysses, incorporating approximately 5,000 emendations to the 1922 printing, ranging from tiny punctuation errors to entire sentence changes. Some of the changes correct the inevitable typos that Sylvia Beach’s small French press introduced into the book, but many changes derive from Joyce’s last-minute revisions to the serially published chapters that he then neglected to incorporate into the full text that was used for the book version. Gabler’s edition isn’t totally ideal, and Kiberd makes some very good criticisms of it in his introduction (along with many extremely petty and far-fetched criticisms of it), but the fact remains that despite its problems, Gabler’s text is the one that Joyce scholars currently use, and Kiberd doesn’t acknowledge this fact. It’s not anywhere near as scandalous as Kinbote ferreting away Shade’s poem for his own use immediately after the poet’s spectacular death and manipulating Shade’s grieving widow into letting him edit and annotate it, but it does seem as if Penguin books just wanted to print its own new edition of the book, using a royalty-free public-domain version rather than either the Gabler or the 1960 edition (which was the previously preferred text) and that Kiberd took advantage of this opportunity, despite the larger consensus of the world’s Joyceans, a scenario that definitely seems a bit shady/Kinboty.
Recently meeting someone who’d studied with Kiberd, I asked about this edition, and the man just laughed and said of the professor, “Great guy, terrible scholar.” Then he simply added, “It could have been a lot worse.” Which, after weeding out the nonsense and really learning a lot from this edition, I guess is probably true.
Now that I’ve read Ulysses with Kiberd’s notes, I have this incredibly distracting annotator buzzing around in my head, doing his best to make Joyce’s book his own. But far more than that, I have Ulysses (or at least the Ulysses that was read by everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Nabokov to Thomas Pynchon). And with so much of the staggeringly esoteric information plugged into the book’s vast formula, Kiberd isn’t all that hard to factor out. Joyce is such a luminary that an entire legion of Kinbotes couldn’t steal his fire. And since I’ve heard talk of an annotated Pale Fire in the works somewhere, I guess the next step here is for me to publish my own annotation of Kiberd’s annotation and snatch some of the fire for myself.
1 This definition is as unsatisfying as any of the other explanations of why Mulligan calls Dedalus “Kinch.” Gifford’s note in Ulysses Annotated says that it derives from the word “kinchin,” which according to the OED is “the term used by 16th c. tramps to denote a [child] belonging to their community.” This makes a certain amount of sense, but it doesn’t explain why Dedalus is “Kinch, the knife-blade” (so many years before The Threepenny Opera [the term isn’t used in John Gay’s original version, The Beggar’s Opera, either]) or why the name tickles Mulligan so much (“O, my name for you is the best. . . .”). Some commentators simply assume that “Kinch” means “knife,” but there doesn’t seem to be any real basis for this. Looking into the stacks, I discovered a site in Greece called the “Kinch Tomb,” from around 300 BCE, but it seems like Kinch was the archeologist who found the tomb rather than the person buried in it. Then looking online, I came across a bunch of genealogy sites for names associated with “Kinch” (Kincheloe, Kinchella, Kinsella, etc.) and found an origin for “Kinch” that’s probably as close as I’ll be able to get without asking Joyce himself. According to Professor John Kincheloe of Meredith College, Raleigh, the surname “Kinch” originated with the twelfth-century Enna Cheinnselaig, the son of Dermot McMurrough (who named Enna after the fourth-century BCE warrior-king Enna Cinnsealach). In a typically gruesome medieval power-play, Dermot gave Enna over to his enemies as a hostage, and to prevent Enna from succeeding his father as King of Leinster, they blinded him (which Dermot did to his other son himself). This may have some bearing on Dedalus’ (and Joyce’s) poor eyesight and problematic relationships with pater and patria. And since the word “Cheinnselaig” has sifted down through the Irish language to mean “haughty, proud, or overbearing,” this might also have some relevance to the young bullockbefriending bard. It’s hard to say whether Joyce (or his character Mulligan) knew the story or the adjective, but since everything else eventually makes its way into Ulysses, maybe this is just another one of Joyce’s labyrinthine word-games.
2 The entire question of notes is a problem that not only gets at the heart of the reading public’s general bafflement over Ulysses, but that underlines one of the fundamental dilemmas of western civilization: the question of intrinsic versus extrinsic meaning/agency/salvation. Read solely from within its own parameters, Ulysses doesn’t seem to contain all of its own keys (unlike its great rival for Novel of the Twentieth Century, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which, rather than daunting you like a tower, surrounds and immerses you like a cathedral), and it’s this non-self-containment that keeps many readers from unlocking all of its levels—or from even entering it in the first place. So great is its humanity that Ulysses could have saved the world, had anyone in humanity been able to understand it, but unfortunately the only Bloom that this novel is meant to be understood by is Harold Bloom. (A) As a flesh-and-blood entity, Ulysses can thus be likened to the human body, which in Christian doctrine is formed imperfect and incomplete and needing an outside source to give it full life. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece and the Egyptian (and, later, Roman) cult of Isis—which both offer eternal life to their communicants—Christianity is a mystery cult, and it necessarily entails indoctrination (and exclusion). In St. Augustine’s view of eternity, even the greatest heights of pagan sublimity fell short of the required dogma, and it’s this position that worked to stamp out the Pelagian heresy of human perfectibility and that held sway over Western minds for nearly a thousand years, culminating poetically when Dante came along and finally raised a structure that matched the blueprint—a structure that, in an outstripping that would have greatly relieved St. Augustine, eclipsed even the Aeneid in sublimity. Aquinas, though (and, later, Erasmus, who read his Aquinas in a light that Dante had lacked, and who famously referred to Socrates as “Saint Socrates” in one of his Colloquies), had no need to damn Virgil, and he saw that many of the ancient pagans had achieved a moral greatness that was not only exclusive of Christ, but that far exceeded that of Christianity, which permitted torture as a means of conversion. While neither he nor any other medieval theologian would ever have gone so far as to think that eternal salvation could exist without Christ, Aquinas saw the human mind as a rational mirror of the divine universal mind, and despite the subtle counter-arguments of theologians such as Duns Scotus, who saw humanity as irrational, will-driven, and evil (the word “dunce” derives from the name Duns Scotus), salvation gradually came to be seen by the Humanists as intrinsic—as something built into our system and that could be attained from within rather than accepted from without—and it’s precisely this sense of intrinsic salvation that seems to be missing from Ulysses. With notes to explain what the fishgods of Dundrum are, Ulysses is one of the ultimate reading experiences, approaching the Aeneid and The Divine Comedy and even Hamlet at times, but even so, the barrier that the text puts up between the reader and the world that it portrays keeps it from standing on its own and functioning as an organic whole. In terms of linguistic agility and technical skill and attention to detail, Joyce far exceeds any other twentieth-century writer, but I have to admit that I prefer Proust (which may or may not be the criteria for what makes a book “great”). And even though Joyce is far more “post” than anything that the postmodernists achieved, I may even prefer Thomas Pynchon. (B) But then like no other book except the Bible, Ulysses is a hypertext that rewards with each new layer of interpretation and commentary and research. We read in Herodotus of Cyrus’ conquest of Assyria and are given an entirely new understanding of Israel’s release from its Babylonian Captivity in the Bible. And likewise Kiberd supplies the lyrics to “The Croppy Boy,” and all of Irish history bursts out through Joyce’s opaque prism. It may simply be that Ulysses is as great as the Bible and that all we need in order to save the world and ourselves it to read it repeatedly and faithfully. (C) Or maybe it’s just that, like the Bible, its greatness rises up from the fact that no one in the world understands it—or has really even read it. Like the Bible, we just accept its centrality because of what the authorities say about it.
(A) Anthony Burgess was wrong when said that Ulysses was for Everybody. Ulysses is a novel of democracy and equality and peace, but it’s organized in a way that systematically weeds out all but the intellectually elect. Leopold Bloom may be the great equalizer, but only the strongest are able to battle through the text to understand this equality (a conundrum that gets at another one of Western civilization’s great dilemmas: the question of top-down versus bottom-up).
(B) In addition to having a nearly endless wealth of innovation and variety and complexity and depth, Proust and Pynchon are both eminently rich in storytelling, in narrative development, in plot twists, and—especially in the case of Proust—in characters: all the other things that we normally want in fiction but that Joyce either refuses or is unable to give us. (I) Jorge Luis Borges said that Ulysses has no characters, only lists of traits. And as in Dante’s circumscribed labyrinth (or in Christian theology in general), there’s simply a lot that’s been left out. But in place of the swirl of storytelling that we’d hope to find in a novel of this scope, there’s a whirlwind of words and images and ideas and mini- and maxi-structures without parallel in any language. And even though he’s little more than a series of flashing thoughts, Bloom truly blooms in the reader’s consciousness into a living, breathing human being. It’s just that the pleasures of Proust and Pynchon are so extraordinarily great—and challenge us almost as much as Ulysses does—that my own scales of aesthetic bliss tend to tilt in their favor.
(I) One of the most startling aspects of Ulysses is the absence of any kind of story anywhere in the text. There are facts—and memories of facts—that slowly add up to a kind of history (especially in Molly’s soliloquy), but neither Joyce nor any of his characters ever tells a story to anyone: a remarkably deliberate omission in a culture of pubs and churches and funerals.
(C) Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit (from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) said that Jesus “thown everything off balance,” and this may also be said of Joyce. With Ulysses, Joyce pulls out every stop imaginable, forcing us to disregard all the rules that normally apply to literature, and this may be argument alone for his literary deification. After Joyce, there’s not one jot or tittle left in its assigned place.
3 He sometimes gets word tenses wrong, or misspells names, or simply re-works Joyce’s phrasing to fit the form of the notes. I have a feeling that Kiberd, like so many of the academic types in William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions, had an unreliable amanuensis.
4 Note to Declan Kiberd: The word “circumcise” comes from the Latin word circumcidere, which means “to cut around.” During circumcision, which for Jews happens on the eighth day after birth, the Mohel (or doctor, in the case of Gentiles like me) cuts the entire way around the penis, removing the foreskin altogether. The reason Bloom still has foreskin is because he was never circumcised.